Great Joy for All People (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | January 10, 2020

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Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.


Happy new year! As we begin 2020, let’s take one last look at our series for this recent Advent season and the springboard it provides us for this new year. In Part 1 and 2, we looked at Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus in the social contexts of Rome, Judaism under Roman imperialism, and early Christianity. We asked whether the birth-narratives have anything to offer us in our justice work today, politically, economically, socially and theologically. I want to end our holiday consideration with Luke’s Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1).

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

We have seen that Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus both converged with the social, political, and economic hopes of their day, and diverged from and sometimes subverted the social, political, and economic practices of Rome. Mary’s Magnificat matters because of this context.

The first thing to notice about it is that Mary’s praise contains absolutely no reference to the afterlife in relation to the one she has conceived and the hopes she believes her child will fulfill.

Some Christians may be surprised that Mary’s words of gratitude and praise are not rooted in thankfulness for needed relief from a post-mortem hell and the gift of an eternity in heaven. Line by line, Mary’s words instead express gratitude for relief and liberation from the oppressive realities she and her Jewish society experience in this life, in the here and now.

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the beginning of his last book, Path of Life, “Genuine religion is not about speculating about God or the soul or about what happened in the past or will happen in the future; it cares only about one thing—finding out exactly what should or should not be done in this lifetime” (p. 3).

Christianity today is deeply focused on attaining heaven in an afterlife and avoiding or escaping hell, but that is not the focus of the Jesus narratives. Christianity’s focus on the afterlife has too often produced profoundly harmful fruit. To the same degree, where Christianity has focused on liberation, justice, and equity in this life, it has produced profoundly life-giving fruit. Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader in the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, commented on this history:

“The non-ethical practices and beliefs in historical Christianity nearly all center on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.” (Walter Rauschenbusch; A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 15)

Many sectors of Western Christianity still miss this point today. Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker give several examples in their beautiful book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. One such example that explains how Evangelical Christianity today has become such an obstruction to matters of social justice is the history of the First Great Awakening:

“Rather than engage people more deeply in the world, the Great Awakening lifted the soul beyond earthly life, to the ‘upper world.’ [Jonathan] Edwards’s earthly loves had always to point beyond themselves—to primary beauty—and, as he said, even the love of other human beings was ‘secondary beauty.’ To look through earth into heaven, through death into eternity, through the beloved into God was the spiritual ideal. To love in this way was always to have your heart, mind, and soul turned elsewhere, perpetually departing the present for something better. Edwards’s beauty did not draw people into ethical engagement with life in this world, but moved them beyond the spirits in trees and clouds, dirt and rain, fish and deer, and bodies and winds. He asked them to dwell with one foot always in another, better world, not here, not now.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 371)

History is littered with other examples of how an otherworldly, afterlife focus in Christianity has brought concrete damage to communities on the margins of their society. Christianity may have begun as a community on the edges of its society, but today, from a position of power and privilege, it has a history of becoming complicit with harm and even participating in pushing others to the edges of society instead.

Jesus’ story, including his Christmas birth narratives, speak of liberation from oppression in this life, the end of injustice in this life, and the end of violence and marginalization in this life. We can glean much from the Jesus story for our justice work today, and the story’s largest focus is economic justice. That foundation allows us to discern applications for the other kinds of distributive, reparative, and restorative justices we have discussed throughout this entire series.

Let’s begin with this phrase found above:

“He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”

This phrase still offends those who have more than they could ever possibly need in a world where others are barely surviving. But before we alleviate the discomfort of Mary’s words, let’s consider what other types of injustice we could apply them to today.

In matters of racial justice, these words today could read:

“He has filled people of color with good things
but has sent White people away empty.”

In matters of immigrant justice, these words could read:

“He has filled those fleeing violence in their homelands with good things
but has sent privileged citizens away empty.”

In matters of gender inequity, these words could read:

“He has filled cis and trans women with good things
but has sent men away empty.”

In matters of LGBTQIA justice, it could read:

“He has filled Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender, Asexual, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning people with good things
but has sent straight, heterosexual folks away empty.”

In matters of Indigenous justice, it could read:

“He has filled the First Nations with good things
but has sent the colonialists away empty.”

Like many of Jesus’ words, these words can be perceived as good news by some in society and as problematic by others. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s great news for those ranked last in the present system. It’s at least problematic for those who have worked their entire lives to be privileged as first.

Statements like these from Mary and Jesus help us understand why the elites, privileged, and powerful of Jesus’ concluded that Jesus, his influence, and his teachings must be silenced and removed.

Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.

One example is in Jesus’ teachings on the tradition of nonviolence. This month, RHM’s featured book of the month is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Nonviolent methods are beneficial to those working for interpersonal and social change, and in 2020, we will focus on these teachings of Jesus to discover:

  • How Christians can be better humans
  • How Christians can engage the work of reparations for the harm they have been both complicit in and committed themselves to marginalized groups.
  • How we can work toward a world of love and justice in life-giving ways.

The Jesus story doesn’t end with his teachings being problematic for the powerful and privileged, with his execution for the social problems he was creating/solving, or even Jesus’ murder and resurrection. The story reaches its climax with the early followers of Jesus learning to follow his example and seeing the universal truths they had encountered in Jesus working through themselves.

“The disciples also saw that the spirit that had worked within Jesus continued to work in and through them. In their preaching they extended his critique of domination. They continued his life by advancing his mission. They persisted in proclaiming the domination-free order of God inaugurated by Jesus.” (Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, p. 153 )

That’s the order we proclaim too. Another world is possible if we choose it, and this new year, this new decade will offer us many opportunities to make it if we wish.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within the group this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  2. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger faith community this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  3. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger society this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.

Here’s to a world of love and justice and the work required by each of us to create it.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Happy New Year to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Great Joy for All People (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | December 20, 2019

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“Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism . . . In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.”


We’re picking up where we left off in Part 1.

Judaism in Imperial Rome

Living in Roman-occupied territory, Jewish people hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of prophecies valued within first-century Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision of the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing visions of the fate of the Gentiles, including the Romans. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, ‘Where is the Lord your God?’ My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of this world’s future. The other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression, and violence would cease. Other prophets also envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this Jewish, pre-Christian vision also included a Messiah figure who would birth this new world into existence:

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

Another example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

We can see from these passages that when the book of Luke was written, many within Judaism hoped for a restored world where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. Some believed this would be accompanied by violent retribution against oppressors, and others believed the Messiah figure would bring more restorative, distributive, nonviolent, and reconciling justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he includes a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins his birth story with John’s conception, before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke parallels that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

It also parallels the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2). For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus, the renewed “David.” At his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple in Jewish birth-narratives and were especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Imperial Rome, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this Christmas passage:

Bold phrases represent the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and Italics represent a subversion of Roman imperialism. Black and Italicized phrases represent both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” ( Luke 2:10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas, from the time of Caesar Augustus onward, the title “the Lord” meant the emperor, just as “der Führer” meant “the leader” in German. Eventually, that term designated Adolf Hitler as Germany’s supreme and only leader. In that context, to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau (p. 154).

