When Healing Justice Comes Near

sunrise

Herb Montgomery | January 20, 2023

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“Today we still have social sicknesses that desperately need healing justice. I think of the sicknesses of patriarchy and misogyny, of racism and White supremacy, of classism and victim blaming practiced toward poor people, of heterosexism and bigotry toward same-sex sexuality, and bigotry from certain cisgender people toward transgender or nonbinary people. Healing justice can still liberate today as it did in some of our most sacred, ancient stories.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles—

  the people living in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. Come, follow me,” Jesus said, and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:12-23)

This week’s reading starts with John the Baptist in prison. As we discussed two weeks ago, John preached against social and systemic injustices of his society. (See Breaking With the Way Things Are) Preachers don’t get imprisoned for handing out tickets to heaven. They’re imprisoned for calling for systemic, societal change that threatens those benefiting from the current status quo (see Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

When Jesus hears of John being arrested and put in prison, he leaves the area and goes to Galilee. The author associates this geographical shift with a passage from Isaiah. As much as I understand the rhetorical purpose of contrasting light and darkness for those who lived in the Middle East before electricity and modern lighting, we should now be careful with this language.

The authors of both Matthew and Isaiah were people of color. The Bible was not written by White people. Today, though, we live in the wake of a long history of White people demonizing darkness in ways that harm people whose skin color is darker than theirs. Whiteness and light  and darkness and Blackness have been closely associated in White supremacist polemics. Today it behooves us, given White degradation of Black people, to say unequivocally that we are all equal. Our differences reveal the rich diversity of the human family of which we are all a part. And our differences are to be celebrated, not used to create hegemony or a hierarchy of value.

This impacts how we talk about the Bible’s use of light and darkness, too. We don’t have to demonize the darkness to talk about the benefits of light. Light has intrinsic value and benefit. So does darkness. Darkness is not evil. It is life giving. Things grow in darkness, not just in light. In darkness, we rest and heal. Too much light can also harm.

We could perhaps reclaim the rhetoric of light and darkness today by speaking of balance between the light and the dark. Socially, making one difference supreme over another is death-dealing. As we need balance biologically, we need egalitarianism socially. Our call is not to lift up light over the darkness, but to work toward a world that is safe and just for us all; a place where each of us can feel at home. We are called to work toward a world that has room for all of our differences and is big enough for us all.

In our reading, with John now in prison, Jesus embarks on his own journey, preaching that the kingdom has arrived. This language, too, needs updating within our context. The language of a kingdom might have been meaningful when contrasted with the Roman empire and given the hopes for the renewal of David’s kingdom among 1st Century Jewish liberationists, but today we live in a multiracial, multi-gendered, richly diverse democracy.

Kingdoms are both patriarchal and hierarchical. What could Jesus’ “kingdom” be called in our democratic context today? Some have updated the language to call it the beloved community. Others refer to this change as God’s just future that is breaking through into our world here and now. Still others call it a kin-dom referring the kinship we all share being part of one another within our human family. (See Finding Jesus, Herb Montgomery, p. 53)  Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we call it making our world a safe, just compassionate home for all. Whatever one decides to call it, we are talking about changes here and now, not post mortem bliss in the future but life-giving healing and change from the violence, injustice, and oppression (hell on earth) that many people face on our planet, today.

Lastly in our reading this week, Jesus calls the disciples. Last week’s reading had these events taking place on the banks of the Jordan. This week, John has been arrested and the action takes place in Galilee instead. Each of the gospels have differences like this depending on the audiences and political purposes each was written for. Matthew was written for Galilean and primarily Jewish Jesus followers.

As we’ve discussed before, in several Hebrew scriptures, fishing for people was about hooking or catching a certain kind of person, a powerful and unjust person, and removing them from the position of power where they were wielding harm. It wasnt about saving souls so they could enjoy post mortem bliss, but about changing systemic injustice in the here and now.

Speaking of those who do harm within their positions of power, Jeremiah reads:

But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. (Jeremiah 16:16)

Speaking of those who oppress the poor and crush the needy,” Amos reads:

The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:2)

Speaking of the abusive Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Ezekiel reads:

In the tenth year, in the tenth month on the twelfth day, the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says:

‘“I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,

you great monster lying among your streams.

