A Community of Healing Justice

Herb Montgomery | March 13, 2020

hands together as team


“At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64, emphasis added)

This curious passage in Matthew’s gospel is almost a direct quote from the apocalyptic book of Daniel. Let’s unpack it a bit.

The gospel authors repeatedly use a title to refer to Jesus: the “son of man.” They use it more than 81 times in the four canonical versions of the Jesus story that we have. It is the only phrase the gospel authors used anywhere near as much as they used the phrase “the Kingdom.” What could this phrase have meant to the early Jesus community? I believe the meaning is tied to Daniel 7:13.

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a SON OF MAN coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13, 14, emphasis added)

In Daniel this phrase, “son of man,” applies not only to an individual but also to a “community” founded around this individual:

“The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to THE PEOPLE of the holy ones of the Most High; THEIR kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom . . .” (Daniel 7:27, emphasis added)

“Son of” is a Semitic idiom meaning “Of or pertaining to the following genus or species.” The “son of man” can therefore be translated as “the offspring of this man” and as a “beloved community” that emerges from that person. I prefer this interpretation myself: communities have more power than heroes.

If you have a few moments, go back through the gospel stories and reread all the times they use the phrase “Son of Man” and try to understand in collective terms what Jesus is saying. In other words, look at this phrase not as the gospel authors talking about Jesus in isolation but as them describing Jesus AND the community organized around his teachings. It’s not Jesus OR the community, but Jesus AND this community: the Son of Man AND the people of the holy ones of the Most High (cf. Daniel 7:27).

The gospel authors referred to the “coming” of the son of man too. Consider our opening passage:

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: FROM NOW ON you will see the Son of Man [and the community] sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)

Here, Jesus is not talking about some event in the future on literal clouds. He is quoting Daniel 7 and saying, “What Daniel is referring to in verse 13 is taking place right now before your very eyes!” This son of man and the community that overcomes the predatory beasts of empire in Daniel 7—Jesus says they’ll see “from now on!”

How does this apply to us today?

The predatory animal nature of the established empire, the status quo, the establishment, however you want to refer to it, ended up crucifying Jesus. This seems to be the common story thread in history each time justice movements threaten the establishment.

But one of the reasons I still love the Jesus story is that this story doesn’t end with yet another crucifixion, but it rather ends with an overcoming of the elite’s efforts to stop the Jesus revolution. The resurrection event brings hope back into the community. The teachings of their Jesus now live on in them. Jesus’ alternative vision for a human community rooted in distributive justice now will live on in them.

Today, as has often been the case throughout history, the establishment still is trying to squelch change. Justice work still meets setbacks daily. I recall the radical words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Trumpet of Conscience:

“These are revolutionary times; all over the globe people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries.” (Quoted in The Radical King by Dr. Cornel West, p. 215)

Ched Myers writes of how afraid the inhabitants of the region of Gerasenes were of the liberation changes Jesus represented and how they “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region” (Mark 5:17):

“Whether personal or political, liberation has a cost, and there will always be those unwilling to risk it. (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 60)

When liberation comes to their region, they plead for it to leave and instead choose to return to how things had been up to that point. The risks of change were great. Under Roman imperial rule, calling for change or revolution or even reformation also meant risking the real possibility of deathly retribution from Rome. Rome’s heavy hand toward any hint of uprising or movement toward change showed extreme intolerance for such activity, especially along the marginal regions of its territory. I can understand why those in the region of Gerasenes were not simply reluctant, but also expressed strong opposition to Jesus being in their region. They basically kicked him out.

Followers of this Jesus are also invited to be part of this distributively just way of organizing human society. We are invited to display what a world changed by the ethics of love, compassion, connectedness, and distributive justice could look like, in the here and now. And yet countless Christians today don’t even recognize when modern calls for change echo the values of the Jesus story. (See When Change Feels Too Risky.)

When we fail to recognize the resonance between the Jesus story and modern change movements, Christians become supporters of the status quo and real-life opposers of the societal changes the Jesus story actually calls for.

We too often spiritualize the teachings of Jesus rather than allowing them to challenge our political, economic and societal systems. We mistakenly believe Jesus’ teachings were about gaining post mortem bliss in a future heavenly realm, rather than about bringing liberation from oppression in the here and now, today (see Luke 4:18-19). The early, growing Christian movement, after being met with repeated failure, chose a more spiritualized application to Jesus’ teachings. They gave up hope for present change and begin focusing apocalyptically on change in the future.