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.
By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him… For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added)

That year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus), and it was named Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace that Rome proclaimed was a peace achieved through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in the restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class and most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows Jesus’ entire message in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel (through violence) and the peace gospel of Jesus (through distributive justice) come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored distributive justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas, p. 166).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolently-achieved, distributive-justice of Jesus produces lasting peace. Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, but Luke’s Jesus points the way to peace based upon distributive justice achieved through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, too often it is certain sectors of Christianity versus Jesus.

Luke’s Christmas story offers more than a private peace of mind for Christians. It points to a path to peace on earth for everyone, and a peace that comes through distributive justice for all, especially those marginalized in the present system. In our next and final installment of this holiday series, we’ll consider this further.

For this week, it’s enough to ponder the words:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:11-14)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week as you gather together before Christmas, take some time to go around the room and say something you appreciate or value about each person.
  2. Next, share with your group something you are grateful for from 2019. Take time to celebrate and be thankful together as this year comes to a close.
  3. Share something you are hopeful for or looking forward to in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Also, all year-end donations to Renewed Heart Ministries are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your year-end gift go twice as far as we move into the next decade. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners for the coming year. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

Happy holidays to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in the new year.

Great Joy for All People (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | December 13, 2019

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“Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?”


 

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10)

Advent season has begun!

Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?

To answer these questions, we have to go back and try to read the story from the social locations of its intended audience. These narratives are primarily concerned with this world and this life, not with heaven. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A “spiritual” or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the expanding Roman Empire’s culture and European colonialism. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives as being about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were political, economic, and social, as well as theological! And they pointed toward the hope of the end of violence, injustice, and oppression: good news, of great joy, for all people.

First, acknowledging the political context in which Jesus-narratives were written is important. Borg and Crossan, speaking of their own books’ focus on the political context of the Jesus stories, remind us:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”— Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 55

The political context of the Jesus stories could forever change how we read the birth narratives of Jesus. In Luke, these narratives were originally intended to subvert the systemic injustice in the Roman Empire. They speak to our time too. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of these stories and rightly apply them to our justice work today, we must begin by reading them in the matrix of Imperial Rome alongside the hopes of many in first-century Judaism. The titles given to that babe in a manger were, in the Roman world, titles given to the emperor, Caesar. The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than their conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through a restored distributive justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Luke’s birth narrative is quite different from Matthew’s. One difference is that Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew’s does. Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ in geography: Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then from there moves onto Nazareth. Finally, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Jewish, Jesus-followers in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile Jesus-following audience. This may help to explain why Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke takes a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

These stories are not about a debate between Christianity and Judaism. We do see an early hybrid Christian-and-Jewish move against Roman imperialism. Early Jewish Jesus-followers lived within Judaism and while they were in dialogue and even compete with the other Jewish voices, they were still Jewish.

This is the backdrop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel, not as much in Luke as we find in John. Yet Luke contains more than Matthew, and definitely, more than we find in Mark.

We can explore Luke’s agenda when we read Luke’s birth-narratives of Jesus through these filters:

  1. First-century Christianity,
  2. Christianity within first-century Judaism; and
  3. Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism.

We’ll start with Roman imperialism, and work our way backward.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a social order and its exercise of (or lack of) distributive justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for peace within its empire.

During the time of Luke’s birth narrative, it was Augustus Caesar who received the titles Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Rome had experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy, and Augustus was regarded as a god. In addition to his other titles, he was dubbed Augustus in Latin (one who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (one who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects of Rome produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four imperial aspects in his gospel.

In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents Jesus teaching nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus teaching wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.”

Scholar Adolf Gustav Deissmann once wrote of “the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (Light from the Ancient East, p. 349). Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities like Mars the god of war, but Caesar was worshipped as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives reinforces this. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, his father dreamed that the sun rose from his wife Atias’ womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

This description of Augustus Caesar’s conception is from the 2nd Century CE and cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden, a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in modern Turkey refers to Augustus as “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.” So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

This is why the Christmas stories for Luke’s gospel are significant: Luke’s birth narratives allow the author to draw a deep contrast between Rome’s vision for society (the Pax Romana) and Jesus’ vision for a society of distributive justice, especially for the presently marginalized. This contrast provides rich insights for us today who are also working toward a world characterized by distributive justice for all.

We’ll see this more deeply as we discuss Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism next week. I wanted to start this series by showing how deeply Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus are political contrasts between Jesus and his vision for society and Caesar and Rome’s vision for society.

Those who allow the Jesus story to speak into their lives today as we all work together to shape our world into a safe, compassionate, distributively just home for everyone will have lots to consider.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the political implications that you see in Luke’s birth narratives in the context of the above contrasts of Luke’s gospel between Jesus (and his vision for society) and imperial Rome? Discuss with your group. (One example of where to start is Mary’s declarations beginning in Luke 1:46)
  2. Discuss with your group what applications can be drawn from these narratives in our work of making society more just, today.
  3. Pick something from your discussion that you can implement or practice as a group in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Remember, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries, this month, are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

A Christmas Story for the Marginalized

Herb Montgomery | December 6, 2019

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style


“The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.”


“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'” (Luke 2:8–10)

We have entered the holiday season and I want to begin by wishing each of you a very happy one. In the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. In Luke’s version of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, the author chooses to center an unlikely community to receive the first announcement of “good news to all people.” This was the community of “shepherds living in the fields nearby.”

In Luke’s society, socially, politically and economically, shepherding filled one of the lowest occupational roles and shepherds bore the brunt of their lower social location. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy, and their work—according to some then-popular interpretations of Torah—made them continually unclean.

The most obvious implication is that the “good news” of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of Jesus’ society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power.

This narrative contradicts the one that modern, Westernized Christianity has so long used to equate Christianity with social respectability. Today, with few exceptions, the church has often missed out on building relationships and community with people pushed to the fringes of our larger society. I’m being generous when I say it this way: to simply say that Christian communities have “missed out” ignores the reality that the marginalized have been more than simply “missed.” The church has in many cases driven these folks to society’s fringes so that they’re marginalized by the very ones who carry the name of Jesus.

It matters how we understand each version of the stories of Jesus’ birth and what social, economic, political and even religious implications these stories would’ve had for their original listeners and contexts. When we read contextually today, we begin to see a rich field of insights for our work of social justice. Historically, Christians have spent countless hours on apologetics defending certain details in Jesus’ birth narratives but ignored the more socially relevant implications of these stories. One example of a detail we’ve historically focused on is Matthew’s gospel’s virgin birth. This story element would have meant something to those living in Galilee continually bumping up against the Roman myths about the birth of Caesar Augustus. It says little to us today in our scientific age. Yet other elements of Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke still can offer much to us who are working for a world of love and justice today.

How we as Christians hear the Christmas story, read the Christmas story, and interpret the Christmas story matters! Reclaimed interpretations of the Christmas story emphasize details that we can’t afford to miss. Jesus being born into immense poverty, being announced to the socially outcast, bypassing the politically, economically, socially and religiously of the day, and his parents becoming violence-fleeing refugees for the wellbeing of their child—there is an entire foundation here on which to build a framework for Christians who are working toward social justice today.

