One Taken, One Left

by Herb Montgomery | January 25, 2018


“It’s about compassion. Either we see ourselves in others, or we don’t. And if we don’t learn to do so, we run the risk of destroying life as we know it for everyone including ourselves. We are connected. How we treat others will affect us as well—like it or not, we are part of one another.”


Featured Text:

“I tell you, there will be two in the field, one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.” Q 17:34-35

Companion Text:

Matthew 24:40-41: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

Luke 17:34-35: “I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:1: “Jesus said: “Two will rest on a bed. The one will die, the other will live.”

I remember this passage well from my early childhood. In pulpit after pulpit, preachers used it to explain to people that a secret rapture was coming, where people would simply disappear off the earth. Two pilots flying a plane? One would be taken and the other left. Two people walking down the sidewalk? One would be taken and the other left.

Not until years later did I see how grossly out of context this passage was being taken.

Indiscriminate Fate

First let’s start with the surface of this saying. In both examples, two people are doing the same activities. There is an indiscriminate nature to being taken and being left. There is no rhyme or reason and no obvious difference between them. Taken in the context of last week’s saying about the days of Noah, riches would not be enough to save the wealthy from this fate.

As we saw last week, both Matthew and Luke lift this saying of Jesus and place it in the context of the fulfillment of the re-humanizing liberation found in Daniel 7—the revealing of the “son of humanity.” Matthew and Luke use the Jewish stories of Noah and Lot. Yet in these stories, the taken aren’t “raptured” to a celestial heaven while others are “left” down here on earth. Those “taken” in the Noah and Lot stories are those who “die” in Thomas’s gospel, whose lives are “taken.” And those who are “left” in these passages are those who remain alive, or who are “left” alive. So it’s in fact a good thing to be “left behind!”

Dystopian Future

This saying warns those who benefit from violence toward the vulnerable and economic exploitation of the poor about a coming indiscriminate destruction—a reversal of economic injustice—that turns things upside down from their present structure. The hungry are fed and the well-fed go hungry. The poor are given the kingdom, and the rich are sent away empty. Those whom present injustice causes to weep laugh, and those who now laugh, weep (see Luke 6:20-26). It’s an indiscriminate destruction and sounds very dystopian.

Today, scientists are warning that if we do not correct our present course, indiscriminate destruction will be our ecological future. We are destroying sustainable life here on the one planet that is home for everyone. And even though in our saying this week, some survive destruction, the disaster in their immediate future indiscriminately affected everyone. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. affected both rich and poor. The poor were especially vulnerable, but destruction was indiscriminate nonetheless and affected everyone. This has striking parallels to our future. We all share the same air, water, and globe. We are all connected. We are in this together, and we’ll either survive together, or risk destruction for everyone.

Just this past week, after a season of devastating fires across the north and west US,  the east coast was pummeled with record lows and snow falls. We’re seeing evidence of our climate breaking down.

But this leads me to my third point this week. The future doesn’t have to be like this. Instead of a dystopian future where greed has ruined everything, we can choose a future rooted in compassion and justice.

A Compassionate Future 

Compassion was at the heart of Jesus’ new vision for human society and so his politics have rightly been named as a politics of compassion. In the book All We Leave Behind, Carol Off writes of the debate about refugees in Canada, but what she states could be said of any other social justice issue:

“The seething centre of the refugee debate is not really about policy; it’s about perception. Either you identify with others or you don’t. Either you see yourself in the eyes of others or you don’t.”

It’s about compassion. Either we see ourselves in others, or we don’t. And if we don’t learn to do so, we run the risk of destroying life as we know it for everyone including ourselves. We are connected. How we treat others will affect us as well—like it or not, we are part of one another. This is the point of one of Jesus’ most famous sayings, where he quotes the Torah:

“The second [greatest commandment] is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)

Those two words are important: “as yourself.” Either we will learn to see others “as ourselves” and live, or we’ll continue down the path of destructive, extreme, individualism that threatens us all. Individualism is an inadequate lens for life on this planet. Everything we do sets in motion a chain of cause and effect for everyone around us, including ourselves. None of us is an island, and we impact each other whether we desire to or not. It’s simply the way things are. We are individuals, yet we’re also woven together in a much larger fabric too!

And this is precisely why our future can be different than our present. We can choose a future of compassion and justice for one another. We can choose to be our siblings’ keeper. The future is not set in stone. It is open, filled with multiple possibilities based on the choices we make today.

Last week, the Daily Mail published an article exploring a new spatial theory of time: “According to the theory, if we were to ‘look down’ upon the universe, we would see time spread out in all directions, just as we see space at the moment.” In other words, time isn’t happening linearly, one thing after another, but rather past, present, and future exists simultaneously and all around us.

If this is true, perhaps time is not a single line, but a web of possible pasts, including the past that occurred, a web of possible presents, including the present that we have chosen, and a web of possibilities called the future. Each of these webs connects through various causes and effects.

