Speaking against the holy Spirit 

White dove in the cage, Pigeon locked in a cage.by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Luke 12:10: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Gospel of Thomas 44: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him. And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven.’”

Womanism and Spirit

For those unfamiliar with the womanist school of thought, Alice Walker writes, “Womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xii). Womanism’s origins are among Black women of the African diaspora. And within our context this week, I love the emphasis womanist writers place on Spirit.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, a Christian womanist, explains, “The Spirit is the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God/Creator, Jesus and all of creation are inextricably entombed.” (My Sister, My Brother, p. 31). She quotes Igbo theologian Okechukwu Ogbannaya: “[Spirit] is like the amniotic fluids—the waters of the womb—that encompasses a child before it is born, and accompany it, flowing out with it as it makes its way into the world as we know it. It surrounds the child and forms the first environment out of which it is born.”

Christian womanists view Jesus as the “human embodiment of Spirit” (ibid.). Spirit is the source of strength and courage to both survive and stand up to individual and systemic oppression. Womanists join love with justice in their discussion of Spirit. Emilie Townes, for example, reminds us that we see the evidence of the Spirit at work when we see justice as the demands of love (see In a Blaze of Glory, p. 143-144). Within a womanist understanding, whenever we see love as engagement of the world of justice for the oppressed, marginalized, or subjugated, we are seeing the Spirit at work.

So a womanist would read our saying this week assuming that the Spirit expresses love through restorative, liberative, transformative, and distributive justice.

I remember an evangelical fourth of July celebration I had to attend once in California where supporters of the Christian Right repeated quoted Paul’s statement, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [liberty]” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Too often, however, this “freedom” or “small government” rhetoric has not been freedom for the oppressed, nor liberty for those imprisoned and exploited (Luke 4:18). Rather it has been about individual freedom, or state’s freedom to oppress, segregrate, imprison, and exploit.  (For an example read here.)

In other words, for those at the top of an exploitative social pyramid who are privileged, advantaged, and benefited by the status quo, freedom and liberty means something fundamentally different than it does for those at the bottom. One is fixated on the freedom of the individual to do whatever they desire. The other sees that in nature, we are not truly free from one another. As we said last week, we are interconnected. We are part of one another. We are each other’s fate, and what one does affects others. What the individual does affects the community as much as what the community does affects the individual. We are not genuinely free from one another.

The Spirit’s work in Luke is especially helpful for us to remember now:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year for the cancelling of all debts [or “of the Lord’s favor.”]” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

The Spirit works in solidarity with those on the undersides and margins of our societies. It calls those among the elite to abandon their advantage, join the rank and file, and work for a society marked by equity, fairness, compassion, and safety for all.

This week, I want to encourage you to think of the Spirit in the context of distributive justice, justice that makes an environment where each person not only survives but also thrives. This is one of the most devastating critiques of capitalism for Jesus followers because capitalism creates wealth disparity between winners and losers.

The U.S., the wealthiest nation in history, is also home to the greatest wealth disparity in history. Today six people possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of society. Despite being so wealthy, the U.S. is still home to 43 million people who live below the poverty line. As I often say, the game Monopoly is fun for the first two rounds, but the last two rounds are only fun for one person at the table. For everyone else, it’s a slow painful death.

I want to speak for a moment to the middle class in our society. Here in the U.S., we do have a class structure. Below many of us is the lower class. Above us is the upper class, and there are large portions of the middle class of people who have drunk the upper classes’ Kool-aid. These are people who look at the upper class and long to be where they are, who subscribe to their economic philosophies and their societal “solutions.”

Even within Christianity, many people here in Appalachia think that if the poor can simply be taught how to play the upper class’s game of gaining and keeping individual wealth, this will solve poverty. (An example are churches who promote programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University).

What I want us to stop and consider is whether the game itself has moral ramifications. Is it enough to teach people how to succeed in an exploitative system? In Sayings Gospel Q we rather see a Jesus who critiques the exploitative system itself and casts before his listeners’ imagination a world that plays by a different set of values and priorities.