Nonetheless, the gospel authors saw Jesus’ teachings as speaking of a new way to organize human life together. This “community” wasn’t about Jesus doing it all for them but was about their participation in Jesus’ vision for human community (cf. Matthew 26:64; Daniel 7:13,14, 27). Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and scattered throughout each of the gospels, describe the values of this new community.

The gospel authors believed Jesus had given us a way to heal our world. Today, there is still work to do. Our world is right where we belong: this is our home. And we are called to display a world characterized by love, connectedness, compassion and distributive justice. We are called to recognize where this is already happening around us and to stand in solidarity with those already doing it, whether they or their work are “Christian” or not. We are called to humbly learn from those who have been applying these values longer than we personally have. We are called to learn from their experiences and stories. Lastly, we are called to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside us.

The title “son of man” held much meaning for the gospel authors. At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


HeartGroup Application

1. Where are you witnessing the kind of community mentioned above already happening? Discuss with your group.

2. How can your HeartGroup stand in solidarity with those where this is happening whether the community is “Christian” or not? How can your HeartGroup posture itself to humbly learn from communities such as these who have been applying these values longer than we personally may have?

3. What actions can your HeartGroup take to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside of us? Make a list and pick something from this list to put into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Change Feels Too Risky

Herb Montgomery | March 6, 2020

two roads


“Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?”


In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 9:35)

This is a picture of Jesus as itinerant teacher: he travels from place to place proclaiming good news of “the kingdom.”

The rhetoric of “kingdom” was meaningful to the original gospel authors and their audience. For us, this language is deeply problematic and we need to find a different language to express the ideas behind it. 

The empire of God contrasted with the empire of Rome. Distilled to its core, the “kingdom” was Jesus’ vision for a just human society here and now. Not everyone in Jesus’ audience was disadvantaged by the Roman system. Many benefitted from how power and privilege operated in Jesus’ society, and they didn’t perceive the gospel or good news of Jesus’ new social vision as “good news.” 

In the gospel stories, Jesus meets deep resistance and anger from the very beginning (see Luke 4:28-29; Luke 13:14). The elites met him with suspicion and accused his teachings of being dangerous. This sector of his society raised “complaints,” and warnings about the change Jesus was calling for. While some saw that what Jesus was sharing was truly good, others felt he was “deceiving” everyone (John 7:12). Consequently, Jesus faced censure and rebuke from the establishment. He endured being labeled as a heretic and outsider, whose views, if adopted, would end the entire nation. This group’s initial response to Jesus’ teaching and popularity was fear.

“The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God has been being proclaimed, and everyone is attacking it. (Luke 16:16, personal translation, emphasis added.)

In Matthew’s version, Jesus assured these leaders:

“Do not think that I have come to nullify or demolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to nullify or demolish the law but to fulfill it. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until the whole is brought into existence. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments I am about to teach here, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’re not even going to be able to enter the kingdom. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Mark’s Jesus may have opposed certain popular interpretations of the Torah, but, as in Matthew, he was not nullifying the law and the prophets. Rather he was interpreting in ways that were felt to be a return to them.

 I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me . . .  I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against . . . those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice . . .” (Malachi 3:1-5, cf. Mark 1:2)

Note the crimes in these verses: exploiting workers, oppressing the vulnerable in a patriarchal system, and ill-treating migrants.

The passage in Malachi continues:

“You are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” (Malachi 3:9-10)

Many believe that the tithe referred to here is the poor tithe, a tithe more like a tax that was collected by the Temple priest for redistribution to the poor, fatherless, widows, and “foreigners.” These are the groups, in context, that are being spoken of in verses 1-5. The instructions for this tithe or tax to be collected and the redistributed to these social groups are found in Deuteronomy:

“At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates. And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deuteronomy 14:28)

“When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give them to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities.” (Deuteronomy 26:12)

Not only were the people’s profits to be taxed and the proceeds redistributed to the poor, widows, fatherless, and foreigners—what some folks today call a success tax— the counsel in Deuteronomy 14 also continues into chapter 15 where every seven years all debts were to be cancelled. 