The story whispers to us of the need for communities to prioritize the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalized. These are the people who gathered at this lowly manger and dared to believe that the babe who lay there, this good news, really belonged to them.

The message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:8–10)

The babe in a manger would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18-19). Instead, he would grow up to gather the outcast, the socially marginalized, those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. He called for a society that did this, too, and it began with his early followers. Early communities of Jesus-followers were almost wholly comprised of people from society’s edges.

At the heart of Luke’s retelling of the Jesus story (and I believe it was the reason he—unlike Mark and John—included the details of Jesus’ birth) is a desire to contrast Jesus’ vision for human community of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society they lived in.

We’ll cover these contrasts in Luke in the upcoming weeks leading up to Christmas. I believe they hold wonderful encouragement for those working within or alongside marginalized communities today, especially for Christians who allow Jesus’ teachings to speak into their lives.

And lastly, during this holiday season, in the midst of all that is taking place in the news presently, we must not forget what these stories say to those who are marginalized in our society. We’ll talk about all of this, too. For now, it is enough to meditate on the fact that in the gospels’ birth-narratives about Jesus, it is the marginalized who are centered. It is foreigners, shepherds, the poor, the marginalized, so-called “nobodies,” and even the animals of a stable that gather around the manger to symbolize, I believe, the human community this newborn babe will grow up to speak about. The good news is for them.

People are of infinite value in this story. In these stories, people and communities marginalized by their present society are, especially of immeasurable worth. When I was born, my parents printed and sent out baby announcements to all their family and friends. I don’t know if many parents still do this, but I still have my birth announcement. To think of Jesus’ birth stories in this light, it is the marginalized who are the ones to whom the birth announcements of Jesus’ birth are first sent.

In the hustle and bustle of this season’s celebrations, traditions, and revelry, Christians who still subscribe to various forms of exclusion (xenophobia, racism, homo-, bi-, and transphobias, sexism, etc.) must allow the universal truths this story tells to confront them. If you are a Christian setting out nativity scenes in your home, stop for a moment and look at each of the figurines you’re placing. Who do these figures represent today? How are they represented in your life? Are you one of them? If not, are you living in solidarity with those represented in this scene?

Your nativity scene hints to us that this babe lying in a manger, born into poverty, and surrounded by those on edges of his society, will grow up to cast before the imagination of his listeners a vision for human society and those society considers less-than. His is a story for the powerless, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the judged, and the labeled, and excluded, the insignificant, and forgotten. These are the very ones that can gather around this lowly manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really is for them.

This last year, one of the RHM recommended reading books was Miguel A. De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins. Speaking of our nativity scene reminds me of this passage:

“Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.” (Kindle Location 629)

Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalized. On the contrary, the Christmas stories call these specific Christians to recognize that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.

The stories of Jesus are not stories of inclusion where those presently centered maintain their positions of privilege. These are stories about a fundamental change in the way we shape our human communities. And it begins with recognizing the universal truths of the manger scene. Change always happens from the grassroots up, from the margins inward. The question for those at the center is whether they will obstruct those working for a safer, just society, or work in harmony with them.

This is what these stories are saying to me this year. What are they saying to you?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see transformative work being already engaged within communities that are societally marginalized today?
  2. Pick one of these communities. Reach out to the community you have chosen and find out the needs of those in this community who are doing transformative work.
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how your group can help to alleviate the needs you discovered. Picks something from your discussion and put it into practice. Note your experiences. Then share with your group what you’re learning.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries this month are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we’d like you to invite you to become one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You’ll receive a special gift from us for doing so. To find out more go to renewedheartministries.com and click on the “Share Table Fundraiser” image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

Lightening the Burden of Others

Herb Montgomery | December 21, 2018


“This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?”


“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

Since I was young, my all-time favorite Christmas story has been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I don’t think it’s really possible for me to even get into the festive spirit every year without partaking of this story in some form. 

This year, I sat down with my younger daughter to watch the film The Man Who Invented Christmas. I wanted to see it last year when it came out, but we live in such a small town that it never screened at our local theater. When I was finally able to watch it at home, I loved it. In the movie, one line from Dickens comes when Charles’ father reminds him, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” I love the transformation of Scrooge in the story where he learns this lesson.

I hope this is how I will be remembered when my time here is up: as one who lightened burdens. But why should we stop at lightening burdens? Many burdens are made and could be eliminated entirely! This line in the film made me think about similar words from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Gospels’ Christmas stories are rooted in liberating people from the weariness and burden-bearing that any form of oppression places on them. This teaching is in every gospel. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we read of Zechariah who speaks prophetically of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus. According to Zechariah, John’s role would be:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

There is an order here that struck me. First, “salvation” here could just as easily be translated as “liberation.” “Salvation” was not a preoccupation with an afterlife.  Salvation in first century Jewish culture was much more about participating in making this world a better place in the here and now. Many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day longed to be liberated from Roman occupation and oppression, and they tied this liberation to the idea of forgiveness. As we covered last week, the Hebrew concept of Divine forgiveness included collective forgiveness for the social sins of injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable. This forgiveness was not privatized, and not about individuals and their personal morality. Some believed these social wrongs explained their repeated occupation by Gentile Empires: foreign occupation was seen as a punishment that would end when the people had made reparations for collective wrongs and Divine forgiveness resulted. Liberation would result from “the tender mercy of our God” forgiving social exploitation. 

Please notice the order here. Forgiveness would not result from Divine wrath being appeased by a violent death on a cross. An already existing mercy in the heart of the Divine is the cause of the forgiveness. Following this, humans who chose to mirror this forgiveness toward one another would then be participating in a wealth redistribution (debt cancellation) toward shaping a distributive justice society which would include those who were previously being marginalized. 

In the gospels, when forgiveness isn’t from the Divine to humans but between humans, the concept has an economic context. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled.) Forgiveness wasn’t initially about people facing oppression unconditionally forgiving their oppressors. Instead the call to forgiveness was originally aimed at the economic elite, and meant a Jubilee-like cancelling of debts. It was a cry for the privileged and powerful to forgive all debts on behalf of those living under debt burdens. Talk about lightening the burdens of another. What would your life be like if every one of your debts were forgiven in one day?

Human-to-human debt forgiveness was to be rooted in the already-existing forgiveness in the heart of the Divine, the One whose heart was already full of mercy. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains it like this:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Notice that the original forgiveness was rooted in the creditor’s tender mercy. When the debtor could not pay, the creditor simply forgave the debt. There were no conditions and no contingencies. Initial forgiveness should have awakened a spirit of forgiveness in the debtor. Just as the saying goes that hurt people hurt people, forgiven people should forgive people. 

But that’s not how Jesus’ story goes. The debtor in the story didn’t internalize the lesson and becoming more forgiving. Instead, he turned to his own debtors and exacted payment. His own forgiveness had no conditions but was given freely in mercy. But if the forgiven person failed to internalize the ethics of forgiveness and apply them to how they related to others, they would forfeit the forgiveness so freely given to them. There was no contingency in obtaining freely given forgiveness. But there was a condition for keeping the freely given forgiveness. One could lose liberating forgiveness if they failed to forgive toward their own debtors.