But I continue to bump into a certain resistance in Christian churches when I speak of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Just recently a gentleman came up to me after one of my presentations, stuck his finger on my chest, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else take my hard earned money away from me and give it to lazy poor people.”

I want to try and break down what I see happening here. First within the U.S. the higher one traverses up the class structure the more tax loopholes one can use to legally avoid paying taxes. The U.S. president admitted in the third presidential debate, “I haven’t paid taxes in nineteen years. That makes me smart.”

This legal tax avoidance means that the middle class pays most for social programs that go to alleviate the economic hardships that capitalism produces for the poor. The lower middle class—those who have worked really hard just to eek across the line from lower class to middle class—pays most. They have worked really hard to get to where they are, and I get that frustration.

But what I want us to see this week is that they, too, are being played by the upper class that doesn’t pay any taxes. They get out of paying taxes, unlike us, and they place the majority of the tax burden on others. This predisposes middle class people, even in Christian congregations, to have knee-jerk negative reactions whenever helping the poor is brought up.

Most of the Christians I have the pleasure of giving presentations to are middle class Christians. They are not exempt from what I’ve described above. When Christians hear their Jesus speak of selling everything the have and giving it to the poor, they hear it from their social location and they respond, “But then we all will be poor.”

I would like us to consider that Jesus’ message to the upper class was “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” To the middle class Jesus would instead say, “Do not be afraid little flock, it’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom, too. Seek first Jesus’s new social order,” which the gospels refer to as “the Kingdom.” This is a social order marked by no more classism, mutual-aid among those in the lower class, resource-sharing for those in the middle class, and radical wealth redistribution for those in the upper class. Jesus envisioned class structures being replaced by a shared table with enough for everyone. Every person’s needs are met in the Kingdom, and not in the sense of “just scratching by.” No, no. This is world where everyone is thriving together!

But here is the catch: How does this relate to our saying this week on “speaking against the Spirit.” The spirit Jesus spoke of is the Spirit of liberation and restoration and transformation. It calls those who are in the middle class to stop their love affair with the upper class. Stop standing in solidarity with the rich. Stop making preferential options for the wealthy. Enter instead into a love affair with the poor. Stand in solidarity with the economically exploited. Embrace Jesus’ preferential option for the poor! When we do this, “all these things will be added unto you” intrinsically, because within a community that embraces the values and priorities of Jesus’s social vision, all these things are added to everybody!

“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

And yet the upper class continually has us think, speak, feel, and act against this “Spirit” that anoints one to bring good news to the poor. Some, in an attempt to delegitimize a world that looks like Jesus’s, use as slurs such labels as “leftist,” “socialism,” “communism” because they know that many people find these words emotionally charged. Some of those who use these terms derogatorily don’t even know what they mean! And others do know and use them accurately, but genuinely want an oligarchy where the world is ruled by the elites.

Stop falling for their fear-mongering.

Stop drinking their Kool-aid!

Recently I watched two documentaries back to back. The first was The 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Then, at the request of a friend, I watched the documentary Occupy UnMasked, which is an Alt-Right spin on the Occupy Movement written by Steven Bannon and hosted by the late Andrew Breitbart.

Watching these two films back to back is what produced a spontaneous combustion in my heart. There are people today who buy hook, line, and sinker popular misrepresentations of the Occupy Movement. (The movement did have flaws, as all movements do, but was nowhere what Breitbart accuses it of being.)

When the masses have been made solely dependent on corporate elites for survival, this has been massively detrimental to them. And yet, I have family and friends who think that documentaries like Unmasked represent the truth, while documentaries like The 13th are spin. It is calling evil good and good evil. The Hebrew prophets pointed out the same phenomena within their societies:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

The term “fake news” was originally used to call out conspiracists whose reporting was without foundation. I have family now who calls news agencies like The Washington Post “fake news.” They are saying things like “I’m simply choosing to believe in the alternative facts.”

