Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Picture of mustardby Herb Montgomery

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.”

Featured Text:

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Companion Texts:

Matthew 17:20: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

Luke 17:6: “He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 48: “Jesus says, ‘If two make peace with one another in one and the same house, then they will say to the mountain: “Move away,” and it will move away.’”

Mark 11:23: “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

The Mountain of the Temple State

We have a lot to unpack in this week’s saying. Let’s begin with talking about the mountain or mulberry tree. In the book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers writes about Mark’s use of this week’s saying under the heading “Faith as Political Imagination.” William Telford also saw an economic and political backdrop on which to understand this week’s saying:

“In Jewish circles, the correlative mountain and tree uprooting images [were] found in legal, legendary, thaumaturgic and eschatological contexts and employed in connection with the Rabbi, the king, the hero, the thaumaturge or the Messianic follower. In a legal context, the term ‘uprooter of mountains’ was found to have a technical meaning. Applied to the king (and to Herod in particular), it could be employed as a double entendre, bolstering a legal argument for the exceptional nature of Herod’s pulling down of the Temple . . . The function of [Mark’s] redaction is therefore to announce, we believe, that the ‘moving of mountains’ expected in the last days was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount. The Temple, known to the Jewish people as the ‘mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain’ was not to be elevated, as expected, but cast down!” (William Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 118)

Jesus’ narrative contrasts with the narrative of the elites of his day and of future Zealots in Jewish-Roman war, which would take place three decades later. Both of these groups saw the Temple State as enduring. The elites believed that as long as the Empire remained strong and the Temple aristocracy cooperated with Rome’s demands, the Temple State centered in Jerusalem could endure. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to reform the Temple State. They, along with the Jewish poor, revolted against economic exploitation and wrested control of the Temple State from the aristocrats. They then launched a three-and-a-half year war to liberate Jerusalem from Roman occupation and the poor from the exploitation of the controlling Jewish families of their time.

But both of these narratives involved a Temple State enduring in some form, and Jesus taught that the Temple State could be overturned. I cannot state this strongly enough: Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. He did not envision a Christian religion replacing Judaism; rather he envisioned a Jewish society without a Temple State. Why? Because in his day the Temple State was at the heart of the exploitation of the poor he had dedicated his life to working in solidarity with. The Jesus of the gospels envisioned a world where the presence of YHWH could be expressed through a community of resource-sharing and redistribution as opposed to a Temple at the heart of the systemic exploitation of the poor.

Consider the following passages:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. (Mark 12:42, cf. Luke 21:2)

“Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:43-44)

Then immediately following this account of the economic abuse of this poor woman, we read:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)

It was a vision of a different world.

The exploiting Temple State is the mountain the Jesus envisions being cast in the sea in the synoptics.

Thrown into the Sea

In Mark’s gospel, we first encounter the imagery of being thrown into the sea in the story of the exorcism at Gerasenes. Here the demoniac is a symbol of the Jewish people being occupied by the Roman Empire—the demons’ name is “Legion,” like the unit of Roman soldiers. When the demons plead not to be driven out of the land, Jesus permits them to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs who hurl themselves (and the empire they symbolize) into the sea.

“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, hurled themselves down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.” (Mark 5:11-13)

Now Jesus is using this same image for his listeners, calling them to imagine a world where the exploitative Temple State (Mark and Matthew’s Mountain and Luke’s Mulberry Tree), too, could be thrown into the sea.

The message was that the world can be remade, without exploitation.

This is the part of the message that received the greatest pushback. It threatened not only the aristocratic Temple elites who finally had Jesus executed, but also those who saw the Temple as the manifestation of YHWH’s presence among them as a chosen people. Throughout history, religious worship of a God has often been tied to the oppression of vulnerable people, and the liberation of the oppressed has often involved throwing out God too. It’s no wonder. It makes perfect sense.

Jesus was calling the people to imagine that a different God, too, was possible: they could imagine a world without a Temple without having to embrace a world without their God. God’s presence, instead of in an apartment in the Temple, would show up in the midst of their community, a community that Jesus called “the kingdom.” That terminology is problematic for those of us who live in republics today but simply it meant a community that endeavored to practice God’s vision for human society according to Jesus. This was a world rooted in distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough. This was a community where we took responsibility for taking care of one another. Our interconnectedness was understood, embraced, and experienced. We have been robbed of so much in our capitalist society today by individualism and competition. Jesus taught that a very different world was possible.

