The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Texts:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclusivity

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

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

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

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

Connectedness and Equality

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

Matthew’s story ends:

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

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

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

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

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

Now about the king’s rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

carouselesight

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

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He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”

And again,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.

A God Who Takes Sides by Herb Montgomery

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“‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Jesus (Matthew 20.12-16, emphasis added.)

This week I want to share with you a thought that I initially was very resistant to; once embraced, however, it truly and radically changes everything. This way of seeing God dramatically affects how we view ourselves as well as everyone around us.

What I want to share with you is the image of a God who takes sides.

We don’t like this way of picturing God. We want a God who is on everyone’s side. First, let me share with you what this doesn’t mean.

In Mark’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus’ interaction with a rich man. It says that Jesus “loved him” (Mark 10.21). To say that God takes sides is not to diminish in the least the fact that God infinitely loves those on both sides of oppression and marginalization. God loves both the oppressors and the oppressed. It is precisely God’s love for both sides of systemic injustice that is the basis of God’s desire to save both the oppressor and the oppressed from their enslavement to systemic oppression. And how does God do it? By standing in solidarity with the oppressed and calling the oppressor to do so too. In Mark 10, we are coming face to face with economic oppression. And Jesus, because he loves the rich man, takes the side of the poor and calls the rich man to a radical redistribution. Jesus is standing in solidarity with the poor and calls for the rich man to abandon his position of economic privilege (which would have most likely been land ownership) and to join Jesus, to follow Jesus, in stepping into solidarity with the poor as well. “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”

We see in Jesus the revelation of a God who takes sides—this can also be seen in Luke 6.20-26 too!

The poor will be blessed by this new world I’ve come to inaugurate. The rich are going to struggle. The rich will find my radical redistribution difficult to embrace.

This will be true of the “Hungry” versus the “Well Fed,” those who “Weep” versus those who “Laugh.” Those who are “Hated” versus those who are “Spoken Well Of.”

Make no doubt about it. Jesus loves everyone on both sides. Yet He is seeking to save both sides as well. Jesus is seeking to establish a new world for both sides where oppression, violence, and injustice are put right. And this can only be done by His standing with the oppressed and calling to the oppressors to rethink everything and to follow Him in taking their place among the oppressed.

Remember, the father of the prodigal son deeply loves the older brother. He wants to save the older brother. And the father endeavors to do so through maintaining his solidarity with the younger brother and pleading with the older brother to embrace the younger one as well. In other words, the father is not going to change who he is to accommodate the older brother’s prejudice toward his younger sibling. The older brother is going to have to change and stand alongside his father, embracing his younger brother, if he is to come in from the outer darkness this night.

To see this God who takes the side of the oppressed is vital if we are to follow Jesus into His radical new world.

Remember that Rome claimed the gods were on their side. Herod claimed God had chosen him as the messiah and rightful king of Israel. Caiaphas and the chief priest claimed God was on their side, dwelling at the center of their temple worship, dwelling in their temple’s most holy place.

Yet the Presence was not found in any of these. The Resurrection proves that God’s Presence was actually revealed to be with and within the One shamefully suspended between heaven and earth at the hands of the unjust oppressive Powers.

The Resurrection proclaims that God did take a side that day. It proclaims a God who stood in solidarity with the One who was on the cross at the hands of those unjust systems. As Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged, God, in the Resurrection, simply said, “I’m with Him.”

Whether it’s the Manifest Destiny of the 18th century, the White Christian Slave Owners of the 19th century, or the White-Male-Hierarchy, Binary-Gender-Hierarchy, or Hetero-Hierarchy of today, we live in a world where the oppressors always say that God is on their side. The typical response of many who are well meaning is to say that God doesn’t take sides. But, in the face of oppression, this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t go anywhere near as far as Jesus went. Jesus teaches repeatedly that God most definitely does take sides. God seeks to liberate ALL parties from systemic oppression, in every instance, through standing in solidarity with the oppressed. And if the God of Jesus takes sides, then those living with privilege must pick a side as well.

If Christianity does not offer a better god than the one who has always stood in solidarity with oppression, the best remaining option is atheism.

