Lightening the Burden of Others

Herb Montgomery | December 21, 2018


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this is implied in our text this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

     

A Special Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you, dearly.

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

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

We’ll see you in 2019.

A Prayer for Debts Cancelled

by Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2018

Brick wall with stenciled "Until Debt Tear Us Apart"

Photo Credit: Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash


“‘Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.’  She goes on to say, therefore, ‘There’s no opting out of it.’  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.”


“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This week I want to look at a portion of this prayer that has evolved: the portion on forgiveness. To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s version is much earlier than Luke’s. We’ll see the significance of this in a moment. And before Matthew’s version, many scholars believe the earliest version of the prayer was:

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us.” (Saying Gospel Q 11:2-4, emphasis added.)

In this earliest version of the prayer, notice the specific economic quality. It’s about cancelling the debts of those who are indebted to us. There is quite a bit of history behind this. 

The Torah taught that every seventh year in Jewish society, all debts were to be cancelled:

“At the end of every seventh year you must make a remission of debts. This is how it is to be made: everyone who holds a pledge shall return the pledge of the person indebted to him. He must not press a fellow- countryman for repayment, for the Lord’s year of remission has been declared . . . There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God by carefully keeping these commandments which I lay upon you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-4) (REB)

There were also strict warnings to lenders as they watched the seventh year approaching, in case they thought they could not make loans at all rather than make loans that would soon be cancelled:

“Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 15:9-10)

We’ve discussed Rabbi Hillel’s prozbul as a way to solve money lenders’ reluctance (see Renouncing One’s Rights and The Golden Rule). The prozbul was a loophole where a loan made just before the seventh year could be declared exempt from cancellation. This loophole was Hillel’s solution to the wealthy not wanting to make loans that less affluent farmers needed for survival whenever the seventh year was near. Although Jesus taught similar ethics to Hillel in other areas, in this area Jesus parted ways with Hillel and taught what the Torah had stated in Deuteronomy:

“Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42, cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

And

“And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:34-35; Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

Debt in the ancient world led to slavery, poverty and death.  In short, debt was a conduit of oppression. Jesus choose to stand in the stream of Jewish tradition that called for the liberation of the oppressed.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus’ liberation is tied directly the cancelling of all debts, or to put it in the language of his Jewish culture, “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“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.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The year of the Lord’s favor was “the year for canceling debts” (Deuteronomy 15:9), the year where there was to be a “remission” of all debts (Deuteronomy 15:1). That year was a type of wealth redistribution. It was a check on any system where the wealthy could just keep on getting wealthier while the poor kept on getting poorer. It was a safeguard against some having too much while many went without enough. If the Torah’s economic teachings were followed, poverty could have been eliminated: “There need be no poor people among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

In Jesus’ time, this aspect of the Torah was being disregarded and violated outright or through Hillel’s prozbul. Jesus was calling for a return to a deeply Jewish practice.

You can understand why many of the wealthy elites of Jesus’ society and others of privilege and power combined their efforts to have Jesus and his movement silenced. 

If this is the early form of the language of this prayer, which makes sense given its Jewish roots in the Torah, there is a telling evolution in the language.

In Matthew’s gospel, the word “forgive” replaces the word “cancel,” yet the economic word of “debt” remains. 

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

Once we get to Luke’s gospel, written much latter, the economic element of this prayer is wholly removed, and the prayer’s application has been universalized instead of referencing a specific economic situation.

“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:2-4)

Crossan also sees this evolution of language:

“I have three conclusions from all of that textual activity. One is that ‘debts’ was originally intended quite literally. Jesus meant that eternal peasant dyad of enough bread for today and no debt for tomorrow. Were it originally and clearly metaphorical—‘debts’ meaning ‘sins’—everyone would have understood that intention and the progression in terminology from ‘debts’ to ‘trespasses’ to ‘sins’ would not have been necessary. Another is that, from Mark through Matthew and into Luke, ‘debts’ change to ‘trespasses’ and then to ‘sins. ’ In its present format, therefore, it seems advisable to read Matthew’s text as including both debt and sin—not debt alone, not sin alone, and certainly not sin instead of debt, but both together. Indeed, the ultimate challenge may be to ponder their interaction. And, at least for the biblical tradition, when debt creates too much inequality, it has become sinful.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, pp. 159-160)

Debt can become exploitative. To curb this exploitation, the Torah did not permit debts to extend past seven years.

The language in the prayer changes as the followers of Jesus change. As the early movement of Jesus followers changes from illiterate to more literate, from marginalized and impoverished to more centralized and more affluent, this prayer also changes from the wealthy cancelling debts to the violated forgiving perpetrators for sins committed against them.

