No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice is we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so at by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the world of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you next week.

Response to a Town’s Rejection

by Herb Montgomery

“But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town.” (Q 10:10-12)

Picture of dirty sandaled feetCompanion Texts:

Matthew 10:14-15: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Luke 10:10-12: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Our saying this week has a long history of anti-Semitism. Christians have used the phrase “shaking the dust from one’s feet” as a symbol of Jews rejecting Gentiles. But it is simplistic to say that Jews shook the dust off of their feet when leaving Gentile territories as a rejection of Gentiles and it is anti-Semitic to use it to justify rejecting Jews for their rejection of “Jesus as their Messiah.”

What is a better way to understand this ancient practice?

Shaking Dust from One’s Feet

If this was a practice of the first century Jewish people it would have most likely been a practice of those who followed the Pharisaical school of Shammai. The school of Shammai wanted to maintain the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in an effort to preserve Jewish identity and culture when Hellenism was threatening their culture. I don’t believe that tribal distinctions are the healthiest way to preserve identity, nor do I subscribe to Shammai’s teachings on this, but I can’t fault the people of that era either. I get it. This was a people who were still recovering from their exile and dispersion throughout the region and trying desperately to hold on to their identity.

The Pharisaical school of Hillel, which many of Jesus’ teachings are more in harmony with, did not follow that strict distinction between Jew and Gentile. Instead, Hillel taught that every person, Jew or Gentile, was created in the image of God and worthy of respect and treatment according to the Golden Rule. (We covered this in much more detail earlier this year in The Golden Rule.)

Ultimately the Jewish people abandoned the school of Shammai in favor of Hillel’s more inclusive practices. Karen Armstrong writes about the people’s choice in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem:

“It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’

“Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Kindle Edition.)

Luke, the most Gentile of the synoptic gospels, colors Jesus’ instructions with the phrase “as a warning.” By rejecting the values and teachings that Jesus and Hillel sought to promote in Judaism, those in the school of Shammai who practiced shaking Gentile dust off their feet were headed toward the same fate that they claimed the Gentiles were headed toward. In their ethic of separation, alienation, and independence, they were actually aligning themselves more with the path of destruction then the Gentiles they wanted to be separate from.

Remember, Jesus’ community practiced interdependence, mutualism, and resource-sharing. The Jewish followers of Shammai rejected the path of interdependence for independence, isolationism, and exceptionalism, and so they shared with violent revolutionists a path that would ultimately lead to a devastating backlash from the Romans.

Shaking the dust off of one’s feet could not have indicated rejection of the Jews because Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. Yet a Jewish Jesus would have felt burdened to communicate that there was no moral difference between those who rejected his values and those they claimed moral superiority to. Jesus makes this statement in Matthew’s gospel:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47, emphasis added.)

Shaking dust off of one’s feet was not an act of rejection, but an act of warning. It was a warning to those one genuinely cared about, was invested in, and saw as one’s own people. It was a sign of deep concern with the direction one’s own community was headed in.

Sodom’s Story: Not Finished.

Let’s close this with the 1st Century Jewish belief that Sodom’s story was not finished. Sodom still had a future, and I believe this is important.

First, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. The atrocity of Sodom, according the Hebrew scriptures was this:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Sodom had become so wealthy and isolationist that any immigrants to Sodom were rejected, even if fleeing there for safety, and subjected to physical violence or even sexual violence. The threat of sexual violence we read about in Genesis 19, rape of men and women, was a common war practice in the ancient world, used to emasculate, dehumanize, and humiliate enemies.*

As inhospitable and greedy as Sodom was, however, Ezekiel uses Sodom’s narrative as an indictment against his own people:

“As surely as I live, declares the [LORD], your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.” (Ezekiel 16:48)

But then Ezekiel throws in a twist with the Sodom narrative. He envisions a river of life that one day flows out from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47.1-2). And what this river of life does for Sodom is restorative, not destructive.

“He said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. [In Ezekiel’s time, the Dead Sea was believed to be the region of ancient Sodom.] When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. People will fish along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.’” (Ezekiel 47.8-12, emphasis added.)

Ezekiel had previously said,

“However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before.” (Ezekiel 16:53-55, emphasis added)

Because of how many Christians use the New Testament passages of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6 today, it is important to understand that Ezekiel saw a positive ending to Sodom’s narrative. Many Christians today use Sodom’s narrative as an example of the future destruction of some categories of people and this belief influences them to practice a hopeless exclusion of whomever they deem unlike them. But Jesus, like Ezekiel, believed that the future of his own people could still be bright.

