Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

“The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44) 

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to [heal] the world through him.” (John 3:17)

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Courage in the Face of Setbacks

Herb Montgomery | January 4, 2019


“Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, ‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.'”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

I’m sit here this morning, after the holidays, contemplating the future of Renewed Heart Ministries. This year will be our twelfth year: Renewed Heart Ministries has been sharing the message of love and inclusion for over a decade. 

But four and a half years ago, something changed. We were introduced to a precious community of people who are the objects of God’s love and who most deeply face marginalization on a daily basis. Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”

In 2014, Renewed Heart Ministries started to become a welcoming and affirming ministry. We have become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of increasing the love, compassion, action, and justice in society. This has been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we’re a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss, both of former friends and of support.

This is why this week’s text spoke to me this morning. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God . . . ” (Mark 1:14)

John was Jesus’ mentor. He had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest of the Temple state. Possible reasons could have been the Temple state’s exploitation of the poor and it’s complicity with Rome as means of survival. John had chosen instead another very Jewish option. He chose to stand in the stream of actions found among the Hebrew prophets, the habitat of the wilderness, speaking truth to power. 

For every action there is a reaction. And power typically responds to those who seek to name injustice. The reaction of Herod to John’s outspoken critiques and call for change was initially to have him arrested. Herod expected the arrest to silence John. Those who have read the story know that John is eventually executed. At this point in the story, though, he is simply arrested. He is silenced by being forcefully removed from the masses.

Acts like these by those in power are purposed to intimidate others and discourage them from pursuing similar courses. They are acts of terror at worst, and acts of warning at best. 

John’s imprisonment by the political leader Herod had to have affected Jesus. It was a significant setback, and possibly also a warning. Jesus was setting out on a course for which John had cleared the way or blazed a path. In the words of Isaiah, John had been 

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Would Jesus turn back? Would Jesus abandon his solidarity with the marginalized sectors of his society? Or would he renew his purpose in the face of John’s imprisonment? 

For me, what Jesus did next shows his courage. Jesus chooses to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized of his society in the face of deeply troubling, political consequences. John had just been imprisoned, and it’s immediately afterwards that Jesus chooses to stand before the masses and resolutely say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . . 

You are the light of the world.” 

(Matthew 5:3-14)

Jesus is choosing the community of those whose “spirit” has been broken by systems of injustice. I think of those today who no longer have the spirit to keep fighting for a just world, those who have lost faith that another world is possible.

Jesus chose those who mourn because of the present structure. I think of parents like those of Trayvon Martin, or more recently, 8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose hearts have been broken by deep loss caused by our society’s systemic injustice. This is loss so deep it seems at times that it can never be repaired. 

Jesus chose the “meek,” those this world typically walks all over. He chose the community of the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness—the Hebraic idea of a societal, distributive justice, an end of violence, and an end to oppression.

He also affirms the community of the merciful. I think of those who see immigrants seeking asylum and welcome them rather than coldly stating that they deserve harsh treatment.

He names the pure in heart. In our time, I think of those who refuse to be shaped by capitalism’s priorities of profit over people. And he names peacemakers, not peacekeepers: those who are willing to disturb the peace to work for a distributive justice that will give birth to genuine peace, where everyone has enough, and no one has too much while others go without.

Finally, Jesus (I wonder if he was thinking of John at this moment) mentions those persecuted for the cause of justice: those who speak truth to power, who name bigotry, exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, and oppression and experience deep loss as a result of their outspokenness. He mentions those who are insulted by the privileged and who are falsely labeled as dangerous, evil, and heretical, or “too radical.” 

Yet it is this community of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, abused and mourning that Jesus names the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In learning to listen to those who experience is different from our own, those who are the most vulnerable to a variety of injustices that we begin to see [i.e. “light of the world”]. It is in learning to listen to the stories and the voices of communities who daily face oppression that we encounter the choice to change and the possibility of our social life, our life together as a human family, being preserved [i.e. “salt of the earth”].

I cannot help but think that Jesus might have also been afraid to stand in solidarity with those this world makes last. Would he also be arrested like John? Could choosing and modeling a preferential option for those society makes last, in one degree or another, even cost him his life?