Today

Today in the U.S., we don’t have a religious state with a temple at its heart. Our society is a secular pluralist society with a large sector of citizens claiming the Christian religion. We do have folks who feel that to abandon the religion they were raised in, the religion of their oppressors, they must also abandon their faith in their God. I believe there’s much to learn from Jesus’s distinction between faith in God and faith in a religious institution.

Let me be frank. Faith traditions and institutions have used their sacred texts and religions to oppress women, to hold on to and practice racism, to legitimize classism, and to condone and even prescribe their own homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a letter was sent to all the pastors of a conference in the tradition I was raised in from their conference president, warning, “We do not receive into membership anyone who is in a practicing homosexual relationship.” Last weekend I had a very different experience hosting as guests in my home two very dear friends of mine, women who are married and raising two beautiful daughters. This couple still very much identifies as being a part of the same denomination that wrote that letter excluding them. They are raising their kids in the denomination and one of their families goes back generations in this tradition. But the denomination’s letter singles out people like my friends, who are already marginalized.

Shame! Shame on those of us who use our religion as a tool of oppression and dehumanization rather than liberation.

And for those who find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination both in the world outside their religion and also within their religious tradition as well, actions like the denomination’s bring them the extra struggle of having to parse their faith in a God whom they believes loves them and a religious tradition where they first encountered God but that rejects them.

I love how Jon Sobrino sums up Jesus’ message to those who find themselves in this place:

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 82)

Jesus stood in solidarity with people the religious, socio-economic, and political powers of his day pushed to the margins. He called them to envision a different world without the oppressing Temple State. And he was crucified by the Temple State for doing so.

There’s an interesting detail in the story, though. At the moment Jesus died, each of the synoptic gospels includes this note:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27.51)

“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15.38)

“For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23.45)

This curtain separated the innermost Holy Place in the temple from the rest of the structure.

The Holy Place was the room where YHWH’s very presence was believed to dwell.

But in the story when the curtain is torn in two, what is revealed?

What do the people see beyond the veil?

The room is empty.

The God of the poor, the God of the Oppressed, the God of those pushed to the edges of society, the God of the marginalized is not there. The room is empty. The God who stands with society’s vulnerable is actually present in the one suspended between heaven and earth, between two rebels, the one who lived his life in solidarity with them and died as a result of it. That God is not at the heart of the system exploiting or marginalizing them.

God is with them, the crucified community.

The resurrection undoes, overturns, and overcomes all that was accomplished by Jesus’ execution in the story. But before the resurrection, the first post-execution event is the rending of the temple’s veil.

It can be very painful to sever or tear the association of your religious institution with your God. But I believe that disillusionment must come. Deconstruction must be embraced. And as painful as it is, we must lean into that deconstruction and come out on the other side to reconstruct a beautiful revolution. And this is where we come full circle back to this week’s saying about faith.

Faith

Angela Davis describes activism as a matter of faith. She states, “We always have to act as if revolution were possible. We have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And if we do that work, the world is gonna change. Even if it doesn’t change the way we need it to change right now, it will change.” (Spirit of Justice with Michelle Alexander & Angela Davis)

In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)

“‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’” (Mark 10:52)

“According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Matthew 9:29)

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

“Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” (Mark 5:36)

“When Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2:5)

“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’” (Matthew 8:13)

“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’” (Matthew 15:28)

“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)

“Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

The text of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was written when people were struggling to continue believing—but believing in what?

It wasn’t the existence of God that they were struggling to believe. A person could opt out of the Jesus movement and still believe in the existence of God.

In Mark, faith is not defined in terms of accepting doctrinal truths of a religious organization or tradition.

It’s not even defined as confessing Jesus as the Christ or as Divine.

Jesus did not preach himself in the stories. Let me repeat that. Jesus did not preach himself. So what did Jesus preach? What did Jesus call his listeners to believe?

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

Jesus called his listeners to believe the good news that the kingdom, the reign of God, or God’s vision for human society, had come. Belief was tied to embracing the kingdom, to “imagining another way of being another way of existing in the world” (Angela Davis, ibid). The good news of God calls us to imagine a new world and believe it’s possible. This kind of faith is what made all the difference in the stories of the gospels: the belief that things could actually be different, that we can choose a different world. It was a message of hope. And even if it doesn’t come to full fruition in our lifetimes, the kind of world we want to create cannot receive its finishing touches by future generations if we haven’t either laid the ground work for them or kept building today on the foundations of those that have come before us.