You say, “The Nile belongs to me;

I made it for myself.”

But I will put hooks in your jaws

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.

I will pull you out from among your streams,

with all the fish sticking to your scales.

I will leave you in the desert,

you and all the fish of your streams.

You will fall on the open field

and not be gathered or picked up.

I will give you as food

to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.

Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the LORD. (Ezekiel 29:1-6)

And commentators agree on this association:

In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of people like fish’ appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…’ (Jeremiah 16:16) The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…’ (Amos 4:2) Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…’ (Ezekiel 29:3f) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor; Say to This Mountain: Marks Story of Discipleship, p. 10)

If this is a new interpretation for you, you may be interested in reading my brief article Decolonizing Fishing for People.

Our reading this week ends with Jesus’ Jewish renewal movement traversing through Galilee, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the good news or “gospel” of the kingdom. The term “gospel” was taken from the Roman empire. Rome proclaimed a gospel each time it arrived to take over new regions. The gospel authors appropriate this term to contrast Rome’s approach with Jesus’ vision for ordering our world in ways that are life-giving for all.

Our passage characterizes Jesus’ way as being one of healing.

Today we still have social sicknesses that desperately need healing justice. I think of the sicknesses of patriarchy and misogyny, of racism and White supremacy, of classism and victim blaming practiced toward poor people, of heterosexism and bigotry toward same-sex sexuality, and bigotry from certain cisgender people toward transgender or nonbinary people.

This week, let’s choose to focus our following of Jesus on working to heal and eradicate these social diseases. Healing justice can still liberate today as it did in some of our most sacred, ancient stories. May it continue to do so through us, today.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How has your Jesus following changed as a result of testing the fruit of your beliefs and actions by the condition of whether they are life-giving? Share with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts. Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

And if you’d like to reach out to us through email, you can reach us at info@renewedheartministries.com.

My new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels is now available at renewedheartministries.com

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


Now Available at Renewed Heart Ministries!

It’s here!  Herb’s new book Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is available at renewedheartministries.com, just in time for the holidays!

Here is just a taste of what people are saying:

“Herb has spent the last decade reading scripture closely. He also reads the world around us, thinks carefully with theologians and sociologists, and wonders how the most meaningful stories of his faith can inspire us to live with more heart, attention, and care for others in our time. For those who’ve ever felt alone in the process of applying the wisdom of Jesus to the world in which we live, Herb offers signposts for the journey and the reminder that this is not a journey we take alone. Read Finding Jesus with others, and be transformed together.” Dr. Keisha Mckenzie, Auburn Theological Seminary

“In Finding Jesus, Herb Montgomery unleashes the revolutionary Jesus and his kin-dom manifesto from the shackles of the domesticated religion of empire.  Within these pages we discover that rather than being a fire insurance policy to keep good boys and girls out of hell, Jesus often becomes the fiery enemy of good boys and girls who refuse to bring economic justice to the poor, quality healthcare to the underserved, and equal employment to people of color or same-sex orientation.  Because what the biblical narratives of Jesus reveal is that any future human society—heavenly or otherwise—will only be as  good as the one that we’re making right here and now. There is no future tranquil city with streets of gold when there is suffering on the asphalt right outside our front door today.  Finding Jesus invites us to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ on our feet as we follow our this liberator into the magnificent struggle of bringing the love and justice of God to all—right here, right now.”—Todd Leonard, pastor of Glendale City Church, Glendale CA.

“Herb Montgomery’s teachings have been deeply influential to me. This book shares the story of how he came to view the teachings of Jesus through the lens of nonviolence, liberation for all, and a call to a shared table. It’s an important read, especially for those of us who come from backgrounds where the myth of redemptive violence and individual (rather than collective) salvation was the focus.” – Daneen Akers, author of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and co-director/producer of Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film about Faith, Identity & Belonging

“So often Christians think about Jesus through the lens of Paul’s theology and don’t focus on the actual person and teachings of Jesus. This book is different. Here you find a challenging present-day application of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. Rediscover why this Rabbi incited fear in the hearts of religious and political leaders two millennia ago. Herb’s book calls forth a moral vision based on the principles of Jesus’ vision of liberation. Finding Jesus helps us see that these teachings are just as disruptive today as they were when Jesus first articulated them.” Alicia Johnston, author of The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists.

