A Community of Healing Justice

Herb Montgomery | March 13, 2020

hands together as team


“At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64, emphasis added)

This curious passage in Matthew’s gospel is almost a direct quote from the apocalyptic book of Daniel. Let’s unpack it a bit.

The gospel authors repeatedly use a title to refer to Jesus: the “son of man.” They use it more than 81 times in the four canonical versions of the Jesus story that we have. It is the only phrase the gospel authors used anywhere near as much as they used the phrase “the Kingdom.” What could this phrase have meant to the early Jesus community? I believe the meaning is tied to Daniel 7:13.

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a SON OF MAN coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13, 14, emphasis added)

In Daniel this phrase, “son of man,” applies not only to an individual but also to a “community” founded around this individual:

“The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to THE PEOPLE of the holy ones of the Most High; THEIR kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom . . .” (Daniel 7:27, emphasis added)

“Son of” is a Semitic idiom meaning “Of or pertaining to the following genus or species.” The “son of man” can therefore be translated as “the offspring of this man” and as a “beloved community” that emerges from that person. I prefer this interpretation myself: communities have more power than heroes.

If you have a few moments, go back through the gospel stories and reread all the times they use the phrase “Son of Man” and try to understand in collective terms what Jesus is saying. In other words, look at this phrase not as the gospel authors talking about Jesus in isolation but as them describing Jesus AND the community organized around his teachings. It’s not Jesus OR the community, but Jesus AND this community: the Son of Man AND the people of the holy ones of the Most High (cf. Daniel 7:27).

The gospel authors referred to the “coming” of the son of man too. Consider our opening passage:

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: FROM NOW ON you will see the Son of Man [and the community] sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)

Here, Jesus is not talking about some event in the future on literal clouds. He is quoting Daniel 7 and saying, “What Daniel is referring to in verse 13 is taking place right now before your very eyes!” This son of man and the community that overcomes the predatory beasts of empire in Daniel 7—Jesus says they’ll see “from now on!”

How does this apply to us today?

The predatory animal nature of the established empire, the status quo, the establishment, however you want to refer to it, ended up crucifying Jesus. This seems to be the common story thread in history each time justice movements threaten the establishment.

But one of the reasons I still love the Jesus story is that this story doesn’t end with yet another crucifixion, but it rather ends with an overcoming of the elite’s efforts to stop the Jesus revolution. The resurrection event brings hope back into the community. The teachings of their Jesus now live on in them. Jesus’ alternative vision for a human community rooted in distributive justice now will live on in them.

Today, as has often been the case throughout history, the establishment still is trying to squelch change. Justice work still meets setbacks daily. I recall the radical words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Trumpet of Conscience:

“These are revolutionary times; all over the globe people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries.” (Quoted in The Radical King by Dr. Cornel West, p. 215)

Ched Myers writes of how afraid the inhabitants of the region of Gerasenes were of the liberation changes Jesus represented and how they “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region” (Mark 5:17):

“Whether personal or political, liberation has a cost, and there will always be those unwilling to risk it. (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 60)

When liberation comes to their region, they plead for it to leave and instead choose to return to how things had been up to that point. The risks of change were great. Under Roman imperial rule, calling for change or revolution or even reformation also meant risking the real possibility of deathly retribution from Rome. Rome’s heavy hand toward any hint of uprising or movement toward change showed extreme intolerance for such activity, especially along the marginal regions of its territory. I can understand why those in the region of Gerasenes were not simply reluctant, but also expressed strong opposition to Jesus being in their region. They basically kicked him out.

Followers of this Jesus are also invited to be part of this distributively just way of organizing human society. We are invited to display what a world changed by the ethics of love, compassion, connectedness, and distributive justice could look like, in the here and now. And yet countless Christians today don’t even recognize when modern calls for change echo the values of the Jesus story. (See When Change Feels Too Risky.)

When we fail to recognize the resonance between the Jesus story and modern change movements, Christians become supporters of the status quo and real-life opposers of the societal changes the Jesus story actually calls for.

We too often spiritualize the teachings of Jesus rather than allowing them to challenge our political, economic and societal systems. We mistakenly believe Jesus’ teachings were about gaining post mortem bliss in a future heavenly realm, rather than about bringing liberation from oppression in the here and now, today (see Luke 4:18-19). The early, growing Christian movement, after being met with repeated failure, chose a more spiritualized application to Jesus’ teachings. They gave up hope for present change and begin focusing apocalyptically on change in the future.