This would mean that right now, we are standing alongside all those who will come after us as well as with all those who have come before us. Let’s honor the work of our most engaged ancestors who gave of themselves to make our world a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all. And let’s also honor all those who will come after us by giving them more to work with than they would have if we did no thing.

Right now, the future looks like a dystopia, but it doesn’t have to be that. Our saying this week warns of a disastrous future only in the hopes that we will begin to make better choices.

“I tell you, there will be two in the field, one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.” Q 17:34-35

HeartGroup Application

This week I have something FUN for your group to try. It’s an exercise in cooperative action. I want you to take a marker and tie eight strings to it (Or less if you have less than 8 people in your group). Then I want you as a group to choose a word and write it out working together.

Does it make any difference how close you hold the string to the marker? Try holding the string further away from the marker and see how that works, too.

  1. What lessons did you learn about what it took to work together?
  2. How is working together different than working alone?
  3. Are there certain things we can only accomplish together? List them. What did you learn about working together that may apply to this list?

As I often say, Jesus’ solution to many of the problems in society was a vision for a new way of structuring human community. Community is not always easy. But when I consider the disastrous results of extreme, rugged individualism in our society here in the West, I believe community is worth the struggle.

Wherever you are this week, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

Karen Baker-Fletcher writes: “If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.” 

Featured Texts:

“A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, ‘Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.’” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 22:2-3: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

Matthew 22:5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”

Matthew 22:7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Luke 14:16-19: “Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”’”

Luke 14:21: “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’”

Luke 14:23: “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”

Gospel of Thomas 64: “Jesus says: ‘A person had guests. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant, so that he might invite the guests. He came to the first and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said: “I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go and give instructions to them. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came to another and said to him: “My master has invited you.” He said to him: “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I will not have time.” He went to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: ‘My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came up to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: “I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.” The servant went away. He said to his master: “Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his servant: “Go out on the roads. Bring back whomever you find, so that they might have dinner.” Dealers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.’”

As we have stated before, even though Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free,” this week’s saying again presents one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: the normalization of slavery.

Jesus never spoke one word against slavery, in fact, as we see this week, he uses the institution in his own stories. This has been used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christians holding tight to slavery, especially in the South. (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis)

It is interesting to note what appears to be an attempt at the softening of “slave” to “servant” from the “Q” texts to the more modern translations of the gospels, including Thomas. Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order, and we must be honest about how problematic this has been and continues to be.

Also, Matthew and Luke use this week’s saying differently. We’ll begin with Luke, and then look at how Matthew frames it.

Inclusivity

One of Luke’s burdens, which we see in Acts, is to explain how a community that began as a Jewish poor people’s movement came to be so populated by Gentiles. Luke places this week’s saying in the context of the “banquet in the Kingdom of God.” We discussed popular views of this banquet in 1st Century Galilee and Judea a couple of week’s ago.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus challenged the more exclusive interpretation of the eschatological banquet where purity standards in that culture prevented some from being allowed to sit at the table. Jesus had just stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-13).

Someone offended by what they interpreted as reckless inclusion and abandonment of the cultural purity taboos of the day responded by objecting, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” For those who held the more exclusive interpretation of this feast/banquet, those who would be specifically excluded from that feast would be the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” While some would have the least honorable seats at the table, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be invited at all as some believed their state was the result of their transgression. Jesus then responds by telling a story that includes this week’s saying.

Jesus’ story is of a householder who simply wants his “house to be full.” He doesn’t lower the purity standards; he completely ignores them. He invites, welcomes, and effectively affirms all those who would have been excluded under the more selective interpretation. The motive of the householder is what Luke places in the forefront. A full house is priority number one. Everyone is invited and if someone is not there, the onus is on those invited, not rumors of exclusiveness on the part of the householder. He simply wants a full house.

Connectedness and Equality

Matthew’s story includes two elements we’ll look at in turn: the king’s rage as well as the guest’s refusal to be identified with everyone else at the banquet. We’ll discuss the second item first.

Matthew’s story ends:

“‘So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:9-13)

This parable makes no sense to me if attire for the banquet was not included in the invitation. How can a host invite “all the people they could find” so that the hall could be “filled with guests” and then get upset that someone in there was not wearing the proper attire, if such attire was not also provided? Did the host really think that everyone they found on the streets, even the poor and barely-scratching-by artisans, would have fine clothing for a wedding banquet of the wealthy?

I’ll freely admits that this is taking an interpretive liberty, but let’s assume for a moment that attire was provided as an option for those who needed such, so that no matter how poor you were, you had no excuse not to attend. If that’s the case, that gives us an entirely different ending. Who is the parable being told to in Matthew? This cluster of parables is aimed at “the chief priests and Pharisees” (Matthew 21.45) and the political place of privilege they held. In the story, someone refuses to wear clothing appropriate for the event. Whether this is a wealthy person refusing to be associated with the poor, or the poor refusing to be seen along side the exploitative rich, it’s a show of arrogance or separateness. It’s possibly an expression of one’s exceptionalism in protest to the inclusion of those he feels are “Other” or beneath him. For him to don the same attire as everyone else would be to intimate that there was no difference, at least at this banquet, between himself and those he feels should not be present. He is better than the others around him here and he will not be included on their same level. For him this is a rejection of the reality that we are all interconnected, we are part of one another. We are not as separate from one another as we often think.  We share each other’s fate. In fact, we are each other’s fate. It could be because of the guest’s desire to be seen as separate, or as reluctantly participating with everyone else, that the host so angrily responds to his lack of attire.

