Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Response to a Town’s Rejection

by Herb Montgomery

“But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town.” (Q 10:10-12)

Picture of dirty sandaled feetCompanion Texts:

Matthew 10:14-15: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Luke 10:10-12: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Our saying this week has a long history of anti-Semitism. Christians have used the phrase “shaking the dust from one’s feet” as a symbol of Jews rejecting Gentiles. But it is simplistic to say that Jews shook the dust off of their feet when leaving Gentile territories as a rejection of Gentiles and it is anti-Semitic to use it to justify rejecting Jews for their rejection of “Jesus as their Messiah.”

What is a better way to understand this ancient practice?

Shaking Dust from One’s Feet

If this was a practice of the first century Jewish people it would have most likely been a practice of those who followed the Pharisaical school of Shammai. The school of Shammai wanted to maintain the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in an effort to preserve Jewish identity and culture when Hellenism was threatening their culture. I don’t believe that tribal distinctions are the healthiest way to preserve identity, nor do I subscribe to Shammai’s teachings on this, but I can’t fault the people of that era either. I get it. This was a people who were still recovering from their exile and dispersion throughout the region and trying desperately to hold on to their identity.

The Pharisaical school of Hillel, which many of Jesus’ teachings are more in harmony with, did not follow that strict distinction between Jew and Gentile. Instead, Hillel taught that every person, Jew or Gentile, was created in the image of God and worthy of respect and treatment according to the Golden Rule. (We covered this in much more detail earlier this year in The Golden Rule.)

Ultimately the Jewish people abandoned the school of Shammai in favor of Hillel’s more inclusive practices. Karen Armstrong writes about the people’s choice in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem:

“It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’

“Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Kindle Edition.)

Luke, the most Gentile of the synoptic gospels, colors Jesus’ instructions with the phrase “as a warning.” By rejecting the values and teachings that Jesus and Hillel sought to promote in Judaism, those in the school of Shammai who practiced shaking Gentile dust off their feet were headed toward the same fate that they claimed the Gentiles were headed toward. In their ethic of separation, alienation, and independence, they were actually aligning themselves more with the path of destruction then the Gentiles they wanted to be separate from.

Remember, Jesus’ community practiced interdependence, mutualism, and resource-sharing. The Jewish followers of Shammai rejected the path of interdependence for independence, isolationism, and exceptionalism, and so they shared with violent revolutionists a path that would ultimately lead to a devastating backlash from the Romans.

Shaking the dust off of one’s feet could not have indicated rejection of the Jews because Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. Yet a Jewish Jesus would have felt burdened to communicate that there was no moral difference between those who rejected his values and those they claimed moral superiority to. Jesus makes this statement in Matthew’s gospel:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47, emphasis added.)

Shaking dust off of one’s feet was not an act of rejection, but an act of warning. It was a warning to those one genuinely cared about, was invested in, and saw as one’s own people. It was a sign of deep concern with the direction one’s own community was headed in.

Sodom’s Story: Not Finished.

Let’s close this with the 1st Century Jewish belief that Sodom’s story was not finished. Sodom still had a future, and I believe this is important.

First, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. The atrocity of Sodom, according the Hebrew scriptures was this:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Sodom had become so wealthy and isolationist that any immigrants to Sodom were rejected, even if fleeing there for safety, and subjected to physical violence or even sexual violence. The threat of sexual violence we read about in Genesis 19, rape of men and women, was a common war practice in the ancient world, used to emasculate, dehumanize, and humiliate enemies.*

As inhospitable and greedy as Sodom was, however, Ezekiel uses Sodom’s narrative as an indictment against his own people:

“As surely as I live, declares the [LORD], your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.” (Ezekiel 16:48)

But then Ezekiel throws in a twist with the Sodom narrative. He envisions a river of life that one day flows out from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47.1-2). And what this river of life does for Sodom is restorative, not destructive.

“He said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. [In Ezekiel’s time, the Dead Sea was believed to be the region of ancient Sodom.] When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. People will fish along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.’” (Ezekiel 47.8-12, emphasis added.)

Ezekiel had previously said,

“However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before.” (Ezekiel 16:53-55, emphasis added)

Because of how many Christians use the New Testament passages of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6 today, it is important to understand that Ezekiel saw a positive ending to Sodom’s narrative. Many Christians today use Sodom’s narrative as an example of the future destruction of some categories of people and this belief influences them to practice a hopeless exclusion of whomever they deem unlike them. But Jesus, like Ezekiel, believed that the future of his own people could still be bright.

So in this week’s saying about shaking the dust off one’s feet, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets: he evokes the narrative of Sodom and compares it to his own people’s future fate. Jesus shows deep concern for the society of his day and the unbearable retaliation Rome would inflict upon Jerusalem if his community continued on its current path. Jesus’ nonviolence and the resource-sharing principles would have placed the people on a radically different trajectory.

I believe that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish people did, through the teachings of Hillel, partially transition to the path Jesus showed, and they made great strides in love, kindness, nonviolence, and radical inclusivity. Economically, Hillel’s and Jesus’ teachings were somewhat different, and I believe Jesus’ economic teachings were more in harmony with the Torah than Hillel’s. But Jesus’ radical resource sharing and ethics of nonviolence are both waiting for a present or future generation to choose.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at the interdependent elements of Jesus’ mission instructions. This week we’re beginning to transition into the next section of Jesus teachings. Just like this week’s saying, these next few sayings contain warnings for his generation if they didn’t abandon their path, if they didn’t choose the path he was presenting.