Jesus said it best: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” God’s justice, the justice that so many are socially, religiously, economically, politically, and ecologically hungering and thirsting for, is not retributive. It’s not punitive. No, no. God’s justice, as it is revealed through Jesus, is redistributive, transformative, and restorative. And Jesus has promised that in His radical new world, those who hunger for this justice will be filled. The Good News, the Gospel, is that with Jesus’ Resurrection, this new world has begun!

“Never forget, that Justice is what Love looks like in public.” — Cornell West

“Seek first the Kingdom and its justice.” — Jesus

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” — Isaiah

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” — Jesus

Psalms 76.8-9: 

From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish justice, to save all the oppressed of the earth. Selah (Emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

1. Too often the Sermon on the Mount has been used by those in Power to keep others under oppression. This is done by sanctifying or “making holy” the position of being oppressed. The logic usually goes, “Why do you want to be rich? Jesus said, ‘blessed are the poor.’” But Jesus wasn’t saying that those who are oppressed by the present arrangement of this world are blessed under that arrangement. Jesus was speaking hope, saying that in this new world that He had come to inaugurate, those who are oppressed by the present arrangement are going to blessed by the changes His new world was about to make.

Again, we are all simultaneously both oppressed and privileged, depending on which aspect of our lives we are looking at. This week I want you to consider in which areas Jesus would say that his radical new world is going to be a blessing to you and in which areas Jesus would look at your privilege and feel “woe” for you. (Luke 6.20-26)

2. Make two lists, one entitled “Blessed” and the other entitled “Woe,” and write out in what areas of your life you are disadvantaged and in what areas you experience privilege.

Pray during this exercise that Jesus wakes you up to the areas of your life where you are still participating in oppression, injustice, and violence. Ask Jesus to give you the courage to stand in solidarity with the oppressed in each of these areas instead.

3. Share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where there is no more injustice, no more oppression, and no more violence, and only love reigns. Keep living in love. Keep seeking first Christ’s radical new world in the here and the now.

I love each of you, and remember: God does too!

See you next week.

The Footsteps of the Prophets by Herb Montgomery

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“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”—Jesus (Matthew 5.11)

Luke’s version is even more pointed:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Luke 6.22–23; emphasis added).

The first question I’d like to ask is why were the prophets also treated this way?

The Prophets

Take a moment and look at what the prophets actually said and the reasons they were reviled becomes disturbingly clear.

In his judgment of Israel, Amos said:

Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way . . .
in the house of their God [the temple] they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed (Amos 2.6–8; emphasis added).

 

Isaiah spoke these words about Judah and Jerusalem:

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. . . .
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. . . .
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (Isaiah 1.10–17; emphasis added).
And Jeremiah spoke thus against evil kings:

Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. . . . But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence (Jeremiah 22.3, 17; emphasis added).

 

For Jerusalem, Ezekiel and Micah had these words:

As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16.48–49; emphasis added).

 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice,
and to love mercy [rather than sacrifice],
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8)
What were the prophets known for?

Defending those who were oppressed from those who were in a position of privilege.

The prophets spoke against New Moon festivals, Sabbaths, the Temple, and sacrifice, and they spoke up for those who were oppressed by the religiously pious. This vocal opposition would be enough to get anyone in trouble.

In short, the prophets abandoned their own positions of privilege within Israel and Judah and made room for the voices of the oppressed to be heard. The prophets called those who practiced “holy” or “sacred” oppression, injustice, and violence to listen to the stories of those who were trodden upon. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus calls his followers to do the same.

The question we have to ask next is who was it, do you think, who reviled, persecuted, uttered all kinds of evil against, hated, excluded, and defamed the prophets?

 

The Privileged Who Feel Threatened

The answer is the same in every era. When men and women speak up for those who are oppressed, those in positions of privilege, practicing their “sacred” oppression, will treat these prophets who give a voice to the oppressed this same way.

The cross and resurrection prove throughout eternity that God stands not in solidarity with those religious systems that crucify others religiously, politically, or economically, but rather with those who are suspended shamefully upon crosses.

This is God. This is the God revealed through Jesus.

Persecution

And as Paul so eloquently wrote, “all who want to live a godly [god-like] life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3.12).

Make no mistake. If others persecute you, it does not always mean you are doing the right thing. You may just be obnoxious. Persecution does not equal being on the right path. But being on the right path does equal persecution.

