Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Light on the Lampstand 

by Herb Montgomery

a man lassoing a light bulb

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Luke 11:33: “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

Gospel of Thomas 33:2-3: “For no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, nor does he put it in a hidden place. Rather, he puts it on a lampstand, so that everyone who comes in and goes out will see its light.”

This week’s saying appears in all three of the gospels we have been using as our companion texts this year. Matthew and Thomas both focus on the followers of Jesus’ teachings being light. Luke, as we will see next week, warns about what we call light really being the spreading of darkness. We’ll discuss the relevance of Luke’s saying to today’s western Christianity in more detail in our next eSight.

Matthew’s Focus

What I want us to notice first this week is an emphasis that some would be uncomfortable with. The focus of the saying is not on Jesus being the light of the world, but rather on Jesus’ followers being a source of light for the world (John 8:12; Matthew 5:14). In Luke, Jesus is warning about those who claim to be light becoming a source of darkness in the world. How often have status quo complicit Christians been found on the wrong side of history!

The statement is just as troubling for those who object, “Jesus is the light of the world, not us.” This objection comes from a desire to uplift Jesus to hero status, a position some people feel is threatened if we focus on being the light rather than pointing to Jesus as light.

Another possible root of discomfort with this saying is the belief that we are incapable of doing anything good and that Jesus has to do it all. This is a destructive belief taught in some sectors of Christianity that, too often, is used to lull Christians back to a position of passivity after they have been convicted or moved to action. I witnessed this recently when speaking on the Sermon on the Mount. After my presentation, the pastor got up and told the congregation that everything I had just spoken of (what Jesus taught in the Sermon the Mount) was impossible for any of us to do and Jesus must do it for us.

But we have the power to think and to do.

We have the power to make choices.

I have wondered why many atheists accomplish more in societal justice than some fundamentalist Christians do. Womanist writers such as Alice Walker have rightly captured the same universal truth that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q also taught: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.”

Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q is not preaching “Sit back and let me do everything.”

Jesus focuses on creating a community rooted in ethics and values that center the experiences of the vulnerable and marginalized in his own society and that call his community to make better choices. He believes that those following him can actually do better. They can be different. He shows them the way, casting before their mind’s eye what a path that is genuinely, holistically better can look like. In her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk, writes:

“It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131, emphasis added)

This way Jesus showed his followers is a way of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation, and restoration. In short, it is salvation. Not a post-mortem non-smoking section salvation, but a present, concrete, life-right-now salvation rooted in the context of community, together.

Luke’s Emphasis

Luke doesn’t focus exclusively on Jesus’ followers being the light of the world. Luke jumps straight to the absurdity of hiding a recently lit lamp when the obvious intent of lighting the lamp in the first place is to share the light with everybody.

At this stage of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, pressure is beginning to mount. The number of those positively resonating with Jesus’ teachings continues to grow, and the elite class in society begins to feel the threat of the momentum among the economically exploited. This saying may also reflect a temptation growing in Jesus himself to hide his own light. When those in places of privilege begin to feel threatened, they can be quite effective at threatening those they deem responsible.

Jesus was choosing life, and encouraging and showing others how to thrive, survive, and transform the world into a just and compassionate home for all. And his vision of life involved changes for those benefiting by the way life was structured in Jerusalem. Jesus was choosing life, and he was about to be threatened with death if he did not lie down, roll over, and go back into the shadows.

In the volume Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wrote:

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

Jesus was not choosing a path of death. Jesus was choosing life. And when beginning to feel threatened and pressured to hide his light, Jesus made the courageous choice to hold on, to not let go. The cross was not Jesus’ path to life. The cross was what the status quo responded to Jesus with. It was the cross and the fear of death that the elites used to intimidate Jesus into letting go of his hold on life. And Jesus kept holding on. He could see where what he was teaching and the sector of society he was choosing to side with would lead, and he had the courage to keep doing it. He choose not to hide his light, but share light, just like he spoke of power and resources, with everyone.