I can’t help but notice that history is cyclical. We in our society today may be being faced with the same choices that first generations of Christians were. With Jesus’ path of nonviolence and resource-sharing in mind, let’s take a moment to contemplate Jesus’ warning:

But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town. (Q 10:10-12) 

HeartGroup Application

I want to introduce to you a friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk. If you haven’t read his books, they are well worth it and I recommend them highly. This last week, Mark posted this statement on social media:

“I hate coercion!” says the modern man. “Except for, perhaps, the many coercions of the past that have made me so prosperous.”

It is like the parable of the man who slays an entire neighborhood and takes their treasures. Afterwards, he declares himself a pacifist. When the relatives of those slain [come] to his door, angrily holding bats, he says: “You should be pacifists, like me!”

1.   In the context of this statement, discuss in your HeartGroup what it would look like for your group to lean more deeply into the nonviolence and resource-sharing that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q taught.

2.   List three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to embrace nonviolence in today’s society. Also list three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to share resources and even participate in the reparations needed in our society today.

3.   Pick one action from each list to put into practice between this week and next.

We cannot continue today on our current trajectory without reaching a breaking point. As we are contemplating the changes we so deeply need, the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q and those whose experiences of life vary from one another can inform our choices to move toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all.

It’s much easier to simply worship Jesus than to put into place the world-healing teachings he taught. But healing the world is what Jesus spent his life doing, and his story has called to those who would listen ever since saying, “follow me.”

Thanks for joining us this week.

Wherever this finds you, 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.


*It’s part of the implicit misogyny of the original culture and contemporary Christian culture that the threatened rape of Lot’s daughters—human women—is almost always glossed over in favor of horror about the threat of rape against “male” angels, the different flesh of Jude.

Impartial Love 

by Herb Montgomery

Dominoes lined up and falling“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” —(Q 6:32, 34)

Luke 6:32: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”

Luke 6:34: “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.”

Matthew 5:46-47: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Gospel of Thomas 95: “Jesus says, ‘If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.’”

Our saying this week builds on the sayings we’ve discussed over the last three weeks: Loving Your Enemies, Renouncing One’s Rights, and The Golden Rule.

This week’s saying addresses those in Jesus’s audience who might have accepted his teaching on the Golden Rule, but only for those who would do the same for them.

These audience members would have reduced the Golden Rule to reciprocity: an exchange between equals for one’s own advancement and benefit. For them, the Golden Rule could have been co-opted to mean only “getting ahead” and not a way to make the world a safer, more compassionate world for us all.

James Robinson, in his book The Gospel of Jesus, describes what this limited interpretation could have looked like in the Roman patronage system and can look in our political systems today:

“In the Roman Empire, [self-interest] was called the patronage system and was even codified in the Latin expression Do ut des, “I give so that you give”; in the animal world, it is “I scratch your back so you scratch mine.” In modern politics, it is called euphemistically “special interests.” Lobbyists get elected officials to vote for the legislation that favors the firms whose “generous” campaign gifts made it possible for the officials to get elected in the first place. This is how elections are “bought”: our firm treated you well in your last election campaign, so you treat our firm well in the way you vote, and our firm will treat you equally well in your next election campaign. . . . Self-serving favoritism does not deserve the term “love,” for love shows itself to be real by being directed toward persons who have nothing they can do for us by way of return. So Jesus called for love to go far beyond one’s kinsfolk, neighbors, peer group, patron, and campaign contributors. As a result, his new love commandment is much less known, not to speak of being much less practiced.”

This quality of reciprocity is quite different from the ethic we are considering this week. The Sayings Gospel Q teaching is about loving those who cannot offer us anything in return. There is no quid pro quo here.

As we’ll see in the weeks to come, Jesus uses the Golden Rule to inspire a domino-effect in those who receive love to then turn and practice that love in their relations with others. The Golden Rule wasn’t designed to establish private relationships of mutual benefit between two individuals, but to produce a whole new world where everyone treats everyone as they’d like to be treated even when there’s nothing gained in return. Love was to be reciprocated, but more importantly, love was to be shared with other people.

This distinction is foundational to the rest of Jesus’s teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. The Golden Rule is not merely or exclusively between a loving person and a loved person. It’s between the loved person and another person in need of love, as well. The person who receives this kind of impartial love is called upon to reciprocate by indiscriminately loving a third person, and through their love, what Jesus calls “God’s reign” transforms the world and enlarges continuously from each person to the next.

In Sayings Gospel Q, the reign or kingdom of God begins with love even when we have nothing to gain.

Jewish Pride; Jewish Power

I need to say a word about the comparisons in this week’s texts and the text references to Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, and pagans. As we covered last week, when these texts were written, the school of Shammai dominated both the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. In an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and culture, the School of the Shammai drew a sharp line between Jews and Gentiles, and prohibited the people from crossing that line.

But it’s in the soil of human disconnectedness that the weeds of supremacy and superiority take root. It doesn’t matter whether a group is in the dominant position within a society, as the Romans were, or forced into a subordinate position, as the Jews were. Supremacist beliefs for those at the top of domination systems justify and protect their position of privilege, power and control, whereas supremacist beliefs for those at the bottom are, as Howard Thurman taught, a useful fiction that oppressed people use to survive domination. (For a discussion on techniques of survival used historically by oppressed peoples that end up being self-destructive in the long term, please see Thurman’s excellent volume Jesus and the Disinherited.)

In this 1st Century context, Hillel taught that every person bore the image of the Divine, and worshipping God was revealed in how one treated another regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. But Shammai sharply distinguished between Jew and Gentile—we could call it “Jewish pride” or “Jewish Power”—and his school framed it as a matter of Jewish survival while the Jewish self was being denied by Roman oppression.  In our time, James H. Cone in his book Black Theology and Black Power, within the context of his own experience, rightly rejects defining Black Power as an effort to “assert their right to dominance over others because of a belief in black superiority . . . Black Power is an affirmation of the humanity of blacks in spite of white racism.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p.14-16, emphasis added.) The same could be said regarding LGBTQ Pride as a necessary expression of affirming the humanity of those whose humanity has been denied by the dominant sector of society.  Protesting Jewish subjugation in the context of the Jesus story could very easily be seen as a Jewish Lives Matter movement within early first century Palestine.

