Faith and Political Harm

Herb Montgomery | September 30, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“The Jesus of the gospels cared about the concrete harm being done to the marginalized and exploited. And our faith in this kind of Jesus should move us to do the same. Is our faith making us complicit with the mountains of harm done to those our present system makes vulnerable? Is our faith inspiring us to work today toward moving our mountains into the sea?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

The apostles said to the Lord, Increase our faith!”

He replied, If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

“Suppose one of you has a slave plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the slave when he comes in from the field, Come along now and sit down to eat? Wont he rather say, Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink? Will he thank the slave because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:5-10)

There is a lot to unpack in this week’s reading.

Let’s begin with the language of throwing trees into the sea. Luke’s version of the Jesus story substitutes the mulberry tree for what other gospels call a mountain:

Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. (Mark 11:23; see also Matthew 17:20; 21:21)

Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move from here!’ and it will move.” (Gospel of Thomas 48)

When you say, ‘Mountain, move from here!’ it will move.” (Gospel of Thomas 106:2)

The language of throwing trees and/or mountains into the sea had a rich political history in the Hebrew scriptures. As Isaiah wrote, “every mountain and hill” would be “made low” (Isaiah 40:4)

I agree with Richard Horsley, who explains, “To hear this parable, however, we must again remove some of the Christian theological wax from our ears” (Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Kindle Location 1203). We first must understand the political and economic context in which this language was used in the Jesus story.

Jesus used this language in the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets. His community, the Jewish community, was subjugated by Rome. In Roman fashion, the empire had installed its own client ruler, Herod, to have direct control of the region, and Herod had in turn appointed the High Priests of the temple (known as Herod’s Temple) from elite families from Jerusalem and surrounding regions.

All of this meant the people were heavily economically oppressed. Not only did Rome tax the people through Herod and the Temple High Priest, but Herod also heavily taxed the people for expensive building projects to honor Caesar and to fund his reign of terror, which kept the populace in line and prevented rebellions. On top of this, the Temple itself demanded tithes and offerings. Instead of being a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor, these tithes and offerings tended only to make the wealthy elite richer.

It is in this context that we must understand the image of throwing a mountain into the sea. In the prophetic tradition, mountains represented political and social orders. In the gospels, the mountain being thrown into the sea was associated with the Temple State, which had become a proxy for Rome when, after Herod’s death, Rome began directly determining who the priests and the High Priest would be. Talking about throwing a mountain into the sea in that era would have been associated with the oppressive social, economic, and political system represented by the temple mount rulers in the hilly city of Jerusalem.

To quote Horsley again:

“The high priests are hardly ‘Jewish leaders.’ [Editor’s note: Horsley is not implying that the leaders were not Jewish ethnically. He’s suggesting that they represented the interest of Rome, not of Jewish liberation or independence from Rome.] . . . Neither in this episode nor in Mark as a whole is there any suggestion of the replacement of ‘Judaism’ by ‘Christianity.’ . . . Here, as throughout Mark’s story, the fundamental conflict lies between rulers and ruled, not ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity.’” (Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Kindle Locations 1203-1207)

In his insightful commentaries, Ched Myers agrees that the metaphor of throwing mountains into seas referred to Roman oppression, directly or indirectly through the Temple state acting as a Roman client.

“As impossible as it may seem, Mark insists that the overwhelming power and legitimacy of both the Roman ‘legion’ and the Jewish ‘mountain’ will meet their end—if the disciples truly believe in the possibility of a new order.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 305)

“Faith is here defined as the political imagination that insists on the possibility of a society freed from the powers, whether Roman militarism or the Judean aristocracy.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 149)

In the same way that peasants could not imagine a world without feudalism, we today find it difficult to imagine a world without capitalism, and Jesus’ followers could not imagine a world without Roman imperial rule.

Some in Jesus’ audience that day didn’t want a world without Roman imperial rule, much as capitalists today who benefit from capitalism therefore defend the way things are. The wealthy elite in Jesus’ audience were benefitting from Roman rule, and it’s to them that Jesus’ next words are aimed.