These social policies of the Torah unilaterally restructured accumulated wealth and were designed to prevent the people of the Exodus from ever returning to a system of slavery. They were designed to dismantle inequality, redistribute the wealth, and guarantee enough for everyone. Attempts to hold a surplus and control the forces of production and accumulation of resources would be regularly interrupted. These are the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teachings on debt forgiveness and redistributing wealth.  

Yet no matter how deeply Jesus’ social vision was rooted in his own Jewishness, the social changes embodied in his teachings threatened too much for the elite of his day.

Jesus met the anger of the elite class with determination. He saw people to be won from fear of change to love and compassion for the excluded and exploited.

In John, the elites’ fear is palpable:

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50)

The good news that Jesus proclaimed despite their fear announced his social vision.

In the stories, though those disadvantaged within that system responded positively, misrepresentation and fear followed Jesus’ followers after Jesus had gone. They, too, were met with accusations by those who felt threatened:

“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:7, emphasis supplied)

The disciples had experienced something in Jesus’ political, economic, social, and theological teachings. They were proclaiming not the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome), but the Peace of Jesus and his vision of a just future (Acts 10:36). They were not praising Caesar as Lord, but rather proclaiming a different “Lord” (see Acts 10:31, 36). These believers were not chiming in with all the rest and proclaiming Caesar as “Son of God.” Instead they named Jesus as “Son of God” (Acts 9:20). And they did not proclaim Rome or Caesar as the “savior of the world,” but instead claimed that Jesus and his vision was the “savior of the world.” (1 John 4:14)

What does this mean for us today?

Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?

Well, I’ll tell you a little secret. Change is about just that: change. But the economic changes found in Jesus’ teachings were supposed to lead to life, not to a world where some have more than they could ever use and many go without. We can choose to leave things the way they are. We can also choose to shape our world into a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone. 

I’m watching things unfolding around us today and hoping these words from Luke’s gospel will not also be spoken about us:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, emphasis added)

If we don’t make changes soon, Mother Nature will make changes for us. But when we leave this level of change to nature, it doesn’t come softly, and it’s hardest on people who are vulnerable and exploited.

It would be much better, for everyone, if we chose change today.

We have choices to make. 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Do you see any parallels in this week’s eSight and what is presently going on in the U.S.? Discuss any parallels you see with your group.
  2. What social, economic or political changes would you like to see made in our present society? Have each person make a list and then prioritize the items on their list from most important to least.  Then compile those lists to get a sense of how your group feel’s collectively.
  3. Pick the top three from the collective list and brainstorm ways your group work toward these changes. Select something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice the coming week. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week

A Just Future Begins Today

Herb Montgomery | February 28, 2020

globe


“Change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others. Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.”


In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was asked when “the kingdom” or Jesus’ vision of God’s just future was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21).

What energized the early Jesus movement was that Jesus counterintuitively denied that the just future they anticipated was coming at some point in the future. No, he declared: it had arrived! A new way of shaping human society toward justice, compassion, and inclusion had come, and it was theirs for the choosing. A movement had risen around Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and they were being invited to participate in it. A movement toward the just future they longed for had arrived. The question was what they were going to do about it. Notice the following passages:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 4:17)

“As you go, proclaim the good NEWS, ‘The kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 10:7)

“ . . . the kingdom of God HAS come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“ . . . Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ARE GOING into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” (Matthew 21:31)

“And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near . . .” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus was not announcing that His kingdom would arrive soon, in the future. He proclaimed that the time had already come. He saw his purpose as traveling from one city to the next, proclaiming its arrival!

“But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)

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

Reconsider the passage we began with in Luke 17:

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God IS AMONG YOU.’” (v. 20-21, emphasis added.)

The gospel authors used the rhetoric of “kingdom” or “empire” in their own Jewish culture and Roman societal context. Today we have better language to use: the language of kingdom is now rightly seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, and rooted in patriarchy. Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom” were egalitarian, and his vision for ordering human society didn’t look anything like a kingdom. Let’s simply call it Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. This just future had actually arrived and Jesus contrasted it with the Roman Empire. Its treatment of the poor, inclusion of the marginalized, nonviolent obstruction of present systems of injustice, liberation of the incarcerated, and calls for reparations for those harmed in the present system confronted those listening to Jesus with the difference between the kind of society they were living in and the kind of society that could be, if they chose it.