It’s also very important to note that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included reparations. Those who followed him would not only forgive debts, but also offer reparations for past exploitations. Consider the story of the wealthy tax collector, Zacchaeus. 

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:7-8)

Forgiveness in Jesus’ paradigm was not individualistic freedom from condemnation, but liberation from debt, reparation for exploitation, and yes, letting go of past abuses in the context of those reparations. To call for reconciliation without liberation or reparation is to perpetuate injustice, violence, and oppression. Peace and reconciliation are to be the fruit of forgiveness and also the fruit of justice restored and reparations made. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included all of these elements.

A community initiative was to set in motion a change in the world: the forgiven were to become forgiving.

All of this is implied in our text this week:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation [or liberation] through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

The myth of redemptive suffering destructively teaches that Jesus’ cross makes possible the forgiveness of God, but this text teaches the opposite. Knowing salvation or liberation was to come from forgiveness rooted not in a violent death, but in an already existing tender mercy in the heart of God. God’s mercy, leading to forgiveness, leading to liberation from oppression and transforming people becoming a collectively just and safe society would be like the rising of the sun on a brand new day. It would bring new life and a new hope. It would be a dayspring to us from heaven. 

This language harks back to Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations:

“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22)

Discussions on forgiveness today are almost always directed toward survivors, calling for them to give even more. But in the Jesus story, forgiveness was initiated by a wealthy creditor or oppressor toward those in their debt. These types of debt cancellations have been more common throughout history then you might guess. An especially insightful and relevant article was written by Mehreen Khan back in 2015 explains this history. I would encourage everyone to contemplate it: The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world. In it Khan rightly states:

“Loans were less a way to make money than they were a means to help one’s fellow man. Given that all worldly wealth and property belonged ultimately to God, a creditor’s rights over it were temporary rather than absolute.”

Khan goes on to speak about the ancient Babylonian practice of smashing debt tablets and modern European and other global examples. These examples are inspiring as we consider present and future possibilities for debt forgiveness. 

This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?

Let’s keep the spirit of this festive time of year in these ways, and so set in motion a more beautiful world today and for tomorrow.

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

     

HeartGroup Application

Last month, we asked our HeartGroups to participate in a show of love initiated by Auburn Seminary in New York toward the Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

I’m happy to share that this generated nearly 2,000 messages of love and support!  You can read these messages at: http://bit.ly/treeoflifethanks

Take a moment this week and together as a group read through some of these.

     

A Special Request

Also we would like to remind each of you our special request from you as the end of 2018 approaches.

Renewed Heart Ministries has been in existence for over a decade now, but over the last four years we have gone through transition. We have become a “welcoming and affirming” ministry. We have also become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of love, compassion, action and justice in our larger society.  It’s been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we are a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss. We’re asking you to help us avoid a budget shortfall for 2018 and be able to plan for 2019. We have many projects in the works for next year that we would love to see come to fruition. We would love to be able to expand both our online presence, as well as the number of free, teaching seminars we conduct across the nation. An initial edit has also been completed for my upcoming book that will be a sequel to Finding the Father. The title for this new, second book will be Finding Jesus. We would love to see this manuscript be able to go through its final stages and go on to publication this next year.  

As many of you already know, to help RHM this year, a very generous donor has pledged to match all donations to this ministry for both this past November and this present December. 

If you have been blessed this year by RHM’s work, take a moment this holiday season and support our work.  

You can do so by going to our website at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “donate” or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
P.O. Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you would like your donation to be matched just make sure it’s postmarked by December 31.

Help us continue to grow this ministry in 2019 as we, together, follow Jesus more deeply in the healing work of love, compassion, action and justice for the marginalized.

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you, dearly.

There will not be an eSight next week due to the holidays.  

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

We’ll see you in 2019.

No Room In The Inn

Herb Montgomery | December 7, 2018


“In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others . . . The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.”


 

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2. 4-7)

 

Last week, I witnessed many of my friends argue the wrongness of tear gassing women and children at the U.S.’s southern border.  I watched online as many of the people they attend church with argued the rightness of the U.S.’s actions as such.  I read thin arguments which did little to veil the bigotry from which those arguments flowed.  At the same time many of those arguments are being made by people who will put up nativities soon to celebrate the birth of their Jesus whom the Inn Keeper also turned away.  They will celebrate a narrative that also later speaks of Jesus as a child and his parents escaping violence in their own region to seek asylum in a foreign county. The irony this time is painful. The recent acts by the U.S. at it’s southern border not only should not be defended by Christians or any person of goodwill, the acts themselves are deeply inhumane.

“Tear gas has been outlawed as a method of warfare on the battlefield by almost every country in the world, that prohibition does not apply to domestic law enforcement officers using tear gas on their own citizens. The use of this chemical agent, which can cause physical injury, permanent disability and even death, is often excessive, indiscriminate and in violation of civil and human rights. Studies suggest that children are more vulnerable to severe injuries from chemical toxicity: Infants exposed to tear gas can develop severe pneumonitis and require weeks of hospitalization. Using it on a crowd of people who were exercising their right to seek asylum at an international border indeed violated human rights norms.” (See Tear gas should never have been used at the border. It doesn’t belong at protests, either.)

In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others.  The city of Sodom was located in a coveted region because of its agricultural fertility. They, also as the U.S. is presently attempting, soon developed an effective strategy of terror to keep foreigners away.

For those familiar with the story, Lot, by contrast, saw the two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly send them on their way at the first light of dawn the next day. What happened that night was terrifying and intentional to send the message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (Genesis 19.1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those who are born with same sex attraction/orientation or same sex loving relationships.  I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. This story has nothing to do with sexual orientation and instead is about responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, in times where their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. (See Judges 19:11-30; Ezekiel 16.49, see also “Rape of Menin Wartime Sexual Violence) In this story/culture male rape was intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation rooted in the social constructs of their ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.  

The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is carried on by the Jewish followers of Jesus in the New Testament scriptures.  There we find the call to hospitality toward migrant strangers, too:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13.2)

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, too, names hospitality toward strangers as a mark of distinction between those who are genuinely following him and those who do so in name only.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25.35)

Jesus here is standing in the Jewish, hospitality-to-strangers tradition of both the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. 

“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 26.12, emphasis added.)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24.19-21, emphasis added.)

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 14.28-29, emphasis added.)

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.19, emphasis added.)

Today, many in the U.S. (not all) are participating in the same irony of being decedents of immigrants themselves, while participating in present day xenophobia toward contemporary immigrants, including those seeking asylum.  

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Leviticus 19.34, emphasis added.)

Even the cherish Sabbath commandments include the foreigner. (As well as the problematic mention of those born slaves.):

“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” (Exodus 23.12, emphasis added.)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”  (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“Do not oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“’Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Deuteronomy 27:19, emphasis added.)

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17, emphasis added.)

“YHWH defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18, emphasis added.)

“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.”  (Ezekiel 22.29, emphasis added.)