“It’s about how we show up in this world in the limited time we have.” — Michelle Alexander

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Heart Group Application

  1. This week I want you to work toward putting that kind of faith into action. As a group, make a list of all the things everyone enjoys doing in their free time.  Go around the room and have the group share the best qualities about each person present. What kind of skills are in the room? What kinds of things are the people in the room typically asked to help out with?
  2. Everyone has something special to contribute. With this list in hand, brainstorm ways your HeartGroup can volunteer in your community to help shape the world into what we believe our world can be. How can your group work as if revolution were possible?
  3. Pick an action and, as a group, do it.

Coming up on the 28th of this month is Giving Tuesday. This year, make a special year-end contribution to Renewed Heart Ministries to support our work on what is becoming one of the most important days for non-profits throughout the year.

On November 28 go to:

renewedheartministries.com/donate/ 

and help us meet our year-end goal!

Thank you in advance for partnering with us!

And thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation as we follow Jesus toward abundant life.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Storing up Treasures in Heaven 

Multiracial Group of Friends with World Globe Map

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Gospel of Thomas 76:3: “You too look for his treasure, which does not perish, (and) which stays where no moth can reach it to eat it, and no worm destroys it.”

This week’s saying tells us to focus on storing up “treasure” in heaven rather than on earth. I want to offer a word of caution about that. Karl Marx correctly wrote that religion focused on heaven or afterlife bliss rather than survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation of our world now tends to leave oppressed people passive.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3)

James H. Cone pushes back on Marx’s blanket condemnation of all religion in his landmark book God of the Oppressed. This is a rather long quotation, but one worth considering: Cone is not addressing Marx’s critique from the perspective of someone trying to preserve the status quo. He addresses the critique as someone in an oppressed community who’s working for societal change and the dismantling of the status quo.

“The vision of the future and of Jesus as the Coming Lord is the central theme of black religion. This theme is expressed with the idea of heaven, a concept that has been grossly misunderstood in black religion. For any people the idea of heaven, in the songs and sermons of black people, is proof of Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, many uninformed young blacks, hearing this Marxian analysis in college, have accepted this criticism as true without probing deeper into the thought forms of black people. To be sure, white missionaries and preachers used Jesus Christ and heaven to make black slaves obedient and docile. But in reality, the opposite happened more often than not. For any black slaves, Jesus became the decisive Other in their lives who provided for them a knowledge of themselves, not derived from the value system of slave masters. How could black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle? How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody? How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined by dollars and cents, when the symbol of the auction block was an ever present reality? Only because they knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and to take them to the ‘New Jerusalem.’ Heaven, therefore, in black religion was inseparably connected with Jesus’ promise to liberate the oppressed from slavery. It was black people’s vision of a new identity for themselves which was in sharp contradiction to their present status as slaves. This vision of Jesus as the Coming One who will take them back to heaven held black people together mentally as they struggled physically to make real the future in their present.” (pp. 119-120)

Cone continues:

“The past and present history of Jesus are incomplete without affirmation of the ‘not yet’ that ‘will be.’ The power of Christ’s future coming and the vision that it bestows upon the people is the key to why the oppressed can ‘keep on keepin’ on’ even when their fight seems fruitless. The vision of Christ’s future that breaks into their slave existence radically changes their perspective on life; and to others who stand outside the community where the vision is celebrated, black people’s talk about “long white robes” and “golden slippers” in heaven seems to be proof that black religion is an opium [sic] of the people. But in reality it is a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them. Black religion, therefore, becomes a revolutionary alternative to white religion. Jesus Christ becomes the One who stands at the center of their view of reality, enabling slaves to look beyond the present to the future, the time when black suffering will be ended. The future reality of Jesus means that what is contradicts what ought to be. When Jesus is understood as the Coming One who will establish divine justice among people, then we will be able to understand why black slaves’ religion emphasized the other world. They truly believed the story of Jesus’ past existence with the poor as told in the Bible. (pp. 120-121)

As someone who does not speak from Cone’s social location, I want to acknowledge Cone’s critique of Marx. When religion leaves us waiting for a future time when justice comes rather than working for distributive justice in our world today, then Marx is correct: religion is an opiate. Cone is also right that a religion that identifies God as the God of the oppressed doesn’t have to pacify people.

Yet Cone drifts awfully close to using religion as an opiate himself in the following paragraph:

“People get tired of fighting for justice and the political power of oppressors often creates fear in the hearts of the oppressed. What could a small band of slaves do against the armed might of a nation? Indeed what can the oppressed blacks today do in order to break the power of the Pentagon? Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan, are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington, D. C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials.” (p. 121, emphasis added)

With this tension between Marx and Cone in mind this week, I ask the question: what did the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q mean when he asked us to place our focus on heaven rather than earth, especially when such a focus has historically proved detrimental to the victims of oppression, injustice and violence?