Nonetheless, the gospel authors saw Jesus’ teachings as speaking of a new way to organize human life together. This “community” wasn’t about Jesus doing it all for them but was about their participation in Jesus’ vision for human community (cf. Matthew 26:64; Daniel 7:13,14, 27). Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and scattered throughout each of the gospels, describe the values of this new community.

The gospel authors believed Jesus had given us a way to heal our world. Today, there is still work to do. Our world is right where we belong: this is our home. And we are called to display a world characterized by love, connectedness, compassion and distributive justice. We are called to recognize where this is already happening around us and to stand in solidarity with those already doing it, whether they or their work are “Christian” or not. We are called to humbly learn from those who have been applying these values longer than we personally have. We are called to learn from their experiences and stories. Lastly, we are called to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside us.

The title “son of man” held much meaning for the gospel authors. At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


HeartGroup Application

1. Where are you witnessing the kind of community mentioned above already happening? Discuss with your group.

2. How can your HeartGroup stand in solidarity with those where this is happening whether the community is “Christian” or not? How can your HeartGroup posture itself to humbly learn from communities such as these who have been applying these values longer than we personally may have?

3. What actions can your HeartGroup take to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside of us? Make a list and pick something from this list to put into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Change Feels Too Risky

Herb Montgomery | March 6, 2020

two roads


“Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?”


In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 9:35)

This is a picture of Jesus as itinerant teacher: he travels from place to place proclaiming good news of “the kingdom.”

The rhetoric of “kingdom” was meaningful to the original gospel authors and their audience. For us, this language is deeply problematic and we need to find a different language to express the ideas behind it. 

The empire of God contrasted with the empire of Rome. Distilled to its core, the “kingdom” was Jesus’ vision for a just human society here and now. Not everyone in Jesus’ audience was disadvantaged by the Roman system. Many benefitted from how power and privilege operated in Jesus’ society, and they didn’t perceive the gospel or good news of Jesus’ new social vision as “good news.” 

In the gospel stories, Jesus meets deep resistance and anger from the very beginning (see Luke 4:28-29; Luke 13:14). The elites met him with suspicion and accused his teachings of being dangerous. This sector of his society raised “complaints,” and warnings about the change Jesus was calling for. While some saw that what Jesus was sharing was truly good, others felt he was “deceiving” everyone (John 7:12). Consequently, Jesus faced censure and rebuke from the establishment. He endured being labeled as a heretic and outsider, whose views, if adopted, would end the entire nation. This group’s initial response to Jesus’ teaching and popularity was fear.

“The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God has been being proclaimed, and everyone is attacking it. (Luke 16:16, personal translation, emphasis added.)

In Matthew’s version, Jesus assured these leaders:

“Do not think that I have come to nullify or demolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to nullify or demolish the law but to fulfill it. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until the whole is brought into existence. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments I am about to teach here, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’re not even going to be able to enter the kingdom. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Mark’s Jesus may have opposed certain popular interpretations of the Torah, but, as in Matthew, he was not nullifying the law and the prophets. Rather he was interpreting in ways that were felt to be a return to them.

 I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me . . .  I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against . . . those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice . . .” (Malachi 3:1-5, cf. Mark 1:2)

Note the crimes in these verses: exploiting workers, oppressing the vulnerable in a patriarchal system, and ill-treating migrants.

The passage in Malachi continues:

“You are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” (Malachi 3:9-10)

Many believe that the tithe referred to here is the poor tithe, a tithe more like a tax that was collected by the Temple priest for redistribution to the poor, fatherless, widows, and “foreigners.” These are the groups, in context, that are being spoken of in verses 1-5. The instructions for this tithe or tax to be collected and the redistributed to these social groups are found in Deuteronomy:

“At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates. And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deuteronomy 14:28)

“When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give them to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities.” (Deuteronomy 26:12)

Not only were the people’s profits to be taxed and the proceeds redistributed to the poor, widows, fatherless, and foreigners—what some folks today call a success tax— the counsel in Deuteronomy 14 also continues into chapter 15 where every seven years all debts were to be cancelled. 

These social policies of the Torah unilaterally restructured accumulated wealth and were designed to prevent the people of the Exodus from ever returning to a system of slavery. They were designed to dismantle inequality, redistribute the wealth, and guarantee enough for everyone. Attempts to hold a surplus and control the forces of production and accumulation of resources would be regularly interrupted. These are the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teachings on debt forgiveness and redistributing wealth.  

Yet no matter how deeply Jesus’ social vision was rooted in his own Jewishness, the social changes embodied in his teachings threatened too much for the elite of his day.