The context is the eschatological banquet that some people in Galilee and Judea believed symbolized the distinction between this age of violence, injustice, and oppression and the coming age where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be put right. But this new age in Jesus’ world view is egalitarian: everyone receives what is distributively just. No one has too much and no one has too little, we all, together have enough. So garments could have been justly distributed, making everyone equal. But if a person has spent their life working to be “first,” few things could be worse than to be faced with a world of equity and equality and being thrown into the same group with everyone else. They believe they are better, chosen, extraordinary, or exceptional. They are not like everyone else and they refuse to embrace our connectedness. But whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already in this together.

Those who choose the path of exclusion are themselves eventually excluded from a world that’s being put right through inclusive egalitarianism. As we discussed previously, exclusionary thinking is a self-fulfilling ethic. Again, when you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from attending the same “banquet” with you, it’s going to make you so angry! This is the gnashing of teeth Jesus and Luke describe (cf. Acts 7:54) So if any end up in outer darkness, it will not be because they could not accept their own invitation. It will be because they could not accept the inclusion and equal affirmation of those they feel should be excluded.

Now about the king’s rage.

Matthew includes the historic treatment of Hebrew social prophets. As I shared last year, in the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly for those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they cast an imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right. These prophets were often rejected and executed by those in power.

Matthew’s Jesus story locates both John the Baptist and Jesus in this tradition of prophets silenced by execution. I would note that in this tradition, Jesus’ execution is not unique and not hard to explain. Execution as the response of those in power to those who critique and speak truth to power is nothing new or strange. Nor is it peculiar to one culture. It happens all the time in every culture. It was not too long in our own culture that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in five years.

And it’s this treatment of the Hebrew prophets (including John and Jesus) that I believe Matthew is using to explain to his community and perhaps even make sense to himself (like Jeremiah of old) how such a catastrophe could have befallen Jerusalem in his lifetime. People explain tragedy differently. People try to make sense of our suffering differently. Matthew’s gospel assumes that if the outcry against social injustice would have been heeded, the Jewish poor-peoples revolt, the Jewish-Roman war, and the razing of Jerusalem itself, could have possibly been avoided.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:4-7)

What I would be quick to point out is Matthew’s use of the plural “them.” Matthew was a Jewish Jesus follower trying to make sense of his entire world ending as he had known it. But even then, unlike many Christian supersessionists, he did not isolate Jesus’ rejection as the sole reason for the events of 70 C.E. Matthew wasn’t a Christian blaming “the Jews” for their “rejection” of Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew included the rejection of Jesus and John in a long list of many “servants,” from Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, all the way back. In other words, Jesus’ rejection was not unique to Matthew but part of a much longer trajectory. Ched Myers in what Walter Wink states is “quite simply the most important commentary on a book of scriptures since Barth’s Romans,” reminds us of the “prophetic script”:

“The ‘true prophets’ are not identified by ‘proof’ of miraculous signs, but by their stand on the side of the poor, pressing a ‘covenantal suit’ against the exploitative ‘shepherds’ of Israel. From Elijah to Jeremiah the result is always the same: opposition from the ruling class and a threat to the prophet’s life.”

Matthew’s use of this week’s saying seems to be indicating that, once again, in the life of Jesus, the prophetic script has been fulfilled in human society.

Today

Today we have to ask which voices are we refusing to listen to? Which voices are we not heeding? Who are we in our stubbornness ignoring; what could, by ignoring, like in 70 C.E. for Jerusalem, wipe out everything for everyone? There are many voices that come to mind for me, but at the top of my list are those seeking to raise our consciousness of the connection between corporatism and the climate changes that threaten humanity’s continued existence. Karen Baker-Fletcher, womanist theologian and co-author of My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk, writes:

“If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.”

A couple weeks ago, I caught an insightful interview of Naomi Klein on what she feels many on both sides of the political debate about climate change are refusing to acknowledge as we look to our planet’s future. Again, we have a choice of whether to refuse or embrace our connectedness. Whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already, all of us, in this together. We as a whole will survive or we will all, together, face the results.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s saying. Whose voices are you reminded to pay attention to this week?

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, “Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Before your group meets this next week, write down three things that speak to you in either Luke’s or Matthew’s use of our saying.
  2. Why do these things resonate with you and what do they mean to you?
  3. When you do come together, take some time to go around the room and share with each other what this week’s saying is saying to you, and what the implications could be for your HeartGroup as a whole.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where this finds you, keep engaging in the work of love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation on our way toward thriving. We are in this together.

Also don’t forget to check out the new 500:25:1 project we are launching this August. Go to http://bit.ly/RHM500251 where you can find out more about why we’re launching new weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.