James Robinson offered a possible answer in his book on Sayings Gospel Q.

“Some people get confused by the fact that in the Gospel of Matthew the ‘kingdom of God’ is usually referred to as the “kingdom of heaven,” leading them to think that the kingdom is in heaven—something one can experience only in the afterlife or at the end of time. But Jesus was talking about God reigning in the here and now. Use of the idiom “kingdom of heaven” is due to the fact that Matthew is the Gospel most closely related to Judaism and so still reflects its sensitivities. Jews have been so committed to not taking God’s name in vain, which, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, that they have thought it best not to “take” God’s name at all. That is, they do not pronounce Yahweh out loud at all. Sometimes they carry this so far that they not only avoid pronouncing Yahweh; they even avoid pronouncing “God” and instead simply refer to the “name,” by which everyone in the Jewish community knows what they mean—God. (The Gospel of Jesus; Kindle Locations 2722-2730).

The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom in heaven, but a new social arrangement that Jesus announced had come from heaven to earth. It was the reign of God and it was emerging from the community of the oppressed in Jesus’ day on earth. It was a social vision where people took care of people, where people practiced mutual aid and resource sharing, and where wealth inequality was met with wealth redistribution (see Acts 4:33-35). Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” was a Jewish way of referring to the kingdom or reign of God, which had arrived here on earth in the present life, now.

This reign of God called people to trust in a God who would send other people to take care of them in the future to the degree that they would loosen their grip on hoarded wealth that insulated them from future risk so they could  be the one God sent to help those who are in need today. As Robinson points out: “This hardly means that as surely as a human parent gives bread and fish in the here and now, the heavenly Father will give ‘pie in the sky by-and-by.’ It clearly means that God will answer the petition ‘Our day’s bread give us today’ in the here and now, daily. (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2789-2791) Together, we could face the insecurity of the future, because no matter what the future brought, we could make it because we had each other.

What Jesus may be saying in this week’s Q statement is this: don’t store up material treasure on Earth, which always involves some level of risk. Invest your resources in the kingdom of heaven that has arrived here on earth, which is made manifest in people taking care of people. “Lay up treasure” in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor, those on the underside and edges of our societies. Invest in a compassionate, safe, just world for people. Put your treasure in them, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

People are often not comfortable with their religion becoming this down-to-earth. They are much more comfortable with religion being about investing in a post-mortem retirement program for themselves. But I don’t think that approach to interpreting Jesus’ saying is consistent with what we have witnessed about the Jesus of sayings Q so far. His teachings are not about you gaining heavenly bliss later; they’re about bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives here, now, today.

What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven? The kingdom of heaven for Jesus was the reign of God that had arrived here on earth. It called people to stop solving the challenges of survival for themselves at the expense of others around them. It called them to take responsibility for making sure one another had what they needed.

This week’s saying is not a matter of location (heaven versus earth). Nor is it a matter of timing (post mortem versus now). It is a matter of seeking plenty “for yourself” on earth now, versus seeking “the kingdom of heaven” with others on earth now. Storing up treasure in heaven means people taking care of people here.

At home, one of my projects is storing some of my daughter’s favorite belongings in our attic while she’s away at college. When she comes home, she won’t go up to the attic to enjoy her belongings. She will take those belongings out of the attic and bring them down to enjoy them in her home.

When we take care of other people, even if we use the language of “storing treasure in heaven,” we must not forget that our home is here. When we choose to take care of people, we’re transforming our home here. We’ll be able to take out and enjoy the treasures we have stored in each other in a transformed world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for us all, on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

HeartGroup Application

1.  How does choosing to take responsibility for one another’s survival and care transform our world today? In what ways does doing so affirm how the world already is?

2.  List some ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of each other. Then list some of the ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of those in your neighborhood.

Separate both lists into two categories: actions that may help people today yet leave in place a system that will cause them to need help again tomorrow; and actions that will impact the systemic problems and transform society at the root as well. It is important to do both, not just one or the other. If a person is drowning, they need pulling out of the river. And those throwing people into the river need to be stopped as well. Renewed Heart Ministries’ book for March is James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed. In that book, Cone writes, “For the oppressed, justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all” (p. 159).

3 .  Pick two items from your group’s lists and begin putting it into practice this week. This is how we begin storing up treasure in heaven, transforming our world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, a love that bears the fruit of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.