Jesus does not condemn the School of Shammai’s survival technique in our saying this week. His Jewish listeners did not need to have their self further denied: their oppressors were already doing that. They needed their self affirmed and liberated from oppression. While supremacy anywhere in society opposes egalitarianism, feelings of supremacy in the hearts of oppressors are of a markedly different quality than claims of superiority oppressed people might make.

Jesus does push back on his audience’s claim to be superior while using the oppressor’s ethics. When they loved only those who loved them, Jesus said, their morality was no greater than their oppressors’ morality. For Jesus, failing to love people who might never give anything in return negated any claim to moral superiority.  If the “Jewish Pride” and “Jewish Power” movements of his day would enter into the new human society they were seeking to establish, it would not be through more disconnectedness, but through endeavoring to embrace humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence.  In other words, in response to a “Jewish Lives Matter” statement, Jesus as a fellow Jew is not disregarding their daily struggle to survive by responding, “No, All Lives Matter.”  To the contrary, he is saying, “Yes, Jewish lives DO matter! And if our liberation is going to made a reality, we must live by set of ethical teachings greater than those presently adhered to by our oppressors!”  The teaching we are looking at this week asks us to live from the truth of interconnectedness by taking care of those from whom we will never receive anything in return.

As Howard Thurman also states in his book The Luminous Darkness, “[A] strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all [people] are members of one another.”

Remember: according to Jesus, the reign of God was shown in people taking care of people.

The Prozbul

We have spoken about Hillel’s prozbul enough over the last few weeks that I won’t detail it this week. Where Jesus mirrors the school of Hillel in their broader interpretation of Torah, Jesus pushes them even further on economics.

Jesus’s economics, in harmony with the Deuteronomic code (Deuteronomy 15:9), called the wealthy elite to lend even if the sabbatical year was approaching and to expect their loans not to be repaid.

To lend knowing that all debts would be cancelled in the Sabbatical year and your money would never repaid was a pathway toward wealth redistribution and a way to eliminate poverty among the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 15:4). Today, some fear “socialism” or “communism” yet wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the poor was central to Jesus’s economic teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. He taught his followers to lend even if they would never get their capital back.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we are called to love indiscriminately and impartially. Jesus calls us to love in a way that mimics a God who “raises the sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d). Any partiality perpetuates the disconnectedness that pervades our planet.

The answer is to see that we are all interconnected and to love based on that, even if there is no immediate return on our relational investment. The goal is what Jesus called “the reign of God” where people, rather than dominating one another, learn to take care of and provide for one another.

So for all those in whom this week’s saying resonates as true:

“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:32, 34)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time contemplating the nature of impartial love.

  1. What does it look like for you to love impartially? What does it look like to help others in need when there is no hope of them ever returning the favor? What does it look like to love in moments when the cost of that love will never be repaid?  And just because the love is not reciprocally repaid does that mean that the world created by the act has no overall reciprocal value in return?
  2. If you were part of the wealthy elite of Jesus’s day, how would you have felt about loaning your wealth even if your loan would be cancelled and never repaid?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup relational and economic ways to apply impartial love toward others. Choose to practice one of those applications.

Again, I’m so thankful that you are joining us for this series.

Until next week, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

See you next week.

The Golden Rule 

by Herb Montgomery

Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus

Left to right: Confucius, Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth

“And the way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Q 6:31)

Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Gospel of Thomas 6:3: “And do not do what you hate.”

This week, our focus in Sayings Gospel Q is almost universally referred to as the “the Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule has a broad and lengthy history, beginning, to our best understanding, in 5th Century BCE China.

Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions that “Confucius was the first to promulgate the Golden Rule. For Confucius [the rule] had transcendent value” (p. 248). Armstrong explains, “Confucius saw the ‘ego principle’ as the source of human pettiness and cruelty. If people could lose their selfishness and submit to the altruistic demands of the li [courtly rites similar to medieval European etiquette and courtesy] at every moment of their lives, they would be transformed by the beauty of holiness. They would conform to the archetypal ideal of the junzi, the superior human being.” Unlike isolated monks who seek virtue by separating from all of society including family, Confucius also saw “family” differently:

“Instead of seeing family life as an impediment to enlightenment, like the renouncers of India, Confucius saw it as the theater of the religious quest, because it taught every family member to live for others. This altruism was essential to the self-cultivation of a junzi: ‘In order to establish oneself, one should try to establish others,’ Confucius explained. ‘In order to enlarge oneself, one should try to enlarge others.’ . . . Confucius saw each person as the center of a constantly growing series of concentric circles, to which he or she must relate . . .The lessons he had learned by caring for his parents, spouse, and siblings made his heart larger, so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his immediate community, then with the state in which he lived, and finally with the entire world (Armstrong, p. 207).

Mozi, in the fourth century BCE, extended the Golden Rule in China. Isocrates promoted the Golden Rule in Greece in the 3rd Century BCE, and it appeared in India and Persia as well.

These centuries are what Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong describe as the Axial Age, the beginning of an awakening among several human cultures when most of them (except for Greece) moved away from the violence and tribalism that had characterized them before. This somewhat simultaneous transition among these cultures is fascinating.