Your Light 

Luke and Matthew both ask: What does taking hold of life look like to you? Does your taking hold of life cause others around you to feel their own place of privilege in society is threatened? Jesus shared his vision of a world where everyone thrives with equity, with justice, with compassion. The Jewish concept of shalom describes a wholeness that involves everyone. Genuine shalom is not present till we all together have shalom, and not just us, but also every living thing. But in a world where one believes only a limited number of people can thrive, someone else taking hold of life threatens one’s own thriving because resources are limited. Someone in this position does not believe the earth provides enough for every person’s need, as Gandhi taught. They believe that there is not enough to go around, and that if we each let go of our hoarded power and possessions, we will go without. Jesus instead imagined a world where we all have enough together.

Does a fear of loss keep you from shining your light? Is there something that intimidates you into hiding your light under a basket rather than sharing unquantifiable light with everyone?

While recently reading Stephen Greenebaum’s The Interfaith Alternative: Embracing Spiritual Diversity, I was moved by these words and I share them with you this week:

“The truth is that none of us can control what kind of splash we will make in the world, let alone how big or small that splash will be. Perhaps our coming and our passing will cause no splash at all, just the smallest of ripples. To be a human being is to have an opportunity. But as we well know, it is not an ‘equal opportunity.’ Some people are born with great wealth and some in devastating poverty. Some are born with robust health and some must fight just to live from the moment they enter the world. And sometimes we stumble, no matter how hard we try. But life, all life, is an opportunity nonetheless. And it is what we do, or do not do, with that opportunity that defines us. For me, the clouds parted and I could make at least some sense of meaning when I could visualize a great scale with compassion and justice forming one side and self-centeredness and injustice the other. None of us knows how much we’ll be able to add to the scales, for that, to a large extent, is a matter of chance. But we do control, we alone, each of us, every day, to which side of the scale we will make that day’s contribution. It may be a mote of dust, a twig, a pebble or a huge boulder — again, the size of our contribution may be beyond our control — but whatever the size of our contribution, every day we add something to those scales: compassion and justice, or self-centeredness and injustice. I deeply believe that in the end it is not how much we add to the scales, but to which side of the scale we have added it.” (pp. 100-101)

This week, in the name of advancing compassion and justice in our world, may this week’s saying encourage you, even if others threaten you and attempt to silence your voice, to let your light shine.

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

HeartGroup Application

Last week I asked you to brainstorm and to make a list as a group some of the goals you would like to accomplish in the coming year. In our work of compassion and justice, consider Greenebaum’s words above. Whatever the size of your group’s contribution, ensure that you’re contributing on the right side of the scales.

  1. Pick three goals from your list last week.
  2. Begin getting informed regarding each one. This could involve coming alongside those already at work in those areas of justice/compassion work.
  3. Once you feel comfortable with your level of understanding about each goal, to the degree that you feel you can, define what meeting each goal would look like in tangible, concrete ways.

    This last step may lead you to go back and pick another goal as well. That’s okay. However your list takes shape, make sure these are goals you are well informed about and that these are goals that can be defined by your group as a whole once that goal is met.

As this year is drawing to a close and another year is before us, I’m overwhelmed by how many of you are journeying with us. Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful to be on this journey with you, and know that together we can make a difference.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.

Something More than Solomon and Jonah 

man in a crowd

by Herb Montgomery

“The queen of the South will be raised at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and look, something more than Solomon is here! Ninevite men will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. For they repented at the announcement of Jonah, and look, something more than Jonah is here!” (Q 11:31-32)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:41-42: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Luke 11:31-32: “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.”

This week’s saying is part of an apocalyptic worldview that hopes for a future retributive and transformative “judgment”. On that day in the future, the Jewish people expected all injustice, oppression, and violence would be put right. Many also expected retribution against their oppressors, those at the helm of unjust systems perpetrating violence against the people of Israel. (For a summary of the Jewish apocalyptic worldview held by many in the 1st Century, please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator .)

