The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 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.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Judging the Time

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“But he said to them, ‘When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to?’” (Q 12:·54-56)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 16:2-3: “He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say,  “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’”

Luke 12:54-56: “He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say,“It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’”

Gospel of Thomas 91:2: “He said to them: ‘You examine the face of sky and earth, but the one who is before you, you have not recognized, and you do not know how to test this opportunity.’”

As we’ve been discussing over the past two weeks, the context of our saying this week is the economic and political stress in Galilee and Judea in the early first century. The poor were being exploited. Movements that used nationalistic sentiments resented the rule of the Roman empire. As in most cases throughout history, those who have less to lose are the ones who are willing to take the greatest risks. These nationalistic movements would have resonated deeply with the exploited poor, and its members would have resonated most deeply with a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” kind of message. What were the results?

Three decades later the poor rose up and forced the political and economic elites from the Temple. They burned the debt ledgers, erasing all debts, forcing a “Jubilee” of cancelled debts. They then took up arms to engage in a liberation movement to free themselves from Roman taxation and rule. This Jewish-Roman war lasted from 66-69 C.E. Then, in the following year, the tense situation between the Jewish people and Rome escalated again, ending in a backlash from Rome that wiped out Jerusalem for everyone, rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods chosen by the excluded and pushed down would profoundly backfire for everyone.

Roughly thirty years earlier, an itinerant, Jewish prophet of the poor endeavored to cast a societal vision of an alternative path. It was a leap for both ends of the socio-economic-political spectrum. He called the wealthy elites to see our interconnectedness with others and he called us to liquidate our vast possessions and redistribute their wealth to “the poor.” This was not a call to an isolated individual as some belief. Rather, this was Jesus message to audience at large in Luke 12:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33; see also https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/03-24-2017)

In the later book of Acts, the first act by all wealthy Jesus followers, to one degree or another, was to share:

“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:40-45, emphasis added.)

In the book of Acts, this was an indispensable act in what it meant to follow Jesus. This would help us make sense of why Jesus was unpopular with the majority of economic elites of his day.

And if you think that’s a naive hope, Jesus’ message to the desperate poor was equally a long shot. It was one of resistance, but of nonviolent resistance. A call to see our interconnectedness with one another. A call to liberation, and justice, yes. Yet this resistance was to be expressed through self-affirming, injustice confronting, militant nonviolence. He called the exploited down a path that would, yes, remove the power to hurt others from those in control of the present society, but would not remove those ones from humanity itself. It was a call for them to also “love” their enemies. This was a tension expressed well by the words of Barbara Demming in Revolution and Equilibrium:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not—but always outstretched. With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities—of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator—in tension. It is like saying to our opponent: On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, ‘Stop!’) ‘I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being’. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other), ‘I am open to you as a human being.’” (p. 16)

Even if those on the undersides and edges of society embraced nonviolent resistance, the Jesus called them to learn to see the humanity of their oppressors, to seek distributive justice rather than revenge. Answering the call to not cast out oppressors from the human race but to leave open the possibility for oppresses to choose to listen, change, and embrace changing along with the changes in the larger society is difficult. Nonetheless, enemy love was also a part of Jesus’ message. To enemies, Jesus said, “Stop being enemies” To the exploited, Jesus said, “Leave open the possibility that exploiters may also change.”

Both sides met Jesus’ vision for society with a level of resistance, depending on their social location.

Today, our society’s economic exploitation and classism is compounded by the interlocking network of the societal sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism, with nationalism and militarism thrown into the mix. Today’s struggle for a society characterized by distributive justice is complex.

But solving the economic exploitation of the poor won’t necessarily reverse our other societal sins. Examples are economic solutions in the past that intentionally left out people of color. A short NPR interview illustrates this well: Historian Says Don’t ‘Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos.

Nevertheless, some movements today address economic disparities between the 1% and the rest of society and acknowledge race. We can work together toward distributive justice for all!

We must engage socio-political and religious-cultural solutions in holistic ways that recognize, name, and address the above interlocking systems of oppression including our racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. This, to me, is what it means to follow the Jesus of Luke 4:18-19 whose life and ministry was spent alongside the poor, alongside women, and in solidarity with outcast people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In our saying this week, Jesus was chiding his listeners’ ability to tell the weather but not see the social, political, and economic catastrophe that lay ahead of them. Today I have to pause and wonder the same.

We are witnessing a political movement that, like in first century Judea, plays on the economic hardships and the nationalism of a certain sector of American society. Tensions are escalating at home and abroad, and have the potential to produce a backlash that could wipe out everything for everyone; rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods we choose matter. Genuine liberation cannot be accomplished on the backs of other marginalized and exploited people. As Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Again, we are witnessing today a number of people who have placed their hope in a solution that is deeply problematic for a majority of others. I cannot help but ask what’s on our horizon. How will things escalate over the next four years?

Racial tensions are escalating. Sexist tensions are escalating. Homophobic and transphobic tensions are escalating. Ecological tensions are escalating. Global nuclear tensions are quickly escalating. Are we heading swiftly toward our own Gehenna which wipes out everything for everyone alike?