So in this week’s saying about shaking the dust off one’s feet, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets: he evokes the narrative of Sodom and compares it to his own people’s future fate. Jesus shows deep concern for the society of his day and the unbearable retaliation Rome would inflict upon Jerusalem if his community continued on its current path. Jesus’ nonviolence and the resource-sharing principles would have placed the people on a radically different trajectory.

I believe that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish people did, through the teachings of Hillel, partially transition to the path Jesus showed, and they made great strides in love, kindness, nonviolence, and radical inclusivity. Economically, Hillel’s and Jesus’ teachings were somewhat different, and I believe Jesus’ economic teachings were more in harmony with the Torah than Hillel’s. But Jesus’ radical resource sharing and ethics of nonviolence are both waiting for a present or future generation to choose.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at the interdependent elements of Jesus’ mission instructions. This week we’re beginning to transition into the next section of Jesus teachings. Just like this week’s saying, these next few sayings contain warnings for his generation if they didn’t abandon their path, if they didn’t choose the path he was presenting.

I can’t help but notice that history is cyclical. We in our society today may be being faced with the same choices that first generations of Christians were. With Jesus’ path of nonviolence and resource-sharing in mind, let’s take a moment to contemplate Jesus’ warning:

But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town. (Q 10:10-12) 

HeartGroup Application

I want to introduce to you a friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk. If you haven’t read his books, they are well worth it and I recommend them highly. This last week, Mark posted this statement on social media:

“I hate coercion!” says the modern man. “Except for, perhaps, the many coercions of the past that have made me so prosperous.”

It is like the parable of the man who slays an entire neighborhood and takes their treasures. Afterwards, he declares himself a pacifist. When the relatives of those slain [come] to his door, angrily holding bats, he says: “You should be pacifists, like me!”

1.   In the context of this statement, discuss in your HeartGroup what it would look like for your group to lean more deeply into the nonviolence and resource-sharing that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q taught.

2.   List three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to embrace nonviolence in today’s society. Also list three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to share resources and even participate in the reparations needed in our society today.

3.   Pick one action from each list to put into practice between this week and next.

We cannot continue today on our current trajectory without reaching a breaking point. As we are contemplating the changes we so deeply need, the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q and those whose experiences of life vary from one another can inform our choices to move toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all.

It’s much easier to simply worship Jesus than to put into place the world-healing teachings he taught. But healing the world is what Jesus spent his life doing, and his story has called to those who would listen ever since saying, “follow me.”

Thanks for joining us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*It’s part of the implicit misogyny of the original culture and contemporary Christian culture that the threatened rape of Lot’s daughters—human women—is almost always glossed over in favor of horror about the threat of rape against “male” angels, the different flesh of Jude.

John’s Inquiry about the One to Come

(Healing versus Destruction)

woman helping homeless man on park benchby Herb Montgomery

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ And in reply he said to them: ‘Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.’” (Q 7:18-23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11.2-6: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Luke 7.18-23: “John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Isaiah 35.5-6: Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

As we discussed briefly last week, the story of the centurion, Jesus as a healer, and the liberation sayings of Jesus in the gospel narratives all led up to embracing Jesus as the “one to come.”

The blind regain their sight.

The lame walk around.

The skin-diseased are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor receive good news. 

Jesus is the proof of these liberatory hopes and expectations. Yet there are two kinds of liberation here. One is physical, and the other is economic. Understanding this is one of the hooks that prevents me from simply throwing out the Jesus story. Yes, the Jesus story includes supernatural healing stories. Yet its primary focus is not Jesus the miracle worker, nor Jesus the magician, but rather the Jesus the liberator of the suffering, the poor, the oppressed, the disinherited, and the marginalized. Liberation is the genus of his ministry, and physical healing and economic healing are two distinct species.

It’s worth noting that the original Jesus followers were not postmodern, modern, or post Enlightenment people as we are. They were a product of their own times, and the Jewish world view they subscribed to most was a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. (I have written on the tenets of Jewish apocalypticism; please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator.) As we’ve shared before, the apocalyptic worldview, influenced by Zoroastrianism, saw this world as the visible expression of a much larger, behind-the-scenes, cosmic conflict between forces of good and evil: earthly political and physical forces were only the extension of that cosmic conflict. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome would all have been viewed by Jewish apocalypticists as simply the puppet-empires of YHWH’s and Israel’s cosmic enemies.