The world we live in is comprised of those on the top and those on the bottom, the underdogs. And when you choose to stand in solidarity with the underdogs, you will be targeted by those on top. Again, experiencing persecution doesn’t mean you are doing everything right, but if you are not persecuted, you may need to ask yourself why. Are you fitting in too neatly with those at the top of this world’s pyramids of oppression?

Do not think that you are to go and seek out or try and produce persecution. No, no. But we should abandon our own positions of privilege and call out for the voices and stories of those who are oppressed to be heard. This act alone will ensure that persecution ensues.

This week, when you witness someone being oppressed, whether it’s someone who is poor, or someone who happens not to have the right color of skin, or someone who does not have the “correct” anatomical appendage, or someone whom society has deemed as possessing a non-normative orientation, stand up for them. Call for their stories to be heard, and then get out of the way and let those stories be told.

What will be the result? Ultimately, the result will be a world changed by Jesus. But along the way, you will be, according to Jesus, reviled, persecuted, hated, excluded, and defamed and have all kinds of evil spoken about you by those who have not yet abandoned their own positions of privilege, those who have not yet heard for themselves the stories of those who have been so grossly mischaracterized and wrongly depicted.

It will be scary at first, but have courage. You will quickly find you are not alone. You stand in a long line of those who have gone before—a line filled with martyrs, apostles, and prophets, at the beginning of which stands Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Peter Gomes

The following paragraph is from Peter Gomes, an American preacher and theologian, about whom it was said that he was, “one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.” (Harvard Gazette. 1 March 2011) Peter understood what it meant to walk in the shoes of those who are oppressed for he belonged to at least two communities that experience oppression in our societies—one because of his race, the other because he was gay. Pay close attention to his profound recapturing of Jesus’ Kingdom.

“Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the ends of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus)

 

Enemy Love 

Lastly, I would be amiss if I did not close with this reminder.

Right after Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will create many enemies because they follow Him, Jesus says:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6.23–36, #mercyratherthansacrifice).

Remember, we are not called to defeat those who benefit at the expense of others. We are called not to defeat them, but to win them. We are called to put on display the beauty of a world changed by Jesus. We are called to recognize where Jesus’ Kingdom is already at work, whether in principle or by name as well, and honor it. We are also called to inspire those who have not yet encountered and embraced Jesus’ revolution of justice, mercy, and love to rethink everything. We are to call for a reevaluation of the scripts we have been given and by which we currently play the game of life. And, lastly, we are called to challenge oppressive, unjust, and violent ways of seeing God, ourselves, and everyone else around us.

It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called winning the “double victory”:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory (Martin Luther King Jr., A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967).

THIS is what it means to follow in the footsteps of apostles, prophets, and Jesus himself, according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Certainly there is more at the heart of following Jesus, but there is most definitely not less than standing up for the oppressed.

The time is now. Don’t wait for there to be an easier time, for that time will only come when you are no longer needed. Won’t you take a stand, too?

“If you’re neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu

 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Spend some time this week contemplating the following words of Jesus:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9.22–25)

  1. As you sit with Jesus this week with this passage, write down what insights, thoughts, questions, challenges, fears, or hopes Jesus may share with you.
  1. Share what you discover this week with your HeartGroup.

Wherever this finds you this week, may you—and may we all—stop striving to ascend to our own positions of privilege and begin, rather, speaking up for those for whose stories have yet to be heard. Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love each and every one of you. And, remember, God does, too.

See you next week.

 

Part 2 of 3 – Jesus and Women

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“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4.27).

Last week we looked at Jesus and the “Us vs. Them” paradigm of the Jews and the Samaritans.  This week, I’d like to take a brief moment to notice the breathtaking way in which Jesus related to women, especially within a first century Palestinian patriarchal culture.

The disciples return and find Jesus speaking with a woman.  John tells us that the disciples were astonished at this.  The question I’d like you to ponder is why were they surprised?

Treatment of Women in the first century.

Last month in the eSight entitled Jesus Stops a Lynching, I made mention of the double standard that existed within the Torah concerning adultery.  Adultery was not defined as a male engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, but as a married woman engaging in such.  In other words, if a married man had an affair with an unmarried woman it was not considered to be adultery because the woman did not belong to another man.  A man could only be committing adultery if the woman was married to another man.  The adultery laws of the Torah were not concerned with marital fidelity per se, as much as they were protecting the property rights of husbands to whom their wives belonged. Remember, women in this culture were looked upon as being the property of their husbands.  In John 8 we have a married woman about to be punitively punished for her unfaithfulness to her husband, and Jesus breathtakingly comes to her defense, disarms the crowd, siding with the woman about to be turned into a scapegoat, advocating for this woman against the religious male leadership.

