Healing Our World, Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | October 26, 2018 

picture of snowflake


“’The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.’ . . .  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power.”


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

This week I want to begin with a fable familiar to many who daily do the work of healing our world. To the best of my knowledge, this story was originally told by Kurt Kauter but I cannot find the original source. 

The fable tells of a conversation between a wild dove and a coalmouse.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,742,952. When the 3,742,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

In Matthew’s gospel we read these words:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

This passage begins with Jesus going throughout “Galilee, teaching in [Jewish] synagogues.” It’s important to make a couple of things clear. 

First, the gospels were originally written within a Jewish context: they are Jewish written works. The Jesus of these stories was never a Christian; nor did he promote a new religion. This Jesus was a Jewish man seeking to make change and challenge injustice within his own Jewish culture. These stories have been historically used for anti-Jewish purposes, but I would argue that we should not freeze Jewish people in our minds as the gospel writers framed them two thousand years ago. The gospels are not a reflection of Jewish culture today, and injustice is injustice in any place and in any time.

I believe that we can derive insight from these stories of resistance into how to address injustice in our culture today. Yet we must not use them as tools of oppression toward Jewish people. And this leads me to my second point. 

I want to recognize and name how these stories of resistance have also been used, sometimes even unintentionally, as tools of oppression against people with disabilities. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ healing stories (like we find in this week’s passage where Jesus heals “every disease and sickness among the people”) have been deeply harmful to people with disabilities. Through these stories, people with disabilities have been dehumanized and used as symbols or metaphors that promote ableism. So I begin this week by affirming the full humanity of both Jewish people and people with disabilities. I push back against interpretations of these healing stories that support an idea of “normal” that creates for some of our siblings the perception or feeling that they’re less than. We’ll address this further as we continue. 

As well as telling us that Jesus healed, this passage also tells us that what Jesus was teaching in the synagogues was “the good news (or gospel) of the kingdom.” The term gospel or good news was not originally a religious term about being saved from post mortem torment. It was instead a deeply political term. When the Roman Empire conquered a new territory, it would send out evangelists whose job was to proclaim to the newly conquered territory the euangelion (gospel or good news) that the empire had come and the people of that territory were now part of the Roman Empire. Here are a few examples:

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-singular] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch; Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion – plural] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch; Demetrius, p. 17, 1st century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον – euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347, 1st century).

The gospel authors take this language from Rome to tell the story of Jesus who came preaching an alternative vision for human society.

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom of God [as opposed to Rome] to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43, emphasis added.)

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [euangelion – gospel]!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)

Jesus’ good news was the proclamation of an alternative vision for human society where people carried out God’s will for distributive justice, mutual aid, and caretaking rather than subjugation. In the following passages we see that the gospel authors tied this proclamation to healing narratives as well.

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8, emphasis added.)

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

“So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6)

These are parts of the gospels that have been used in deeply problematic ways for people who live with disabilities. I believe the gospels were intended to be stories of survival, resistance and liberation, but have been used oppressively toward many. Rather than using healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing leapers, and driving out demons as ableist metaphors for societal injustices, which I believe they were in the stories, I want to instead concretely name some injustices that we, as Jesus followers, can address in our culture today: racism, sexism and misogyny, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, etc. By concretely naming these issues we can better understand passages like this in John’s gospel:

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

The Greek word here translated “saved” could just as accurately be translated as “healed.” What makes this passage special to me is that it is not referencing individuals being saved but the world being saved. It’s not a privatized or personal healing, which too often proves vulnerable to the above type of abusive interpretations, but a collective, societal, communal healing. It’s a call to allow your faith to influence how we relate to one another! It’s a call to allow your faith to move you to engage public life not just your own personal life. This is a very Jewish understanding of faith: our beliefs call us not only to personal piety, but also to public engagement with the work of healing the world. Jesus practices this kind of societal confrontation and healing in his protest in the Temple, the heart of the Temple State of his society.

Tikkun olam (Healing the world) is the Jewish idea of one’s obligation to engage in social action. Seeing Jesus in this tradition leads us to the same conclusion as Latin Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez who saw in Jesus’ “kingdom” teachings a commitment to creating a just society. This commitment means being on the side of oppressed, marginalized, and exploited classes of people. A belief in the healing love spoken of in John 3:16-17 should lead one to “inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, [and] oppression” (Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation, p. 135). 

The radical changes we need in our society can only take place through movement building. Yet, while we are building and participating in those long-term movements, we must also be engaged in what my friend Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director at Highlander Center, refers to as damage mitigation. How do we do this? One way is through our votes.

Because people matter, voting matters. Here in America, we make a mistake in how we define politics. For far too many, politics means “parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law.” And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie recently defined politics in a Facebook conversation: as “the distribution of resources and power among people and groups of people.” She went on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.” Either we become targets of others’ political engagement or we choose to help shape how resources are distributed. Jesus taught distributive justice, and as followers of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed because their distribution can concretely help or hurt people. Our beliefs and values should move us to engage our public life. As McKenzie explained, wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” there is simply no way to be apolitical. There is no such thing as political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement is a political statement as well.” Believing in a Universal Love leads us to work toward a universal distributive justice for the objects of that love. Being one who “knows the Lord,” in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is defined as “defend[ing] the cause of the poor and needy”:

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. ‘Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD. ‘But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.’”(Jeremiah 22.13-17)

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary, that said, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more. The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that healing the world is not simply about voting but does include voting. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements. I’ve witnessed this first-hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building movements for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.” Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes. Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either participants in the discussion or we are the targets of others’ agenda. It’s been said that we are either seated at the table or we are on the menu. Given our current social mess, voting, especially for marginalized communities, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. 

So this week, I want to encourage you to vote your values this November remembering that people matter and will be concretely affected by the outcome. (For some of you early voting is already open.) Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible. And as Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson says, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

I’ll close this week with the words of Anne Frank:

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can all start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (The Diary of Anne Frank)

How can you engage the work of healing the injustice in our world? Who knows? As the story we began with this week reminds us, you may be the last “snowflake” needed. “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

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

HeartGroup Application

This week, how can your HeartGroup be a source of healing in your surrounding community?

  1. Take some time to dream up some ways you can be a positive influence for change in your area. 
  2. Discuss what it would take to make some of those dreams a reality. What concrete steps would you need to take?
  3. Pick one of those dreams that you believe the steps to make it a reality are possible and make a plan.  Divide up the tasks that need to be done and start on them.  Before long, that dream will begin to take shape and the healing changes in your area will be closer to coming to fruition.  

Each of us had a sphere of influence. Each of us has something we can do. And we combine those things and work together, it’s amazing what we can actually accomplish. 

Again, to believe in a Universal Love is to work toward a distributive justice for all of the objects of that love.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. 

Picture of a pottery bowlDon’t forget this is the last week for our Shared Table Fundraiser.  You can find out all about it at renewedheartministries.com.  You won’t want to miss out on it.

I love each of you dearly.

Again, another world is possible.

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.

Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams 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)

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.