These changes transfer responsibility from those in power to those in a very different social location from them. When we consider the societal cone that privileges and empowers some at the center and top of society and pushes others to the margins and undersides of society (see Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community, Part 1 and 2), the original language of this prayer makes those at the center and top responsible for canceling the debts of those on the peripheries or further down the social hierarchy. As the language evolves, it risks being coopted by the elite, and the responsibility is now placed on those on the margins and undersides to forgive the injustice of their violators and exploiters so that they too might be forgiven. This removes the responsibility of creating a more egalitarian world, cancelling actual debts, and redistributing wealth from those who will lose with these changes. It also asks those exploited by debt to simply forgive without the world or its structure being challenged or changed. 

There is a lot to consider here and much room for pause. Putting the world right includes not just forgiveness but also reparations. To call for reconciliation without reparations, to call for reconciliation solely on the basis of forgiveness being exercised on the part of those who have been harmed, is a special kind of oppression. It fails to hold perpetrators accountable. It fails to value and protect survivors. It fails to work towards the transformation and re-humanization of perpetrators, and genuine healing for those who have been sinned against. Certainly Jesus taught forgiveness. Jesus also called the wealthy, like Zacchaeus and others, to make reparations. To focus solely on only one of these is move away from a safer, just, compassionate world rather than towards it. 

To reemphasize what we focused on last week, the original language of this prayer shows a concern the early Jesus followers had for people’s temporal needs as well as the spiritual and relational well being of all. It sees humanity as whole beings again in a very Hebraic fashion, rather than as divided people only impacted by the gospel in one aspect of life. It’s a holistic prayer.

I want to close this week with a story from Matthew, where the focus on monetary debt cancellation still remains:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:23-34)

Today, we live in a world where most of the globe is indebted to so-called developed counties with debts that are impossible to pay off. Six people possess more wealth than the entire lower 50% of the world’s population. But we have come to the end of the monopoly game. It’s time for a reset. It’s time for a Jubilee. It’s time for debts to be cancelled. 

One way or another, history proves this reset will come. We can choose a gentler path of debt cancellation and wealth redistribution now, or a more volatile path where many are hurt in the process will be chosen for us in the future. Historical resets are cyclical. We can choose whether they come in life-giving or destructive form. What is clear is that our current path is not sustainable, economically, socially, or ecologically. What does it mean to live in this world in such a way that the answer to Jesus’ prayer is realized?

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12)

HeartGroup Application

I have a unique request of all those in our HeartGroups. I believe everyone reading this would agree with me when I say people matter.  And that’s why this week I want to share with you why politics also matter. But hang on! How we define politics also matters. Here in America, we make what I believe is a mistake in how we define politics. Politics for too many means parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law. And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie defines politics. “Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.”  She goes on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.”  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.  And as follower of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed, because this distribution can concretely hurt people. Wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” (McKenzie) there is simply no way to be apolitical.  There is no such thing as a political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or doesn’t hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement must be a political statement as well.”

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary where she made the statement, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more.  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state also is about keeping the church from welding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot, in following Jesus, advocate along side vulnerable communities calling for a just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that politics in not simply about voting. It also must be combined with movement building. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements.  I’ve witnessed this first hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building a movement for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.”  Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes.  Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either a participant in the discussion or we are the target of another’s agenda.

Which leads me to say, that voting, given our current structure, and especially for marginalized communities, yes, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. So this week, I want you to do something simple. Check your voter registration to make sure it’s current. If you’re not registered, do so.  This November, vote your values remembering that at the end of the day people matter and they will be concretely affected by the outcome. Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible.  As Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson shared, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

Picture of a pottery bowlRemember, too, there’s still time to participate in RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  We’ve had a good response so far.  To find how you, too, can join in click:

A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Right where you are, keep living in love, justice, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Keep engaging the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate home for everyone.

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week.

The Certainty of the Answer to Prayer

(Universal or Particular?)

by Herb Montgomery

hands folded in prayer

“I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Q 11:9-13)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:7-11: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:9-13: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Gospel of Thomas 92: Jesus says, “Seek and you will find.”

Gospel of Thomas 94: Jesus says: “The one who seeks will find. The one who knocks, to that one will it be opened.”

There is so much to say in regards to this week’s saying. The passage has been touted by sincere Christians wanting to encourage others to have assurance in relation to their prayers. I believe that interpretation takes this week’s saying out of its context.

