A Different Kind of Messiah

Herb Montgomery | May 29, 2020

Appalachian mountains


“Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.”


In Luke, Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God was coming. He answers:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [plural].” Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:20-37)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is warning his society about certain paths toward liberation given the violent retribution that Rome responded to uprisings with.

I believe that Jesus taught liberation, but what is clear is that he is balancing that desire with the desire for survival, too. Womanist scholars introduced me to this tension between liberation and survival, and I see it in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.

Jesus provides an alternative to liberation attempts that create devastation in verses 20-21:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Kingdom rhetoric is problematic for us today given both its non-democratic and patriarchal nature. I have struggled over the years to find other language for the gospel’s use of the term “kingdom.” I know it had meaning for the original audience of the gospels. What language might we use today? I like the language I’ve heard Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas use: “God’s just future.” God’s just future is societal justice and distributive justice. It’s a vision for a distributively just society, a way of orienting society after the golden rule.

The proclamation of God’s just future and the seeds for that future being present with us right now: that was Jesus’ gospel! It is the centerpiece of each synoptic Jesus story (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), especially Luke’s gospel.

Pervading each step through Luke’s version is this announcement of the kingdom or God’s just future:

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Luke 8:1)

“And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal.” (Luke 9:2)

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

In our original passage, the disciples are challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision,” to explain what his vision of a liberated society is. In response, Luke’s Jesus contrasts his approach with other liberation theories current at the time Luke’s gospel was written, and he issues a warning.

I’ve written on the problems of privatizing and individualizing Jesus’ response to the disciples before.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” had a social context. The 1st Century historian Josephus gives us a window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Josephus writes around 50 C.E. when revolutionary prophets led large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, viewed this as the first stage of revolt and sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the groups into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, and Smallwood, p. 147).

The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian,” who is also mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberatory uprising: a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These leaders were not lunatics but hopeful messiah figures, action prophets who contemporary scholars now see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants to exert human efforts that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. Their logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present a violent human effort for Yahweh to bless, and God would meet their efforts if they acted.

The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Today, this is called sign propaganda. When a contemporary politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following, they are doing the same. A much darker example is when White supremacists wave the Confederate flag when then they protest or rally. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-1st Century in Jerusalem used this technique of employing symbols from their own past to win over sectors of their populace that wanted liberation from Rome.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children obeying another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This leader had told the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to receive the signs of deliverance in the Temple (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate. This Samaritan prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, Pilate’s troops attacked and overwhelmed the armed crowd at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

So when Jesus says “The Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” Luke is emphatically rejecting these popular methods of leading masses of Jewish poor people to die when Roman soldiers retaliated. He warns specifically, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these would-be messiahs would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters.

Today, there is a breaking point once again. Those most deeply impacted by the injustice inherent in our present system face injustice amplified and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can Jesus’ warnings offer us anything as we work toward building the kind of world we want to live in? We often use the language at RHM of building a world that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for everyone. I also like the language Ashlee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highland Center in Tennessee, used to sign off on a Facebook post: “Sweet dreams of revolutionary change, a world where everyone has what they need, and no harm exists for any of us.”

That’s what we need right now. That’s the kind of world I want to be building. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where everyone has when they need, not just to survive but to thrive, and no systemic harm exists for anyone.

We’ll discuss the last part of Jesus’ warning in our passage next.

Jesus warns, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Following would-be messiah figures might have seemed right to them at the time, but they would lead to death, not liberation (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). The “son of man” reference here, I believe, points to the liberation work in the Hebrew apocalyptic writings of Daniel 7. In Daniel, the beast-like oppressive world empires are contrasted with the work of the humanizing messiah (“son of humanity”) who makes real God’s just future for the people. Luke’s Jesus is here saying that in following common messiah figures you may long for the fulfillment of expectations around Daniel’s “son of man,” but you will not see it and the end will not be as you hope.

Again, it’s easy for Luke’s gospel, which was written after the occurrence of the events in 70 C.E., to connect these dots for its audience. It would have been harder for those caught up in the moment/movement to foresee that outcome at the time.

In our passage, Jesus states that the son of man, or expectations of the liberation described in Daniel 7, would appear in a more obvious manner, as lightning streaming across the sky from east to west. This would not be a conspiracy or a movement where only a select few perceived what is happening. It would be more noticeable, much more.

During our stay home/safer at home executive orders here in WV, I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political & Religious Roots of European Socialism. The part that most recently spoke to me was about how theologian Karl Barth forbade students from bringing politics into his lectures and classroom discussions during the rise of Nazi-ism in Germany. He dangerously believed doctrine could be separated from politics and failed to understand that all theology is political, either in the side it takes outspokenly or the side it takes in its silence.

Barth, at a time when his voice could have done valuable good, instead believed that Nazi ideology “was too absurd to take seriously, and he respected Germans too much to believe they would fall for it” (Dorrien, p. 259). Barth did not take into account how desperate things had become for the German people in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. And desperate communities are far more dangerous than desperate individuals.

That struck me deeply and reminded me of my own feelings during the last U.S. election. I thought Trump was too absurd to take seriously. I mistakenly believed too much in many of my own Appalachian friends and neighbors, thinking they would not fall for Trump. Many in these hills who voted for Trump in 2016 now find that his failures to respond adequately to this pandemic has finally pushed them over the line. They, too, now say he is dangerous. I also know far too many whose opinion has not changed and who are planning to vote for him again.

In Times Square in New York City, a 56-foot billboard called the Trump Death Clock now hangs. The brain-child of Eugene Jarecki, it shows a very conservative estimate of the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths that have resulted from the president and his team’s failed response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Fauci and leading epidemiologists, if mitigation guidelines had been put into effect just one week earlier, on March 9 instead of March 16, 60% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented. During that time, Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh were still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Jarecki has received criticism of his billboard from both the left and the right: criticism from the right for obvious reasons, and from those on the left who believe his numbers are much lower than they should be. Jarecki has erected the Trump Death Clock on behalf of all those who’ve died because of failed leadership in a pandemic. It stands as a symbol, not only for accountability but also for more responsible and responsive stewardship going forward.

Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.

“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (Luke 17:20-37)

HeartGroup Application

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

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

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. How is all theology political? Please discuss this with your group. What is our political responsibility presently as followers of Jesus?
  3. What is currently taking place in your own life right now? What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to do this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well. Stay safe.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week