We can read the “slave” language in this week’s reading differently: I don’t accept that Jesus is calling his disciples to perceive themselves as unworthy slaves who have only done their duty. This way of perceiving oneself is damaging, not life-giving.

But repeatedly in Luke 17, Jesus’ audience keeps changing. These changes are not only frequent, they also happen rapidly with no warning. If we interpret this language as aimed at the ruling elite in Jesus’ society rather than to the disciples, another meaning becomes possible.

The last phrase gives us a clue: “We have only done our duty.” The original language of the text suggests that this concept of duty could involve the obligations of indebtedness.

Creditors don’t thank debtors for paying back their loans. They demand it. The wealthy elite at this time had become wealthy through the misfortune of others. Heavy taxation had pushed many landowners to their limits: if they had one bad year or crop failure, they’d have to take loans. Being already on the edge, any other misfortune, which was common, would push these landowners into default. Many of the wealthy landowners in Jesus’ society were creditors who had gained even more land because the original landowners had defaulted on their debts and lost their land to their creditors. The original owers had become debt-slaves, working on land that used to belong to them. In this context, those who were wealthy esteemed themselves through the typical lens of classism as being superior to those who had lost out.

Jesus turns this estimate of others as inferior back onto the elite, and accuses them of holding a similar status in relation to Rome. They were acting, he says, not as the liberated and independent worshippers of YHWH, but as the servants/slaves of the Roman Empire.

This rhetoric becomes a painful challenge, then. Is Rome going to thank them for their service and client slavery? No. Rome looks at them as inferior, conquered, and subjugated. They have traded faithfulness to God for faithfulness to Rome. Rather than being favored children of Abraham, elites have chosen the status of an unworthy slave only fulfilling the obligations of their debt to the Roman Empire.

Reading through this lens, we could paraphrase this passage this way: “So you wealthy elite, when you have done everything you were told to do by your Roman overseers, should say, We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty.’”

Jesus is seeking to wake the elites up to the reality of what they are doing to others by humiliating them with their classist estimation of others and the world around them.

There are other places in the gospels that refer to disciples as slaves. I interpret our reading this week as naming the elites as slaves of Roman imperialism. I’m also thankful that even the language of referring to disciples as slaves was ultimately replaced in the Jesus story. By the time of the last canonical gospel to be written the author of the gospel of John abandons the reference to disciples as slaves:

“I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

Nonetheless, I find this week’s slave language to be much more life-giving when applied not to disciples, but to the client rulers or “slaves” of the Roman Empire in Galilee, Samaria, Judea and the surrounding regions. It calls me to question my own investment in the way things are today and what capitalism causes me to trade or give up so I can survive in this system.

Jesus calls his listeners to be careful about how they esteem and treat others, because how they were treating others was how Rome was treating them.

What all of this says to me is that the Jesus of the gospels did not separate his politics from his religion. He allowed his faith and his perception of God to inform his politics in relation how others were being exploited and harmed. Remember: all theology is political, because all politics should ask who is benefiting and who is being harmed. The Jesus of the gospels cared about the concrete harm being done to the marginalized and exploited. And our faith in this kind of Jesus should move us to do the same.

Is our faith making us complicit with the mountains of harm done to those our present system makes vulnerable?

Is our faith inspiring us to work today toward moving our mountains into the sea?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What concrete harm being done to the marginalized and exploited in our societal context is on your heart this week? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts.  Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

And if you’d like to reach out to us through email, you can reach us at info@renewedheartministries.com.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

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https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

or Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Stories that Shape Us

Herb Montgomery | September 23, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“This story might have spoken to those in Luke’s culture, but it would not work to threaten people in our culture with a burning afterlife. It’s much more realistic to focus on the gains and losses we experience in this life when we practice this kind of indifferent exclusion.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich mans table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, Then, father, I beg you to send him to my fathers house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)

Folk tales about reversing circumstances in the next life were a staple in Jesus’ world, in Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish culture. The author of Luke choosing to contrast the lived realities of the rich and the poor is consistent with the theme of economic justice in this version of the Jesus story.

