The Social Truth of Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | August 7, 2020

light at the end of the tunnel


“The elite characters in the story represent the political and economic elite in partnership to conquer the life that many of the oppressed and excluded found in Jesus’ teachings as a prophet of the poor. The resurrection is not a scientific declaration of a person coming back to life. It’s a political statement that the present system does not have to have the last word. Life can conquer even when death seeks to extinguish it.”


In the gospel of John, we read:

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

What is the truth that the gospels are trying to communicate by including resurrection at the end of the Jesus story? I believe it’s the truth, the hope, that life can triumph over death, even when that death is inflicted by those who control and benefit from a system of injustice and exclusion.

The hope of the resurrection is no different from the gospel that Jesus announced throughout his life and teachings: life can triumph over death-dealing. I want to be very clear here though. I don’t believe that triumph is automatic. We have to choose life and life-giving ways of organizing our society for life to ultimately triumph over systemic death and death-dealing. The elite, in their treatment of Jesus, revealed they were deeply threatened by the kind of egalitarian community Jesus taught.

The Jesus stories teach life values that have the potential to expose our political, economic, and religious systems when they are more aligned with death and death-dealing than life, justice, compassion, inclusion, equity, and safety. Politics, economics, and religion can all become veiled forms of violence driven by fear that others will take what we desire rather than being the means through which we create a world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all in distributively just ways. Religion, too, can become the means of othering those who are different, an elaborate system of sacrifice that creates victims to give us hope. Political death-dealing becomes justifiable or, at least, seems inevitable, economic death-dealing becomes the wisest way to govern our resources, and then religious death-dealing based on the fear of the divine inspires us to marginalize others to keep our gods happy.

But Jesus announced that he was the resurrection and the life. He came calling us to a new human community, a distributively just community that shares with those who do not have and practices mercy for another rather than “sacrifice.” (See Systems of Sacrifice) Such a community would reject the systemic violence of inequity. Those benefiting from inequity always see these types of communities as a threat. Jesus’ gospel is not good news to them; it promises to take from them much of what they think defines their value and keeps them secure. Everyone has enough to thrive. Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod, and the elite sectors of society these characters represented did not perceive Jesus’ gospel as good news. Maybe this is why so much of Jesus’ message has been coopted since then to focus on postmortem heaven rather than challenging and transforming systemic injustice in our present world, here, now, today. Consider the three characters of Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod in the following passage from the gospels stories:

“Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning.” (John 18:28)

“That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)

“Now the chief priests and the elders excited the mob to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.” (Matthew 27:20, emphasis added)

The political climate in the United States has revealed that the masses can use their power to stand up to injustice, and they can also be manipulated by people in power to promote death and oppose life.

Jesus does not represent those in the system. Instead, he is associated with those like John the Baptist: voices in the wilderness, on the margins of society, calling for change. The elite characters in the story represent the political and economic elite in partnership to conquer the life that many of the oppressed and excluded found in Jesus’ teachings as a prophet of the poor. The resurrection is not a scientific declaration of a person coming back to life. It’s a political statement that the present system does not have to have the last word. Life can conquer even when death seeks to extinguish it.

In the New Testament book of Acts, the good news was not that Jesus had died, but that life had conquered that death:

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God…” (Acts 2:22-33)

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:13-15)

”Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things…” (Acts 5:30)

“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as He who reigns over the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:36-42)

“Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised…My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus…” (Acts 13:23)

The death of Jesus was not the “good news” of the original narrative, though it is characterized as such in much of Christianity today. The cross was the quintessential travesty of justice in the Jesus story: Jesus and his gospel of life become the victims of unjust political, economic, and religious systems that sacrifice others for their success. The resurrection reveals a Jesus who lived in solidarity with the innocent victims of those systems. It speaks of a way of organizing human community for life over and against unjust ways of organizing society, even when it faces lethal opposition from those in charge of the present death-dealing system. Jesus’ gospel didn’t triumph because of death. Jesus’ murder interrupted his gospel and was an attempt to silence it. Jesus’ gospel triumphed in reversing, undoing, and conquering that death.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection, instead, endorses and proclaims that God’s just future is possible. It doesn’t depend on death for its existence. It shares generously the bread it receives today with the poor, the widow, and those othered as a foreigner, trusting that no matter what the future brings, we can face it—not alone, each person for themselves, but together as a community of love and care. Resurrection calls for the end of systems that sacrifice others, including sacrifice done in the name of standing up for and defending “the right thing.” Jesus gospel calls us to embrace the way of mercy over sacrifice, and care for those previously deemed expendable by our politics and economics.

The story of a resurrection in the gospels calls us to recognize systems of death in every age and to obstruct them. The ancient Hebrew hope, a tradition in which Jesus solidly stood, was one where all injustice, oppression, and violence is set right. It was a hope of life conquering death.

Life can also conquer death today if we will choose it. Our political, economic, and even religious climate is full of opportunities to stand up to death and choose life. Another iteration of our world is possible.

Will we have the courage to choose life-giving ways of ordering our society that can conquer death-dealing structures? Will we, as Jesus followers, have the courage to choose the living truth behind this ancient story of resurrection?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. How does the gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection impact your own justice work as a Jesus follower? Share with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


“And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (‘the kingdom’) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.”