Those who are presently migrating from Honduras are trying to escape a destabilized society that we created. The U.S. has a long history of destabilizing any society that leans toward either socialism or possesses resources we desire. These people are migrating away from a horrific societal state that we helped create. 

On top of this, we also have a long history creating immigration policies out of the intent of maintaining a White majority, a concern born from the myth of White supremacy. (Or rather, the Anglo-Saxon Mythology.) In Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass’ book Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Dr. Douglass rightly shows how the same stand your ground values that lead to the murder of citizens of color (like Trevon Martin) is the same set of values that is at the heart of our racist immigration policies as well.  She quotes those in our history like President Theodor Roosevelt who “became so obsessed with the number of ‘new stock’ immigrants compared to the low birthrate of ‘old stock’ Anglo-Saxons that he feared ‘race suicide.’” And President Woodrow Willson who wrote “our Saxon habits of government” are threatened by the “corruption of foreign blood.”  In 1882, Henry Cabot Lodge, addressing the panic immigration was causing wrote, “The question of foreign immigration has of late engaged the most serious attention of the country, and in a constantly increasing degree. The race changes which have begun during the last decade among the immigrants to this country, the growth of the total immigration, and the effects of it upon . . . the quality of our citizenship, have excited much apprehension and aroused a very deep interest.”

Dr Douglass continues,

“In an article titled “Whose Country Is This?” President Calvin Coolidge provided a lengthy rationale for restrictive immigration laws. He argued that even though America was an immigrant nation, it could not allow sentimentality to get in the way of it accepting the ‘right kind’ of immigrant. He explained that it was in the nation’s best interest ‘to require of all those aliens who come here that they have a background not inconsistent with American institutions.’ By now we know, as Coolidge’s readers surely knew, that ‘American’ meant Anglo-Saxon. Coolidge made this clear when he said, ‘Such a background might consist either of a racial tradition or national experience.’ He went on to say that just as there was no room in the country for the importation of cheap goods, there was ‘no room either for cheap men.’ Thus, America was obliged ‘to maintain that citizenship at its best.’ This meant, for Coolidge, erecting some kind of quota system. He substantiated his bigotry with science. He said, ‘Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides . . . Observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.’ The argument put forth by President Coolidge reflected the longstanding fear that was sweeping across the country, one expressed by presidents before him. It was the fear that the Anglo-Saxon would be wiped out in America.

(From Brown, Kelly Brown Douglas,  Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, pp. 29-30.)

Racist xenophobia is at the heart of what we are presently witnessing on the southern border of the United States. And yet we are about to celebrate a holiday centered around the narrative of a baby boy born in a dirty stable out back, because an inn keeper took one look at a poor man and his wife seated on a ragged donkey, strangers, and even though she was nine months pregnant, would not so much as give up his own bed to her for only one night, and instead looked at their state and inhospitably said, “We have no room.” Thank goodness he didn’t have any tear-gas.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2.7)

HeartGroup Application

You don’t have to live on the southern border of the U.S. to welcome the stranger, include those who are marginalized, or provide community for those in need of a little love this holiday season.

1. Wherever your HeartGroup is located, wherever you meet, find was to practice hospitality this week.

2. Journal your experiences.

3. Next week, share what you’ve learned with your group. 

Thank you for checking in with us. We here at RHM are thankful to be journeying alongside you. 

And remember, right now we have an anonymous and very kind supporter who wants to extend the rare opportunity of matching each contribution made to support RHM’s work throughout the rest of  December, including all year-end contributions. As we approach the end of 2018, all contributions through December 31 are continuing to be matched. Help us reach our budget goals for 2018, avoiding a potential budget shortfall for this year, and be able to plan for 2019.

Yes, I want to help RHM’s work continue to grow.

We are beyond thankful for every one of you who support our work.

Right where you are, keep living in the beauty of love, compassion, action and justice. 

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week. 

Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent: Part 3 of 3 

by Herb Montgomery

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.’” (Luke 2.11-14)

We’ve arrived! This is our final installment of our Christmas series this year at RHM, and we’re looking at Luke’s birth-narrative this week. Again, I want to recommend the volume The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I believe you’ll find it to be a very user-friendly resource in wresting what we today call “The Christmas Story” from ancient and modern forms of imperialism and their co-opting of these narratives.

Luke’s birth-narrative is quite different from Matthew’s, which we looked at last week. One of the differences is Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew. (Luke’s entire Gospel does this actually.) Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ on geography. Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then moves onto Nazareth. Another difference is that, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Christian Jews in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile-Christian audience. This may help to explain the way that Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke chooses a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

To quote John Dominic Crossan in a recent panel discussion, what we see in the first century is not “Christianity against Judaism.” Rather we see, “Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism . . . Of course [the followers of Jesus] are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.”

This is the back drop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. (We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel: not as much as in John, but certainly more than in Matthew, and most definitely more than in Mark.)

To perceive Luke’s agenda in writing his narrative, we must read the narrative through three filters: 1) first-century Christianity, 2) Christianity in first-century Judaism, and 3) Christianity in Judaism in a context of Roman imperialism. We’ll start with the last one, Roman imperialism, and work our way backwards.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a world order and its exercise of (or lack of) social justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for global peace.

It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to the Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.” Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (p. 349)*.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in what’s Turkey today refers to Augustus, “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”

So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

Judaism in Roman Imperialism

Jews in Roman-occupied territory hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of fictional prophecies within Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision for the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing strands in Judaism regarding the fate of the Gentiles (including the Romans) in this vision. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of the future of this world that are being touted today. Nevertheless, the other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah. 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression and violence would cease. And other prophets envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this vision also included a Messiah figure through whom this new world would be birthed into existence.

Here are two examples of that pre-Christian Jewish expectation of a Messiah.

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

The other example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

From this brief sampling we can see that at the time of Luke’s writing, many within Judaism possessed the hope of restored world where all injustice, violence and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. There were some who believed this would be accompanied with violent retribution against oppressors, and others who believed it would through more restorative and reconciling means, more nonviolent, retiring justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Like the Sayings Q and the gospel of Mark, Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he adds a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins even his birth story with John’s conception before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke’s birth-narratives is curiously parallel to that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

There are also parallels to the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2) For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus the renewed “David.” At the baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple within Jewish birth-narratives, and especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Roman imperialism, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Imperialism. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). Again, this is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christian Judaism against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this passage for Christmas.

Green phrases represent fulfillment (of Jewish hopes) and Red represent subversion (of Roman imperialism). Black phrases respond to both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2.10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah in convergence with Judaism and Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer in divergence with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas about using the title of “Lord” for Jesus:

Used simply as “the Lord” it meant the emperor, especially from Caesar Augustus onward, just as, for example, “der Führer” simply means “the leader” in German (where all nouns are capitalized), but eventually designated Adolf Hitler as the supreme and only leader. In that context to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau. (p. 154)

Two Visions/Versions of Peace

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.

By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…. For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added.)

In that same year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus). It was given the name Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolent restoration of Jesus produces lasting peace. First, that way must be chosen.

Contrary to the ways Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, Luke’s Jesus is a Jesus who points the way to peace based upon justice restored through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, it’s Christian imperialism versus Jesus. Imperialism’s effort to produce peace on earth, even today, and even in Christianity, still tries to place weapons in the hands of the “good guys.”