Those who subscribed to Jewish apocalypticism also looked forward to a resurrection (see Daniel 12:2). Our saying this week references the resurrection of both the Queen of Sheba and the people we considered last week, the people of Nineveh. This statement is powerful because both of these figures were Gentile, and the Pharisaical school of Shammai would have considered them morally inferior to Jews. Jesus placing them in the position to pass moral judgment on that generation of Jews would have provoked no small response in his listeners.

What was happening in Jesus’ society that would have warranted him saying this?

Situation in Jerusalem

During the time of Jesus, the socio-economic and political situation in Galilee and Jerusalem was escalating toward breaking point. The rich were exploiting the poor through a plutocracy centered in Jerusalem and the temple there. Property, power, prosperity, privilege, and profit were valued far above the lives of the people at whose expense they were acquired. In addition, a movement gaining ground among the poor and working class had the potential to literally burn the whole thing down. This movement, led by the Zealots and their charismatic messiahs, sought militaristic revolt to overthrow the oppression of the Roman empire and the Jewish aristocracy that made their lives a commodity.

History now reveals that violent zealotry did win the day in Jerusalem. The Temple was overthrown and the temple record of debts owed the rich by the poor was the first to be burned. The Zealots then took the temple the center of operations in a violent assault against Rome itself. The result was as catastrophic as Jesus had feared: Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Romans banned the Jewish people from taking it back as their home for the rest of the Roman empire’s existence.

Considering these events, Jesus’ warning was not exaggerated. One did not need divine revelation to look at how Rome had treated rebellions in the past and discern the fate of a militaristic rebellion by economically exploited people. Throughout history, the masses have not had the same access to the same kind of power as the elite. The masses’ power, a different kind of power was what Jesus cast before the imaginations of the oppressed in his society.

Whereas those who followed the path of violent revolt in Jerusalem ultimately rejected Jesus’ vision, this week’s saying comes long before that rejection became complete. This is a warning given in the language of Jesus’ own time and place: those characterized as morally inferior would rise up on the Day of Judgment and condemn Jesus’ generation.

According to the Jewish folklore about The Queen of Sheba, she recognized wisdom when she saw it. In the Jewish story about Nineveh, the Ninevites repented when they heard Jonah’s announcement. Whether Jesus would have described himself as wiser than Solomon and greater than Jonah or his followers added that later, the question that emerges from this week’s saying is what would those in our sacred stories think of the decisions we are making today?

We rarely imitate those people from history who we hold up as models, and it is not that we lack the courage or the wisdom they had. Rather we lack the ability to recognize history repeating itself. Spin doctors stay busy keeping the masses from seeing the parallels that prophets call people to see. In our saying this week, Jesus is using figures from Jewish history that represent wisdom and repentance, and calling his audience in their time and circumstances to do as these examples did.

Light from Outside Christianity

The Queen of South (embracing wisdom) and Ninevites (practicing repentance) were considered outsiders in Jesus’ Jewish community. Today I see parallels within Western Christianity and the way some Christians characterize popular culture, science, secularism, and progressive liberalism. If Jesus were addressing sexism, classism, racism, and cis-heterosexism today, I wonder if he would say that secularists, liberals, scientists will arise in the judgment and condemn American Evangelical Christians for their failure to recognize wisdom and repent of their failure to defend minorities and the downtrodden. Evangelicals have most often in American culture (knowingly and unknowingly) opposed eliminating political, social, and economic inequalities.(See It Wasn’t Abortion That Formed the Religious Right. It Was Support for Segregation.)

Today, especially after America’s most recent election season, Evangelical Christianity has lost its witness, and it is no longer credible in matters of compassion. (For a recent account, read the New York Times article The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead.) Many Evangelicals, especially here in West Virginia, have now chosen violent solutions to their desperation about their economic status and they’ve been duped into choosing destructive options for others.