Each of these family members also claims to be Christian. And though they might not realize it today, their Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed. He taught a gospel that did have a preference, for the poor, the outcast, those forced to live on the edges of society.

Stop standing with those who once were in the driver seat of abuse and want to be restored to that place of power over others once again. Stand in solidarity with and be informed by the voices of those who historically have been abused. Equity will always feel oppressive to those with privilege. Their privilege over others is being removed. Their advantage over others is being removed. But we are making a world that is safe for everyone, including them. They rarely perceive it this way.

Wherever the liberating, holy Spirit is believed to be evil, where it is accused of being dangerous, as it was by Jesus’ enemies among the elite in his own society, these words call us to reconsider:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

HeartGroup Application

Who is telling the truth? Which side should one listen to in the uphill work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for us all? Jesus’ gospel calls us to make a preferential option for the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed, all of them. We cannot afford to make a world that solves the human dilemma at the expense of any group.

Sit down with your HeartGroup this week and

  1. Discuss what difference it makes to define Jesus’ holy Spirit as liberation for the poor, marginalized, and disinherited?
  2. Those in positions of privilege within the status quo will always have a different side to the story. Of course they will, because even if only subconsciously, they want to preserve their social location. What difference will it make to base your preferential option on the perspectives of underprivileged people in our society?
  3. This week choose some well respected news outlets to read and begin asking yourself which side is this person’s perspective making a preferential option for: those with privilege or the underprivileged? Then come back to your group next week and discuss any changes in the “Spirit’s work” that you began to perceive this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and following the gospel Jesus modeled for us by making a preferential option for the least of these. Wherever this finds you this week, keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. We are in this together.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Not Just Saying Master, Master

by Herb Montgomery

Dictionary entry of the word ethics. “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Companion Texts:

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 . . . ”

Where We Stand

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine came up to me with concern after one of my evening presentations. We were in the middle of a week-long series on the Sermon of the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. We’d progressed through Jesus’s rejection of violence and his teaching on sharing our surplus with the poor, and those two teachings alone were about enough for him. He said, “Herb, I feel like you are just giving us a really difficult way to get to heaven.”At that moment, I really didn’t understand all that his statement meant. But as I thought about it, some things began to become clear for me.

First, I didn’t write the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, there are things in it that are difficult to accept, especially for Americans today. Its statements on nonviolence (e.g. Matthew 5:39) and anti-capitalism (e.g. Matthew 19:23) are potently un-American. So yes, some things in Matthew’s gospel are difficult for us.

But before we chuck the entire message, let’s first ask what sector of society we’re encountering these teachings from, where we stand in society. Those of us who are privileged in the status quo always find the teachings of Jesus difficult, whereas those who are subjugated tend to resonate with his teachings as good news. (Both oppressor and oppressed are challenged with the practice of nonviolence, although it challenges them in very different ways.)

So if a saying of Jesus initially strikes you as difficult, first begin by locating yourself within the socio-economic pyramid, and why your place in society might make his teaching hard to accept.

Second, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus present us with a nice and easy program to follow so we can obtain post-mortem bliss (i.e. heaven.) You won’t find it. Jesus teachings were about the “empire” of God here on earth “in this generation,” through people learning how to take care of people. It is Paul’s gospel that addresses post-mortem bliss, not Jesus’s. Jesus placed before us a vision of things on earth being transformed to be “as they are in heaven.” He was not giving us a difficult way to get to heaven, but rather a risky and often deeply challenging way to heal this world. I believe Jesus was showing us a path, a “way,” to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all through mutual participation and mutual care.