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12)

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is believed to have been a part of the earliest Jesus tradition. In each of the next two synoptic gospels written, the story is given more detail.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus rejected the Satan three times. And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (“the kingdom”) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.

Bread

Jesus chose not to justify a system simply because it offered bread. Rome promised sustenance to its inhabitants but at what cost?

In our time, Duke Energy recently abandon its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs due to activist obstruction. Some people with power pushed back against this monumental decision by pointing to the jobs that would now be lost. Such people believe placing profit above the planet was justified because, despite the ecological damage, the pipeline produced jobs for the working class and profit to company owners: it produced bread.

Exploitative economic systems create scarcity to create a narrative needed for their survival. The scarcity of things we need produces undercurrents of survival anxiety for us. Our desire for security and assurance that our needs will be met (“bread”) drives us to support systems that promise to fulfill those needs regardless of how people and our planet suffer as a result. And, without fail, those who are most driven by this economic anxiety protect and defend these systems at all costs. This is the essence of exploitative economies, and it comes with a long list of victims upon whom we lay the costs of our hopes that these systems will give us the bread we need.

Jesus’ first temptation was to coerce nature, to “turn stones into bread.” Think of Monsanto, or the meat and dairy industry here in the United States, which has deemed essential workers expendable during this pandemic. Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who control the food supply control the people.” Now and in the times of Jesus, the way to establish an exploitative system economically was to control what supplies people’s “bread” needs. Jesus rejects the use of such methods in establishing God’s just future, quoting from Deuteronomy:

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus saw what the temptation really was. He refused to prioritize profit or “bread” over justice, and instead chose the ancient Hebrew narrative of manna: needs will be supplied not by accumulation and exploitation but daily, as needed. There will be more manna tomorrow.

Jesus rejected a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, and exploitation for a narrative of trust, gratitude, sharing, and generosity. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.”

The accumulation of bread is not the highest value of God’s just future. God values how that bread is produced and what its production violates or affirms. Our hope is “not by bread alone.”

Self-Sacrifice

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus is also tempted to sacrifice himself while assuming that he would be spared death. His response is to not “put God to the test.” On the temple mount the devil told him to leap from was the symbol at the core of his society’s political, economic, and religious systems. His temptation was to sacrifice himself in front of this system with the promise that in the end, God’s just future would come through his sacrifice.

This temptation strikes at the heart of the method most pushed on masses who desire social change. I don’t believe the oppressed must sacrifice themselves to achieve social change, but. The sacrifice of innocent victims for achieving social change has a long history.

Speaking of how the idea of sacrifice has impacted women in Christianity, Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

In Brown and Parker’s essay in the same volume, “For God So Loved the World?” they write:

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

Mary Daly makes a similar comment:
“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

Again, Brown and Parker:
“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Brown and Parker also critique nonviolent movements that use self-sacrifice to drive change. They use some of the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. King saw suffering as:

“‘a most creative and powerful social force’ . . . The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20)

Finally, Delores Williams’ classic book Sisters in the Wilderness builds on this critique with applications specifically for Black women. These insights have been powerfully transformative for me personally. I want to share them with you here:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love” manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“ whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents— the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

“The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

“Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

Again, Brown and Parker:

“Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed. The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world. To be a Christian means keeping: faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (“For God So Loved the World?”)

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18,)

“Such a theology has devastating effects on human life. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph. It can lead to extended pain if it is not refused or fought. It can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity. or creativity. It can lead to actual death.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

Jesus did not choose the way of sacrifice. He rejected the way of sacrifice and, instead, “chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures…. Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

These insights have grave implications for how some sectors of Christianity have traditionally interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus. (For more on these implications see my presentation Nonviolence and the Cross)

As Katie Cannon sternly admonishes us, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.”

And there is a third path the Jesus of the story rejected, too.

Complicity

Lastly, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was tempted to arrive at God’s just future through being complicit with exploitative and oppressive systems. But he resisted that temptation of achieving God’s just future by “bowing down.” He instead worshiped God and God’s just future only. God’s just future cannot be achieved through compromise with exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

Christianity has a long history with being complicit in systems that oppress, and some adherents still use it to promote White supremacy, neocolonialism, and capitalism today.

Much more needs to be said about this.

I’m reminded of the words that the late Peter Gomes wrote in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. When Jesus’ followers choose complicity, he explains, “The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.”

These early Jesus story narratives give us much to think about as we, too, continue the work of moving toward a more just future today.

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Gospel for the Earth

by Herb Montgomery | May 8, 2020

sprout


“What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain, ’and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot, ’and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” —Jesus (Luke 12:54-56)

The weather-wise members of Jesus’s community could tell the weather by watching the clouds over the Mediterranean or by observing the wind changing direction, and they planned accordingly.

Here, Jesus is drawing attention to their ability to reason from cause to effect when it came to matters of weather, but their inability to do so when it came to their economic, political, and social trajectory.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues:

“As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59)

I have to confess that I have always struggled with this saying. I found it disjointed and out of place until I eventually realized its social and economic context. Jesus is talking about settling disputes and not allowing them to escalate out of control.