They applied this belief in cosmic war to physical illness and disabilities as well. They had no understanding of germ theory or physiology, or even the insight modern people have into anatomy. If someone was sick, for example, it was the work of unseen cosmic forces from which the person’s need was liberation. Healing, was not supernatural, but rather liberating, about an assumed relationship between a seen effect and its unseen cause.

For Jesus to be a liberator in the way that his original audience would have understood it, Jesus’ liberation had to include economic and political liberation. The fact that it also included physical healing classified Jesus as a complete liberator in an apocalyptic dualist sense as well. This would have been deeply significant in their 1st Century setting.

A Noteworthy Transition

There is a noteworthy difference between the traditional apocalyptic liberator and the Jesus of the Jesus story, however.

Sayings Gospel Q begins with John announcing a coming judgment.

“He said to the crowds coming to be‚ baptized: ‘Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage? So bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to tell yourselves: We have as forefather Abraham! For I tell you: God can produce children for Abraham right out of these rocks! And the ax already lies at the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing healthy fruit is to be chopped down and thrown on the fire. I baptize you in water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. He will baptize you in Spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.’” (Q 3:7-9; 16b-17)

Just as the apocalyptic world view viewed visible agents on earth as conduits of cosmic good or evil forces, John’s statement also looked forward to a dualistic judgment where the earthly oppressed conduits of cosmic good would be vindicated and liberated while their earthly oppressors, viewed as conduits of cosmic evil, would be judged, punished and destroyed. He foresaw liberation for the oppressed but vengeance on oppressors.

Sayings Gosepl Q shows a transition from John’s more punitive liberating judgment to Jesus’s restorative liberation: for Jesus, the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors would be restored. (See last week’s eSight to recall how this story relates to the story of the centurion.)

The liberation represented in the sayings of Jesus was not simply justice for the disinherited and vengeance on their enemies, but also a liberation marked by the healing or restoration of both sides, the subjugated as well as the subjugators. Jesus’s liberation called people away from the dehumanizing way of domination, where we endlessly create more and more effective ways of achieving power and control over others. He instead cast before our imaginations a world of mutual aid and resource sharing, where we together work to survive and then thrive as members of an interconnected human family.

When one couples this description of what the liberation of Jesus looked like—healing, restoration, liberation, and good news to the poor—with last week’s section of the gospel narrative, the point becomes stark. Jesus emerges not as a liberator wielding mass destruction on enemies, but as a liberator who works through restoration, healing, and even the nonviolent transformation of one’s enemies. It’s a humanizing liberation for all.

Granted, those who benefit from the way of domination (i.e. the dominators or those who participate in some way) don’t see this as good news today and didn’t in Jesus’s time either. As Peter Gomes stated in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Jesus’s statement that “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” “is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions [but] is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (p. 42). What is good news to the people at the bottom of the social pyramid will never be perceived as good news to those at the top.

Jesus’s liberation was also problematic to those among the people who thought violent revolution was their only hope. A nonviolent revolution did not seem very promising in the 1st Century; remember, this was before Gandhi and others demonstrated nonviolence. Though it may seem otherwise, liberation rooted in enemy love and transformation rather than the mass destruction of one’s enemies is good news.

Matthew and Luke both use the narrative of John’s disciples to connect Jesus’ liberation of the poor and oppressed with the liberation Isaiah looked forward to. Matthew includes this theme in his expansion of Mark, and Luke expands this theme even more so in his own gospel. An example of Luke’s greater emphasis on liberation is the story only found in Luke from Luke 4:16-20 where Jesus (who by all cultural expectation should have been illiterate) actually reads from Isaiah itself (cf. Isaiah 61.1-2).

For Q, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the long awaited arrival of the liberation that Israel had been looking forward to since the days of Isaiah. Isaiah 35.5-6 states, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” But the nature or character of Isaiah’s liberation brought its own set of challenges, some of which we have mentioned this week. One element of the liberation found in Isaiah, which would have been and still is very puzzling for many, was the image of the suffering servant.

It’s important to realize that the Jesus of the gospels is not inventing nonviolence. He is simply taking the nonviolence in Isaiah seriously. He is leaning into it, exploring where it could lead if skillfully and intentionally applied to his own day and the dynamics between Rome and the Jewish poor.