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some gross Christian rhetoric (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s speech at Liberty University is an example), I created this satirical meme  and posted it online: “Peter, all that is needed to stop bad guys with swords is a good guy with a sword.” —Jesus peterswardmeme

What Jesus actually said was, “Those who live by the sword will die by it as well.”

It is important for Christians who seek to follow Luke’s Jesus to understand the history of the American empire’s second constitutional amendment. The United States was founded on peace achieved through revolutionary violence. And the American Empire is much like Rome if we substitute the word “freedom” for “peace.” As Rome proclaimed “peace,” so America proclaims “freedom,” but our freedom is not lasting. It is the type of freedom one achieves by being the biggest bully on the top of the hill, and it’s not freedom for everyone. It is a freedom achieved by violence and maintained and preserved by violence, almost identical to the “peace” of Rome that depended on its imperial armies.

This is why the American constitution has a second amendment. If citizens’ freedom were to ever be threatened again, they must have access to violent means to help them achieve it once again.

But today we are seeing the fruit of this unlimited access to violent means to ensure one’s freedom. Jesus could have very well said, “Those who achieve freedom by the sword, will be destroyed as well by the sword.”

Let me at minimum say this. The second amendment is not the standard for a follower of Luke’s Jesus. Jesus shows us a way to peace and freedom rooted in restoration, justice for all, and nonviolent means. In the face of tyranny, American followers of Luke’s Jesus are not permitted to use violence even if a secular constitution permits them to. Luke’s Jesus points out a way to peace and freedom radically different than the path of violence. Jesus taught of two paths: the broad path, though it seems right to most people, is the path that leads to death. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is another path that Jesus told us leads to life, and he modeled that path for us.

Luke’s gospel is the gospel of peace achieved through the nonviolent restoration of justice and equity for everyone. Peace on earth means no more oppressed and oppressor, no more dominant and subjugated, just equity and peace for all.

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people . . . peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.” (Luke 2.11-14)

HeartGroup Application

This week:

  1. List at least three paradigm shifts you’ve had this year from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth-narratives either by reading The First Christmas or by going through this series. Share these insights with your HeartGroup.
  2. Discuss as a group how understanding the cultural matrix of Judaism and Roman imperialism changes your reading of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
  3. How can you apply the values in these narratives, especially in relation to peace, freedom, violence, and nonviolence, as followers of Jesus within our American Empire today?

This will be our last eSight before Christmas, so from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you. We wish you also a very merry new year.

It’s our hope that, once again, your heart has been renewed and you’ve been empowered to follow Jesus more deeply in this coming year.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

*1910, Light from the ancient East. The New Testament illustrated by recently discovered texts of the Graeco-Roman world, L.R.M. Strachan, transl., London

A New Liberator (Part 2 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3) 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Our title this week is “A ‘New’ Liberator.” The title doesn’t imply that “new” means better or that “old” is bad. What we’ll see this week is that the “new” kind of liberation that Jesus brought varied from the approaches of the past. In Matthew’s birth-narrative, Jesus is a contemporary “Moses”: not a replacement, supersession, or denigration of the original Moses, but rather a contemporary expression of what Moses stood for in the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians.

First, let’s say a word about Matthew’s gospel itself. Matthew combines Sayings Gospel Q (Jewish copies of the Jesus Story) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile copies of the Jesus Story). As the Jewish and Gentile sectors of Christianity blended, the Jewish-Gentile gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Matthew combined the Jewish Sayings Q and the Gentile Gospel of Mark for the Jewish Christians population of Galilee. Luke/Acts combines Sayings Q (Jewish) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile) for the much larger population of Gentile Christians (see The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson).

So Matthew’s gospel is a much more “Jewish” telling of the Jesus story. This background helps us to understand Matthew’s gospel emphasis on the significance of Jesus being the renewed Moses.

Let’s look at Matthew’s parallels:

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the Greek term for the “five scrolls” of the Torah. In the first century and still in traditional Judaism, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were and are attributed to Moses.

Matthew draws our attention to these five sacred books repeatedly in his gospel. First, many scholars see the entire gospel of Matthew as framed by five discourses:

  1. The Discourse from the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
  2. Missional Discourse (Matthew 10-11)
  3. Parabolic (of the “Kingdom”) Discourse (Matthew 13)
  4. Communal (Community of Jesus Followers) Discourse (Matthew 18-19)
  5. Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25)

 

Mathew uses the number “five” in other ways as well, especially in his birth narrative. The birth narrative itself is composed of five scenes.

  1. The Conception of Jesus and Joseph’s Dilemma (Matthew 1:18-24)
  2. The Wise men and Herod (Matthew 2:1-8)
  3. Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:9-12)
  4. The Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight in Egypt to Escape (Matthew 2:13-18)
  5. Return from Egypt and Move to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-21)

And Matthew’s birth-narrative is built on five fulfillments.

  1. Conception—“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” —Matthew 1:22
  2. Birthplace—In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‚for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”” —Matthew 2:5-6
  3. Egypt—“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” —Matthew 2:14-15
  4. Infanticide—“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” —Matthew 2:17-18
  5. Nazareth—“And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” —Matthew 2:23

Lastly, Matthew outlines his birth-narrative with five dreams.

  1. To Joseph—“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .” —Matthew 1:20
  2. To the Magi—“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” —Matthew 2:12
  3. To Joseph—“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” —Matthew 2:13
  4. To Joseph— “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt . . .” —Matthew 2:19-20
  5. To Joseph—“[Having] been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.” — Matthew 2:22

In a first century context, each of these repetitions reinforce that connection to the Pentateuch and, therefore, to Moses.

Law Giver

There’s another way Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus to Moses: the gospel shows Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a “new” law for the people. As Moses gave instruction on Mt. Sinai, Jesus also ascends a “mountain side” to give instruction (Matthew 5:1). And the Torah plays a significant role in Jesus’ instruction on his contemporary “Mt. Sinai.”

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5. 21-26)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’… But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…” (Matthew 5.27-30)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” (Matthew 5.31- 32)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely.’… But I say to you, Do not swear at all…” (Matthew 5.33-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye.’… But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…” (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall… hate your enemy.’… But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Our focus this week is not merely Jesus as Lawgiver in the way of Moses, but Jesus as Liberator in the way of Moses. Matthew introduces this Jesus in his birth-narrative in such a way as to draw our imaginations to Jesus as representing Israel’s liberation from a contemporary “Egypt.”

Slaying of Innocents

There is no more obvious parallel between Matthew’s birth-narrative of Jesus and the ancient Jewish birth-narrative of Moses than the slaying of the innocents in Matthew 2.

As early Jewish Jesus followers listened to Herod’s order to “kill” all the “males” in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16), they would no doubt have remembered the story of Moses’ birth:

“Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile . . .’” (Exodus 1.22)

This connection lays the foundation for the most fascinating parallel of Jesus to Moses in Matthew’s birth narrative, as we are about to see.