Notice the contrast in these two verses:

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR.” (Luke 21:31)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God COMES.” (Luke 22:18)

Had the time come, yes. Was it near? Yes. Had the beginning already begun? Yes. Could it also be stopped and prevented from coming in its fullness? Absolutely.

The time for change had come, but, as with all movements, positive momentum could be obstructed, slowed, and even halted. The time for a just future may have come, but change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others.

Would the established elite be able to stop this movement or would the proletariat that comprised the early Jesus movement actually be able to make the changes they resonated with in the teachings of Jesus? Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.

In the gospels, Jesus announced that the beginning of God’s just future had arrived. He called his followers to enlarge this beginning, and it was obstructed almost immediately.

That obstruction is the meaning we can safely take from the cross of Jesus. The cross was the establishment’s no to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The cross interrupted Jesus’ salvific work, while the resurrection reversed the interruption and inspired Jesus’ early followers to live out his vision of a just future.

I’m reminded of how Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas phrases it in her powerfully written book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil . . . As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life affirming force.” (p. 187)

Douglas goes on to reference Audre Lorde’s phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Douglass then responds to Lorde:

“What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . [God’s resurrecting] power is nonviolent . . . God enters into this world of violence, yet God does not take [violence] into God’s self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human creation. Thus, through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world—in a nonviolent but forceful manner.”

One of the uses of the threat of a cross in Roman society was to prevent rebellion or resistance. It was used to keep oppressed communities silent or passive. To stand up to injustice was to embrace the possibility that one might also end up on a cross for doing so. This context of standing up and speaking out, fully knowing what the repercussions may be, is the context I believe it’s most life-giving to read these words in Luke’s gospel from Jesus:

“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:22–24)

Those who choose to save their life by remaining passively silent in the face of injustice are the ones who end up losing their life and humanity, even if they live on with their privilege and position untouched.

God’s just future is both future and present. The future/present paradox is not either/or, but both/and. God’s just future begins every time someone chooses justice over injustice, liberation over subjugation, equity over exploitation, and thriving over extinction. It also can be obstructed.

Every time we choose to stand with those most vulnerable to injustice, the beginning of God’s just future is here, now, obstructed though it may be. We get to choose which way the moral arc of the universe bends. The status quo either bends us, or we bend it. It shapes us, or we shape it.

And this leads me to a question I get asked a lot. But what about when we feel like our taking a stand isn’t making much of a difference? I have to admit, I too am wrestling with those feelings this week after spending Monday at my state Capital talking to our representatives. I’m reminded of the story of A.J. Muste.

A.J. Muste was an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Standing at a candlelight vigil/protest in front of the White House, a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”

A.J. Muste replied softly: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I believe that when we choose to take a stand, the beginning of God’s just future has arrived.

Will it grow to fruition? That is for us, collectively, to decide.

When we see movements toward a more just, more compassionate, safe society at work, we can oppose them, choosing a more moderate, less-threatening-to-the-establishment path, or we can come alongside those movements, pitching in our own energy and resources to work for change.

If we do that, we can confidently say with Jesus, God’s just future, though obstructed, is already “among you.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see fear of a more just society being stoked today? Discuss with your group.
  2. What movements for justice do you see being obstructed? Have your group make a list.
  3. What can your group do collectively to stand with and work alongside such movements? Pick something and put it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

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

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

“Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable . . . to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with ‘the people,’ not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.”


“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

This passage juxtaposes the mass of Jewish people who favored Jesus, the elites in that society who were threatened by Jesus’ populist teachings, and Roman power and authority. The reference to the authority of the governor is a political story detail through and through. The story reminds us of how those in positions of power and privilege use the power of the state to protect their own social position, especially when their agenda is contrary to the masses’. 

For those who have been reading this month’s book of the month for RHM, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Jason W. Moore and Raj Pate, you’ve read how historically our capitalist society has not been based on equality, win-win, and cooperation, but on competition, inequity, and the kind of “winning” that requires someone somewhere else to lose. The economic and political elite has continually used the power of the state to accomplish their goals. In Luke, this method is chosen because the elite “fears the people.” 

Jesus’ teachings are represented here as being popular among the people. The elite does not have the people’s best interest in mind, but looks for how best to manipulate them and preserve the status quo. Jesus was popular with large sectors of the have-nots in the story: the haves have always used the system’s “authority” to preserve themselves.