The second example I’d like us to consider is the question about divorce put to Jesus in Matthew 5.  Remember, divorce laws in Jesus’ day were another example of male-dominance law.  Women could not divorce their husbands.  A woman was her husband’s property.  But, a man could divorce his wife.  What is remarkable is that under the Torah, a husband could divorce his wife for something as simple as burning his dinner, becoming less sexually attractive as she aged than the new younger options, or literally any reason for which the husband was no longer pleased with her.  This is how it was under Moses.  Jesus comes to women’s defense stating that, in the Kingdom, there is no reason for treating a woman unjustly.  You may be able to justify sending her away under Moses, but not so within the Kingdom that Jesus was coming to establish.  Let me say a word about Moses.  Moses was an improvement from where the Hebrews were in their unjust treatment of women (See Deuteronomy 24).  But, that was only as far as that culture could walk, at that time.  It wasn’t far enough. Jesus takes protecting women from injustice within marriages within a patriarchal culture to a whole new level by stating that the only reason a woman could be divorced was if she herself was martially unfaithful.  This was to protect men from being taken advantage of too, but notice that Jesus’ strict words about divorce arise from the backdrop of abuse of women in a marital context within a strictly patriarchal culture.  There was no egalitarian treatment of women within marriages during His day.

We could discuss the woman who was bent over that Jesus called forward into the males-only section of the synagogue to be healed on the Sabbath, or the woman, healed and then affirmed by Jesus, who violated the Torah and touches Jesus even though she has an issue of blood; but, what I want you to notice about all of the examples is the gender pyramid that existed in Jesus’ day and Jesus’ engagement with it.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the economic pyramid structure that Jesus came to overthrow (see Luke 6.20-24).  I’d like you to consider the gender pyramid structures that existed in Jesus’s day as well.  Jesus had come to turn social pyramids upside down.  Those at the top of pyramids, in the places of privilege, would find themselves removed from these privileged positions.  While those at the bottom of these pyramid structures, who were slaving away to benefit those at the top of the pyramid, would find themselves liberated.  When it came to the gender pyramid in Jesus’ day, men were at the top and women were at the bottom.  In the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish, all of this was to be turned on its head, “upside down” as they said in Acts 17.6, where women and men would now be valued and treated equally.

Consider the story of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, who is slaving away at the bottom of the pyramid domestically that day, notices that she hasn’t seen Mary in quite a bit.  Wondering why Mary has left her to do all the “slaving” alone, she walks into the room to find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  What makes this appalling for Martha is that this was a place reserved for men only.  Anyone could be in the room listening to Jesus, but women were typically at the back; then there were the men, and then, if you were a man who was aspiring to become a Rabbi, there was a special spot reserved for you.  Your place, as an aspiring Rabbi, was at the feet of the Rabbi who would be teaching that day.  Remember, being a Rabbi was a men’s only club and, therefore, the “feet of Jesus” was a place that would have been reserved only for men.  And yet, Martha finds Mary, abandoning her domestic place at the bottom of this social pyramid, and seated at the top, right there with Jesus.  What Martha is telling Jesus is that He should put Mary back in her place.  Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”  In Jesus’ Kingdom, women would no longer be relegated to a lower place than men.  Mary had chosen what was best, and she would not be denied based on her gender.

The parallels between the Genesis narrative of the fall and John’s narrative of the Resurrection also cannot be missed.  Both narratives take place in a garden.  Both narratives involve a woman.  But, where the Genesis narrative places the woman as the first to be deceived, the Resurrection narrative places the woman as the first to be enlightened.  She is then sent as an Apostle to the Apostles. She is the first person to proclaim the risen Lord; she is the first to proclaim that a whole new world has begun.  As followers of Jesus, we do not live in the narrative of an old fallen creation where the woman was the first to be deceived by the serpent.  Our story is the narrative of the Resurrection where the woman was the first to believe in the risen Lord.  The Female Narrative within the Hebrew culture has been redeemed through the Resurrection. Woman is now first into the new world!  Surely, the last (bottom of the pyramid) has become the first and the first (top of the pyramid) has become the last.