 

Jewish Midrash

This is where Matthew’s birth narrative becomes the most interesting to me. The primary audience for Matthew’s birth narrative would have been the Galilean Jewish Christian community. Being Jews as well as Christians, they would have been familiar with the Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth. Midrashic stories are retellings of the ancient narratives that expand on the originals or add commentaries to answer questions that intelligent listeners or readers may have asked about the ancient text.

Through the Jewish midrash on Moses’ birth, Matthew’s birth-narrative might take on a whole new understanding for you. I’m going to move very slowly so I don’t lose you.

The most significant question that intelligent Jewish listeners asked about ancient birth-narratives of Moses was, “Why did those Jewish parents continue having children if they knew their newborn males would be doomed to certain death? Why did they keep having children?”

The Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth sought to answer this question as we’ll see. But also notice that both the midrash about Moses and the gospel of Matthew share the following elements: 1) sending wives away 2) receiving a Divine revelation 3) re-uniting with wives. Matthew used these three elements from the Moses story in his own. Watch for the pattern of sending away, revelation, and reuniting:

Book of Biblical Antiquities, Pseudo-Philo, 9:1-10:

Sending Away:

Then the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning [and said]…“ Let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife… until we know what God may do.” And Amram answered and said…“ I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way.”

Revelation 1: 

And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said…“ He who will be born from him will serve me forever.”

Re-Uniting:

And Amram of the tribe of Levi went out and took a wife from his own tribe. When he had taken her, others followed him and took their own wives….

Revelation 2: 

And this man had one son and one daughter; their names were Aaron and Miriam. And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying: I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, “Go and say to your parents, ‘Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.’” And when Miriam told of her dream, her parents did not believe her.

(Quoted from our textbook, The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan)

In Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities we have a variation of the pattern, “perplexity” and “revelation”:

Perplexity:

Amaram(es), a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God….

Revelation: 

And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that…“ This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered, so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.” (2.210– 11)

In the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I, we only have the “sending away” and “re-uniting” elements:

Sending Away and Re-Uniting: 

And Amram, a man of the tribe of Levi, went and returned to live in marriage with Jochebed his wife, whom he had put away on account of the decree of Pharaoh. And she was the daughter of a hundred and thirty years when he returned to her; but a miracle was wrought in her, and she returned unto youth as she was, when in her minority she was called the daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son at the end of six months.

The last midrashic example endured as far as a Jewish medieval collection known as Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs.

Sending Away: 

When the Israelites heard this command of Pharaoh to cast their males into the river, some of the people separated from their wives, while others remained with them…. When, however, the word of the king and his decree became known respecting the casting of their males into the river, many of God’s people separated from their wives, as did Amram from his wife.

Revelation: 

After the lapse of three years the Spirit of God came upon Miriam, so that she went forth and prophesied in the house, saying, “Behold, a son shall be born to my mother and father, and he shall rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians.”

Re-Uniting: 

When Amram heard his young daughter’s prophecy he took back his wife, from whom he had separated in consequence of Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all the male line of the house of Jacob.

At the birth of Moses this midrash announces, “The whole house was at that moment filled with a great light, as the light of the sun and the moon in their splendour.”

Now, let’s look for these same elements in Matthew’s birth-narrative about Jesus.

Sending Away:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to send her away her quietly.

Divine Revelation:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Re-Uniting:

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

(Matthew 1.18-24, emphasis added.)

Notice that in the Jewish midrashic tradition about Moses, the birth-narratives focus primarily on Moses’ father, Amram. Contrary to Luke’s gospel, which focuses on Elizabeth and Mary, Matthew’s narrative does the opposite and focuses entirely on Joseph and his experience. For Matthew, Joseph is the new Amram.

Matthew’s birth-narrative is clear: Jesus is a new Moses; Herod, a tool of the Roman empire, is a new Pharaoh, and a new Exodus is dawning on the horizon with all the meaning and hope that expectation would have possessed for Matthew’s Jewish Christian listeners.

We have one more, brief, connection to Moses to compare.

The Magi and the King of the Jews

Herod’s imperial title was “King of the Jews.” Unlike Mark and John, Matthew does not refer to Jesus with the Davidic title of “King of Israel.” Matthew is very intentional in applying Herod’s Roman title, “King of the Jews,” to his Jesus.

And asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2 (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. Matthew 27:11 (Emphasis added.)

And then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. Matthew 27:29 (Emphasis added.)

Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Matthew 27:37 (Emphasis added.)

From a Jewish perspective, especially for Matthew and other Jewish Christians living in Galilee, no title for Jesus could have been more anti-Herodian and thereby also anti-Roman than King of the Jews. They were keenly aware of what it meant to live in Herod’s territory and claim his titles.

Matthew skillfully links the grinding of Roman imperialism against the hopes and dreams of first century Judaism with the ancient grinding of Egyptian imperialism against the liberation of Hebrew slaves. Matthew’s placement for Jesus is as the new Moses at the center this liberation.

Matthew’s subversive use of “Kings of the Jews” also helps us understand the role that the magi (magicians or wise men) play in Matthew’s birth-narrative.

Let’s take one more look at the Jewish midrash about Moses’s birth. The three story elements that surface in these midrash are 1) dream/revelation, 2) fear, and 3) interpretation/advice.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I on Exodus 1– 2:

Dream: 

“And Pharaoh told that he, being asleep, had seen in his dream, and, behold, all the land of Egypt was placed in one scale of a balance, and a lamb, the young of a sheep, was in the other scale; and the scale with the lamb in it overweighed.”

Interpretation: 

“Forthwith he sent and called all the magicians of Mizraim, and imparted to them his dream. Immediately Jannis and Jambres, the chief of the magicians, opened their mouth and answered Pharaoh: A certain child is about to be born in the congregation of Israel, by whose hand will be destruction to all the land of Egypt.”

Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities:

Revelation: 

“While they were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes— persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future— announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown.”

Fear: 

“Alarmed thereat, the king…”

Advice: 

“…on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river.” (2.205-6)

Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs:

Dream: 

“In the 130th year after the Israelites had gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh dreamt a dream. While he was sitting on the throne of his kingdom he lifted up his eyes, and beheld an old man standing before him. In his hand he held a pair of scales as used by merchants. The old man then took the scales and, holding them up before Pharaoh, he laid hold of all the elders of Egypt and its princes, together with all its great men, and, having bound them together, placed them in one pan of the scales. After that he took a milch goat, and, placing it on the other pan, it outweighed all the others. Pharaoh then awoke, and it was a dream.”

Fear:

“Rising early next morning, he called all his servants, and told them the dream. They were sorely frightened by it…”

Interpretation:

“And one of the king’s eunuchs said, “This is nothing else than the foreboding of a great evil about to fall upon Egypt.” On hearing this the king said to the eunuch, “What will it be?” And the eunuch replied, “A child will be born in Israel, who will destroy all the land of Egypt. If it is pleasing to the king, let the royal command go forth in all the land of Egypt that every male born among the Hebrews should be slain, so that this evil be averted from the land of Egypt.”