We are in this together. We may not all be the same, but we are all connected. We may be different, but we are all part of the same varied human family. When we fail to recognize our interconnectedness to one another, when we try to solve society’s problems for ourselves, while we turn our backs on or even worsen the societal problems of our neighbor, we are headed down a path which historically leaves nothing for all of us.

But he said to them, “When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to? (Q 12:·54-56)

HeartGroup Application

I mentioned a list of tensions that are presently escalating in Western societies. Jesus commissioned us to be sources of healing despite them. Here is that list again:

  • Racial tensions
  • Sexist tensions
  • Homophobic and transphobic tensions
  • Ecological tensions
  • Global nuclear tensions
  1. Which tensions would you add to this list?
  2. Where do you see these tensions escalating in our world today? List examples.
  3. In what ways, in your own sphere of influence, can you work to bring reparation, healing, and justice-rooted peace, to these escalating tensions in your own community? Make another list.

Now pick something from that last list and put it into practice this week. What we choose, what we do, affects those around us. We are bound up with one another. We are each other’s keeper.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Proclaiming What Was Whispered

Women's March on Washington 2017

by Herb Montgomery

#SilenceIsViolence
Why We Cannot Be Silent

Featured Text:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.” Q 12:2-3

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:26-27: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”

Luke 12:2-3: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Gospel of Thomas 5:2; 6:4-6; 33:1: “Jesus says: For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed for everything is disclosed in view of the truth . . . For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed. And there is nothing covered that will remain undisclosed . . . Jesus says: What you will hear with your ear proclaim from your rooftops.”

Our saying for this week is one that I return to often. I find great encouragement in the words of Thomas Carlyle: “For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live for ever” (The French Revolution, A History; Part 1, Book 6, Chapter 3). I truly do hope that truth and light will ultimately win, and I think Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying has much to offer us this week.

Matthew

In Matthew’s gospel, this week’s saying is in chapter 10, where Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers as opposition mounts and their courage is starting to wane. At this moment, Jesus calls them not to fear but to boldly speak out “from the rooftops.” The recent federal holiday, Martin Luther King Day, reminded me of how often King spoke negatively about “keeping silent.”

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail [1963])

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence [1967])

“There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” (Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam [1967])

“Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told . . .” (Ibid.)

“Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died . . . A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!” (Sermon in Selma, Alabama; March 8, 1965; the day after “Bloody Sunday,” on which civil rights protesters were attacked and beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.)

In the 1st Century, Jesus emerged among the Jewish economically impoverished and politically oppressed. He came in the wake of Hillel’s golden rule, and applied it to the poor. He came announcing the “rule of God” which Jesus repeatedly defined as people taking care of people. He called the rich to redistribute their wealth, and inspired the poor to share or pool what meager resources they had among themselves for their survival. People were to prioritize each other over and above power, property, profits, possessions, prosperity, and privilege.

This message always produces enemies. Over the Christmas holidays, I shared what I considered to be a very mild presentation on our responsibility to the poor. However, I was speaking to a very wealthy congregation, and repeatedly I received the question of whether or not I found the topic of helping the poor to be very popular. My response was that popularity is irrelevant. Popular or not, helping the poor is what our Jesus taught. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, then we must question whether our Jesus is the same as the one in the biblical story.

We must get this right. Jesus’ preferential option for the economically oppressed of his day is our springboard as we apply his teachings to our lives today and to all who are oppressed, marginalized, subjugated, and disinherited. Today, whether it’s age, ability, education, gender, sex, orientation, race, gender identity and expression, or whatever that becomes a basis for oppression, marginalization, exclusion, or discrimination, Jesus’ followers are called to solidarity. We’re called to walk alongside whomever is being subjugated and do the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation with them.

Yes, breaking our silence in these areas is at times very unpopular. The social pressure may be immensely strong to just avert one’s gaze, shut one’s mouth, and go along to get along, but as Dr. King said the day after Bloody Sunday, the moment we begin to be silent about the oppression that any part of the human family faces, that is the moment something inside of us begins to die. For me, solidarity is not purely altruistic. It is not what reclaims the humanity of those on the undersides of our society; it also reclaims my own humanity. We are part of each other. And that is the reality I desire to lean into.

I do get feedback from time to time—some may call it hate-mail; I think that’s a little too strong—questioning why I speak out with the groups I choose to stand in solidarity with. I speak out because I cannot keep silent. The personal cost is great, yes, but I would rather lose acquaintances than be the shell of a dead person, or, as we heard from Jesus a couple weeks ago, like the “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).

So I take this week’s saying very seriously. Come what may, we simply cannot keep silent.

Luke

Luke’s encouragement is a little different from Matthew’s. What Luke does is to point Jesus’ words toward the hypocrisy of the religious teachers of that day. He encourages Jesus’ followers with the hope that others’ hypocrisy will one day be uncovered. Luke’s saying isn’t a call to speak out. It’s rather a call to endure and to keep holding on. One day, Luke says, the truth will come to light.