“Herb Montgomery is a pastor for pastors, a teacher for teachers and a scholar for scholars. Part memoir and part theological reflection, Finding Jesus is a helpful and hope-filled guide to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who he can be. Herb’s tone is accessible and welcoming, while also challenging and fresh. This book is helpful for anyone who wants a new and fresh perspective on following Jesus.”— Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families

Get your copy today at renewedheartministries.com


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Trading Individualism for Community

community

Herb Montgomery | October 7, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“Those of us from Western cultures have a lot we can learn from cultures that value community wellbeing over or alongside individual thriving. There are ways of structuring our society where the common good is emphasized, where the community thrives alongside each person comprising it, where we collectively take responsibility for taking care of every person.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesusfeet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)

This story appears only in Luke. It may be modeled on a story in Mark (see Mark 1:40-45 ) and on Jewish tales of Elisha’s healing Naaman (see 2 Kings 5:1-15).

We can glean something from this week’s reading, and we have a few things to unpack first. We are far removed from the cultural setting of our story, but if we give it a moment, wisdom will come to the surface.

First, let’s understand how the Torah approached skin abnormalities. Anyone with a skin problem was to show it to the priest. If the issue was thought questionably contagious and a danger to the community, the person would be isolated for a period and re-examined before regaining access to the community. The result was either re-inclusion or continued isolation.

“If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate them for another seven days.” Leviticus 13:4-5

Leprosy was an especially harmful skin disease socially. Not only did the person have to deal with the negative effects of the disease itself, they also had no social reinstatement to look forward to. Lepers were sentenced to an isolated life, living away from their community and alone for the rest of your days. Leper communities were invented so that lepers could still have some type of community with whom to survive.

Survival in Jesus’ world depended on belonging to one of many village communities. Belonging to a community comprised of a network of rural families was how you survived. A person would not survive on their own.

Now let’s look at the purpose of the healing stories in the Jesus story.

We could interpret these healing stories through a post-Enlightenment, naturalistic worldview that challenges all miracles as a violation of natural laws. We could question the historicity of each of these stories too. But I find many more life-giving lessons from interpreting the healing stories as Richard Horsley does in his excellent volume Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. This approach asks us to take the healing stories, not within our context today, but in the context the original audience would have heard them, given their assumptions. In the four canonical versions of the Jesus story we have today, we must hear each of these stories in the debilitating context of Roman imperialism.

Leprosy broke down a person’s place in their village community, isolating them from a community-based system of survival to an individualistic mode of survival on the edges of their society. They were on their own.

In our individualistic culture, we have the myth of success being the result of pulling up oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. One of the deepest fall-outs of colonialism is the repression of Indigenous community ways, such as  the community coming together to make sure everyone is cared for, and where individual wellbeing was balanced with the common good or the community thriving. Colonialism has left each of us a “leper” today, isolated from community and having to make it on our own. This has been quite convenient for the capitalist elite, who can consolidate more power and wealth if we are only individuals working for our own survival, receiving only a portion of our work’s value, having the majority of our hard work only go to make someone else richer.

Jesus’ ministry was not to start a new religion, but to socially and economically renew his own Jewish society. His ministry involved restoring people to communal life in villages in a context where Roman imperialism was destroying communities, transforming landowners belonging to a small village community into isolated, individual, workers on land they’d once owned but lost through oppressive Roman taxation and defaulted debt.

In these stories, Jesus’ healings represent the restoration of the rule or kingdom of the God of the Torah and the victory of God’s rule over Roman rule. Jesus’ world was one where people were restored from the economic isolation of self-reliance to a community dedicated to making sure everyone had enough (see Acts 2 and 4). The leprosy is a real disease, and it was also used in the Jesus stories as a metaphor for the very real isolating effects of Roman imperialism. Roman rule was a disease that transformed the way people lived with each other.