Some will try and use Paul to overthrow the Jesus story.  But, this is a misunderstanding of the subversive nature of Paul’s use of the word “submit.”  Paul told Jesus-following slaves to “submit” to their unbelieving masters, not because he believed in slavery, but as a subversive way to win over their masters so that they could become Jesus followers too, so that, once converted, the relationship between slave and master would be undone.  Paul uses this same word, “submit”, in relation to the kingdoms of this world as a subversive way to overthrow those same kingdoms, winning over the nations and the kings of the Earth so they would bow down as well to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  And lastly, Paul speaks of women believers “submitting” to their unbelieving husbands (and vice versa) as the subversive way of winning unbelieving spouses to becoming followers of Jesus as well, where hierarchical authority structures even within marriage would be abolished for the egalitarianism of the Kingdom.

Now, let’s return to Jesus.  Jesus is not afraid to refer to the “maternal” nature of God, even within his own patriarchal culture. Yes, Jesus did speak of God as Father the majority of the time, speaking within His own male dominant culture, but at appropriately subversive and controversial times He also took care to speak about our Mother God as well. (Matthew 23.37; Luke 13.34)

There are undeniably two streams within the scriptures that Jesus followers hold in high regard.  While there is a clear patriarchal stream, there is another, very clear, egalitarian stream as well. (Galatians 3.28)  Jesus followers must discern whether Jesus is moving us away from the egalitarian stream to the patriarchal stream, or whether Jesus is moving us away from the patriarchal stream to the egalitarian one.  Which direction is the Jesus story moving us in?

Again, we can’t allow other sections of scripture to embolden us to ignore Jesus’ treatment of women.  Jesus simply stepped over the gender boundaries of his own day, ignoring them. For those who claim to be following this Jesus, the question we have to ask is are we following Him too?  This is not becoming more like the world.  It’s simply that the world has been listening, in this regard, to Jesus’ spirit, more than the church has.  If this is true, it would not be the first time.  And I’m sure, before the time of all things being restored, it won’t be the last.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  Why? Because Jesus refused to place women beneath Him.  Instead, Jesus believed God viewed, as well as treated, women with egalitarianism and Jesus was going to do so as well.  After all, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. (John 14.7-10, cf. John 5.19)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to spend some quiet time with Jesus contemplating what a world would truly look like in which women were treated the same as men.  Where people are evaluated on the value God places on them.  Where voices are heard based on content, not gender.  And where service is based on giftedness rather than gender.  Remember, we are called to put on display what the world changed by Jesus looks like and to give witness to the Resurrection that this new world has begun.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how you can put this new world on display in your own life, within your own sphere of influence.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Christ, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys,

See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Scapegoating/Betraying of Jesus at Bethesda

Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

 

 

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’” (John 5.1–8)

 

This week, I’d like to revisit the story of John 5. Even if you are familiar with this story, I want to encourage you to give it a fresh look and see if you don’t see what I’m seeing here.

Let’s dive right in.

At first, the story appears to recount another run-of-the-mill healing by Jesus on yet another Sabbath day. But there is something else going on that a surface reading won’t catch.

Follow the story carefully.

“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ But he replied, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Pick up your mat and walk.”’ So they asked him, ‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’ The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.” (John 5.9–13)

It should be remembered that in Jesus’ day, those who were crippled, blind, or lame were not looked upon with compassion or viewed simply as less fortunate than others. This was a culture built on the assumptions of Deuteronomy 28, which states clearly that if you obey, God will bless you, and if you disobey, God will curse you. So if you are crippled, if you are blind, if you are a paralytic, you must be a sinner! What else could explain your current condition?

It should also be remembered that in Jesus’ culture, “sinner” was a very different term than it is today. Today, Christians are taught that we’re all sinners. “All have sinned,” Paul says. But before Paul and the early Christian movement developed the view that everyone is a sinner, this was not the case. The Jews belonged to a community to which certain promises had been made. And although you did not follow Moses’ teachings in order to earn a place in that community, you did follow those teachings, as well as the rules of the community, in order to put on display your decision to be a part of that community.  The term “sinner” was a label used for Jews who, despite belonging by birth to the covenant community, lived contrary to the Torah and rejected their place in that community. In short, the term “sinner” was not applied universally.