Luke’s version of the saying brings to mind King’s own optimism and Carlyle’s statement that “No lie can live forever”:

“Somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy,

‘Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

“This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words: ‘The morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.’” (Second sermon at Temple of Israel of Hollywood; February 26, 1965)

What I believe we must guard against in King’s words as well as Luke’s is the mistake of embracing inevitability in all of this. Not all truth rises. Some truths are lost forever. And when truth does rise, it doesn’t rise on its own. Truth rises when others choose to resurrect it and lies fade when we choose to pursue the truth.

Human progress does not roll on the “wheels of inevitability.” It can be delayed; it can be prevented. It can be abandoned, and it can be chosen. We can choose whether to become a compassionate, just people who live healthy, mutually interdependent lives with one another and our planet, or take a path of extinction. We can choose to embrace truth, justice, and compassion, or we can choose the path of individualistic, independent survival in a zero-sum system, one where for one to win another must lose.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes two paths: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction . . . But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life . . .” (Matthew 7:13,14) The redactors of the Torah chose similar language: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Today, we too must choose between a path of life or death. Shaping this world into a just, compassionate, safe, home for us all is only an impossible task if we choose to believe it to be! This world is what we collectively choose to make it and each of us has a part to play. This is where I believe Jesus’ teachings still hold relevance for us today. The world has changed since he taught his followers, but we still tend to dominate one another rather than care for each another. Jesus envisioned a world where people take care of people and that world is still available for us to choose. He showed the way, and the results of our choice will be seen in our collective future and the future of our children. We are in this together, along with the generations that have come before us and the generations who will come after us.

In light of this week’s saying, seek truth, compassion, and justice. Then make the choice not to remain silent. Name truth. What you have discovered in the dark, bring out into the light so that others may hear and speak it, too. Proclaim it from the rooftops! It is in our “speaking in the light” what we have “heard in the dark” that we make true the statement, “Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed.”

Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops. Q 12:2-3

HeartGroup Application

In the gospels, Jesus spends his life resisting and teaching others how to resist those elements in his society that marginalize, discriminate, and push down vulnerable people. James H. Cone in his classic volume God of the Oppressed correctly states:

“Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical. Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical. Within this context the issue of heresy must be debated.” (p. 35)

In Luke 4:18-19, we find this claim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  1. This week, together, pick one of the themes in the above passage and commit the next week to exploring what it meant in its original cultural context.

“good news to the poor”

“freedom for the prisoners”

“recovery of sight for those in darkness”

“setting the oppressed free”

“year of all debts cancelled.”

2. As you explore on your own throughout the week, also explore what possible application these themes may hold today. What does the theme you are exploring mean in today’s socio-economic-political context?

3. As you come back together, discuss what you have discovered with each other and decide what action, you can take as a group and as followers of Jesus today. How can you make the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone?

Thank you for joining us this week. Wherever this finds you, my hope is that your heart is encouraged and renewed to engage with others in our continuing work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Keep living in love, a love characterized by justice for the oppressed, mercy for the subjugated and marginalized, and faithfulness in our commitment to be people who choose to take care of people. (cf. Matthew 23:23)

I love each one of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The One not with Me 

by Herb Montgomery
Fast moving train

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:

Context.
Context.
Context.

Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.

Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?

I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963.  The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey.  King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.

In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.

While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”

Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.)  He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul.  His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened.  This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.

Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral.  I don’t want to take sides.”  And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable.  But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side.  It’s taking the side of oppression.  Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19)  Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice.  Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.

Matthew, Luke and Q

In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil.  As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America

I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity.  Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in.  An example is in the white Bible belt of the South.  White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement.  Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration.  The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children.  The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry.  So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.

Whether it be:

  • White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
  • Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
  • White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
  • Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
  • Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.

This history has been repeated over and over again.

Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest.  I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him.  I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.  This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out.  They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply.  They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC.  Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.

Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years.  What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many.  They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves.  They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered.  This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”

Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.

It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition.  It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.

It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to:

1.  As a group, together sit down and read aloud both the public statement by eight Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity side by side with King’s response Letter From Birmingham Jail

2.  What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.

3.  What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.

I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.”  It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review.  But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift.  I’m so excited for you.

Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Looting a Strong Person 

Picture of picking a lockby Herb Montgomery

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:21-22)

Matthew 12:29: “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

Luke 11:21-22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.”

Gospel of Thomas 35:1-2: “Jesus says: It is not possible for someone to enter the house of a strong person, and take it by force unless he binds his hands. Then he will loot his house.”

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents himself as the one looting another’s house rather than as a well armed home owner protecting what is theirs. Adolf Deissmann wrote in his groundbreaking volume Light from the Ancient East:

“By its social structure Primitive Christianity points unequivocally to the lower and middle class. Its [connections] with the upper class are very scanty at the outset. Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter, Paul of Tarsus a weaver of tent-cloth, and St. Paul’s words about the origin of his churches in the lower classes of the great towns form one of the most important testimonies, historically speaking, that Primitive Christianity gives of itself. Primitive Christianity is another instance of the truth taught us with each return of springtime, that the sap rises upward from below. Primitive Christianity stood to the upper class in natural opposition, not so much because it was Christianity, but because it was a movement of the lower classes.” (Kindle Locations 360-365).