In a more just and compassionate structure the state could protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the powerful and privileged. Yet the times when there has been a more regulatory form of state power on the side of the masses have been the exception to the history of state power in capitalist/colonialist society, not the rule.

As long as we have classes and other social locations where some have power and others don’t, the state should protect the vulnerable. I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963: he spoke against the idea that the power of the state is useless in our work toward a just society:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

When we consider the “authority of the governor” in our passage this week, it was not on the side of the people, but contrary to the will of the people, within the context of the conflict between Jesus and the political elite of his day. 

I want to stop here and ask you to dream with me for a moment . What is your image of a perfect world? I’m not saying the world will ever be perfect. The exercise of dreaming about what a perfect world would be though is a practice that helps us in our work of moving toward a world that is less unjust, less exploitative, less unsafe.

Does your image of a perfect world include the need for the vulnerable to be protected from the strong? Or does your image of a perfect world make even this obsolete? Is your image of a perfect world one where some take responsibility for caring for those who are vulnerable?

Jesus envisioned a world where even the meek inherit the earth.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

Jesus here contrasts systems of dominion and systems of service. Humanity’s hope for the future is not in devising more efficient ways of dominating one another, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another. 

The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Jesus today use the same method as is in our original story in Luke 20. Privileged and powerful Christian Evangelicals view Trump as their Messiah because he will enforce their political agenda. At the foundation of this delusion is the Christian Right’s long struggle to overturn Roe vs Wade, the law that affirmed legal access to a safe abortion. Just this week, someone commented on a post of mine that if Planned Parenthood was defunded it would protect “thousands” of lives of the vulnerable.

“Vulnerable?” I thought. I assumed they were speaking of the unborn. But what about the vulnerability of women, especially those in a certain social location, who will die as a result of overturning Roe vs. Wade? Those who are informed understand that lowering abortion rates has nothing to do with the legality of abortion. It does have to do with the availability of education and birth control, and child and youth advocacy. Abortions have actually increased when outlawed. In the end, this is yet another example of those in power, mostly men, using state power to control the lives and bodies of women who should have autonomy over their own bodies. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. There are genuinely effective ways of lowering the rate of abortions in society that do not escalate the fatality rate for women nor seek to remove women’s bodily autonomy. (For more seeHow I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement)

Since Trump’s election, we have seen a surge in Evangelical, American Christianity’s desire to influence our state and federal governments to enforce its dogmas under the misapplied label of “religious freedom.”

Here in West Virginia, we are in the midst of a battle over education, where for-profit charter schools are using Christians as pawns. I understand that some nonprofit charter schools have been a tremendous help to some minority Black and Brown communities. That’s not what is happening here. Christians are lifting their voices alongside for-profit corporations against what the majority of “the people” here in WV want. These Christians want to use the power of the state to protect them from the fear that they will have to send their children to public schools where they will sit in a classroom beside nonwhite, migrant, Muslim and LGBTQ kids. 

Christianity has a long history of being on the wrong side of the use of state power. On October 28, 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was aligned with the nationalistic, violent power of the state. This set a precedent and Christianity’s social location changed dramatically to make it the official state religion. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the state has been used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies to exploit and/or execute heretics, Jews, Muslims, women accused of “witchcraft,” indigenous populations, those whom we today identify as LGBTQ, and more.

Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable, but, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes knowingly, to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. 

As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with “the people,” not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.

A misuse of the power of the state executed Christianity’s Jesus.

And misuse of the power of the state is still harming the most vulnerable groups today.

“. . . but they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Luke 20:19-20

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

  1. List examples you have seen the power of the state used to protect the interests of the have’s against the have nots?
  2. Think of the Jesus story for a moment.  What are some examples in the gospels of where you see Jesus taking the side of the vulnerable, excluded, or marginalized over against the powerful and privileged of his day.
  3. As we work toward a more just world, damage mitigation along that journey is also important. How could the power of the state be transformed and reimagined along this process to protect the have nots from the elite? Be imaginative. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you’re here.

Wherever you are today, choose love, take action, choose compassion, work toward justice, title the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “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).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

Luke 7:29-30: “(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)”

Matthew 21:32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

Sayings Gospel Q 6:46: “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.