I’ve heard from some people that Christians should not be political. That’s not the case. It’s rather that White Evangelical Christians today, unlike Jesus, have and continue to come down on the side of oppression rather than on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the subjugated and the marginalized (compare Jesus in Luke 4:18-19). In the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg states:

“There is something boundary shattering about the imitatio dei that stood at the center of Jesus’ message and activity. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. (The purity system created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile…) For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (p. 58)

Politics, by definition, is the discussion of who should be in control of both power and resources. Simply put, politics is answering the question “Who gets what?” Jesus’ message was deeply political. He spoke almost exclusively about power and resources in his own society and religious community. He taught that power and resources should be shared by everyone in the community rather than hoarded and wielded by elites. (cf. Matthew 23.8) Jesus demonstrated a politics of compassion. And he offered political and socio-economic solutions rooted in the power of community and mutuality as opposed to options that depended on violence, a new hegemony, and exclusion of the “other.”

There are deep parallels and comparisons to our time, and much to contemplate.

The queen of the South will be raised at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and look, something more than Solomon is here! Ninevite men will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. For they repented at the announcement of Jonah, and look, something more than Jonah is here!” (Q 11:31-32)

Evangelicals today have chosen the wrong Messiah.

HeartGroup Application

In 1963, at Western Michigan University, Dr. King spoke these words:

“There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted to and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.”

To each of you who are refusing to become adjusted to the events transpiring around you, let me affirm you.

As 2016 is drawing to a close, come together as a group:

  1. Make a list of all the societal justice concerns that you became more informed about this past year.
  2. Some of you have come a long way this year. Think about where you began in 2016 and take time to contemplate your own personal progress and increasing awareness over the last twelve months. Take time to let your journey this year sink in.
  3. Read Luke 4:18-19 together and start brainstorming about possible goals you would like to work towards together in the coming year. We aren’t making any decisions at this stage; we are simply brainstorming about what possible directions your group could grow towards.

To each of you reading this, thank you for checking in with us this week. However you choose to celebrate the holidays, or whether you choose to even celebrate at all, we wish you much love, peace, and justice as this year begins to wrap up.

Whatever the future holds, remember, our most valuable commitment is to each other. We can face whatever tomorrow brings much more sustainably if we do so alongside one another. We are in this together.

We love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.

The Sign of Jonah for This Generation 

Aircraft warning lightby Herb Montgomery

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it — except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” Q 11:16, 29-30 

Matthew 12:38-40: “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’”

Luke 11:16, 29-30: “Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’”

This week’s saying is another challenging one.. First, the saying is based on the Jewish story of Jonah, a big fish, and the Assyrian capital Nineveh. The Jewishness of this story and its specific application to the Jewish citizens in Galilee and Judea may be one reason why it doesn’t appear in the more Platonic collection of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Thomas. But there’s a lot in these verses  that bears all the marks of belonging to a 1st Century Jewish liberation rabbi and prophet for the poor.

The ancient city of Nineveh was known for decimating the poor and vulnerable. Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital, was also the empire responsible for annihilating the people in the northern territories of Israel. In the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah arrives at Nineveh with a message that Nineveh’s time is up and their account has been called due. His message is not a warning or a call to repentance. It’s simply an announcement: in forty days, Ninevah is going to be destroyed.

What happens next in the story is that the king calls the people throughout the empire to repentance. The people repent, and Israel’s God has a change of mind and calls off the threatened destruction. Nineveh will now be spared.

I believe Jonah’s response is the point of this story: He is enraged at God’s change of heart.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live with these Ninevites.’” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The point of the story is to point to a more inclusive worship of YHWH among the Hebrew people. Jonah would rather be dead than share the earth with “them,” and the story seems to rebuke him for this.

If any of us are excluded, ultimately it won’t be because we did not believe in a world that could include us, but because we could not stomach a world where others are included that we feel should be excluded.

That’s the story behind this week’s saying. The question I want to consider is what is this “sign of Jonah” spoken of in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions? A long tradition based on Matthew’s version assumes the historically reliability of the story of Jonah’s big fish.