Jesus met the anger of the elite class with determination. He saw people to be won from fear of change to love and compassion for the excluded and exploited.

In John, the elites’ fear is palpable:

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50)

The good news that Jesus proclaimed despite their fear announced his social vision.

In the stories, though those disadvantaged within that system responded positively, misrepresentation and fear followed Jesus’ followers after Jesus had gone. They, too, were met with accusations by those who felt threatened:

“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:7, emphasis supplied)

The disciples had experienced something in Jesus’ political, economic, social, and theological teachings. They were proclaiming not the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome), but the Peace of Jesus and his vision of a just future (Acts 10:36). They were not praising Caesar as Lord, but rather proclaiming a different “Lord” (see Acts 10:31, 36). These believers were not chiming in with all the rest and proclaiming Caesar as “Son of God.” Instead they named Jesus as “Son of God” (Acts 9:20). And they did not proclaim Rome or Caesar as the “savior of the world,” but instead claimed that Jesus and his vision was the “savior of the world.” (1 John 4:14)

What does this mean for us today?

Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?

Well, I’ll tell you a little secret. Change is about just that: change. But the economic changes found in Jesus’ teachings were supposed to lead to life, not to a world where some have more than they could ever use and many go without. We can choose to leave things the way they are. We can also choose to shape our world into a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone. 

I’m watching things unfolding around us today and hoping these words from Luke’s gospel will not also be spoken about us:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, emphasis added)

If we don’t make changes soon, Mother Nature will make changes for us. But when we leave this level of change to nature, it doesn’t come softly, and it’s hardest on people who are vulnerable and exploited.

It would be much better, for everyone, if we chose change today.

We have choices to make. 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Do you see any parallels in this week’s eSight and what is presently going on in the U.S.? Discuss any parallels you see with your group.
  2. What social, economic or political changes would you like to see made in our present society? Have each person make a list and then prioritize the items on their list from most important to least.  Then compile those lists to get a sense of how your group feel’s collectively.
  3. Pick the top three from the collective list and brainstorm ways your group work toward these changes. Select something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice the coming week. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week

A Just Future Begins Today

Herb Montgomery | February 28, 2020

globe


“Change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others. Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.”


In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was asked when “the kingdom” or Jesus’ vision of God’s just future was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21).

What energized the early Jesus movement was that Jesus counterintuitively denied that the just future they anticipated was coming at some point in the future. No, he declared: it had arrived! A new way of shaping human society toward justice, compassion, and inclusion had come, and it was theirs for the choosing. A movement had risen around Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and they were being invited to participate in it. A movement toward the just future they longed for had arrived. The question was what they were going to do about it. Notice the following passages:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 4:17)

“As you go, proclaim the good NEWS, ‘The kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 10:7)

“ . . . the kingdom of God HAS come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“ . . . Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ARE GOING into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” (Matthew 21:31)

“And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near . . .” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus was not announcing that His kingdom would arrive soon, in the future. He proclaimed that the time had already come. He saw his purpose as traveling from one city to the next, proclaiming its arrival!

“But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 8:1)

Reconsider the passage we began with in Luke 17:

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God IS AMONG YOU.’” (v. 20-21, emphasis added.)

The gospel authors used the rhetoric of “kingdom” or “empire” in their own Jewish culture and Roman societal context. Today we have better language to use: the language of kingdom is now rightly seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, and rooted in patriarchy. Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom” were egalitarian, and his vision for ordering human society didn’t look anything like a kingdom. Let’s simply call it Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. This just future had actually arrived and Jesus contrasted it with the Roman Empire. Its treatment of the poor, inclusion of the marginalized, nonviolent obstruction of present systems of injustice, liberation of the incarcerated, and calls for reparations for those harmed in the present system confronted those listening to Jesus with the difference between the kind of society they were living in and the kind of society that could be, if they chose it.

Notice the contrast in these two verses:

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR.” (Luke 21:31)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God COMES.” (Luke 22:18)

Had the time come, yes. Was it near? Yes. Had the beginning already begun? Yes. Could it also be stopped and prevented from coming in its fullness? Absolutely.

The time for change had come, but, as with all movements, positive momentum could be obstructed, slowed, and even halted. The time for a just future may have come, but change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others.

Would the established elite be able to stop this movement or would the proletariat that comprised the early Jesus movement actually be able to make the changes they resonated with in the teachings of Jesus? Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.

In the gospels, Jesus announced that the beginning of God’s just future had arrived. He called his followers to enlarge this beginning, and it was obstructed almost immediately.