I love the cultural diversity and richness in this week’s story. The influence of Hellenism comes through in an eternally burning Hades, yet this folk tale is also thoroughly Jewish with the poor person being whisked away, not to a Christian heaven, but to the bosom of father Abraham.

J. Jeremias reminds us,

In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar MaJan.” (Parables, p. 183)

In Luke’s gospel, the author drops the focus on tension between a scholar and a tax collector and replaces it with the tension between the rich and the poor.

I also want to say something about the Hellenistic idea of flaming torment in the afterlife in this story due to its abuse by Christians throughout history.

This week’s story is a folk tale, but the 1st Century historian Josephus does tell us that some Pharisees taught of an eternal punishment after death:

“They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only pass into other bodies while the souls of evil men are subject to eternal [aidious] punishment [timoria]. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Vol. II, Chapter 8, Paragraph 14; words in brackets added.)

The Pharisaical schools weren’t monolithic: they had a rich diversity of ideas about afterlife and resurrection. Josephus’ report could not have been true of all Pharisees, then, but there must have been enough for Josephus to describe their beliefs this way.

The words Josephus used to communicate what these Pharisees were teaching are also interesting. The Greek word he used for eternal is aidious and the Greek word he used for punishment is timoria. According to Louw and Nida’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, aidious meant Pertaining to an unlimited duration of time.” Timoria, on the other hand, meant to punish, with the implication of causing people to suffer what they deserve.” Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament explains that the nature of this word ispenal and has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts.” Timoria, then is a retributive punishment to satisfy something in the person inflicting the suffering, who feels the offender must experience punishment.

But every time the gospel authors write about Jesus speaking of some type of punishment or reversal of fates either in this life or the next, they use the Greek phrase aionion kolasis for eternal punishment (see Matthew 25:46).

Aionion kolasis was a known phrase among Hellenistic Jews, many of whom populated the region of Galilee where Jesus travelled and taught. Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, wrote, It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and eternal [aionion] chastisement [kolasis] from such as are more powerful.” (Philo, Fragments)

Mounce’s Concise Greek English Dictionary of the New Testament tells us that aionion is an indeterminate adjective, indeterminate as to duration.” Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament tells us anionion gives prominence to the immeasurableness of eternity.” In other words, it’s not that it lasts forever, but that it takes forever for whatever this adjective is describing to accomplish its purpose. We have as much time as it takes, no matter how long that is.

The meanings of the word kolasis are why this topic pricks my interest. Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament confirms what we learned earlier about timoria and compares this with the difference of kolasis, The noted definition of Aristotle, which distinguishes kolasis from timoria is that kolasis is disciplinary and has reference to him who suffers, while the latter timoria is penal and has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts.”

In Protagoras, Plato writes, If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolosis], and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

The purpose of kolasis, then, is to deter others and to discipline or transform the one who experiences it. This implies that the gospel authors using this term want us to imagine a Jesus who taught a restorative punishment rather than a retributive one. If this discipline is to take place in the afterlife, then the people receiving it have all the time that it will take. This kind of punishment is intended to be something that someone passes through and is changed by, not an inescapable fate people are abandoned to.

Even though we’ve been considering Hellenistic sources so far, the idea of using fire to symbolize removing something considered harmful, like fire removes dross from gold, is also a Jewish idea and part of the Hebrew scriptures:

“The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the CONSUMING fire? Who of us can dwell with THE EVERLASTING BURNING?’ Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil.” (Isaiah 33:14, emphasis added.)

In this passage, those who dwell with “the everlasting burning” are the righteous. From this we might understand that the righteous are those those who go through this kind of experience and are transformed.

Back to our reading. This story might have spoken to those in Luke’s culture, but it would not work to threaten people in our culture with a burning afterlife. It’s much more realistic to focus on the gains and losses we experience in this life when we practice indifferent exclusion in the ways of the unnamed rich person in this story.