In Jesus’ society, the disparity and inequality between the haves and the have-nots were growing. We know that by the time the gospels were written, the poor people’s revolt of the late 60s had escalated until they overtook the Jewish temple-state in Jerusalem. From there, their conflict with the elite ruling class continued to escalate into the war with Rome itself (the Jewish-Roman war 66-69 CE), which ultimately and eventually resulted in Jerusalem being razed to the ground by Rome in 70 CE.

If ever there were a warning for privileged elites to make restitution to the masses at whose expense they had accumulated their wealth and power, this is a textbook example. In Jesus’ lifetime, a struggle was brewing, and by the time the gospels were written, that struggle had escalated into insurrection, war, and heartbreaking destruction.

Today, there is a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots again. (Read From Private Helicopters To Concierge Doctors, Inequality Is A ‘Big Business’.) Experts, whether researchers or people who know how to scratch out an existence are worried about the disappearance of the middle class, which can be traced back to the economic and political policies of the 80s and has been escalating continually since.

Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). What would it mean today for us to seek a path of equity, redistribution, and/or reparations rather than continue on our present path despite where it leads?

A Gospel for the Earth

Many of us recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day here in the U.S. Environmentalism has come a long way in the last fifty years, and so has the damage to our environment.

Earth’s temperatures are higher. Our ocean chemistry has changed. More animals have gone extinct. Significant portions of Amazonian rain forests and the Great Barrier reef that we need for our survival are now lost.

We are also moving in the wrong direction with the current U.S. Administration scaling back essential environmental protections. I live in West Virginia where various industries, including coal, have caused significant damage to both our environment and our economy. We have repeatedly dealt with polluted water supplies, disappearing landscapes, and one of the worst unemployment rates in the country in areas that used to have the largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. because of the coal mining boom and bust. One more injustice that this COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare is the daily damage to our planet from our global, consumer, capitalist system. The images are stark in the recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, “As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. These before-and-after images show the change.” Check out the pictures of New Delhi’s skyline. Wow.

The Hebrew scriptures include a strong case for our duty as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). The earth is not here for us to exploit. We are in a symbiotic relationship with it. If we do not take care of it, it will cease to be home for us.

Christianity has a long and complicated history when it comes to environmentalism. Much of this history can be read in Brock and Parker’s Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Another book I recommend on the environmental and other impacts of our present economic and political system is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Patel and Moore. Both books have been on RHM’s recommended reading lists.

What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today?

Let’s read the passage again from Matthew’s sermon on the mount:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

This says to me that it is better to deal with things now, at this stage, than to deal with them later. Change is coming and there’s no way around it. Change that we choose today is always preferable to change that our environment forces upon us tomorrow. We can begin building a better world today. (Read Bill McKibben‘s article in The New Yorker How We Can Build a Hardier World After the Coronavirus.)

I’m encouraged to see signs that the financial industries are beginning to divest from their fossil fuel portfolios. I’m also alarmed at talk of bailing out industries we need to begin transitioning away from. We should instead be training workers dependent on fossil fuel industries to work in greener industries.

What causes and effects are you seeing in the present system? What changes would you like to see? Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Settle Matters Quickly

Matthew’s account (Matthew 5:25-26) is part of a section on leaving your gift at the altar when offering a sacrifice if you remember that you have an adversary. Jesus commands, “First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Twice in Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6) This is the path that leads to life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) we see Jesus calling for a change of direction, a change of action, a transition to a different social path than the one his listeners were on, and quickly! Things were escalating in his own society politically and economically, as the second half of the 1st Century in Galilee and Judea revealed.

For those paying attention today, things are escalating quickly for us, too. Jesus’ audience was faced with alternative paths and trajectories. If things did not change, if the elites did not begin listening to the exploited and marginalized, Jesus’ society would “not get out until they had paid the last penny.”

The path before them was transformation. But I do not believe that what happened to 1st Century Judaea was annihilation forced on the people by a violent God. Rather it was the intrinsic, natural result of a course of action that we have repeatedly seen through history when the haves ignore the cries of the have-nots who are barely surviving.

Luke’s Jesus laments:

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

Today we plan our daily activities around listening to weather forecasts or checking our weather apps on our phones while being strangely ignorant of the clouds of our own making that are gathering on the horizon of our lives. The Jesus story is whispering to us today to take a different social and global path. Some ways seem right to those in positions of power and privilege, but their end is death (Proverbs 14:12 cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

What would happen if, instead of spending trillions of dollars supporting a military-industrial complex, we began spending trillions on feeding the world’s starving? What if we began spending trillions on repairing our earth? What if we spent trillions transitioning from unsustainable ways of living on our planet toward sustainable ways of surviving and thriving? What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?

The Jesus story found in the gospels is still whispering to Christians today. He asks us to settle these matters quickly. The end result will be much better, both in the short and long term.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Is environmentalism a part of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus? Share with your group why?

2. What does it mean for you to settle matters now rather than later in your own personal lives? What could it mean systemically for our society as a whole right now during our current pandemic? Share with the group.

3. What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.