We all know how the Jesus story ended. At the beginning of the Jesus story, though, it was still being played out. 

This year, it means everything to me that, as he pondered his future if he, like John, continued to walk alongside and advocate for the oppressed, Jesus chose to keep believing that another world was possible. Jesus chose to keep working toward a world where those are presently made “last” would then be prioritized as those presently favored as “first” (See Matthew 20:8-16).

Lastly, this contemplation of John and Jesus, also makes me think of where Renewed Heart Ministries is today and what the future may hold for us. Has Renewed Heart Ministries faced setbacks as a result of our choice to stand alongside those being marginalized? In one sense, yes.

But in another very real sense, we are in a better place today than we have ever been. Never before has the Jesus story so deeply resonated with us. I’m thankful for those who have taken the time and invested their energy to open our eyes. And I’m thankful for those who follow us who were willing to have their eyes opened, too, alongside us. 

Like Jesus, we choose to work for a world where those presently made last are treated the same as those presently prioritized as first. Today, there are so many forms of “being made last.” But our differences—race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, etc.—don’t make us less than another. Humanity is richly diverse, but we are all still family. 

And it’s for this human family that, alongside those who have gone before us, those presently making similar choices, and those who will come after us, we here at RHM dedicate 2019 to continuing the work of shaping our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate home for all, especially those Jesus might call blessed members of the kingdom of God.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, open up Matthew 5:3-12 and explore through discussion, if Jesus were to speak these words today, whom would he say were the blessed recipients of his vision for human community? Whom would he say would inherit the earth?  Whom would he say would see God?  Whom would he name?  In 2014 I was a guest speaker at my first Kinship Kampmeeting. Here is a link to how this experience impacted whom I chose in making my own list of beatitudes then. This is an example of this exercise. Look at our world today and come up with your own list.

Discuss how you, too, like Jesus, like John, can work alongside these communities to bring concrete change this year.  

And then pick something from your discussion and begin doing it. 

May 2019 bring us closer to rather than farther away from that pearl of great price, that world where everyone is safe, everyone has enough, and where compassion and love are the basis of our relating to one another.

Happy New Year to each of you. 

Thank you for checking in with us. I’m so glad you did.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

JESUS FROM THE EDGES

hand holding circle of light

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 10, 2018


“These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more . . . What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society?”


“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

In previous series, we have discussed how people in Jesus’ society used the labels of “righteous” or “sinner”  to politically, socially, economically, and religiously gain power and privilege for themselves or to marginalize and exploit those who were vulnerable. (You can review this in The Lost Coin and Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This week I want to build on this idea.

In that society, how well a person conformed to popular interpretations of the Torah determined where they fell on al spectrum between righteous/sinner or clean/unclean. The more righteous or “pure” one was deemed to be, the more their society centered them. They were more privileged. They had power. They were the elite. 

Two groups in the Sanhedrin that competed for power were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Torah more conservatively than the Pharisees. This made conforming to their interpretation much more difficult. In many cases, their definition of “righteous” was only viable for those who had the economic means to conform, i.e. those with money who could afford to live the way the Sadducees deemed pure. This ensured that the Sadducees remained in power under the guise of fidelity to the Torah. 

The second group, the Pharisees , was much more liberal in interpreting the Torah. This made them much more popular with the masses. Under the Pharisees’ teaching, it was easier to be righteous and avoid being labeled a sinner and thus marginalized. The Pharisees were the popular interpreters of the “teachings of Moses.” Being favored by the majority of the people gave them social power, yet they also preserved their position as the ones who set the standard of “clean” and “unclean.” 

This was a social, political, economic and religious system that produced winners and losers. In this context, an itinerant Jewish teacher from Galilee named Jesus emerged. He stood apart from both schools of interpretation and came preaching a gospel where the “kingdom” belonged to those left out of both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ determination of who was righteous. With this in mind, read carefully the following passages. 

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Luke 14:13—“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Today in the U.S., our system creates winners and losers, too. Politically, we also have two parties that compete for popular approval while gaining power in a system that still privileges the elites. Economically, our system produces enormous wealth disparity, with those who “have not” being the natural result of creating those who “have.” Socially and religiously, we have complex systems that create an us versus them worldview and label those who are in and those who are out. 