That obstruction is the meaning we can safely take from the cross of Jesus. The cross was the establishment’s no to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The cross interrupted Jesus’ salvific work, while the resurrection reversed the interruption and inspired Jesus’ early followers to live out his vision of a just future.

I’m reminded of how Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas phrases it in her powerfully written book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil . . . As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life affirming force.” (p. 187)

Douglas goes on to reference Audre Lorde’s phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Douglass then responds to Lorde:

“What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . [God’s resurrecting] power is nonviolent . . . God enters into this world of violence, yet God does not take [violence] into God’s self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human creation. Thus, through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world—in a nonviolent but forceful manner.”

One of the uses of the threat of a cross in Roman society was to prevent rebellion or resistance. It was used to keep oppressed communities silent or passive. To stand up to injustice was to embrace the possibility that one might also end up on a cross for doing so. This context of standing up and speaking out, fully knowing what the repercussions may be, is the context I believe it’s most life-giving to read these words in Luke’s gospel from Jesus:

“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:22–24)

Those who choose to save their life by remaining passively silent in the face of injustice are the ones who end up losing their life and humanity, even if they live on with their privilege and position untouched.

God’s just future is both future and present. The future/present paradox is not either/or, but both/and. God’s just future begins every time someone chooses justice over injustice, liberation over subjugation, equity over exploitation, and thriving over extinction. It also can be obstructed.

Every time we choose to stand with those most vulnerable to injustice, the beginning of God’s just future is here, now, obstructed though it may be. We get to choose which way the moral arc of the universe bends. The status quo either bends us, or we bend it. It shapes us, or we shape it.

And this leads me to a question I get asked a lot. But what about when we feel like our taking a stand isn’t making much of a difference? I have to admit, I too am wrestling with those feelings this week after spending Monday at my state Capital talking to our representatives. I’m reminded of the story of A.J. Muste.

A.J. Muste was an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Standing at a candlelight vigil/protest in front of the White House, a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”

A.J. Muste replied softly: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I believe that when we choose to take a stand, the beginning of God’s just future has arrived.

Will it grow to fruition? That is for us, collectively, to decide.

When we see movements toward a more just, more compassionate, safe society at work, we can oppose them, choosing a more moderate, less-threatening-to-the-establishment path, or we can come alongside those movements, pitching in our own energy and resources to work for change.

If we do that, we can confidently say with Jesus, God’s just future, though obstructed, is already “among you.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see fear of a more just society being stoked today? Discuss with your group.
  2. What movements for justice do you see being obstructed? Have your group make a list.
  3. What can your group do collectively to stand with and work alongside such movements? Pick something and put it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

“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.” (Luke 19:8)

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

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

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to [heal] the world through him.” (John 3:17)

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Courage in the Face of Setbacks

Herb Montgomery | January 4, 2019


“Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, ‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.'”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

I’m sit here this morning, after the holidays, contemplating the future of Renewed Heart Ministries. This year will be our twelfth year: Renewed Heart Ministries has been sharing the message of love and inclusion for over a decade. 

But four and a half years ago, something changed. We were introduced to a precious community of people who are the objects of God’s love and who most deeply face marginalization on a daily basis. Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”

In 2014, Renewed Heart Ministries started to become a welcoming and affirming ministry. We have become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of increasing the love, compassion, action, and justice in society. This has been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we’re a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss, both of former friends and of support.

This is why this week’s text spoke to me this morning. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God . . . ” (Mark 1:14)

John was Jesus’ mentor. He had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest of the Temple state. Possible reasons could have been the Temple state’s exploitation of the poor and it’s complicity with Rome as means of survival. John had chosen instead another very Jewish option. He chose to stand in the stream of actions found among the Hebrew prophets, the habitat of the wilderness, speaking truth to power. 

For every action there is a reaction. And power typically responds to those who seek to name injustice. The reaction of Herod to John’s outspoken critiques and call for change was initially to have him arrested. Herod expected the arrest to silence John. Those who have read the story know that John is eventually executed. At this point in the story, though, he is simply arrested. He is silenced by being forcefully removed from the masses.

Acts like these by those in power are purposed to intimidate others and discourage them from pursuing similar courses. They are acts of terror at worst, and acts of warning at best. 

John’s imprisonment by the political leader Herod had to have affected Jesus. It was a significant setback, and possibly also a warning. Jesus was setting out on a course for which John had cleared the way or blazed a path. In the words of Isaiah, John had been 

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Would Jesus turn back? Would Jesus abandon his solidarity with the marginalized sectors of his society? Or would he renew his purpose in the face of John’s imprisonment? 