 In Deissman’s volume New Light on the New Testament from the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, he states even more pointedly that Primitive Christianity was not “Christianity” as we know it today, but “a movement of the proletarian lower class.” (p. 7)

Jesus’ listeners would have been more inclined to identify with those scratching out a desperate existence in an exploitative economic system that produced haves and have nots. Few would have listened to him from the societal location of homeowners protecting their possessions from others. This saying uses imagery that the lower and possibly lowest social classes would have been familiar with because of their economic vulnerability.

This saying is also in the context of last week’s saying. The writers of Sayings Gospel Q claim that even though the people’s oppressors are strong, they can be overcome by “one stronger.” In the context of a Jewish apocalyptic worldview, this saying would have been heard as, “Yes, your earthly and cosmic oppressors are, indeed, strong. Yet the mission and activity of Jesus and our community informed is stronger. Our Messianic hope for liberation can overcome our oppressors.”

A Force More Powerful

The documentary A Force More Powerful explores popular 20th Century nonviolent movements. These movements stood up against entrenched regimes and military forces with unconventional weapons like boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and acts of civil resistance. They helped to subvert the operations of government through direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage, and blockades, and they frustrated the efforts of those in power to suppress people.

Last February, in Renouncing One’s Rights, we saw how Jesus taught these very principles of non-violent resistance. We found in the gospels a Jesus who warned oppressed people not to retaliate with the same type of force used against them. Jesus’ first audience did not have access to militaristic power in any way comparable to Rome. To try to use violence against these oppressors would only invite the Roman annihilation, and the history of 66-70 C.E. bears out that it did.

Nevertheless, Jesus cast a vision for his oppressed listeners of a way in which the “strong man” in their lives, their oppressors, could be “over powered.” The people were actually stronger than those who dominated them, and Jesus offered three examples of how: a) nonviolent resistance, b) nonviolent direct action, and c) nonviolent noncooperation. (See Matthew 5:38-41 cf. with the above article.)

To be clear: dominated and subjected people typically do not have access to the material power of their subjugators. But, as history witnesses, those same people are very much more powerful than their oppressors in another way: when they choose to change the rules of the game. In the spirit of these imaginative means, Jesus sought to inspire nonviolent resistance, disruption, noncooperation, and action in his followers, those who despite appearances also had the power to promote societal change.

Just a Little Further South

In my region of the U.S. (Appalachia) and just a little south of me, white, male, heterosexual Jesus followers today find themselves in a very different social location than the people Jesus spoke to. Rather than being the ones within a society who would have been more prone to be breaking into homes, we, today, are the ones protecting our homes and possessions at any cost. This is the demographic that always, without fail, comes up to me at the end of a presentation on Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and says, “If someone’s breaking into my home, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

These conversations often remind me of the story of the pastor of a church I visited about five years ago in Rochester, Minnesota. The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is typically listed as a peace-church because of their traditional teachings on violence, combat, and force. But four years ago, the pastor of the local Seventh-day Adventist church in Rochester mistook his granddaughter for an intruder trying to break into his home and shot her. You can read the story in this article by Star Tribune where the pastor agreed to be interviewed, as he himself said, “as a caution to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.”

He told the paper, “”I had a plan but I didn’t follow the plan, I thought somebody was breaking into my house and it just scared us to death.” Fear took over him, and so instead of viewing the “intruder” as a child of God, he shot his own granddaughter. It’s a horrific story. The Tribune’s article closes with the pastor’s statement that he “would not want anybody to ever have this horrible, horrible experience.”

Remarkably, this happens more often than you’d imagine. Statistically, adding another lethal weapon to a violent situation doesn’t mean you become safer. Studies show that “the notion that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun is a romanticized vision of the nature of violent crime.” Jesus’ words in Matthew that those who live by a sword will die by a sword don’t just apply to individuals. They also apply to societies as well.

In societies with an economic structure that produces “haves” and “have-nots,” Jesus calls those who have more then they need to a plan not of hoard and protect but of sharing and choosing to take care of those who aren’t having their needs being met and being faced with desperation due to their lack.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a “rich man” who, rather than share his surplus, chose to build a bigger, more efficient means of hoarding it. After teaching that this man was a “fool,” because his life ended that same night, Jesus goes on to define being “rich toward God” as selling one’s possessions and giving the surplus to those whose daily needs are not being met.

We who live in America today live in a society shaped by independence, individualism, and self-reliance. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels taught that the solution to the challenges of his own day were to be found in the opposite of these norms. In short, Jesus’ solution to these problems was community. Much of what he taught doesn’t even make sense outside of community!

Trying to follow Jesus’ teachings on one’s own, without a community in which to apply those teachings, is like trying to build a house without building materials or trying to follow a recipe in a cookbook without having the necessary ingredients to combine. In the story in Luke that I reference above, Jesus calls the wealthy who trust in their wealth to insulate them from what the future might bring to let go of their “worry” and instead use their resources to create strong community.