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

In short, for Matthew’s community, the sign of Jonah was about Jesus’s resurrection. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jesus will be in the grave for three days and then be resurrected.

If this is what the sign of Jonah refers to, it’s more plausible that this is a section of the saying added by Jesus’ followers after the resurrection event rather than a prediction Jesus made beforehand. This interpretation produces more questions than answers for me though.

It is also curious that Luke defines the sign of Jonah differently. In Luke the big fish is left out, and so is the resurrection as a sign. In Luke, Jonah himself, his arrival, and his message are the only sign the Ninevites receive:

“As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’” (Luke 11:29-30, Emphasis added.)

Jonah came with his message of judgment against the wicked, and the Ninevites, with no assurance that their repentance would avert their destruction, took a risk and repented anyway.

Jesus’ audience in the 1st Century is also a society, a “generation,” that is oppressing the poor and will reap the intrinsic disaster that this eventually brings. The poor and economically oppressed in any community are always the ones susceptible to militaristic, hate-speaking, charismatic messiahs who promise a new day if they will follow them. Josephus tells us that it was the poor and economically exploited who formed the body of rebels that took control of the temple away from the Jewish elites and led the rebellion against Rome. The very first thing they did when gaining control of the Temple was to burn the records of the debts they owed to the wealthy aristocrats.

“The Sicarii [violent, radical zealots] and lower-class citizens force their way into the Temple and join themselves with the revolutionary priests (2.17.6 425) Together they force the royalists out of the upper city; the troops and Ananias take refuge in Herod the Great’s palace. The rebels burn the houses of Ananias and the palaces of Agrippa and Berenice, along with the Record Office, destroying the records of outstanding debts.” (See http://josephus.org/warChronology1.htm)

The end result is tremendously sad: forty years after Jesus, a violent backlash breaks out in Jerusalem and escalates to violent revolt against Rome. The outcome is the total annihilation of Jerusalem.

Jesus, like Jonah, came warning of destruction on the horizon. Jesus’ warning was about the intrinsic consequences of injustice, and was more organic than imposed. But it was an announcement nonetheless. Whereas Jonah was sad to see Nineveh turn and repent, Jesus was sad to see his community fail to do so. And just as the only sign given to Nineveh was Jonah and his message, Jesus, in Luke, tells us that the only sign that will be given to his generation is himself and his message.

Both versions of this week’s saying conclude:

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41, Luke 11:32)

What relevance might this story have to what we are experiencing here in America this week?

In 2010, Noam Chomsky wrote:

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.” (See Noam Chomsky called this political moment 6 years ago)

Could we as an American society be on a path similar to the society in Jesus’ time and place? What so many disenfranchised people in Jesus’ day thought were solutions brought untold destruction to all.

Yes, our society needs healing. It needs fixing. But whatever “great again” means, it has to mean great for everyone. We must define it as justice for everyone. We cannot afford to solve the problems of the future for ourselves at the expense of someone else because all we have is each other. I wrote this some weeks ago, but it’s even more relevant this week.

“There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.” (Looting a Strong Person)

So with this in mind, let us contemplate what warnings exist for us today as we’re challenged to continue our work of transforming our world into a safe home for us all.

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it—except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” (Q 11:16, 29-30)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want to you to brainstorm together as a group. Make these lists:

  1. What does resistance to injustice look like for you and your HeartGroup as you follow Jesus’ example of choosing the path of solidarity with those on the undersides of our society? List at least five ways you can participate in the work of resistance. Be creative.
  2. What does mutually working for the survival of those in your HeartGroup look like if you were to follow Jesus’ example in the ways you listed in your answer to the first question? How can you support each other? List at least five ways you can support one another in the work of survival. Be creative.
  3. Staying focused on thriving, not just for yourself at others’ expense but in a world where we all can thrive, pick something from each list you created and together put each into practice this week.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love characterized by resistance, survival, liberating the oppressed and disenfranchised, restoration, and transformation. Till hope shines bright again, or, for some, for the very first time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.