These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more. Our interconnectedness, our part-of-one-another is continually ignored. Rather than seeing every person’s differences as a testament to the rich variety we possess as a human family, we use these differences to “other” in ways that label some as “righteous” and others as “sinner.” Those of us whose differences place them in a minority category are still members of the human race, and still part of us.

What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society? How can we live out that kind of solidarity in our context today? What does it mean to stand and work alongside those who are pushed to the edges of our society?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians developed a keen awareness of Jesus’ solidarity with those labeled as outsiders, oppressed, marginalized and/or exploited. This emergence was global. In South America, Latin Liberation theology was born. In North America, other liberation theologies, such as Black Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Amerindian theology, womanist theology, and queer theology arose. In the east, Asian theologies of liberation were born. Gustavo Gutierrez comments on the importance of this rising consciousness.

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.  We are thus in the presence of a complex phenomenon developing on every side and representing a great treasure for the Christian churches and for their dialogue with other religions. The clarification I mentioned earlier is thus not limited to the Latin American context but affects a process and a search that are being conducted on a very broad front today. These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities. (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [15th Anniversary Edition])

Womanist scholar and theologian Jacquelyn Grant comments, “Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited when it approaches the majority of human beings…  nns Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God.” (in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, pp. 1, 10)

Making space for these voices and attending to their insights is so very important. Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we believe that the teachings of Jesus —a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee—can still speak into and inform our work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation today. For that to be life giving, we must consider those teachings through the lens of the experiences of the people Jesus would have been addressing if he were walking among us today. As Ched Myers states in Binding the Strong Man, “The fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those at the center do not.” 

From the experiences of those now in a social location similar to the social location of those Jesus taught  we can see how those teachings help us in our work of making our world a safe, just, compassionate home for everyone. As someone who has been engaged in ministry for over twenty years, these perspectives, voices, stories of people fighting to reclaim their humanity in the context of their faith traditions have been the key to helping me rediscover and reclaim my own humanity as well. I resonate deeply with the words of Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together.”  I don’t work alongside communities working for survival and liberation out of charity. It is beside them that I rediscover my own humanity, too.

If one is new to these perspectives, where does one start? One place to begin is by exposing yourself to the writings and works of those who belong to these communities. An easy way to do this is to follow our yearly reading course at RHM. We announce each month’s book at the beginning of each month. You can sign up to be notified of each month’s book by signing up for our weekly news and eSights emails here. The point is not so much where one begins as it is to simply begin. One resource will lead you to another, and over time, you’ll see the difference these voices make to you.

Jesus did not call those who the status quo places “first.” He instead stood alongside those his culture relegated to “last” place (see Matthew 20:8-16). He came not calling the insiders, but the people those in power had labeled as “sinners.” 

What does it look like for us to do the same in our time?

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

HeartGroup Application 

  1. Pick a book from our book list at RHM that you as a group can read and discus together. 
  2. Read a chapter a week and determine a time each week you can meeting to discuss together what you have read.
  3. Discuss how you can put what you’ve read each week into practice and do so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.

Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.

The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.

You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)

Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.

For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”

However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies. [1] The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect. [2] The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated. [3] What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.

The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. [4]

What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love. [5] And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”

This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here! [6] And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!

There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.” [7] In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:

“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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Where does this leave us right now?

Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.

HeartGroup Application

  • Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
  • Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
  • Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.

Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things [8] was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began. [9] It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:

Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world. I love each of you; I’ll see you next week.


 

1 Luke 6:27–36—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.

2 Luke 22:24–27—But 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.”

3 Luke 4.25–29—“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

4 For an excellent, and more detailed discussion on this topic, please see Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker.