For me, what Jesus did next shows his courage. Jesus chooses to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized of his society in the face of deeply troubling, political consequences. John had just been imprisoned, and it’s immediately afterwards that Jesus chooses to stand before the masses and resolutely say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . . 

You are the light of the world.” 

(Matthew 5:3-14)

Jesus is choosing the community of those whose “spirit” has been broken by systems of injustice. I think of those today who no longer have the spirit to keep fighting for a just world, those who have lost faith that another world is possible.

Jesus chose those who mourn because of the present structure. I think of parents like those of Trayvon Martin, or more recently, 8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose hearts have been broken by deep loss caused by our society’s systemic injustice. This is loss so deep it seems at times that it can never be repaired. 

Jesus chose the “meek,” those this world typically walks all over. He chose the community of the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness—the Hebraic idea of a societal, distributive justice, an end of violence, and an end to oppression.

He also affirms the community of the merciful. I think of those who see immigrants seeking asylum and welcome them rather than coldly stating that they deserve harsh treatment.

He names the pure in heart. In our time, I think of those who refuse to be shaped by capitalism’s priorities of profit over people. And he names peacemakers, not peacekeepers: those who are willing to disturb the peace to work for a distributive justice that will give birth to genuine peace, where everyone has enough, and no one has too much while others go without.

Finally, Jesus (I wonder if he was thinking of John at this moment) mentions those persecuted for the cause of justice: those who speak truth to power, who name bigotry, exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, and oppression and experience deep loss as a result of their outspokenness. He mentions those who are insulted by the privileged and who are falsely labeled as dangerous, evil, and heretical, or “too radical.” 

Yet it is this community of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, abused and mourning that Jesus names the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In learning to listen to those who experience is different from our own, those who are the most vulnerable to a variety of injustices that we begin to see [i.e. “light of the world”]. It is in learning to listen to the stories and the voices of communities who daily face oppression that we encounter the choice to change and the possibility of our social life, our life together as a human family, being preserved [i.e. “salt of the earth”].

I cannot help but think that Jesus might have also been afraid to stand in solidarity with those this world makes last. Would he also be arrested like John? Could choosing and modeling a preferential option for those society makes last, in one degree or another, even cost him his life?

We all know how the Jesus story ended. At the beginning of the Jesus story, though, it was still being played out. 

This year, it means everything to me that, as he pondered his future if he, like John, continued to walk alongside and advocate for the oppressed, Jesus chose to keep believing that another world was possible. Jesus chose to keep working toward a world where those are presently made “last” would then be prioritized as those presently favored as “first” (See Matthew 20:8-16).

Lastly, this contemplation of John and Jesus, also makes me think of where Renewed Heart Ministries is today and what the future may hold for us. Has Renewed Heart Ministries faced setbacks as a result of our choice to stand alongside those being marginalized? In one sense, yes.

But in another very real sense, we are in a better place today than we have ever been. Never before has the Jesus story so deeply resonated with us. I’m thankful for those who have taken the time and invested their energy to open our eyes. And I’m thankful for those who follow us who were willing to have their eyes opened, too, alongside us. 

Like Jesus, we choose to work for a world where those presently made last are treated the same as those presently prioritized as first. Today, there are so many forms of “being made last.” But our differences—race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, etc.—don’t make us less than another. Humanity is richly diverse, but we are all still family. 

And it’s for this human family that, alongside those who have gone before us, those presently making similar choices, and those who will come after us, we here at RHM dedicate 2019 to continuing the work of shaping our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate home for all, especially those Jesus might call blessed members of the kingdom of God.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, open up Matthew 5:3-12 and explore through discussion, if Jesus were to speak these words today, whom would he say were the blessed recipients of his vision for human community? Whom would he say would inherit the earth?  Whom would he say would see God?  Whom would he name?  In 2014 I was a guest speaker at my first Kinship Kampmeeting. Here is a link to how this experience impacted whom I chose in making my own list of beatitudes then. This is an example of this exercise. Look at our world today and come up with your own list.

Discuss how you, too, like Jesus, like John, can work alongside these communities to bring concrete change this year.  

And then pick something from your discussion and begin doing it. 

May 2019 bring us closer to rather than farther away from that pearl of great price, that world where everyone is safe, everyone has enough, and where compassion and love are the basis of our relating to one another.

Happy New Year to each of you. 

Thank you for checking in with us. I’m so glad you did.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.