Most Q scholars believe that this saying originally appeared right after the section we call the Lord’s prayer. This means that Jesus isn’t trying to bolster up our confidence in prayer or setting us up for disappointment when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus has just called us to pray for debt cancellation, today’s bread, and freedom from testing and trials. So with this week’s saying, Jesus is trying to inspire hope in that prayer. He is pleading with his audience to lean into the risk of being the first to set in motion economic revolution and then trust that it will come back around.

Remember, as we’ve said this year, God’s reign in Q is about trusting enough that God will send people to take care of you when you are in need tomorrow that you choose to be the person God sends to take of someone else today. Jesus’s saying is not on prayer in general. It’s specially in the context of trusting that Jesus’ economic plan will really work so we can let go and share.

If we do trust that if we seek this new world of people taking care of people, we will find it. If we knock on that door, it will open. Asking for today’s bread, we won’t get stones. Asking for fish, we won’t get snakes. And if we know how to take care of our kids, how much more will we, too, as we reach out to each other, also be taken care of.

Jesus shared this saying in the context of our fear or anxiety about following Jesus in mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and praying for our and others’ debts to be cancelled.

Gospel of Thomas

That this saying ever made it out of its original Judean context to the more Platonic context in the region around Edesse, where modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas originated, suggests that this is a saying of the historical Jesus and not simply a saying attributed to him after his death. There are a few points of evidence for this.

Matthew’s versus Luke’s Version

Matthew, believed to have been written before Luke, preserves the concrete, economic language in this week’s saying, even though the author of Matthew separated it from the Lord’s prayer by a whole chapter’s* worth of instruction. Luke, on the other hand, keeps this saying in the context of the Lord’s prayer but changes the wording dramatically to petition not for bread, resources, or debt cancellation but for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a unique element in the books attributed to Luke. In both Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit plays a much more substantial role than in Mark’s, Matthew’s or John’s gospels. Luke uses this saying about prayer to prepare us for what will later happen in Acts when the Holy Spirit is “given.” We’ve witnessed this kind of change before. In last week’s saying, too, Luke changed the earliest emphasis on debts being cancelled into personal grievances being forgiven. (See The Lord’s Prayer.)

As we said last week, both versions can be true. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are different, however, and these differences should not be glossed over as we study the canonical gospels.

Why Context Matters

I feel very strongly when we remove this saying from its context and make it about generic prayer rather than prayer specifically for economic revolution, then our false expectations set us up for deep disappointments. We might pray for something important to us and place all our hopes in what seems to be a magical promise, only to watch what we pray for not materialize.

A friend of mine recently claimed this passage as he interviewed over for job after job. He “asked, sought, and knocked,” only to be told repeatedly he was not what each company was looking for. After this series of disappointments, he wrote:

“I don’t believe in prayer anymore. I’ve prayed for jobs, specific jobs, and most of the jobs I prayed for, I didn’t get; most of the jobs I ever got, came without praying. Is it easier to believe in a God that plays favoritism or that there’s no God at all? I think it’s much easier to be an atheist or an agnostic.”

His disappointment over his unanswered prayer was only worsened by the false expectations of prayer that he’d been taught. Understanding this saying as a proverb about all prayer was emotionally damaging in a disheartening situation.

So how should we understand this passage?

In light of Jesus’ “year of the Lord’ favor,” the year when all debts should be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1), imagine you are one in Jesus’ audience who both owes others money and is also owed money by others. You depend on being repaid to repay those you owe, and you have real anxiety about releasing those who owe you and the fear that those you owe will still hold you accountable is real. Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, and you won’t get snakes.”

Say you are one who barely has enough for yourself to survive from day to day. Jesus’ words on mutual aid and resource sharing activate your fear that you will go without if you share with others, and your self-preservation impulse is triggered. Jesus again encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

Or imagine you are someone very wealthy in Jesus’ audience. You have taken savvy risks with your money. You have been careful and  overcome bad turns of events. Things may not have always gone your way, but somehow, today, you have come out on top. Jesus asks even you to voluntarily redistribute your wealth to those with great needs around you. Jesus is asking you to let go of your fear of what may happen to you in the future and to prioritize taking care of people today over profit so that you can survive what may come tomorrow. The fear is real, and yet Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock, you won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

It is easier to interpret this saying as about all prayer rather than specifically about the prayer Jesus taught. But we must allow the context of this saying to confront us, to inspire us to take specific economic action, and not to give us false hope. When we minimize the economic meaning of this saying, we only set ourselves up for grief when our expectations aren’t met.

Remember, the reign of God is not God simply raining down what we pray for from some place above. God’s reign, for Jesus, is people taking care of people. People who take responsibility for people, balancing the needs of each individual with the needs of the community, the human community, and the global community, and this would today include the care of the earth itself. Trusting in our choices today, specifically our choices to be the ones who take care of each other, we will be setting in motion an awakening where tomorrow there will be those who will also take care of us.