Doing As Jesus Said

G.K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying that the history of Christianity does not prove that the teachings of Jesus have been “tried and found wanting,” but that those teachings have been “found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World). But again, Jesus isn’t trying to make it hard for us to get to heaven; he is being honest about how hard it really is to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone. When we tell the truth about this, we don’t make following Jesus hard. We are simply honest about how hard it can be for those at the top of our socio-economic pyramids to follow him. It’s easy to worship Jesus. It’s easy to hold a cosmological notion about Jesus. It’s much more challenging to distill his ethical teachings from a first century Jewish context and apply them to the challenges we face in our society today. And it’s still more challenging to actually follow through with those actions.

But I believe the challenge is worth it. No medical student graduates from medical school and says, “What a bunch of legalistic professors! All they told me for four years was ‘Do this and do that! Do this and don’t do that!’” Instead, they go out into the world with a set of skills and perceptions that we all hope will enable them to alleviate suffering in our world.

It’s the same with Jesus. Jesus didn’t give us a list of doctrines to believe. He left us a set of teachings, wisdom teachings. As we endeavor to put them into practice, our experience grows, our practice becomes more skilled, our listening becomes more honed, and our actions become more intrinsically healing and liberating to those who are not privileged by the current status quo.

Matthew is clear: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the “empire” of God. (I’m beginning to prefer the term “empire” over “kingdom,” because I believe it is more historically consistent with the time in which Jesus taught, when that whole region lived under the oppression of the Roman empire.)

Luke is clear, too, that the sayings of Jesus must be “put into practice.” This set of teachings includes the “Way” of grace, nonviolence, peace-making, loving enemies, forgiveness, restorative justice, transformative justice, social justice, economic justice, working alongside those who are oppressed, marginalized, disinherited, excluded, a generous inclusivity, a radical sharing, and a community built on the principle that the empire of God is people taking care of people, rather than people competing with people.

If I had to choose between someone who believed in all the cosmological claims about Jesus but did not wish to put into practice the teachings of Jesus, and someone who doubted the cosmological claims but saw intrinsic value in Jesus’s teachings and sought to both understand and practice them in the here and now, I would have to choose the latter. The former has brought too much suffering on our world, whereas the latter endeavors to alleviate that suffering and sometimes succeeds!

A history worth reading is Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. This book will be one of our Annual Reading Course books either this year or next.

Calling Jesus “Master”

I want to address the word “Master” in this week’s saying.

As we progress through Sayings Gospel Q, we are going to see that Jesus taught what we would today call anarchy. Anarchy does not mean chaos; it means the rejecting of hierarchy. Anarchy rejects the way of domination and subjugation. 

I want to be clear here. While anarchy is commonly associated with freedom, Jesus didn’t teach “freedom” as we individualistically understand it today. He taught that although we are not to seek to dominate or subjugate one another, we are also not free from one another. We are connected! We are interdependent. No person is an island, and, as branches on the vine, we are all dependent on each other. Jesus taught the way of mutual aid, and he cast a vision of a world of people mutually serving each other. The hope for our world in Sayings Gospel Q is not in our devising more efficient ways of subjugating others, but in our discovering more effective ways at taking care of one another.

And yet we have this word “Master” in this week’s verse. I don’t believe the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q actually wants to be anyone’s “Master” or even “Lord” in the sense of an emperor or feudal baron. I see no example of Jesus grasping that kind of power in any of Sayings Gospel Q. Like all wisdom teachers, Jesus desires to lead his listeners to a better way. And I don’t see him in any of the synoptic gospels wanting to dominate others. His desire was not to be served but to model what it means to serve.

Mark 10:41-45: “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Matthew 20:24-28: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Luke 22:24-27: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’”

Even in John, which was written much later than the other canonical gospels and uses “Lordship” language the most, we find this narrative:

John 13:4-5: “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

John 13:12-15: “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’”

These passages suggest to me that Jesus was much more interested in modeling and teaching a different way for us to live together as members of the human family. Even when he uses the phrase “empire of God,” he subverted the Domination Empire of his day and cast a vision for a world where people no longer dominated and subjugated each other as they did in the empires of that time.