Due to the diaspora and the continual upheaval within Judea during this time (which was not in the least conducive to the quietness that, Armstrong argues, often yields spiritual awakenings, though some would disagree), the Golden Rule does not appear clearly in Judaism until the late first century BCE. The first clear record we have of it in Judaism is the teaching of the Pharisee rabbi Hillel in the 1st Century BCE. Last week we told the story of Hillel summarizing the Torah with the line: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and learn it.” [1] For Hillel, the Torah was best expressed not in the legal letter, but in the law’s spirit—the Golden Rule.

For the 1st Century Jewish Christians to include the Golden Rule among their record of Jesus’s teachings indicates that this early, original Jesus community believed Jesus’s teachings represented a more compassionate, inclusive interpretation of the Torah. Let’s look at the history around Hillel and that early community.

Hillel, in the later years of his life, served as president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin handled both the legislative and judicial functions of Jewish government. When Hillel died, Shammai, then vice-president, became president and passed eighteen ordinances that reflected his own ideas more than Hillel’s. The Talmud’s redactors describe this act “as grievous to Israel as the day when the calf was made” by Aaron at the base of Mt. Sinai (See Shabbat, 17a). Shammai’s ordinances, believed to have been intended to build up Jewish identity, included harsh, divisive, antisocial separation between Jews and Gentiles. As such, a folk story developed that mimicked the story of Hillel summarizing the law for a would-be convert. When someone promised to convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai rebuked him and sent him away, believing this to be impossible. Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel became president of the Sanhedrin after Shammai (30 CE), but those who subscribed to Shammai’s interpretation of Torah remained the dominant Sanhedrin party until about 70 CE. Today, Rabbinical Judaism follows Hillel’s interpretations, believing that a “Voice from Heaven” made the rulings of the house of Shammai null and void.

It is in the context of this conflict between the compassionate school of Hillel and the strict school of Shammai that Jesus’s teachings were given.

By including the Golden Rule in the teachings of Jesus, the early Jewish community believed to have been the source of Sayings Gospel Q place Jesus alongside Hillel’s more inclusive, more compassionate interpretation of the Torah and in contrast to the school of Shammai. There are only two exceptions: the prozbul that we talked about last week and divorce.

We discussed last week how Jesus parted ways with Hillel on economics and the prozbul that carved out exceptions for lenders against the interests of the poor. And he parted ways with Hillel on the subject of divorce as well. The school of Hillel believed that a man could send his wife away for almost any displeasure. Jesus’s teachings on divorce in the gospel of Matthew and Luke are more in harmony with the more stringent school of Shammai who taught that one could only send one’s wife away for infidelity.

This is not the case in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus’ teachings on divorce are even more stringent than Shammai’s and give no justification for divorce. However, I would argue that whereas Shammai’s teaching on divorce was more stringent, Jesus’ teachings were more centered in concerns of social justice for subjugated women in a patriarchal society. They increased justice in that society, as did the Deuteronomy instruction about remarriage in its era. (See Deuteronomy 24.1-4)

But please notice the political effect of Jesus’s mixed alignment with the schools of his time. The members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees who subscribed to the school of Shammai, would have seen Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard who violated the standards they believed would strengthen their culture. There would have also been members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees of the school of Hillel who would have loved much of what Jesus taught, yet because of his teachings on the prozbul and divorce, would have simply been “on the fence” about him. They would not have been able to fully embrace the teachings of Jesus. They would have been able to embrace Jesus on some matters, but not for everything. With the school of Shammai in the influential majority during Jesus’s teaching ministry, this would’ve been a dangerous political position. Any allies he would have had on the Sanhedrin would have been in the minority.

I believe the gospels tell a historically incomplete picture of the Pharisees. Certainly Jesus would have run into problems with the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. But I think it’s important to note that Matthew uses the phrase “some Pharisees,” and not “[all] the Pharisees” (Matthew 19:1). This is a subtle but important difference. The School of Hillel won out, eventually, over the school of Shammai within Rabbinic Judaism.

Armstrong, in the same book, backs this up. She writes:

“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . The Pharisees [of the school of Hillel] wanted no part in the violence that was erupting destructively around them. At the time of the rebellion against Rome [65-70], their leader was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Hillel’s greatest student. He realized that the Jews could not possibly defeat the Roman empire, and argued against the war, because the preservation of religion was more important than national independence. When his advice was rejected, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin in order to get past the Jewish Zealots who were guarding the city gates. He then made his way to the Roman camp and asked Vespasian for permission to live with his scholars in Javne, on the coast of southern Palestine. After the destruction of the temple, Javne became the new capital of Jewish religion. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:

It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’ 

Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

What does all of this mean for the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q? It means several things.

  1. It means that the early Jewish followers of Jesus perceived Jesus and his teachings to be a part of this compassionate stream of thought represented by Hillel. That stream eventually won out in Rabbinic Judaism.
  2. Jesus’s execution was more politico-economic than religious. It was not Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, and the golden rule that got him crucified. The school of Hillel was already teaching these values and Jesus came alongside of that stream and taught them as well. What created the greatest difficulty for Jesus was his solidarity with the poor and his critique of the wealthy elite and their exploitative economic system that centered in Temple and its aristocracy. In our time, it wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings on racial integration and inclusion that inspired his assassination. King was assassinated when he began to threaten the military and economic system of America.
  3. The anti-Semitism created by Christianity and that produced the Holocaust is based on a deeply flawed interpretation of the history of Jesus and the Jewish people. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And to a large degree he was a Jew who subscribed in most things to the school of the greatest Jewish rabbi of all time, Rabbi Hillel.
  4. There is much about Rabbinic Judaism that flows from Hillel’s teachings and is in perfect harmony with the ethical teachings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q. And this harmony provides much common ground for a healthy and positive interfaith discussion that needs to continue.