Recently, in an announcement that she would become a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminar in New York City, Michelle Alexander states, “Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”

It is by understanding this week’s saying in its original context that we might be able to recapture a Jesus who called for an awakening in his own society. Two thousand years ago, he hoped for liberation that included being freed from “fear, greed, and the hunger for power.”

So, in this context, let’s consider the courage we’re called to take hold of in these words:

I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Q 11:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, go back to the Lord’s prayer from last week and look at all three sections:

a. Enough Bread for Today (Resource Sharing)

b. Cancelling/Forgiving all Debts

c. Choosing Life rather than Death

  1. Discuss what each of these look like to you personally and as a group when you apply them to your lives today.
  2. How can you help each other practice these three?
  3. Pick one of the ways you come up with to help each other this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

However you choose to apply the values we are considering this week, do so 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.


*Chapter and verse delineation did not exist in the original documents but were added between the 13th and 16th centuries.

The Lord’s Prayer 

Shared Economy Sign

by Herb Montgomery

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:9-12: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Luke 11:2-4: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation. ’ ”

This week, we’re looking at a saying in Q that many now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Last week, we looked at the problematic nature of gendering God and Jesus’ naming God as our Father. This week, we’ll consider the tangible, concrete, economic nature of the rest of this prayer.

Jesus’ “reign of God,” as we have learned this year, can be defined simply as people helping people, taking responsibility for one another, living in centered relationships and community with a focus on quality of life for those whose lives and value as human beings has been denied, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Daily Bread

This prayer purposefully focuses on today: not tomorrow, but today. Gandhi is believed to have said that every day the earth produces enough for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. Greed can be defined as the exploitation of others and the hoarding of more than one needs for today (from fear of what may come tomorrow) while ignoring the basic daily needs of those being exploited.

In this prayer, Jesus doesn’t ask for tomorrow’s needs to be assured. He asks for our needs be met today. As we let go of our fear of the future, relinquish the exploitation of others, and choose instead a community of mutual aid, resource sharing, and mutual responsibility and care, we enter a path of trust. We trust that someone will take care of us if something should befall us tomorrow; we trust enough to be the ones who take care of those trouble has befallen today.

This is a path of abandonment and embrace. We’re abandoning values such as individualism and independence, and embracing our reality as humans who are interdependent. So we choose to balance each individual’s needs and the community where all of those needs can be met.

We take care of each other today, and leave tomorrow to worry about itself. As long as we have each other, we can together face what may come tomorrow. We don’t put our trust or hope in accumulated wealth but rather in each other as we live out the faith that Jesus modeled and the love that God shows us (see Psalms 62:10 cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).

Cancel All Debts

Next, this saying refers to debt cancellation. Some Q scholars believe that the phrase “cancel all debts” was part of the earliest form of this prayer. It’s interesting how the versions of this saying progressed from Jesus’ and the Torah’s concerns about economic liberation to a more “spiritual” language for debt that left the economic plight of the poor unaddressed. That’s convenient!

Let me explain.

It’s believed that the earliest form of the Q source text said “cancel our debts for us as we have cancelled those in debt to us.” In the spirit of the Torah’s sabbatical year (jubilee), this represented a community that had literally cancelled the debts of those who owed them, and now prayed that, like dominoes, their creditors would cancel their debts as well. They were setting something in motion and praying for its end: all debts forgiven!

When Matthew’s gospel adds this saying to Mark’s narrative, it becomes “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This still means essentially the same thing, but notice the word “forgive.” This change sets up the phrasing in Luke.

Luke’s gospel phrases this saying, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” This final step enlarges the prayer and makes it relational rather than economic. Any sin is now included and the Torah/sabbatical year connection is lost. Now the prayer becomes a matter of forgiving wrongs other have committed in hopes that one’s own wrongs will also be forgiven.

All three versions of the prayer are valid. It’s also important to know their origins as well. We often focus on Jesus’s relational teachings today, and with good reason. Jesus’s economic teachings are challenging, and it can seem preferable to avert one’s gaze. Yet they are there in his teachings nonetheless, along with the teachings of the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” (Deuteronomy 15:1)

Luke’s gospel also affirms the centrality of “all debts cancelled” in a unique way. Luke begins Jesus’ ministry with Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah in a Sabbath synagogue service and reading:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18)

This “year of the Lord’s favor” is the sabbatical year Deuteronomy 15:1 refers to, a year when the people were to cancel all debts.