5 See last week’s eSight here.

6 Luke 10:9—Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:11—Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in

protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. Luke 11:20—But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

7 The Curetonian Gospels read “Today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” By

contrast, the Sinaitic Palimpsest reads “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

8 Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

9 Luke 4.18–21—“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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Follow Jesus, He’ll Ruin Your Life

Fishermen fishing by fishnet

 

 

 

by Herb Montgomery

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.—Jesus (Mark 1.17)

The Downward Social Mobility of Following Jesus

I’ve chosen to begin this new year with a fresh contemplation of the Jesus story, specifically Mark’s version. And what has jumped right off the page for me right here in the beginning is the social cost for the two brothers Simon and Andrew and the two brothers James and John in their choice to accept Jesus’ offer of following him. It was typical for itinerant teachers within this culture to be sought out by would-be disciples. Yet in the Jesus story, this cultural norm is turned on its head and the teacher seeks out and chooses his disciples instead.[1]

What we find in this though is counterintuitive. Jesus does not seek out the rich to be his disciples, nor does he seek out the poor. Those whom Jesus seeks out are the very ones in motion. They are the ones who are in movement, engaged in social mobility away from those who would be classified as the poor toward those who would be classified as the rich. Both of these sets of brothers are busy at work in a family fishing business. Few people in Galilee were rich; most were relatively poor. Fishermen tended to fall somewhere in the middle (although these types of distinctions were somewhat fuzzier in Galilee). Yet these were not poor men at all as the family business run by their father was doing well enough to also have “hired help.” This family business was providing income for others, not simply their own family.[2]

These were thriving family businesses where the families involved were, by the mere economic success of their business, moving from one social level to a higher one. Jesus comes to them, in the midst of their success, and asks them to walk away from it all.

The Historically Upward Social Mobility of Christianity

The reason this caught my attention is that too often groups associated with Jesus and the Jesus story are vehicles for upward social mobility rather than downward. I’ll explain. I was born here in economically challenged Appalachia. I grew up with parents, no longer married, who belonged to two very different social classes here. I was being raised by the poorer of the two.

I know firsthand the feelings of looking at social classes above you and longing for means of upward social mobility. I know what it feels like to want to move up the social ladder.

I also was raised within a Christian tradition that here in Appalachia provided that very means of upward social mobility for many. Within two generations, I have watched my family go from uneducated, blue collar workers, to a white collar world and the possession of PhDs—all because of the benefit of being connected to “the church.” And it’s not simply my family either. I’ve witnessed it in other families here in Appalachia where grandpa was an uneducated farmer whose grandkids are well on their way to becoming high paid doctors and lawyers.

What Difference Does It Make?

I’m not attaching moral value to either social direction, but simply drawing attention to the contrast of social mobility directions between the Jesus story and my own experience and observations.

There is a danger though. There is a danger that we will excuse the religious disfunction of our “spiritual” community because our personal lives are economically and socially being improved. In other words, we will resist critiquing our religious community because we feel our lives have been benefited by belonging to that community. We will overlook things such as pragmatic racism, gender exclusion, economic bias, educational favoritism, or queer erasure because we mistakenly think our lives have been improved by being a part of something simply because we ourselves have experienced some level of upward social mobility within a system, the very validity of which following Jesus should cause us to question instead.

One example of economic bias and educational favoritism that I have always been puzzled by since I first noticed it, is that typically, with few exceptions, within many of the churches I visit, there is an unspoken hierarchy between the offices of deacon and elder. Deacons typically are composed of the lesser educated, blue collar workers, while being an elder is an office for those with higher educational as well as economic status. This is alarming to me. Something doesn’t feel right. Not just about the hierarchical nature of the structure, but how that hierarchy is expressed as well.

One has to question first off whether upward social mobility is always a blessing. If it is always a good, then why do we find Jesus calling his disciples to abandon this very thing to move in the opposite direction downward in following him?

Christianity was not always like this. Before Constantine and the making of Christianity into the official religion of the empire, Christianity was a movement among the lower classes of society. They were often (but not always) persecuted by those in power. And to become a Christian, for most within the first three hundred years of the Jesus movement, was a clearly defined decision to embrace a downward social mobility. You were letting go of something socially and economically to follow Jesus during this time, not gaining more. The Constantinian shift changed all of this.