To believe that Jesus taught the Golden Rule is to harmonize us with the transition away from violence, tribalism, and oppression toward peace, justice, inclusivity, and egalitarianism within all of the major faith traditions. There are exceptions, but Christianity is still moving toward this transition. Just as Hillel influenced Rabbinic Judaism, it is my prayer that the Jesus revealed in Sayings Gospel Q can also influence modern Christianity.

Whether we attribute the Golden Rule to Confucius, Hillel, or the sayings of Jesus, it’s a better way than the eye-for-an-eye principle of treating people the way they have treated you. With the Golden Rule, we have the power to not only be the change we want to see but to also set those changes in motion with the principle of reciprocity. For all those who are striving toward a safer, more compassionate world for us all, in the words of the Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q:

“The way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:31)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, set aside ten minutes every day for quiet contemplation. I want you to contemplate only one thing for these ten minutes—the principle of the Golden Rule. Meditate on the interconnectedness of us all, and what it looks like to live this principle in your daily life.
  2. At the end of the ten minutes each day I want you to write down the key insights you gained from the experience.
  3. Share what you discovered this week with your HeartGroup for discussion and action.

Thanks, once again, for joining us this week. I’m so glad you did.

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.


 

1. Shabbat 31a, in A. Cohen, ed., Everyman’s Talmud (New York, 1975), p. 65.

Love Your Enemies

by Herb Montgomery

Woman holding protest sign which reads "love your enemies."“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

The saying we’ll look at today from Sayings Gospel Q builds on the passage we looked at last week. The last saying blessed those being persecuted while working toward the social changes Jesus imagined and invited us to imagine as well. This week’s saying goes one step further and addresses how we are to respond to our persecutors.

Let’s look at how this saying is written in our companion gospel texts.

Luke 6.27-28: But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Luke 6.35: But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Matthew 5.44-45: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Arguably, the most prominent American champion of enemy love in a context of working toward social change in the last century was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On November 17, 1957, King stood before the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and delivered an sermon titled Loving Your Enemies. In that sermon, he said:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Last summer, I spoke at a convention, and sat in the audience during another speaker’s session. At the end of that session, a participant asked the speaker the question, “What is it that prevents the present hegemony from simply being replaced by another hegemony when it is overthrown?”

(As we’ve shared before, a hegemony is another word for a domination system in which one group holds hierarchical dominance over a group it has subjugated.)

Jesus’ vision is not a hegemony. It is a world where there is no more domination, and no more subjugation, a world where every person has treated with the same indiscriminate egalitarianism that is expressed in the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.

But the audience member’s question about replacing one hegemony with another is a serious and important one. The challenge with most revolutions is that the revolution’s “enemy” is framed as someone to be defeated and then subjugated as they had subjugated others. This approach doesn’t remove pyramids of oppression but simply replaces them with a different pyramid of oppression founded on a different set of values. And this is not the vision of either Martin Luther King or the Jesus of the gospels.

The answer to the problem is in King’s concept of “double victory.” Not only can we win liberation from oppression, but we can also win our oppressors to join us in this liberation work. The goal, again, is that everyone gets to enjoy the sunshine: everyone is equal.

And this paradigm of a double victory is rooted in Jesus’s enemy love. Rather than seeking retributive justice against the revolution’s enemies, which too often becomes an attempt to extract an eye-for-an-eye, Jesus’s enemy love is rooted in restorative, transformative, liberative justice, justice that frees all parties involved.

Enemy love requires us to see our enemies as in need of liberation from a system of injustice as much as we are. Their liberation is of a different character than ours, yet they still have a need.

I do want to say a word of caution though, about this teaching. Jesus was a poor Jewish teacher in first century Palestine and lived under Roman rule. He was not, as many of us are, a citizen of any of the most powerful nations in the world. To illustrate this difference, Howard Thurman once wrote, “Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected [like Paul] by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as Paul did]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch . . . Unless one lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 33)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was not part of the Jewish wealthy elite. Jesus belonged to the community of the poor (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8). Jesus did not tell wealthy people, “Listen, we need to be charitable toward the poor impoverished people around.” No, when Jesus spoke of generosity, he was speaking to his fellow poor craftsmen and rural peasant farmers in Galilee, giving them teachings on how we can create an alternate society where each of us trusts God to send people to take care of us to the degree that we let go of what we may be hoarding out of insecurity, and instead listen to the God that sends us to go and take care of them. Jesus called this alternate society “the rule of God”.

In the same way, when Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, just as he was not part of the wealthy elite speaking about the poor, he was also not part of the wealthy Jewish elite telling the oppressed and poor Jewish craftsmen and rural farmers they needed to love wealthy oppressors in spite of the hardship and injustice the elite had caused them. Let me explain why this is important.

First, Jesus was speaking to his fellow impoverished Jews, inspiring them with an approach that, rather than destroying their enemies, had the potential to transform their enemies. And although Jesus did not use the language King used two thousand years later, what he taught was in essence, King’s “double victory.”

Recently, a police officer who was attending one of my presentations objected to my support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His objection was based on his perception that a sector of that movement sees using more violent means, in order to be heard, as a viable option.  (Being a police officer, the irony of his concern over the use of violence was lost on him.)