That commandment brought hope to indentured farmers, who used to own the farms they now worked on, and the day laborers who worked with them earning day wages. And what fear, objection, and threat it must have brought to Herod’s economy in Galilee and the wealthy aristocracy centered in Jerusalem. The economic elite in Galilee and Jerusalem would no doubt have been anxious to rid their societies of this itinerant teacher stirring up the hopes of the poor. (See The Jesus Story.)

There is a contrast, too, between the way Herod and Jesus approached politics. Politics is the subject of power and resources (wealth). Herod sought to hoard and then wield power and resources as the means whereby his Jewish people would be liberated, with him at the helm as hero, and liberation flowing unilaterally from him to the people.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught that both power and resources should be shared. Rather than the unilateral hero deliverance that we have transformed Jesus’ salvation into, Jesus taught the shared power of community where debts are cancelled, resources are shared, wealth is redistributed, and mutual aid becomes the order of the day. Jesus wanted his followers to be the source of a liberation that not only benefitted the Jewish people but would spread to and change the Roman world as well.

It is a misunderstanding to say that a community informed by Jesus’ teachings today should be relegated to spiritual matters and matters of politics should be left to the state. Jesus had much to say that was political—about power and resources. The community of Jesus followers is just as political as the state; we simply choose to go about politics differently.

Not Being Put To the Test 

Lastly this week I want to discuss the difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross as pushback from the death dealers, and thinking that a cross or suffering is in itself the goal. Choosing a cross doesn’t bring life. Choosing life brings life. And sometimes we have to choose life even when a cross is being threatened against us, but choose life and thus a cross we must.

There is a subtle difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross and choosing a cross for the cross’s sake. If we can avoid suffering without sacrificing justice or our hold on life, then that is the better choice. In Jesus’ time, the cross was state execution. When you’re dead, whatever your reasons, you’re dead. In following Jesus, we should choose life even if threatened with death from the death dealers, and we should also not go around looking to get killed. This is why, I believe, we are taught to pray:

“Do not put us to the test!”

Because Jesus followers seek to emulate Jesus, how we define “being like Jesus” is vital. Jesus chose the way of life even when being threatened with a cross; he did not choose a cross. In cases of domestic violence, many women are counseled to “be like Jesus,” though they have sacrificed their selves by remaining in environments that are destructive to their entire being. We must be careful not to glorify suffering in contexts like these, and careful as we reject redemptive violence not to teach redemptive suffering.

To be like Jesus means to choose life, even with all the risks, threats, and dangers that taking hold of life and not being willing to let go of it entails, all the while praying that we will not be brought to what the gospel writers call the time of testing.

We choose life regardless of risk, knowing there may be a cross as a result, and keeping our focus on the life found in Jesus, not the death found in Jesus. When Jesus calls a person to follow him, he does not call that person to die, he calls that person to live! It is the threats of the powers that be that overshadow our choice of life with the cross. It’s not an intrinsic connection, but an imposed one. We’ll cover this again and in much more detail when we get to Jesus’ sayings about taking up the cross.

Today, my intuition tells me we must allow ourselves to face the economic elements of the Lord’s prayer in its original form. In a dog-eat-dog world, what could be changed if we chose to strike a more radical balance between individualism and what is best for our community?

Debt cancellation is a large task. Some are doing this task well, but not all of us are creditors. I would assume that many more of us are on the “debtor” side of the coin, and so an easier entry point may be a simple choice to follow Jesus’ teachings on mutual aid and sharing.

Regardless of where we pick up Jesus’ economic teachings, we can make a choice to subvert our culture’s tendency to value property over people or even treat people as property, and instead place people before both profit and property. The power of this choice should not be underestimated. It is the very stuff that has the potential to change our world.

And so we too pray,

“Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

HeartGroup Application 

Too often, the church has only embraced social change once outside forces have given it no other option. We have taught that the gospel story teaches values that can create change more intrinsically. But this has never been how it has taken place, not yet. Whether we are talking about slavery, equality for the sexes, economic change, or, today, justice for our LGBT siblings, the church has seemed to lag.

For discussion this week:

  1. Discuss examples of where, historically, change did not come for the church from internal causes, but from outside pressures.
  2. Discuss why you feel this is typical, and what your group may be able to do to change that order for you.
  3. Pick one of those things and implement it this coming week.

The Lord’s Prayer could produce radical socioeconomic change for those who have the courage not just to pray it, but also to step out and implement it in the world. Let’s not just pray it. Let’s put it into action.

Thanks again for checking in this week.

Wherever you are and whatever you may find yourself in the midst of, our hope is that your heart has been renewed and inspired to continue following the salvific teachings of Jesus in your life and community.

Keep living in love, daily choosing love above all else, 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.