If you were a paralytic, in addition to suffering from your condition, you bore the stigma of being a sinner, for why else would God be punishing you? Being a paralytic (or anyone with a disability) in the time of Jesus carried with it the stigma of moral inferiority, the stigma of being a “sinner” and all that included for a Jew.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic in Matthew 9 is that his sins are forgiven. Jesus sought first to relieve the guilt/stigma that accompanied being defined as a “sinner” in contrast to everyone else.

In John 5, Jesus heals the man. He sets him free! This freedom involves more than just the ability to walk. It is simultaneously a liberation from the “sinner” label. And what happens next? The man bumps into some fellow Jews who question him regarding why he is carrying his “burden” on the Sabbath day. Do you see what’s happening? He had just become free of the “sinner” label, and his new status is immediately threatened! He is at risk of being classified once again as a “sinner,” and he panics. He throws Jesus under the bus, saying, “The man who healed me . . . it’s His fault!” But the man cannot give his accusers a name, so the matter is dropped.

This next part is where things get interesting.

“Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning [hamartia] or something worse may happen to you.’” (John 5.14)

What the Greek actually says here is, “Behold you have been made healthy! Be guilty of wrongdoing no more or you will become something worse than a paralytic!

I want to remind you of John’s “Sin no more,” which we covered in our study on John’s use of hamartia in the eSight/podcast just a couple weeks ago. You can find it here if you need to refresh your memory: https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014/

John uses hamartia differently than some of the other New Testament authors. He uses the term to refer not simply to the behavior associated with sin, but also to the guilt that comes from defining yourself as a sinner.

This man in John 5 had been a paralytic for 38 years. According to the Intervarsity Press New Testament Background Commentary, “The man had been sick there longer than many people in antiquity lived.” This means that although the man was not a paralytic from birth, he might as well have been. He had become a paralytic sometime during infancy—so there is no way this man’s own sin caused him to be a paralytic. Jesus isn’t saying, “Listen, last time you sinned, this is what happened. Now go and sin no more, or next time, something worse might happen to you.” It wasn’t the man’s personal behavior that brought about his disability. He was an infant, for crying out loud. What Jesus is doing for this paralytic is exactly what He did for the paralytic in Matthew 9. He is seeking to set him free from the moral stigma to which paralytics were subjected.

“Go and be guilty of wrong no more.” (John 5.14; Mounce’s Greek Dictionary)

Jesus is setting him free, asserting that he no longer has to define himself as a “sinner”! You don’t have to define yourself according to the way others have looked at you, Jesus is saying. But if you don’t stop defining yourself this way, if you don’t stop allowing others to determine how you see yourself, your fate will be worse than that of simply being a paralytic. What is that fate? What is that something worse? It’s in the very next verse.

“The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5.15)

Why would this man betray Jesus—the man who had just healed him—to the very people who had accused him of breaking the Sabbath?

The answer has to do with the nature of scapegoating. When a person is scapegoated the way this man was—both for being a paralytic and, afterward, for presumably breaking the Sabbath—that person becomes desperate. There are two ways enemies become friends. The first is to identify a mutual/common enemy (see Luke 23.12). The second is to cultivate forgiveness and reconciliation. The first is very similar to how scapegoats seek to escape being attacked by the crowd. When someone is being picked on, they will instinctively endeavor to deflect the negative attention onto someone weaker than themselves. The result is that now, rather than being picked on, they have gained their oppressors’ acceptance by joining them in picking on someone else.

This is the “something worse” about which Jesus was warning the paralytic. He could be free from the “sinner” stigma in two ways. He could embrace the new identity Jesus was giving him and no longer define himself the way his religious community had. Jesus would become that which defined this man and gave him a sense of worth. Alternatively, he could convince his community to scapegoat someone else—and join his community in the practice of scapegoating.  And who would this man choose to scapegoat? Who would he choose to throw under the bus? Who would he encourage his own oppressors to view as the real “sinner”?

He does exactly the opposite of the blind man in John 9, whom Jesus healed and whose story John is contrasting with this man’s. The man in John 5 chose the worse path. In an effort to be accepted by the crowd, he chose to betray, or scapegoat, the very Jesus who had just healed him.