Jesus’ solution is not necessarily for us to have wealth but it’s definitely for us to have each other. And as long as we have each other, we can survive whatever the future may bring, because we are in this together. Jesus finishes up his story with the statement, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He isn’t contrasting heaven and earth here. Rather, Jesus is contrasting people investing in community with isolated people individualistically investing in themselves solving the problem of the future for themselves at the expense of others around them. Jesus seems to be clear: either we are all taken care of, or none of us will be. The man in the story who sought to take care of only himself still lost all he had because he couldn’t keep it when he died.

When we add the Luke 12 story to our saying this week, two things come to the surface despite our societal conditioning. First, those who seek to “protect” their own possessions with strength of arms can still be overpowered. From Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, we see that Jesus did not encourage meeting violence with violence or physical force with physical force. Jesus instead taught that the way to overpower one’s enemy was through another form of direct action: what Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others have referred to as “soul force.” It’s a force more powerful. Second, those who take the path of hoarding and protecting assume a future that looks very different from the reality of what will happen. They imagine themselves leaning back enjoying the benefits of what they have amassed and protected, but instead, they end up losing their lives.

So what is our take home this week?

Jesus challenges those on the underside of society to believe in the power of nonviolent resistance, disturbance, protest, direct-action, and non-cooperation. And he calls on people like those who come up to me defensively after my presentations on nonviolence to place people above property, possessions and profit.

Depending on your location in our current classist societal structure, this week’s saying might be a promise that offers hope, or a warning that your efforts to protect things are ultimately futile and possibly even lethal:

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:·21-22)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you as a group to sit down and watch Richard Wilkinson’s 2011 TED Talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

Notice the relation of crime to wealth inequality. There is a connection between the two. The more wealth is shared (e.g. Jesus story above in Luke 12) the less crime (e.g. home invasions) occurs. Could it be that the solution to violent crime is not bigger guns, but the embrace of our natural communal interdependence? Jesus’ teachings do call us to stop individualistically resisting interdependence.

There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.

2. After watching the TED talk, discuss with your HeartGroup what implications you see for your group, and brainstorm ways to lean into Jesus teachings, even if your first steps are small.

3. Pick one of those ways you just discussed and begin putting it into practice.

In this week’s saying, Jesus comes offering a way that is more holistic, that has the potential to “overpower” how we in the West typically operate. Wherever this saying finds you this week, may it bring you hope or challenge, or both!

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Whoever Takes You in Takes Me in

Church front

Both the positive and negative implications.

by Herb Montgomery

“Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me.” (Q 10:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Luke 10:16: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me*; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

Since the 11th Century (1094 C.E. to be exact), thanks to Anselm of Canterbury, some Christians have thought that Jesus’s death was a vicarious substitution that satisfied something in God that needs us to die. The seeds of Anselm’s views existed before him, and his views were further developed by Calvin and Luther, but Anselm was the first to systematize this way of “believing in” Jesus and not just “believing” him.

This week, Jesus’ saying from Q describes a different kind of vicarious substitution. Jesus isn’t standing in for you: you are standing in for Jesus! Jesus was so committed to this idea that he taught his disciples that the way a village responded to the community Jesus sent out was a response not just to them but to Jesus as well.

Oppressive History of Christendom

When we look back at what we have been seeing this year in Sayings Gospel Q, it seems clear to me that the version of Christianity I was raised in and Jesus could not be more different. Religion, including Christianity, is so often employed to offer security rather than what is true.

And because of the way we Christians have acted, great swaths of the human populous immediately shut down any time we even mention the name “Jesus.”

Whomever received the people Jesus sent into the world received Jesus, and also, whomever, in the two thousand year since, witnesses racism, exploitative wealth, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, violence, or any form of oppression by Jesus’ followers witnesses it being done by “Jesus.”

For many, only when they discover for themselves the Jesus we are seeing in Sayings Gospel Q do they realize there is a Jesus that’s radically different than the Jesus they encountered in the religion that formed around him.

This discovery is an ongoing process for South Americans, Africans, African Americans, Women, Transgender people, and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. In those encounters, Jesus of Nazareth is often reclaimed. That looks very different than how we originally presented Jesus to them.

There is a difference between how those with power and resources present Jesus and how those on the fringes and the underside of our societies experience him. That difference must not be dismissed.

Continuing Need for Rediscovering the Jesus of the Disinherited

Today, I often meet folks who resonate with what I believe Jesus taught. They subscribe to inclusivity, nondiscrimination, nonviolence, interdependence, and radical resource-sharing as their way of life. They see the ugliness of many of Christianity’s various forms. And as soon as I mention Jesus or they find out that I teach the Bible, the walls between us immediately go up.

I long to be able to help people see a Jesus who is not just for the religious, but for the non-religious too. Because Jesus has been so abused, part of reclaiming Jesus is simply agreeing on the set of values and ethics attributed to him in the gospels.

This love for a set of values, the same values taught by Jesus, in combination with a low tolerance for any mention of Jesus is the fruit of the dynamic that the author of Matthew’s gospel saw in his own day. For a millennia or two, those who’ve called Jesus “Lord” have not “done” or “practiced” Jesus’ actual teachings (see Matthew 7:21-24).