Jesus did not emerge in Judaism only to become another in the long list of lords who practice domination. Instead, he showed us something very different.

This week’s saying is a significant challenge to today’s Christian culture. Today, we overwhelmingly emphasize verbally acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” so that a person can be assured of a post-mortem seat in the non-smoking section. Yet, in many sectors of the Christian religion, the sayings of Jesus on nonviolence, his preferential option for the poor, and his critique of domination systems are largely ignored by those who call him “Lord.” We read these sayings of Jesus in the gospels, but don’t hear them. The sayings pass right by us without substantially challenging the shape of our world. It is a very strange phenomena to me, one that I, too, used to experience.

I recently finished a book entitled Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. If you have not read it, I recommend it. Day is an example of a modern Christian who tried to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. Day wrote, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” (The Catholic Worker, May 1940) The contrast between this paradigm and the paradigm I hear from some Christians today is stark.

And yet there is hope. There are many who have woken up and are waking up to this contrast. To each of you, this week’s saying serves as encouragement. You are working in the light given off by this question:

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

HeartGroup Application 

This week, pick either Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Dedicate some time to reading either one. And then, after you have read through your selection:

  1. Pick a saying that you would like to lean more deeply into.
  2. Research that saying, including different perspectives and interpretations of this saying. Start with a simple Google search if you don’t know where else to begin. Remember what we covered last week. Consider what fruit varying interpretations have yielded or could produce.
  3. Experiment putting this saying into practice in this coming week. When you do, journal about the experience before you forget, and share your reflections with your HeartGroup when you come together.

Thank you so much for joining us this week. Let’s keep putting the sayings of Jesus into practice together, 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.

Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent: Part 3 of 3 

by Herb Montgomery

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.’” (Luke 2.11-14)

We’ve arrived! This is our final installment of our Christmas series this year at RHM, and we’re looking at Luke’s birth-narrative this week. Again, I want to recommend the volume The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I believe you’ll find it to be a very user-friendly resource in wresting what we today call “The Christmas Story” from ancient and modern forms of imperialism and their co-opting of these narratives.

Luke’s birth-narrative is quite different from Matthew’s, which we looked at last week. One of the differences is Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew. (Luke’s entire Gospel does this actually.) Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ on geography. Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then moves onto Nazareth. Another difference is that, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Christian Jews in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile-Christian audience. This may help to explain the way that Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke chooses a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

To quote John Dominic Crossan in a recent panel discussion, what we see in the first century is not “Christianity against Judaism.” Rather we see, “Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism . . . Of course [the followers of Jesus] are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.”

This is the back drop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. (We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel: not as much as in John, but certainly more than in Matthew, and most definitely more than in Mark.)

To perceive Luke’s agenda in writing his narrative, we must read the narrative through three filters: 1) first-century Christianity, 2) Christianity in first-century Judaism, and 3) Christianity in Judaism in a context of Roman imperialism. We’ll start with the last one, Roman imperialism, and work our way backwards.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a world order and its exercise of (or lack of) social justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for global peace.

It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to the Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.” Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (p. 349)*.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in what’s Turkey today refers to Augustus, “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”

So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

Judaism in Roman Imperialism

Jews in Roman-occupied territory hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of fictional prophecies within Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision for the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing strands in Judaism regarding the fate of the Gentiles (including the Romans) in this vision. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of the future of this world that are being touted today. Nevertheless, the other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah. 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression and violence would cease. And other prophets envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this vision also included a Messiah figure through whom this new world would be birthed into existence.

Here are two examples of that pre-Christian Jewish expectation of a Messiah.

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

The other example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

From this brief sampling we can see that at the time of Luke’s writing, many within Judaism possessed the hope of restored world where all injustice, violence and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. There were some who believed this would be accompanied with violent retribution against oppressors, and others who believed it would through more restorative and reconciling means, more nonviolent, retiring justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Like the Sayings Q and the gospel of Mark, Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he adds a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins even his birth story with John’s conception before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke’s birth-narratives is curiously parallel to that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

There are also parallels to the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2) For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus the renewed “David.” At the baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple within Jewish birth-narratives, and especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Roman imperialism, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Imperialism. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). Again, this is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christian Judaism against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this passage for Christmas.