Gustavo Guitierrez writes,

“The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

How this week are you being called to prioritize those our present system marginalizes or disenfranchises, politically, socially, economically, or in all three ways?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What stories have shaped you in your journey? Share one with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts.  Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

And if you’d like to reach out to us through email, you can reach us at info@renewedheartministries.com.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

or Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Mary’s Perfume and No More Poverty 

feet

Herb Montgomery | April 1, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies . . . I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesushonor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesusfeet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasnt this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a years wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)

John creatively resets this story from previous versions of the Jesus story by including the characters Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There are both significant differences and consistent story elements. What is common in each version is a meal, a woman interrupting the meal, a container of perfume, objections from some of those present at the meal, and Jesus’ defense of the woman’s actions. Oral storytelling traditions commonly alter story details for the storyteller’s purposes or the needs of their audience. John’s storytelling does that too.

In John’s version of this story, we are in Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home, not the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke) or Simon the Leper (Mark and Matthew). The woman who interacts with Jesus is Mary of Bethany (Martha and Lazarus’ sister), not the woman of ill repute as in Luke, nor an unnamed woman as in Mark and Matthew, and most definitely not Mary Magdalene (contrary to the 6th Century Pope Gregory, Mary of Magdalene is a completely different character in John’s gospel). Mary also anoints Jesus’ feet (not his head as in Mark and Matthew). Foot-washing was a customary hospitality practiced at dinners in a culture where people ate together seated in a reclining position on the floor, not at a table that hid guests’ feet.

In this story, Mary’s act is one of gratitude, specifically for the events of the previous chapter. In that chapter, Lazarus, Mary’s brother, had gotten sick and died, and Jesus brought him back from the dead to live again. This is a repeated theme in the gospels: life and life-giving overturning, undoing, and reversing death and death-dealing. It is one of the strongest, most life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story. The story is not primarily that someone died, but that that the state’s murder of someone who was calling for social change was overturned, undone, and reversed. The life-giving teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee lived on in the life of his followers. In Acts 13:32-33, the early believers say: We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (italics added).

The good news in this interpretive paradigm is not that Jesus died, but that Jesus overcame death, death-dealing and the state. His story is a story of life overcoming death, or love overcoming in the end—love that overcomes hate, fear, injustice, and bigotry.

In John 11, Jesus conquered, reversed, and undid Lazarus’ death. Jesus had said to Lazarus’ and Mary’s sister, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (see John 11:25).

Again, in John, Mary is anointing Jesus in an act of gratitude for Jesus’ reversal of sickness and death and his channeling that reversal as “the resurrection and the life.” We must not miss that in John’s story, Jesus states that Mary had been saving this perfume for Jesus’ burial. So the fact that Mary instead uses it now hints that she has learned his lesson—life and love will overcome in the end.

Those hearing this story are being prepared for how John’s version of the Jesus story will turn out: Perfume will not be needed to anoint a dead body lying lifeless in a tomb. No, that tomb will be found empty. Mary has embraced Jesus as the resurrection and life, and has chosen, not to save her perfume for a dead body but to use it now in gratitude. Love will win in the end. She won’t need this perfume later, and she is banking on it.

So many social sicknesses are in need of reversal in our society, today: the sickness of White supremacy, the sickness of patriarchy and misogyny, the sickness of classism and greed, the sicknesses of bigotry against LGBTQIA people, and many more sicknesses that lead to death. What does it mean for us to live as people who overcome, who genuinely believe that love wins?

Lastly, I want to address Jesus’ words, “You will always have the poor among you.” This statement, which appears in each gospel, has been used by the wealthy to discourage Jesus’ followers from working toward economic justice and social change. In this interpretation, Jesus’ phrase is a prediction that trying to end poverty is futile, that poverty is an eternal social reality and there is nothing we can really do to prevent it. They would like us to think that all we can do to ease poverty in society is acts of charity and creating a society where poverty doesn’t exist is impossible.

But this interpretation benefits those who are enriched by the status quo and don’t want to see structural change. Charity is not justice, remember. Charity can ease injustice but leaves an unjust system unchanged.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies.

Consider this passage from the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORDS time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-5)

This passage states that there doesn’t need to be “poor people” among Israelites. They are being given instruction on how to eradicate poverty. Later in the same chapter, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land [i.e. the surrounding societies outside of Israel]. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land [as opposed to the larger societies in which poverty will always exist because the way those societies are shaped] (italics and capitalization added).