This is the inverse of the reality in this week’s saying: the community formed around Jesus and Jesus himself are so connected with each other that what happens to one also happens to the other, and what happens to Jesus’ followers happens to him.

Positive Connection

There’s also a positive side to the connection between Jesus and the Jesus community that we read in this week’s saying. When we are promoting the teachings of Jesus, and people respond, it is not only us that they’re responding to. They’re also responding to Jesus!

The early Jesus community talked about “the kingdom” or the “empire of God.” More contemporary folks who have uncovered its egalitarian quality have referred to it as the beloved community. Whatever we call it, we are a part of something that includes us and is also much bigger than our individual efforts. As with all power, whether isolated in one individual or shared by all alike, power can be used for great evil or great good.

This week, let’s use our community power for good, using our choices to put on display the beauty of a world transformed by Jesus’ teachings, teachings that include non-discrimination, inclusivity, egalitarianism, nonviolence, social justice, love, healing, and more in our present world today.

Remember that when we choose these teachings, when we embrace and practice them, not just as individuals but also as communities centered around these values and the value of listening to the most vulnerable, we too are listening to and embracing Jesus. Those who resonate with these values and choose to join us, they too embrace Jesus as they embrace us. This is about becoming a part of what has the potential to heal our world. What Jesus taught can heal the world we are living, moving, and breathing in today.

As we press together this week, as our relationships with each other continue to reflect the values and teachings we have been looking at this year, others will take notice. They may never say a special prayer. They may never become more “religious” than they presently are, and may never join an organization. But if in their hearts and lives, they embrace the beauty of the universal values that the Jewish Jesus also taught, and they strive within community to apply those values in their own context, much more has taken place than what institutional, religious, and too often surface judgments can see. This is a beautiful change, much more substantive than what it means for many today to simply take on the name “Christian.”

Thomas Merton MemeBecause of the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism that has become associated with the name of Jesus, some people may never be comfortable referring to themselves as a “Jesus-follower,” either.  I understand.  I, too, wrestle with this. I continually want to disassociate from rather than own my own complicity in injustice. Yet if a person embraces the values we have discussed, for example, methods of nonviolent conflict resolution, voluntary wealth redistribution, mutual aid, and anti-kyriarchical sharing of community power and resources, that’s what Jesus was trying to encourage within his own society as well.

I can’t help but believe that the historical Jesus understood that it was never so much about him as it was about what he taught: the beloved, humanity-affirming community. As his followers went out, sharing the values they had discovered through this Jewish teacher, what people responded to and embraced was a path, a set of values and ethics, informed by the stories of the most vulnerable. It was, in the end, a choice to embrace the risk of what it takes to heal our world. So this week, let’s contemplate both the negative and the positive implications of what it means in our day and multiple contexts to hear the following words:

 Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me. (Q 10:16)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back through this year’s eSights and pick a value or principle that we have found in Gospel Sayings Q.
  2. Discuss how this principle was applied in a 1st Century Jewish context under Roman oppression.
  3. Discuss possible applications of this same principle today, and choose one of those applications to lean into together. Begin to put it practice.

Thank you so much for joining us for another week.

Keep living in love, wherever this may find you, together, making the world a safer, more compassionate, more just home for us all.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. I love each of you, dearly. I’ll see you next week.

*There is a qualification that must be made with this passage in Luke. Just because someone is rejecting you does not always mean they are rejecting Jesus. At times, that may be true, but at other times it might be your presentation of Jesus that people are actually rejecting, even if you may be claiming Jesus’ name all the while.

An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [read cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:27-28)

This week we are looking at how some sectors of Christianity focus on the end of the world, to the exclusion of redeeming the present.

Historically, Christians have taken an interest in alleviating human suffering, and have been involved in human rights movements from abolition and temperance to disaster relief and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. Yet some sectors of Christianity are much more concerned with saving people from some end-time-calamity in their future life, than they are with people’s present life, and even those sectors that do alleviate present suffering typically focus on individual change rather than structural change.

The traditional Christian effort in regards to poverty is just one example. The effort usually takes the form of charity such as giving people food for today, yet not addressing the systemic causes that created their hunger to begin with. I’m not saying that charity is wrong. It’s vital. It simply is not enough. More recently, some Christians have begun offering financial education and seminars aimed at enabling and empowering the poor to succeed within the present economic system. But these seminars don’t ever look at the financial system itself and ask whether this system is, in fact, just.

Both the service and education approaches inadvertently place the blame for poverty on the victims themselves, i.e. “It’s your fault you’re poor.” Sometimes a person’s individual choices do cause them to suffer. And sometimes there is a much bigger picture that limits the choices that person can make. Either way, it is victim-blaming to focus on delivering folks from personal sin and leave untouched the sinful social structures that cause their suffering and oppress them. Sin moves both individually and socially, and grace also moves both individually and socially.

Far too many sectors of Christianity don’t even go this far, and focus solely on saving people from affliction at the end of time, without regard to what afflicts them in this right now, today. That is directly opposed to the approach of the gospels’ Jesus.