So Jesus acted to heal and reverse the effects of Roman occupation. He called his listeners to rebuild their community life. And in this week’s story, we see yet another example of people being healed of that which kept them on the margins or edges of their society. His goal was not just to heal people as individuals, but that they also present themselves to their priests so they could be restored to their community.

If this is a new idea to you, I recommend the section “Healing the Effects of Imperialism” in Horsley’s book, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.

Horsley writes:

“Like the exorcisms, Jesus’ healings were not simply isolated acts of individual mercy, but part of a larger program of social as well as personal healing…

In these and other episodes Jesus is healing the illnesses brought on by Roman imperialism.

He was pointedly dealing with whole communities, not just individuals, in the context of their meeting for self governance. He was not dealing only with what we moderns call ‘religious’ matters, but with the more general political-economic concerns of the village communities as well, as we shall see below.” (Kindle Locations 1391-1392, 1406, and 1440-1442)

He explains further:

“Jesus launched a mission not only to heal the debilitating effects of Roman military violence and economic exploitation, but also to revitalize and rebuild the people’s cultural spirit and communal vitality. In healing various forms of social paralysis, he also released life forces previously turned inward in self blame. In these manifestations of God’s action for the people, and in his offering the kingdom of God to the poor, hungry, and despairing people, Jesus instilled hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. The key to the emergence of a movement from Jesus’ mission, however, was his renewal of covenantal community, calling the people to common cooperative action to arrest the disintegration.” (Richard A. Horsley. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Kindle Locations 1634-1638)

At the end of this story, the writer states that the only leper who was thankful was a Samaritan. With this point in the narrative, we can see the antisemitism growing in Christianity by this point. So I don’t find this part of the story very life-giving for us. Jewish people had always believed that the restoration of justice and end of oppression and violence was for all people. Bringing up the Samaritans seems like just another Gentile Christian attempt to distance their group from their Jewish siblings and cast those Jewish siblings in a negative light. Had they wanted to extend Jesus’ liberation beyond the borders of Judea and Galilee, the author could have been accomplished this without this plot point, but since it’s in this story, it’s important that we as Jesus followers today be honest about it.

What is the gem of wisdom in this story?

As I briefly stated earlier, we are living in the wake of colonialism’s global destruction of so many indigenous cultures and repression of their communal way of life, including here in the United States. This week’s story calls into question the myth of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and calls us to lean into communal ways of living.

Those who have much more wealth to gain from our isolated way of living will try to scare us with labels like “socialism” or “communism.” Pay them no mind. Realize the game that they are playing.

Lean instead into the Jesus story. Those of us from Western cultures have a lot we can learn from cultures that value community wellbeing over or alongside individual thriving. There are ways of structuring our society where the common good is emphasized, where the community thrives alongside each person comprising it, where we collectively take responsibility for taking care of every person. They can call it “socialism.” I disagree because socialism doesn’t go far enough to follow the Jesus we read about in these gospel stories.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. List some of the ways you see our present system pushing us toward isolated individualism for our survival? Discuss these with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts. Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

And if you’d like to reach out to us through email, you can reach us at info@renewedheartministries.com.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

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The Bodies We Inhabit

Herb Montgomery | August 26, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


I love the emphasis in the end of this passage. It’s not that “they” will be blessed. It’s that “you” will be blessed. The text defines that blessing as an extrinsic, extra bestowal of blessing at what Luke’s readers understood in their worldview as a future “resurrection of the righteous.” What I would rather have us understand is that there is an intrinsic blessing and value that people of varying experiences can bring to a community.


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched . . .

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, Give this person your seat. Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

In Roman culture, people in the upper classes usually followed a meal with philosophical discussion and debate. The meal that Luke’s gospel describes in this week’s passage involves debate about some of Luke’s ethical favorites: humility and the inclusion of the marginalized, specifically people living in poverty or people with disabilities. These were groups that the historical Jesus had compassion on, and the author of Luke’s gospel is emphasizing them as the objects of compassion too.