I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world. Even if one does, however, then we can read Jesus as saying that Israelite society has become like the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy where poverty “will always exist” because of their structure. Jesus words here are an indictment of his society’s rejection of the mandate to forgive debts every seven years. Therefore, they were choosing to structure their society by immortalizing poverty as the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy 15 had. These choices can be reversed. We can structure our societies differently. The early Jesus followers in the book of Acts eradicated poverty from their own community in Jesus’ name:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

Remember, it was not that Jesus had died, but that he had been resurrected. His death had been reversed.

“And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:33-34, italics added)

Last year, I mentioned these words of Nelson Mandela and Gustavo Gutierrez in Declaring War Against Poverty:

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.” (Nelson Mandela, in a 2005 speech at the Make Poverty History rally in Londons Trafalgar Square)

The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

There is a lot to consider here.

How are you being called to be a conduit of love, healing, life, and life-giving in your own contexts, this week?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How do you perceive poverty as something that could be prevented in our society? What would our society have to incorporate in order to eradicate poverty? Discuss (and imagine) with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 2

by Herb Montgomery | November 16, 2018

Fall leaves changing


“While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last, we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor. Christians today excel at charity. We are not so good at justice.”


“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

My family and I were visiting the Atlantic coast for Crystal’s birthday. Though West Virginia is beautiful, Crystal’s first love is the ocean. We had gone out for a birthday dinner and were walking home with almost a whole pizza in a pizza box. My daughter told us that we didn’t need to keep the pizza and suggested we find someone on the street to share it with. She was speaking my language. While the rest of the family went back to the hotel, my daughter and I began walking down the strip to find someone to share some pizza with. 

We met a wonderfully kind homeless man named Jeff who loved pizza, and spent some time getting to know him, hearing his story. Then we parted ways and headed back to where we were staying. 

On our walk back to the hotel, my daughter asked, “Papa? Why do we have homeless people?” I explained that a very small amount of people choose to revolt against capitalism and conventions about how they should live, but the majority of homelessness is the result of people being on the losing side of capitalism. We then had a long talk about the economy, life, and the Parker Brother’s game Monopoly, and she rightly said, “We don’t need more pizza, we need a different game!”

As we walked, we discussed the difference between charity and justice. Charity does harm mitigation right now, but we must also be engaged with movements working for a world where charity is no longer needed. We talked about how charity can actually empower systemic injustice, although it’s still needed until something more just dismantles and replaces those systems. I shared with her Gene Robinson’s analogy of people drowning in a river: charity pulls people who are drowning out of the river, and is vital. Yet at some point someone has to walk upstream and ask who’s throwing all these people into the river to begin with.  And I would add to the analogy that once we diagnose who it is, stop them. 

We eventually arrived back at our hotel and I completely forgot about our talk. But a few months later, my daughter asked if we could drive about 6 hours east to Baltimore to stand alongside with those protesting the murder of Freddie Gray. During our weekend in Baltimore, we stood on the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. A woman came over to where we were standing, sizing up my daughter and I. My daughter was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters that said, “Black. Lives. Matter.” and she carried a sign that said the same. As we were two of the very few White people present, the woman addressed my daughter and very sweetly asked, “Young lady, what are you doing here?”

My daughter looked at me and then back at her. She responded, “Ms., we’re from West Virginia. We wanted to come stand with you today. This isn’t charity. This is about justice.” 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his listening audience:

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33, Revised English Bible)

In this verse, the Revised English Bible (REB) uses the phrase give to charity. The Greek phrase behind this text is didomi eleemosunen. It can mean giving alms, showing pity, having compassion, or beneficence to the poor.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus talking to a religious leader who prioritized ritual or religious purity more than compassion toward the vulnerable and marginalized:

“But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

Charity was a core component of Jesus’ teaching. In the language of the Gospel authors, the Greek root of charity was the word we translate today into mercy. Jesus’s vision for a new world was one where the merciful are not only prioritized but also recipients of the merciful world they had shaped by their own mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Matthew’s gospel and in a context where charity was used to further privilege, benefit the givers of charity, and possibly marginalize recipients of charity further, Jesus gave this instruction:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2)

The kind of mercy or charity Jesus taught was one where the recipients of the charity weren’t further marginalized or “sacrificed.” It was to steer clear of victim blaming and not condemn the poor. In a world where poverty was not the result of chance but rather a system that created few wealthy winners at the expense of the masses, Jesus said,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

All of this leads me also to critique charity. Certainly there will always be a need for charity that lends a hand to those who are victims of calamity. But what about charity that is needed because of a system that places people in a position of need? Can we work toward a world where this kind of charity is no longer needed because we live in a world of distributive justice, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough? 