  • We never see Jesus walking around trying to get people to say a sinner’s prayer so as to either go to heaven when they die or be raptured from global catastrophe in the end of time. (This is not to be confused with Jesus’ call to nonviolence endeavoring to offer Jerusalem a different fate than being destroyed by Rome.)
  • We do see Jesus liberating those he came in contact with from those concrete things that oppressed them in present time.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to allow for laziness in matter of social justice, now.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to preserves the present position of those benefiting at the expense of others from the current status quo.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to leave those presently poor, mourning, and hungry un-blessed by the gospel of Jesus. ( See Luke 6.20-26)

To see Jesus as Present Liberator, not merely End-of-the-World Savior, let’s look at Mark’s stories of the demoniacs. First, a few words about the apocalyptic worldview of the early Gospel authors.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Writers of the early gospel stories subscribed to an apocalyptic worldview, which means that they saw this world as the battleground for the cosmic forces of good and evil.

The apocalyptic world view possessed four tenets: dualism, pessimism, judgment and imminence.[1]

Dualism

Within the Apocalyptic world view the world is dualistic, meaning it has two parts: this world that we see and the cosmic world that we do not see. The cosmic world is composed of good cosmic powers and evil cosmic powers, each power works through earthly participants, and the cosmic forces of evil are the enemies of a good God. For first century apocalyptic Jews, these evil cosmic powers were sin, death, demons, and Beelzebub (or the satan). According to this view, the historical earthly participants with these cosmic powers were Babylon, the Persians, Greece, and Rome: all of these historical earthly powers were oppressors of the weak

Within this worldview, the cosmic evil forces are presently in control of the earth (see 1 John 5:19) Accordingly, those who choose the side of good will suffer and those who choose the side of evil will prosper.

Pessimism

Those who subscribed to this worldview believed in the eventual overthrow of these evil forces, yet also believed there was nothing we can do in the meantime. There were variations on this belief, though. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed they could hasten the eventual overthrow of evil through obedience to the purity laws of the Torah. Their pessimism produced the view that there are two ages: the present age where the forces of evil are in control, and the age to come when these powers would be defeated, Earth would be liberated, and those on the side of good would be vindicated. For now, according to this belief, all we should expect is that the world would get worse and worse until the very end when the suffering of the good would be traded for vindication.

Judgment and Vindication 

The apocalyptic worldview also included the belief that the age to come will arrive with a cataclysmic breakthrough that would usher in utopia. That breakthrough was understood to be the inauguration of God’s Kingdom as spoken of by the prophets here on Earth. It would be accompanied by the bodily resurrection of those who had died previously, and then everyone, those living and those resurrected, would face either a punishment or a reward. (See Daniel 12.2)

Imminence of the End

Those who held to an apocalyptic worldview believed that the age to come, and all of the events associated with it, was just around the corner.

Positives and Negatives

This worldview had positives and negatives. The positives were that it took evil seriously. There are evils that are bigger than any of us individually. And it provided hope that there was a cosmic force for good that would eventually put things in this earth to right. The negative was that it tended to produce a moral complacency in the face of injustice, violence, and oppression here and now. In other words, there really is nothing we can do to change human suffering around us until the age to come, so the best we can do is try and survive.

The Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Today, our culture mostly subscribes to a naturalistic world view, which means that many people see this world as the result of observable, measurable forces that have repeatable impacts on the things and people in the world. This view is not dualistic, but assumes that everything that happens on this planet can be explained by natural causes and effects.

The early canonical gospel authors were not naturalists. They drew from the worldview of their time, the apocalyptic worldview. This is important to understand because it explains much of what we read in the gospel stories they wrote. They believed that in Jesus’ life and teachings, which climaxed in his execution and resurrection, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened!  I do not believe that someone has to hold the apocalyptic world view to find benefit in the Jesus story, today.  Someone can hold a naturalistic world view and still gain much from the ethical teachings of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that will help create a safer more compassionate world for us all.

Most Christians today subscribe purely to neither an apocalyptic nor a naturalist world view, but a hybrid of both which is influenced by the narratives of their religious tradition. On a spectrum of apocalypticism at one end and naturalism at the other, the more fundamentalist a Christian is, the more they will hover near the apocalyptic end of the spectrum; the more progressive a Christian is, the more they will hover near the naturalist end. Both will likely draw at least some elements from the other worldview as well. I’ll be contrasting the naturalistic world view with the apocalyptic world view in next week’s eSight.

What I would like to contrast this week is the apocalypticism of the early church with the apocalypticism of many fundamentalist Christians today.  There is a stark difference between the two.

The Christian apocalyptic world view of today typically holds to some level of dualism (cosmic forces of good and evil working through earthly powers and systems.) It, too, looks toward a future judgment/vindication that is referred to by many who hold this world view as “the end of the world.”  The view also holds that this “end” is imminent.  It is just around the corner.  We do not have much time left.  Lastly, this view also tends toward a pessimistic passivity.  Things are just going to get worse and worse.  There’s nothing we can do until the end, and Jesus comes the second time to set things right.  Things will not any get better till the end of the world arrives.