The important difference I want you to consider is that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to be a man of color telling other Black men to work toward transforming their White enemies. Gandhi had to be a brown-skinned Indian inspiring his fellow Indian citizens to seek the transformation of their British oppressors. Had King been White, or Gandhi been a British Colonialist, a message of enemy love would have been a subtle form of self-preservation and violence toward the oppressed and served to continue their oppression.  The exceptions to this are when there are internal variations, within the larger groups, that we must consider.  King was Black speaking to Black people, but he was also a middle-class, highly educated Black male from the clergy class.  Gandhi was an Indian speaking to Indians, but he was also light-skinned, a Kshatriya (as opposed to the so-called “untouchables”), and a lawyer (from the 2nd top caste in their social pyramid.)  Sometimes there are intra-group variations who (within the same community) can speak to these matters less oppressively.  They may look different in other words, but they share other facets of the oppressed people’s experience more than those whose appearance is the same. For example, I am in community with a person of color who upon hearing Justice Clarence Thomas speaking on race, she would not respect him, but equally feels that Jane Elliot could credibly speak on the matter.  There are ways for people who look the same to sustain the same oppression that the mainstream sustains.  The point is that commonality and solidarity can’t be assessed on the basis of one characteristic alone. Intersectionality as a theory highlights these intra-group distinctions and they are important. (If you would like to explore these ideas further please read We’re not all alike, and that’s not a problem by my dear friend Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD.)

An Accompanying Call For Restoration

Jesus spoke powerfully and convincingly to the poorer class of Jews of his time, yet Jesus’s message of enemy love to the oppressed was accompanied with a strong requirement that oppressors restore justice toward the oppressed. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he did not call this charity. He called it justice.

Luke 12.33: Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Luke 19.8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “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 7.29: All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right . . .

To only call the oppressed to love their enemies without calling for oppressors to make reparations and restore justice is a subtle form of violence to those who have been wronged. If enemy love is going to be taught, it must, with the same breath, be taught alongside emphatic calls for justice to be restored.

The goal is not to replace one hegemony with another, to place the oppressed on top instead. The goal is rather a world where every person participates in equity, where each can share abundance, enjoying the sun and rain side by side, and where there is enough for all.

One last word: loving your enemies is not “letting them off the hook.” It is not ignoring what they have done, lessening its value, or pretending that it’s nothing. It takes their offense seriously and also desires their transformation. Loving your enemies is the desire that they don’t face mere retribution but rather encounter a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is the desire for them to experience healing and to choose to reject their place in great machines of injustice. And who knows, they might just join you in trying to transform the very ones who they used to resemble.

The question we must wrestle with is whether the radical transformation of the Zacchaeuses in our lives is enough. Do we need them to pay as a form of penance for what they have done? If they should be brought to a place where they desire to give out of a sincere wish to restore, would that be enough?

It really does come down to asking the question of intent. What do you desire for your enemies? Is it a world where now you are on top, dominating those who once wronged you? Or do you desire a “double victory,” a world where your enemies have undergone radical transformation? Is your desire a world where there is no more domination, no more oppression, no more subjugation, discrimination, or injustice?. A world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike? Could you share a world with those who have wronged you if they were “won” rather than just defeated, transformed rather than just destroyed? Could you live in a world alongside them if they, too, were radically changed?

If your answer is yes, you are moving toward the heart of the message of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q as he admonishes us to love our enemies.

As we progress through  Sayings Gospel Q, we will encounter Jesus’ strong words to those who need to restore the justice they have violated. That part of the message is as vital is the part we looked at today. Both messages are what we must wrestle with if we want a world that is truly safe and compassionate for everyone:

“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

HeartGroup Application

Is transformation enough or do we want retribution?

  1. This week I want you to begin with an private exercise. Picture the person on this planet that you like the least. When you have them in your mind’s eye, ask yourself: Would it be enough for you if that person came to understand what they have done to you, if they were more than sorry, and if they actively sought to repair the wrong they have done to you? Not all wrongs can be undone, but if that person was transformed, could you forgive?
  2. Jesus, in Sayings Gospel Q, calls us to pre-empt this transformation by initiating the process with enemy love. This does not mean that you accept what they have done. It means that as you imagine and interact with them, you have in view the end result of their transformation. As you ponder these questions, write down the questions, emotions, struggles, and challenges these questions present to you.
  3. If you feel comfortable, share what you learn with your HeartGroup. Discuss with each other how, whether we belong to the party of the oppressed or the oppressors or to both parties in different ways, we can move toward a safer more compassionate world for all, where equity is as indiscriminate as the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.  Then make some choices to act in the way of forgiveness and reparation. These steps don’t have to be huge at all. You can take small steps, but take a step. Step toward either transformative forgiveness, or restorative reparation in one of the ways you discussed with you group.

Enemy love and enemy transformation was at the heart of Jesus teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. It was at the heart of Gandhi’s ahimsa (love or compassion), as well as King’s struggles for racial equity and his final movements in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Yes, if you take these steps, there will be push back. When you call for change, there will be pushback from those ill-treating you. Keep calling, all the while, learning to love transformationally those who oppose you. And remember, as the Dalai Lama has said, “It is the enemy who can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance.”

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Ethical Teachings Versus Supernatural Claims


BY HERB MONTGOMERY

IMG_0065“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do as I teach? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” (Luke 6:46-49)   

I’m just returning from Phoenix, Arizona, where I conducted a five-day religious re-education series for adults on the revolutionary teachings of Jesus.

A sampling of the teachings we looked at were:

  • Self-affirming, enemy-transforming nonviolence for the oppressed (Matthew 5.39-40)
  • A preferential option for the poor (Matthew 5.42; Luke 4.18-19; 6.30; 11.41)
  • Enemy love (Matthew 5.44; Luke 6.27-28)
  • Forgiveness (Mark 11.25; Matthew 6.14-15; Luke 6.37)
  • Restorative/transformative justice (Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42; 18.7)
  • Redistribution of wealth (Mark 10.21; Matthew 6.19-34; Luke 12.33-34)
  • The Golden Rule (Matthew 7.12)
  • The modeling of a heterogenous shared table (Mark 2.16; Luke 14.12-14)

(You can listen to this series here.)

What I’ve noticed more and more over the last couple years as I’ve spoken about the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that the teachings he taught are somehow new thoughts and ideas for many of the Christians I meet. At least where I’ve traveled, Western, American, mostly white* Christians are unfamiliar with Jesus’s actual teachings, and at the same time have very strong ideas about what it means for them to be “Christian.” 