This passage doesn’t introduce anything new about Jewish wisdom, but the ethic had deep roots in the Hebrew sacred texts:

Do not exalt yourself in the kings presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before his nobles. (Proverbs 25:6-7)

If they make you master of the feast, do not exalt yourself; be among them as one of their number. Take care of them first and then sit down; when you have fulfilled all your duties, take your place, so that you may be merry along with them and receive a wreath for your excellent leadership. (Sirach 32:1-2)

When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble. (Proverbs 11:2)

For you [YHWH] deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down. (Psalms 18:27)

This theme is found across the different version of the Jesus story we have today:

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

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:14b)

I do need to revisit something I wrote last week about the Jesus story’s shortcomings regarding people who live with disabilities. Nothing is ever simple, and the Jesus story is complex. While I believe that what I wrote is generally true, I see an exception in this week’s passage. Here in Luke, Jesus does not bringing change to the person with the disability but rather calling for change in the privileged people around that person. Jesus calls them to change their attitudes and include people with disabilities. He is calling for change in how people with disabilities are treated.

Last month’s recommended reading at Renewed Heart Ministries was Nancy L. Eiesland’s ecclesiastically challenging and deeply thought-provoking book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. If you did not get a chance to read it last month, I still recommend getting a copy and going through it.

Among many other valuable insights, Eisland identifies three traditional theological barriers for people with disabilities within the Christian tradition:

These three themes—sin and disability conflation, virtuous suffering, and segregationist charity—illustrate the theological obstacles encountered by people with disabilities who see inclusion and justice with the Christian community. (The Disabled God, p. 74)

Let me explain. When people conflate sin and disability, they make disabilities a synonym for sinfulness or shortcomings. In all four of the canonical gospels, the gospel authors both subvert and strengthen that connection (i.e. blindness, Matthew 15:5; inability to be mobile, John 5; deafness, Matthew 13:15). As we’ve discussed, there are also elements in the gospels that can be interpreted as teaching inherent virtue in suffering, and when applied to people with disabilities, that means teaching they were chosen for disability to fulfill some heroic, good, divine purpose (see John 9:3). Finally, what Eiesland names as “segregationist charity” means keeping people with disabilities at arms’ length while calling for charity and withholding full inclusion and accessible justice from them (see John 19:36; Exodus 12:46; and Leviticus 21:16-23). Some faith traditions prevent disabled people from participating in fully ordained ministry.

It cannot be denied that the biblical record and Christian theology have often been dangerous for persons with disabilities. Nor can the prejudice, hostility, and suspicion toward people with disabilities be dismissed as relics of an unenlightened past. Today many interpretations of biblical passages and Christian theologies continue to reinforce negative stereotypes, support social and environmental segregation, and mask the lived realities of people with disabilities. In recent decades, while the problematic nature of the bible record with regard to women has become generally acknowledged, the degrading depictions of people with disabilities are often ignored or, worse, seen as fundamentally accurate to our experience. An uncritical use of the Bible to address the concerns of people with disabilities perpetuates marginalization and discrimination in the name of religion.” (The Disabled God, p. 74-75)

As Jesus followers, we can and must do better.

I include myself in this. I, too, have conflated disability and sin, promoted the virtues of suffering, and withheld full inclusion in the past.

Our reading this week gives us the opportunity to interpret a gospel story in a life-giving way, one that calls for full accessibility and inclusion.

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

I love the emphasis in the end of this passage. It’s not that “they” will be blessed. It’s that “you” will be blessed. The text defines that blessing as an extrinsic, extra bestowal of blessing at what Luke’s readers understood in their worldview as a future “resurrection of the righteous.”

What I would rather have us understand is that there is an intrinsic blessing and value that people of varying experiences can bring to a community. When a person has a body that is in some way different or disabled in some way in their society, their inclusion and accessibility would bring an inherent blessing to their community. I do not romanticize a person’s disability. Their disability doesn’t mysteriously infuse them with value, but it doesn’t negate or lessen their value either.

Not all bodies are the same. Not all bodies develop the same way. And no body escapes those events that change our bodies. But every body is valuable; every person has something to bring to the table. When we exclude certain people because of their bodies, our communities are the worse off for it. Not only do those excluded suffer loss from being excluded, but the communities that exclude them also suffer loss because of their absence.