Healing Versus Destruction

Today, we must be careful in both religious and secular settings not to describe the liberation we’re working toward as a vision of destroying people who oppose our work. Our goal is not to destroy our enemies but to transform them by winning them. John the Baptist’s “one to come” was a destroyer, separating humanity and bringing fire upon the chaff. But Jesus doesn’t quite line up with that description, and it causes John to question whether the people should be “looking for another.”Jesus teaches John that his liberation was quite different: it was to be a different “recompense.” Jesus’s liberating ministry is characterized by the healing, restoration and a radical change in the lives of those the status quo impoverished, for sure, but it was also to be a radical change in humanizing even the oppressors.

Rome had already made life a desert for the majority of Jewish citizens through violent oppression. Jesus did not come as another destroyer promising peace, but as a teacher showing the path toward liberation, life, and healing. He pointed the way to a world where, as Isaiah and Micah had hoped, there was enough for everyone.

“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the YWHW from Jerusalem. He will govern between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2.3-4)

“Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4.2-4, emphasis added.)

This is a world that can be characterized as a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all where all injustice, oppression and violence has been put right.

The question we’re returning to in this series is whether that vision cast by the Jewish Jesus in the 1st Century has any relevance to our world of corporatism, militarism, bigotry, and fear. Many in Jesus’s Galilean audience desperately longed for a change from Roman imperialist tyranny. And Jesus offered a path rooted in our interconnectedness with each other; a subversive way that called us to take up the work of making our world a safer home for us all.

To each of you on this path of healing and restoration as opposed to the path of destruction: may this week’s section of Q encourage and confirm you in the energy you invest in those around you:

“ . . . the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor . . . ” (Sayings Gospel Q 7:18-23)

Whatever portion of the work you are investing your time in, be of courage. Together we are making a difference in bringing liberation to the lives of those who are suffering.

HeartGroup Application

This week, go back and review John’s description of what he thought Jesus would be and the gospel writers’ description of what Jesus actually was.

  1. Try listing at least five contrasts between the two.
  2. Do you see these contrasting visions in contemporary religious groups of people who value the Jesus story? Which some communities do you see continuing John the Baptist’s work, warning of a coming destruction, living an ascetic life, and crying out repent? Which communities do you sense are focused on healing and liberation from suffering today? Which communities, like the one I grew up, are a hybrid of both?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how you can lean into being a community centered in healing and restoration, and pick at least one action step from your discussion to begin implementing.

We are in this together, and there’s still so much work to do. Thank you for being on this journey of transformation and restoration, too. Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

The Tree Is Known by its Fruit

Grape VinesBY HERB MONTGOMERY

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:43-45)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6.43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 12.33-35: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Gospel of Thomas 45: “Jesus says: Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs picked from thistles, for they do not produce fruit. A good person brings forth good from his treasure. A bad person brings forth evil from the bad treasure that is in his heart, and in fact he speaks evil. For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil.”

The saying we’re considering this week answers a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized. People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”

The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.

I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.

I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.

Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared last week, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.

The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” Jesus teaches us how in the saying we’re looking at this week:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?

European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.

From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”

Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind eyes opened through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.

Wisdom Teachings

This week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q is included in Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel Thomas. It is classified as part of Jesus’s “wisdom” teachings (as opposed to apocalyptic teachings). We’ll discuss the differences between Wisdom sayings, Apocalypticism, and Platonism in much more detail as we continue along in the teachings of Sayings Gospel Q. For now, though, what you need to know is that the early Jesus communities saw this saying as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.

It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41).  A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed (p. 36).

When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.

As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, not initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.

Let me give three concrete examples.  There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming.  Here are the facts.

  1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
  2. LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
  3. Last year, more than 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. alone. The number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate.  (Learn more here and here.)

When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”

We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.  Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty.  And that is only a few.

With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Palestine that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.

“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)

Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”

Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is not surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there.

So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and behavior, Sayings Gospel Q states:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

 HeartGroup Application

This week, contemplate what it means for you to begin evaluating Biblical interpretations and their effects not just on yourself but also on the most vulnerable communities in our society. One good way to do this is to continue what you started with last week’s HeartGroup application.

  1. Keep reading the book your group chose! Keep listening!
  2. Begin journaling the insights, questions, and feelings that you experience as you work through the material.
  3. Circle in your journal entries what you want to share with your group when you review together next month. Review week is now only three weeks away.

To you who are joining us on this journey through Sayings Gospel Q, thank you! I’m so glad you are tracking with us.

Keep contemplating the “fruits” of your interpretations. Keep listening. And keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.