Today we are in danger of drinking the Kool-Aid of white, male-dominated, colonial, imperial, Christianity rooted in a theology defined by those at the top of our social pyramids. Jesus, instead, is offering us the opportunity of drinking the “living water” of critiquing these pyramids themselves.[3]

Jesus did not come offering his disciples a means of upward social mobility from disadvantaged to privileged within the current structure. Jesus came announcing the beginning of an entirely different world where the present structure of privilege and advantage are dismantled, where all injustice, oppression, and violence is put right, a world marked by equity and justice for those oppressed by the current structure.[4]

And this new world began with Jesus interrupting twelve men in their endeavors to climb their respective social and economic ladders and inviting them to rethink everything, to abandon the structuring of the world as they knew it, to embrace a cross rather than a throne, and to follow him.

They would not gain the world they were hoping for, they would lose it. For them, following Jesus would not mean upward social mobility, but a downward one.

It would change everything for these twelve.

And it should be the same for us as well.

Follow Jesus, he’ll ruin your life.[5] Yet it’s a life worth ruining for the sake of others. It’s a life worth throwing away for, as some have labelled it, a life of “holy mischief.” There are greater things to live for than mere upward social mobility within the present structures. Following Jesus today doesn’t mean to simply offer upward mobility to those who are presently being held down within the system. Following Jesus means to abandon the entire social structure itself that privileges some at the cost of disadvantaging and subordinating others.  For those of us who are privileged in the present system at the cost of those less privileged, this will mean downward social mobility to an egalitarian new world.  And each of us who are presently in the process of moving even further upwards are going to have to answer for ourselves whether or not we will accept that ancient invitation: “Follow me.”

HeartGroup Application

Spend some time this week contemplating what downward social mobility for the sake of others, the Jesus narrative might inspire in you this new year as 2015 begins.

Write down what you discover.

Share with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns, keep living in love and loving like Jesus.

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

1.  John 15:16—You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

2.  Mark 1:20—Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

3.  John 4:10—Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

4.  Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Is. 1:17)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Is. 42:3–4)

He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. (Matt. 12:20)

Justice is understood as fairness, correct treatment, or equitable distribution of resources. The Hebrew prophets (including Jesus) speak of justice as a chief attribute of their God. The Hebrew people were given ethical instructions (to the degree that they could comprehend in expanding stages, which also need to be expanded even more inclusively today) about their treatment of widows, orphans, and strangers; the practice of justice was tied to their mission.

The Hebrew tradition is alive with examples of men and women who brought justice to situations of oppression and injustice. From Deborah, the prophet and judge who administered justice, to the 8th-century prophets who called Israel and Judah to act justly toward the poor and oppressed, to Jesus who demonstrated the centrality of justice through his words and actions.

In the Hebrew tradition, justice is the undoing of situations of oppression or injustice. Justice is rooted in the prophets’ descriptions of their God’s character (Isa. 5:16), which Jesus too made central to his teachings and healing ministry. A central concept for the prophets was that the justice of a community is measured by their treatment of the oppressed (Isa. 1:16–17; 3:15). The prophets continually issued a strong call for the covenant community to recognize their God as the God of justice and to repent of their injustice. Their primary message can be summarized in the words of Mic. 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

If one goes all the way back to ancient Hebrew lore, their Jubilee tradition in Lev. 25 reflected their God’s demands for justice in the midst of an unjust society. Intended to be observed every 50 years, the Jubilee provided for land to lie fallow (ecological justice) and indentured servants to be set free every seven years (social justice). During the Jubilee Year, debts would be forgiven and lands sold because of indebtedness would be returned to the original owners (economic justice). For agrarian societies like Israel, return of land and forgiveness of debts amounted to economic restructuring of society. Undergirding the Jubilee Year is the principle of redress that corrects past wrongs to approximate equality and restores the human community to wholeness. [We have no record of this even once being practiced but that it was part of their ancient stories is interesting to say the least.]

(Gleaned from B. C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down; S. C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change; D. N. Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible)

5.  I’ve used this phrase for the past four years and my intention is that for most of us, we belong to either a middle or upper class. Following Jesus, for us, is not going to move us further up the pyramid of privilege, but be characterized by throwing all of that away. It was the oppressed who would be “blessed” by Jesus’ new world. For those presently benefited by the present structure the new world that had arrived in Jesus would be problematic, to say the least. (See Luke 6:20–26)