This week, rather than focusing on a future extrinsic “repayment” or reward for including those society often labels as “less than” today, may we all begin so see the value of people, regardless of our differences, and especially when those differences relate to the kinds of bodies we’re each living in. There should be a place at the table for all for all of us, where all of us can bring to our communities what we have to offer, where every one of us gains the blessing of both giving and receiving. The intrinsic value of every person calls us as Jesus followers, especially, to ensure an attitude of inclusion and concrete means of accessibility as well.

I believe this is possible and the spirit of our most cherished Jesus stories calls us to it. To the degree that our communities are accessible to people whose bodies are different or disabled, to that same degree we will intrinsically experience either blessing or loss.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an experience where your awareness of the intrinsic value of people who were different from yourself was broadened or deepened. Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

Our Collective Thriving

sunrise

Herb Montgomery | August 19, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


The stories this week point us to prioritizing the needs of people to thrive. Survival isn’t enough. We are worth more than that. We are also worth more than a few people in society thriving while the rest of us simply survive (or don’t even do that.) This week’s story also calls us to attend to things that enable all of us to thrive together without anyone being marginalized.


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, You hypocrites! Doesnt each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)

This week, let’s begin by intentionally rejecting antisemitic interpretations of this week’s reading. This passage isn’t a Christianity-versus-Judaism argument against the Sabbath. It represents an argument within Judaism and among Jewish people about what constitutes valid Sabbath observance and what actions violate the Sabbath. Remember, Jesus was an observant Jew remember (see Luke 4:16). It’s telling that this passage ends with all the Jewish people agreeing with Jesus’ interpretation of how Sabbath observance should meet people’s needs. This story is not anti-Jewish, nor is it anti-Sabbath.

In Luke’s Jesus story, there is a social debate on what permissible actions on the Sabbath should prioritize. Judaism has always justified temporarily setting aside Sabbath restrictions for any condition that was life-threatening. So whatever people needed to survive was always permitted on the Sabbath.

In this week’s reading, we encounter a condition that is not life-threatening but that the story paints as preventing the woman from thriving. (I’ll address the ableism about this in a moment.) This story is one of the healing stories in Luke’s gospel that creates a tension of priorities, pitting people’s needs for thriving and not simply surviving against the demands of Sabbath observance. This theme recurs across the canonical Jesus stories (compare Luke 14:1-6; Mark 3:1-6; John 5:1-9; and John 9:1-7).

Economic and Labor Justice

Consider the Sabbath commandment we read in Exodus:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.

For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

Inherent in the original Sabbath institution was an element of economic and labor justice for workers. Today I would argue that one day is not enough to ensure laborers, workers, or employees are not being exploited. I wasn’t alive in the time of Exodus, but I would guess that it was only a start back then too.

Also notice that the Sabbath commandment in Exodus does not put the onus on children, slaves, animals or vulnerable immigrants to refuse to work for those subjugating them. This would only place undue stress on them, adding moral implications to something which they had no choice about.

No, the commandment is rather addressed to parents, masters, and livestock owners. To apply this to our context: the Sabbath commandment does not tell employees not to work for their employers on the Sabbath. The commandment tells employers not to exploit their employees and not make their employees work on every day of the week. If someone is working on the Sabbath, the person responsible is their employer who demands that labor be done, not the employee faced with the choice between observing a Sabbath or putting food on their family’s table.

As the gospel of Mark reminds us, “The Sabbath was made for people. People weren’t made for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

This is a deeply Jewish theme of contrasting people’s strict religious observances with their actions about others’ concrete justice needs. We encounter this contrast of values and priorities all the way back in the prophetic justice tradition of the Hebrew scriptures:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—

what are they to me?” says the LORD.

“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,

of rams and the fat of fattened animals;

I have no pleasure

in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,

who has asked this of you,

this trampling of my courts?

Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds out of my sight;

stop doing wrong.

Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17, emphasis added)

Today, I think this still tracks. We still see in our communities some of us who can be very intentional about our observances within our religion while we ignore the social justice concerns of others. Christians can sometimes be among the worst offenders in this.

But the last thing to note this week is that this is an ableist story.