This phenomenon has a long history in the United States, at least as far back as the 1700s. A significant voice for 18th Century American patriotism was Thomas Paine’s. Paine was one of the founding fathers of the American revolution and also among the first to speak out against slavery and in favor of abolition. But what landed Paine in the most trouble was his book, The Age of Reason. In this book, Paine critiques institutional religion as an oppressive force and also questions the supernatural claims contemporary Christianity made about Jesus.

These supernatural claims have historically included:

  • The divinity of Jesus
  • The virgin birth
  • The miracles of Jesus
  • The substitutionary death of Jesus to satisfy the wrath of God
  • The resurrection

What struck me as odd as I wrote the above list is that many of my readers have been conditioned to place greater importance on mentally assenting to this list than on endeavoring to follow the first list of teachings I shared. We have learned to call the second list “faith” and the first list “behaviorism.” The Jesus of the gospels taught that first list himself. And mentally assenting to any item on the second list doesn’t necessarily change the world around us for the better whereas endeavoring to practice even one item on the list of Jesus’s teachings transforms each practitioner into an agent of healing in this world.

Historically, Freethinkers and secularists like Thomas Paine have agreed with and sought to apply the teachings, values, and ethics found in the Jesus story. They’ve seen in those teachings deep intrinsic worth, especially the Golden Rule, which could change our societies if we practiced it.

My concern this week is this: more and more, I see the harm we’re doing as Christians in the world today rather than being the sources of healing our Jesus story calls us to be.

If I had to choose between 1) someone who was highly certain about the supernatural claims of traditional Christianity yet was unfamiliar with or simply disregarded the actually ethical teachings of the Jesus story and 2) someone who questioned or even doubted those supernatural claims yet were dedicated to learning more deeply how to apply and follow Jesus’s  ethical teachings, I would choose the latter and consider them to be a Jesus follower. Again, it is the first list that the Jesus of the gospels taught himself.

We have enough highly certain humans already, in our Christian religion and beyond, and in so many ways the dogmatically certain who will not do as Jesus taught continue to make the world an unsafe and less compassionate place for many. This group is not in a moral position to critique the morality of those they are harming, though they often do. People who may doubt the church’s explanations and yet do as Jesus taught can at least assist with the moral development of humanity as they sit around the table, equals with us, sharing and listening to the stories of those whose life experience differs vastly from their own.

I expect to get a few emails this week from those who feel I have underestimated the traditional supernatural claims of Christianity. What I’m hoping for, nevertheless, is that a few of us will begin to ask why we feel more passionate about defending those claims while we experience comparatively little concern that so many Christians disregard the practical ethics that Jesus taught during his lifetime.  To be fair, many Christians, today, ARE waking up to the imbalance we are looking at, this week.  I’m pushing for more than acknowledgment, more than reformation, what is needed is a revolution.  Christianity is in desperate need of a revolutionary fusion that puts us back in touch with its original Revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick one of the values, ethics, or topics from our first list above and do some research on it. As you study it, contemplate the ways in which you could experiment with the teaching in your own life.
  2. Write down what you discover.
  3. Share and discuss your findings within your HeartGroup.

I’ll close this week with a book recommendation. If you would like to understand the long history mentioned in this week’s eSight, you can find a great overview in Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Holt Paperbacks; January 7, 2005) 

I believe it’s time to reassess what it means to follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Marcus Borg explains:

“Was Jesus a social revolutionary? In the ordinary sense in which we use the phrase ‘social revolutionary,’ yes. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he was passionate about economic justice and peace, and advocated active non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. He was a voice of peasant social protest against the economic inequity and violence of the imperial domination system, mediated in the Jewish homeland by client rulers of the Roman Empire – in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and in Judea and Jerusalem, the temple authorities. He spoke of God’s kingdom on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it: Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. Heaven is not the problem – earth is.

But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion.

Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.

Of course, Jesus and the Bible are also personal as well as political. Of course. But we have not often seen the political meaning of Jesus and the Bible. It is there – and once one sees it, it is so obvious. Not to see it is the product of habituated patterns of thought, or of willful blindness.

Jesus was (and is) not about endorsing the rule of domination systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful. Jesus was (and is) about God’s passion for a very different kind of world.” — God’s Non-Violent Revolutionary by Marcus J. Borg

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

*This is not true of the non-white congregations I have come in contact with, though I am told of existing non-white congregations that are still very colonial in their thinking, as well.

Jesus’ Vision for Community, Wealth Redistribution, and Closing the Inequality Gap 

By Herb Montgomery

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

First, I didn’t say the above statement! So don’t be upset with me. But it is in Mark’s version of the Jesus story, so I’d like to address it.

Most believe Mark’s gospel was written just before or just after the destruction of the Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish war. The events taking place in the Jesus community at this time help us understand re-emphasizing Jesus’ teachings on sharing our superfluous wealth with each other.

According to the book of Acts, the Jesus community practiced communal care: they took care of the needs of those within their community.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2.44-45)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis needed.)

What is so amazing about both of these passages is the result: the early Jesus community eliminated poverty in their group. “There were no needy persons among them”—this is what a world influenced by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

One of the purposes of Mark’s gospel is to encourage Jesus’s followers to continue this care-taking. Here’s how he does it. Mark dedicates a large portion of the narrative to this topic.

First, we have the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, with twelve baskets of leftovers in chapter 6:34-44. Then, two chapters later, we have another feeding a multitude (Mark 8:1-10). This time it’s four thousand fed, and seven basketfuls left over.

Just one of these stories would be expected; it’s the repetition of the elements that should cause us to sit up and ask “Why.”