This contemporary form of the apocalyptic world view, though, is a subtle denial of Jesus.

The authors of the Jesus story did subscribe to an apocalyptic world view as well.  Yet there was a difference.  The difference between their apocalypticism and contemporary apocalypticism is that they believed that in Jesus, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened! They were no longer focused on some future event.  The authors of the Jesus story in the New Testament were looking at the present through the lens of the life, teachings, execution, and resurrection of their Jesus.

Christians who hold a contemporary apocalyptic world view today are still looking toward the future event for world change.  Many of those are remaining passive until those events take place.  The writers of the Jesus story believed that in Jesus, the future apocalyptic event, in the form a mustard seed, had arrived and they were actively working to participate in Jesus’ liberation from suffering here and now!  

They were no longer waiting on the future, the Kingdom had come!

They were no longer entrenched in passive pessimism, but active participation in Jesus’ work of liberation now! (see the book of Acts)

Holding to an apocalyptic world view, the gospel writers believed Jesus was their long awaited Messiah who had ushered in the Age to Come. (It had come in the form of leaven placed in dough.)  Jesus was their liberator from all things that oppressed them, both cosmic evils and those force’s earthly collaborators, specifically Rome.  These writers saw Jesus as their Liberator from all things that oppressed them then!

Mark’s stories of Jesus performing demoniac liberation are classic example of earthly acts of liberation from cosmic forces of evil. For those modern readers who subscribe to a more naturalistic world view, the demon stories of Mark (found in Mark 1:32, 34, 39; 3:15, 22; 5:18; 6:13; 7:26, 29-30; 9:38) are intellectually and philosophically troubling to say the least. But when we read them as part of an apocalyptic world view and their view of Jesus as arrival of the fulfillment of that worldview, we see the importance of the demoniac stories to the early Jesus followers.  (As well as the stories of raising people from the dead, forgiving peoples sins, and healing those who were sick).  Jesus, to them, was not a post mortem savior, nor a someone who told them to keep looking toward the future.  Jesus was to them a present liberator from all things that concretely oppressed them now!

These followers saw Jesus as the Earth’s liberator from the cosmic forces of evil. As such, it was important that Jesus demonstrated power over theses cosmic demonic forces.

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [i.e. cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:27-28)

Apocalyptic Liberation (the Kingdom) Has Come!

Whether someone subscribes to a more naturalistic worldview or a more apocalyptic world view, the Jesus story can still be relevant. Regardless of how one explains human suffering, whether it be through natural causes or cosmic evil forces, Jesus is the liberator from things that cause oppression, violence, and injustice now!

The gospel is not as much about an afterlife, as it is about freeing people from anything that oppresses them here and now. To follow Jesus means to participate in Jesus’ work of liberating people from things that concretely oppress them in this world.

Whether it be sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, consumerism, authoritarianism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, binarism, or whatever, the focal point of the Jesus of the Jesus stories is liberation from all things that concretely oppress people. He started his public ministry with this litany:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind [prison blindness],
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [liberation from oppressors].” (Luke 4.18)

This is the liberation that Jesus referred to in his announcement of the coming near of the kingdom of God. The very material term “kingdom” is rooted in Jesus’ Judaism. Unlike the kyriarchical kingdoms of that age, however, Jesus’ kingdom would be based on sibling relationships and friendships. We see this demonstrated as Jesus, whom the disciples called “Lord,” stooped to wash the feet of those same disciples. A more contemporary term for Jesus’ new social order might be “kinship” rather than an imperial “kingdom” (see Matthew 23:8)

In short, the gospel is the good news of liberation now, not an announcement of good to come one day. The gospel is not a end-of-time fire insurance policy over which Christians must now argue over the amount of the premium to be paid. The gospel is the good news that the seeds of liberation from things that concretely oppress now are to be found in the teachings of this nonviolent, Jewish revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

As we gather together around Jesus’ shared table, the teachings of Jesus call us to live out the values of his gospel in our community, first within our HeartGroups and then within the larger communities outside of our HeartGroups.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to list what those within your group needed to be liberated from and to practice ways you could come along side each group member in living out the values of the Jesus story.

1. This week, take inventory of how you are doing.

2. Acknowledge areas where you need to make some adjustments. List areas you could be doing more in, things that didn’t work, and things that you choose to do but did not yet follow through with.

3. Adjust you what you have been doing to better meet the needs of those in your HeartGroup. Don’t be afraid of adjusting again whenever you feel that what you used to do is no longer working.

Again, the teachings of Jesus contain the seeds of liberation, now, not later.

Like mustard seeds, they will grow if we choose to water them.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep coming to the shared table. Keep endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus. Keep living in love—until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Many voices, one new world.

I love each you dearly.

I’ll see you next week when we take of look at the strengths and weaknesses of the naturalistic world view for a Jesus follower.

 


1.  These four tenets are adapted from Bart Ehrman’s The Underlying Tenets of Apocalypticism in his book God’s Problem, pages 214-219 (Kindle Edition)