Green phrases represent fulfillment (of Jewish hopes) and Red represent subversion (of Roman imperialism). Black phrases respond to both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2.10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah in convergence with Judaism and Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer in divergence with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas about using the title of “Lord” for Jesus:

Used simply as “the Lord” it meant the emperor, especially from Caesar Augustus onward, just as, for example, “der Führer” simply means “the leader” in German (where all nouns are capitalized), but eventually designated Adolf Hitler as the supreme and only leader. In that context to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau. (p. 154)

Two Visions/Versions of Peace

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.

By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…. For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added.)

In that same year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus). It was given the name Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolent restoration of Jesus produces lasting peace. First, that way must be chosen.

Contrary to the ways Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, Luke’s Jesus is a Jesus who points the way to peace based upon justice restored through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, it’s Christian imperialism versus Jesus. Imperialism’s effort to produce peace on earth, even today, and even in Christianity, still tries to place weapons in the hands of the “good guys.”

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some gross Christian rhetoric (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s speech at Liberty University is an example), I created this satirical meme  and posted it online: “Peter, all that is needed to stop bad guys with swords is a good guy with a sword.” —Jesus peterswardmeme

What Jesus actually said was, “Those who live by the sword will die by it as well.”

It is important for Christians who seek to follow Luke’s Jesus to understand the history of the American empire’s second constitutional amendment. The United States was founded on peace achieved through revolutionary violence. And the American Empire is much like Rome if we substitute the word “freedom” for “peace.” As Rome proclaimed “peace,” so America proclaims “freedom,” but our freedom is not lasting. It is the type of freedom one achieves by being the biggest bully on the top of the hill, and it’s not freedom for everyone. It is a freedom achieved by violence and maintained and preserved by violence, almost identical to the “peace” of Rome that depended on its imperial armies.

This is why the American constitution has a second amendment. If citizens’ freedom were to ever be threatened again, they must have access to violent means to help them achieve it once again.

But today we are seeing the fruit of this unlimited access to violent means to ensure one’s freedom. Jesus could have very well said, “Those who achieve freedom by the sword, will be destroyed as well by the sword.”

Let me at minimum say this. The second amendment is not the standard for a follower of Luke’s Jesus. Jesus shows us a way to peace and freedom rooted in restoration, justice for all, and nonviolent means. In the face of tyranny, American followers of Luke’s Jesus are not permitted to use violence even if a secular constitution permits them to. Luke’s Jesus points out a way to peace and freedom radically different than the path of violence. Jesus taught of two paths: the broad path, though it seems right to most people, is the path that leads to death. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is another path that Jesus told us leads to life, and he modeled that path for us.

Luke’s gospel is the gospel of peace achieved through the nonviolent restoration of justice and equity for everyone. Peace on earth means no more oppressed and oppressor, no more dominant and subjugated, just equity and peace for all.

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people . . . peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.” (Luke 2.11-14)

HeartGroup Application

This week:

  1. List at least three paradigm shifts you’ve had this year from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth-narratives either by reading The First Christmas or by going through this series. Share these insights with your HeartGroup.
  2. Discuss as a group how understanding the cultural matrix of Judaism and Roman imperialism changes your reading of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
  3. How can you apply the values in these narratives, especially in relation to peace, freedom, violence, and nonviolence, as followers of Jesus within our American Empire today?

This will be our last eSight before Christmas, so from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you. We wish you also a very merry new year.

It’s our hope that, once again, your heart has been renewed and you’ve been empowered to follow Jesus more deeply in this coming year.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

*1910, Light from the ancient East. The New Testament illustrated by recently discovered texts of the Graeco-Roman world, L.R.M. Strachan, transl., London