Mark answers this question in verses 14-21 of chapter 8:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’

Let’s begin to unpack this exchange: “Are your hearts hardened?,” Jesus asks. In Hebrew folklore, the quintessential hardened heart was Pharaoh’s in Exodus. Within that story, Egypt symbolizes a world empire built on scarcity, accumulation, and storage that over time grew into a domination system rooted in greed, oppression, and ruthless brick-production. The story climaxes with a stand off between Moses the liberator and Pharaoh the oppressor; the story says Pharaoh’s heart was “hard,” meaning that he would not let the Israelites go.”

Jesus emerged within 1st Century Judaism as a liberator of the poor and oppressed. To the degree that Jesus’ disciples would not participate in this liberation, they, like the Pharaoh in the story, choose the way of a hardened heart. Jesus called for his followers to radically embrace one another to the degree that even the wealthy would embrace the poor and liquidate superfluous assets to eradicate need. Two chapters after the conversation in chapter 8, we see Jesus telling a rich questioner, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Mark 10:18-25).

There are two obstacles to this level of radical sharing. One is feeling like you don’t have enough to share; the other is having enough today but being so afraid of not having enough in the future that you refuse to share now. The stories of the feedding of the multitudes address the first obstacle, whereas the rich man in Mark 10 represents the second.

In each of the “multitude” stories, there is not enough to go around. But in these stories, each person brings what they have and “miraculously” there is somehow enough with more to spare.

In Mark 8, in the boat, the disciples are bumping up against a “scarcity” mentality once again. There is only one loaf to be divided among them, and their temptation is to revert to the narrative of hoarding or “competing” for what there is. Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of Herod and the wealthy Pharisees. The leaven Jesus is referring to here is that fear of future scarcity that leads to accumulation, hoarding, greed, and a hard heart that ignores the needs of others today. The hard heart makes you a mini “pharaoh,” one who refuses to liberate those around you from whatever prevents them from being fully human.

Jesus’ solution to the oppression of the poor is not charity, but community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with charity. Charity is vital! Charity takes care of hungry stomachs right now. Certainly following Jesus includes no less than sharing charitably with the needy, but it also includes more. Following Jesus means community, where each person, rich and poor alike, brings what they have to the shared table. Even though we may be tempted to think that we only have two loaves and a few fish to feed an entire community, when we come together, something magical happens. As each person contributes what they have, somehow every person’s needs are met.

A couple weekends ago, I encountered an organization in Glendale, CA, called Communitas. Communitas is a Latin noun referring to an unstructured community in which people are equal or to the very spirit of community. The philosophy is that we can choose to network together in a community where each one of us has something that someone else needs. Our needs put us in touch with one another. As we choose to take care of each other, each ability connecting with each need, we can eliminate need by applying the abilities we already possess. Even those who are “in need” have abilities and talents they can bring to the shared table. Communitas is an amazing organization that does more than offer bandaid solutions to poverty. It’s an organization subversively casts a vision of systemic change.

In Mark, Jesus’ solution to “need” or poverty is to close the inequality gap by inviting each person into community where every need is supplied by another person’s shared ability. Some of the wealthy responded well: think of those among the wealthy tax collectors who had chosen to follow Jesus. Others did not: think of those among the Pharisees who viewed Jesus’ teaching with contempt and dismissal.

Mark finishes his story in chapter 10 with these words:

“Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Notice that he does not say it was impossible. He did say it was hard. Jesus was simply being honest about the difficulty. In the words of Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” But for those who felt as if they had much to lose, choosing the way of compassion and bringing what they possessed to the shared table was, at best, a challenge.

An aside: there actually wasn’t a camel gate in Jerusalem that camels had to get down on their knees to enter. This is a myth that began in the 16th Century to allow the wealthy to follow Jesus and still hold on to their wealth. The phrase “eye of the needle” is beautiful Hebrew hyperbole, and also appears in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Mezi’a 38b. Jesus is also using an Aramaic play on words. The Aramaic word gamla can be translated as “rope” as well as camel, because most ropes were made of camel hair. And so the phrase can be read as “getting a rope through the eye of a needle.” The pun holds as Mark’s gospel is translated from Greek into Latin: The Latin word for rope is kamilos, and the Latin word for camel is kamelos.

So what does the pun mean? For a rope to go through an eye of a needle, it must undergo a change: it must be pared down significantly. The rope must become thread. Jesus is saying that the way the wealthy are saved is through choosing to let go of their fear of the future, their trust in the safety of what they have accumulated, and to accept instead the way of compassion that values fellow humans more than wealth. Jesus calls the wealthy to place their wealth on the shared table alongside everything that others bring to the shared table. No hoarding allowed.

The emphasis is not about reducing individual wealth; it’s about making wealthy communities. Jesus is casting the vision of sharing communities that create shared wealth. In these communities, as it states in Acts, there will no longer be a needy person among us.

“A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” — Solomon Ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (Spanish Jew and Collector of Jewish Aphorisms; Spain, c. 1021 – c.1069; see Geary’s Guide to the Worlds Great Aphorists)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — attributed to Margaret Mead

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a special activity for each HeartGroup.

  1. Before you meet as a group make time to personally watch Richard Wilkonson’s 16 minute Ted talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. Write down any thoughts, questions, or insights you get as you watch.
  2. When you meet together for your HeartGroup this upcoming week, watch the short presentation again as a group and then spend some time sharing with each other your response.
  3. As a group, write down ways you could close the gaps that exist within your own HeartGroup. Then pick one of these ways to experiment with over the next few weeks. Schedule a time a month from now when you can, as a group, discuss what you have discovered through this exercise.

I’d love to hear what your group discovers. Shoot me an email and let me know what has happened.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world, through the means of a shared table, for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.