Rebecca Ann Parker’s fantastic book Saving Paradise sheds light on how Rome included charity in its system of oppression:

“To stave off riots and resistance, Roman officials distributed wheat imported from Egypt, North Africa, and Asia throughout the empire. Shipments from the fertile Nile delta were so crucial to Rome that protection of them from piracy was a major function of its navy—the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Roman Lake.” In the miracle of the bread and fish, large crowds flock to Jesus, hungry in spirit and body, and they depart filled. His act of feeding offered compassion for the needy, encouraged generosity for the good of all, even among those with little, and affirmed life abundant for everyone, regardless of status or need. This value system undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses. The poor and powerless were expected to be grateful to the empire for acts of charity that maintained its domination. Jesus, on the other hand, belonged to the peasant class and working poor, and his relentless judgments against the rich and powerful revealed how injustice betrayed God’s desire for all to have abundant life. He challenged this paternalistic system by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.” (pp. 32-33) 

Again, if someone needs help, by all means we should help them. But with our other hand we should be working on a world where economic domination systems have been dismantled. We can work toward a world characterized by an equity that minimizes the need for so much charity. As Marcus Borg used to say, and as my daughter understood, “The prophets didn’t call for charity. They called for justice.” 

“Moses and Amos are not asking the kings to up their charitable giving, they are asking that their contemporary domination system give way to a more just and less violent world.” (Marcus Borg; see Social Justice in the Book of Amos)

Yes, we are called to be good Samaritans to those who have experienced catastrophe, yet even here we must do double work. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his final book:

“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” (Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? pp. 187-188)

This month at RHM, our annual reading course book is Dorothee Soëlle’s Theology for Skeptics. In this book she states unequivocally:

“Comfort [charity] and justice are not split apart in the Bible such that the church should ease difficult fate for individual persons with the newest psychotherapeutic methods and leave justice to the leading industrial nations. God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven. God does not console in such a way that we get something shoved into our mouths to quiet us down.” (Kindle Locations 1166-1168)

Here, Soëlle is directly speaking to the kind of charity that merely pacifies the exploited, as the Roman Empire once did. In this context we must take to heart Gustavo Gutierrez’s wise words:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)

As we said last week, we need a justice that is distributive, a grace that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed, and a charity that doesn’t perpetuate economic systems of exploitation and marginalization, making many poor while making many rich beyond their wildest possible use of funds. 

I don’t want to be misunderstood this week. If someone needs help, by all means available, help them! While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last (see Luke 6:20-23 and Matthew 20:16) we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor.  Christians today excel at charity.  We are not so good at justice.

Again, if someone is drowning, pull them out of the river. Let’s also walk upstream and do something about those who are throwing people in the river to begin with. Let’s not blame those who are drowning for someone else throwing them in. Let’s work toward a world of distributive justice and, as we do, let’s also engage Jesus’ other teachings on mutual aid, resource sharing, and taking responsibility for each other’s survival and thriving. 

People matter. 

Another world is possible.

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, share together some more of the differences you see between justice and charity. 
  2. List some of the things your group participates in that could be categorized as either charity or justice.
  3. Are you focusing more on charity? Are you also engaging the activities that lead to systemic justice? Do you need to be stronger in one area, or maybe both?
  4. Name some of the things you’d like to affirm in what you are already doing and list some things you’d like to do more of.  This holiday season, pick one from this list and, together, do it. 

Wherever you are this week, thanks for checking in with us.  Keep living in love, compassion, action, charity, and justice.  

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.