“So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5.16–18)

I want to draw attention to one more issue before we close this week. In response to the man’s attempt to divert the accusers’ scapegoating mechanism onto Jesus himself, Jesus does not refute the accusation, but embraces it. If he deflected the accusation, he would run the risk of turning the accusers’ attention back on the paralytic man. Jesus accepts the label of Sabbath breaker to save the man who had just betrayed him. He doesn’t deny that he broke the Sabbath. He doesn’t claim that “healing” is not a violation of Sabbath observance. On the contrary, Jesus quotes the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20, in effect confessing that He was “working.”

In Jesus’ confession “I too am working,” the Greek word translated as “working” is ergazomai. It is the same word used in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 20.9: “Six days you labor [ergazomai] and do all your work.” Jesus is virtually saying, “Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, just as the commandment says not to.”

Just so you can get the truest sense of what Jesus is doing here, take a look at the way ergazomai is used in other New Testament passages.

Matthew 21.28: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work [ergazomai] in the vineyard today.’”

Matthew 25.16: “The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded [ergazomai] with them, and made five more talents.”

John 6.27: “Do not work [ergazomai] for the food that perishes . . .”

Acts 18.3: “And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked [ergazomai] together—by trade they were tentmakers.”

1Corinthians 9.6: “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living [ergazomai]?”

2Thessalonians 3.8: “And we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked [ergazomai] night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”

Revelation 18.17: “For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade [ergazomai] is on the sea, stood far off.”

And not only does Jesus embrace the role of scapegoat here, He actually drags God into it with Him.

“My Father is always at his work [ergazomai] to this very day, and I too am working [ergazomai].”

In John 5, God in Christ becomes the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He, the innocent, embraces the label of “sinner,” of “Sabbath breaker.” Why?

The answer is found in the story of the unjust death and resurrection of God in Jesus. The resurrection proves that God is not to be found within the scapegoaters (whether political, economic, or religious). God is to found in the one hanging shamefully on the tree at the hands of those who put him there. This way of finding unity among ourselves by finding a common enemy and then justifying it by labeling them “sinners,” this way of organizing human societies around a common “evil,” this way of “making peace” among ourselves is capable of killing even God Himself.

We do it today. We do it economically with immigrants and foreigners. We do it politically with the Taliban. We do it religiously with the LGBTQ community. When are we going to stop? What we are doing led in the past to the unjust execution of God. We don’t see what we are doing. It is time for us to wake up.

When will we learn to abandon our preoccupation with “us” and “them”?

We are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus died for all of us. We are all God’s favorites. When will we learn that we don’t need to throw others under the bus to secure our place in this world?

 

HeartGroup Application

What does it mean to you that Jesus embraced the label of “Sabbath breaker” within a community that defined itself according to those who kept the Sabbath and those who didn’t?

In John’s contrasting story in John 9, the Pharisees say, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (9.16). When I was at the impressionable age of fourteen, I joined “God” in being “against” Sabbath breakers too. I was this paralytic, looking for the acceptance of God. And instead of receiving “acceptance” as a free gift, I found it in identifying a “common enemy.” God forgive me, not just for my gross ignorance of what God is like, but for my “baptizing” the way of the “accuser” rather than following the radically inclusive way of Jesus.

1. Sit with Jesus this week on the subject of scapegoating and defining others by their level of Torah observance. Jesus inaugurated a new community, centered on Himself. If there is any evaluation to be made, it is of one’s heart orientation toward Jesus. But what saves us from now  scapegoating others because we feel they lack a heart orientation toward Jesus? The answer is twofold: (1) only God really knows the heart, and (2) even if another person’s heart is not oriented toward Jesus, Jesus Himself commands us to love as indiscriminately as the sun shines and the rain falls (Matthew 5.45). And in so doing we will be like God. Yes, there are those whose hearts are turned toward Jesus, and there are those whose hearts are not. But we are called to love the latter just the same. No distinction. No scapegoating allowed. There is no us and them. The sunshine proves it. The falling rain testifies to the truth of it. We are all children of the same Divine Parents. And it’s time to learn the way of love once again. Defining others by “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” produces violence, bloodshed, death. It’s time to find our way back to the tree of life, which, remember, is for the healing of nations (Genesis 3.6 cf. Revelation 22.2).

2. Journal about what Jesus shows you as you sit with Him on these themes during your time in contemplation.

3. This upcoming week, share with your HeartGroup what you discover.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. I love you guys. See you next week.