Matthew uses these three midrashic story elements (revelation/dream, fear, interpretation/advice) in his parallel birth-narrative of Jesus:

Revelation:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

Fear:

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Advice/Interpretation:

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,‘ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written….’” (Matthew 2:1-5)

Note a few things. First, Matthew’s narrative doesn’t match the dream of Pharaoh with a dream of Herod. Matthew seems to reserve all divine revelation (the five dreams) for the heroes of his story. Because Herod is playing the villainous role of Pharaoh, no divine vision is awarded him and he only receives a revelation through the arriving magi. This is why, although it seems counter-intuitive to us that the magi would need to stop and ask directions—they’ve been following a star—they must stop and meet Herod. Their announcement to Herod provides the story element of Herod’s “revelation.” The magi must initiate the narrative parallel of “fear” and “advice.”

Second, in Matthew’s stories we witness a literary reversal of the magi themselves. In the Jewish tradition, magicians (magi) and wise men provide the advice/interpretation as Pharaoh’s servants. But in Matthew’s birth-narrative, the magi aren’t the servants of the new “Pharaoh” (Herod); they have instead come to offer gifts and worship to the new “Moses” (Jesus). Why this deviation?

This is the core of what’s truly subversive about Matthew’s birth-narrative. The magi do not recognize Herod as the rightful “King of the Jews.” They have come from the east, following a westward-leading star (see Numbers 24.17), bringing gifts and to worship the rightful “King of the Jews,” a child named Jesus.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.”

The First Christmas, Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. (p. 37).

HeartGroup Application

Matthew’s birth-narrative envisions Jesus as the new Moses who initiates a new exodus out of empire and liberates his followers from injustice, violence, and oppression. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are deeply political, but not in the sense that many think of it today. The “politics” of the gospels is not a foaming-at-the-mouth pursuit of top positions in a secular government.

Rather, the Jesus narratives deeply subvert any political domination system that seeks to subjugate the many for the benefit of a few. These stories are more than personal or private: they are deeply politically subversive as well. The early Jesus community was becoming a new human society, a counter-society, and a common-wealth quite literally rooted in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. As such it not only made personal differences in the lives of Jesus followers, but it also confronted systemic injustice as well. Beginning in January, we’ll be looking at the saying/teachings (sayings Q) included in the Matthew narrative.

But for now, during this holiday season, let’s focus on our own American Empire:

1) In your HeartGroup, discuss together how understanding these parallels to Moses in Matthew affect your reading of the Christmas story.

2) Discuss what affect the reading of Mathew’s birth-narrative would have if we applied this story not only to Egypt (Moses) and Rome (Jesus and his followers), but to America today (us) and the liberation of those groups who are the subjugated in our contemporary domination system.

3) Together, begin reading Luke 1-2 as preparation for next week.

Happy holidays to each of you.  I know this week’s eSight is long.  If you made it all the way through you are amazing!

Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is a new liberator from all things that keep us from being fully human. (I feel like we should all go listen to Maddy Prior and The Carnival band’s Coventry Carol now.)

I love each of you, dearly.  I’m grateful that you are here, participating in this series.

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

I’ll see you next week.

The Subversive Narratives of Advent  (Part 1 of 3)

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10) 

Advent season has begun!

Over the next two weeks I want to look at the birth narratives of Jesus from first century Christian, Jewish, and Roman perspectives. Much has been lost, co-opted, and eclipsed by the Imperial Christianity that began in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. So in the next two weekly e-Sights, we’ll be looking first at Matthew’s birth narrative and then at Luke’s. Both Matthew and Luke have story elements in common. They also differ greatly on other narrative details. We will be reading each story in the contexts they were each written in. Seen that original context, these narratives are intensely subversive of the military, political, and economic ways of empire as well as imperial theologies, not just in Rome but across time, including our own era.

A useful tool that I want to recommend this holiday season is Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s timely volume, The First Christmas. They’ve done invaluable work in compiling information about the historical/cultural setting in which these birth-narratives were originally told. That information helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning not simply to the first century followers of Jesus but also to us today as well. If I were teaching a class on the Christmas narratives this holiday season, not only would each student have a copy of Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, they’d also have this 244-page volume as an accompanying text book. It is a fantastic overview.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: These narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on this life. Too often, the birth-narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as entrance into a post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories. They were concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the expanding Roman Empire and European colonialism. We’ve talked about the way that reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit. Before imperial Christianity, these narratives were understood to be about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were theological and political! They announced the Divine dream for this world and announced that the fulfillment of that dream had begun in Jesus. They were not about the destruction of this world but about the restoration of it. This restoration, seen in the narratives as they were originally understood, was symbolized by visions of the end of war, violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

A point that I have been harping on for months now (and was happy to see addressed by Borg and Crossan) is the importance of acknowledging the historical context in which the Jesus narratives were created. Two examples that I use regularly to help people see the historical context of the Jesus story are Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was overwhelmingly pleased to see Marcus and Dom use these examples as well:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”—The First Christmas (p. 55)

I couldn’t agree more!

If we’re going to be able to wrest these two narratives from the militaristic, political, economic, and theological eclipse of empire and restore them to their original, deeply imperially subversive character, we must discover their Jewish, Christian, and Roman context.

Once we see the historical context of these stories, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. And once we experience this context, it will forever change how we read the birth-narratives of Jesus.

Next week, we’ll look again at Matthew’s narrative. The following week, just before Christmas, we will be turning our attention to Luke’s. My hope is that through this short series that you will read the birth-narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels anew, that your heart will be renewed, and that you will be inspired, as a Jesus follower, to more deeply embody the this-world-transforming values taught within these narratives.

Though the early Jesus birth-narratives were originally intended to subvert the Roman Empire, I believe they also hold significance for us today who live in or in the shadow of the American Empire. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed by the consumerism of our Empire’s economic machine. The early followers’ voices are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with these Christmas stories. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth-narratives of Jesus and rightly apply the stories to our lives today, we must begin with reading these narratives in the matrix of Imperial Rome and its grinding clash with the hopes of first-century Judaism.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.

Who is the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar, was all of these. No, Luke’s story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He—not the emperor—is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.

Who is the light of the world? The emperor, son of Apollo, the god of light and reason and imperial order? Or is Jesus, who was executed by empire, the light in the darkness, the true light to whom the wise of this world are drawn?

Where do we find the fulfillment of God’s dream for Israel and humanity? In the way things are now? Or only beyond death? Or in a very different world this side of death?”

The First Christmas, p. 37.

The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than the conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through restored justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Over the next two weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing these two birth-narratives with you and focusing on how the first century Jesus community heard and read them in the context of their era.

What we are about to discover may mean you’ll never read these stories in quite the same way again.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to read Matthew 1-2 as well as Luke 1-2. Familiarize yourself with each story. Try to keep them separate, for now, in your reading.
  2. List what each story has in common. Then where each narrative differs from the other.
  3. In preparation for next week, create an outline of Matthew’s birth-narrative as this is the one we will be looking at first. You can do this on your own or as a group in your HeartGroup.

I’m looking forward to next week already! Until then, keep living in the way of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’m overjoyed that you’re joining us for this small series this year.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you next week.

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

carouselesight

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.