The intention of the Jesus story is to portray a Jesus who sought to liberate people from suffering, whatever the form of that suffering. I’m thankful for this. We must also understand our own ableism: it includes the presumption that all disabled people want to be cured. They don’t. Some people who live with disabilities see their disability as part of the variety within humanity’s potential, not as something “wrong” with them that needs to be “fixed.” This can be very difficult to get folks without disabilities to understand. As the colloquialism states, fish don’t know they’re wet. People who aren’t disabled often don’t perceive the assumptions that their own experiences cause them to make about people with disabilities.

Consider that the gospels’ solution is never to change the society that people who are living with disabilities are living in so that they do not experience discrimination, marginalization, or exclusion. The gospels’ solution is always instead to transform the disabled person, to align or harmonize them with their society so that the social, religious, political and economic stigmas attached to their disability are no longer present. The action restores the person with a disability to their community rather than calling the community itself to change and either challenging or rejecting the stigma.

Some will challenge my critique here, and that’s okay. But the question we have to ask in each story is where is change taking place? Is the person with the disability being transformed or is the society those people live in being changed? In some of the stories an argument could be made for both, but in every story the person with the disability experiences a change to remove the stigma applied to them.

This is one shortcoming of the Jesus stories that Jesus followers must acknowledge and it doesn’t mean these stories have no value. What it does mean is that we can still highly value the Jesus story and note where we could do better today. The ethical spirit of Jesus that we love so much also sets us on a trajectory toward telling more life-giving stories that don’t marginalize anyone, including people who live with disabilities.

The stories this week point us to prioritizing the needs of people to thrive. Survival isn’t enough. We are worth more than that. We are also worth more than a few people in society thriving while the rest of us simply survive (or don’t even do that.) This week’s story also calls us to attend to things that enable all of us to thrive together without anyone being marginalized.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an experience where you were faced with a conflict between concrete physical needs and honoring religious observances or practice. Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

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Damage Mitigation Versus Changing the System

black and white picture of hand to illustrate article

Herb Montgomery | October 22, 2021


“It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, Call him.” So they called to the blind man, Cheer up! On your feet! Hes calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:46-52)

At the very beginning of our reflection this week, I want to say: I understand the original cultural context of this story, and I still find it deeply ableist. Gospel stories like this one have repeatedly been the seed of society perceiving people with disabilities or different abilities as either less-than or associated with evil. In stories like the one we read this week, blindness is associated with being sinful and at least is a condition that one must be saved from.

Consider the lyrics to one of Christianity’s most famous hymns, Amazing Grace:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind but now I see.”

(Italics added for emphasis)

The writer, John Newton, associates being blind with being wretched and lost. For him, being able to see is synonymous with being saved and found.

So to all my blind friends, I’m deeply sorry. To my friends who do not have disabilities but are tempted to imagine I am making too much of this connection, consider how you would feel if you had a disability that your society repeatedly attached a moral value to . How would it feel having your disability associated with being sinful, lost, and wretched?

The story’s immediate solution doesn’t resonate with me much either. This man, Bartimaeus, is trying to survive within a system that marginalizes him because of his blindness. He is nether privileged nor benefitted by the system, and he is left to scrape out his own survival.

Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem and overturn the tables of the Temple State to protest a system that leaves so many impoverished and marginalized, but on his way there, his solution is to make Bartimaeus “not blind.”

This is comparable to not changing a patriarchal system but instead making all women men, or not changing a White supremacist system but reclassifying people of color, including Black people , indigenous communities, and immigrants as White. It’s comparable to not challenging a cisheterosexist system, but transforming LGBTQ folx into straight, cisgender, and/or gender conforming. This kind of conversion therapy would really be a kind of genocide.

I don’t believe the solution to a system that treats blind people as inferior is to remove everyone’s blindness. Rather the solution is to challenge and change the system so that blind people are not marginalized or excluded.

My critique may create more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, I believe these are the questions Jesus followers today need to wrestle with. Can we follow the values we have found to be life-giving in the Jesus story while acknowledging many of the ableist ways the Jesus story is told in our sacred text?

I believe we can. We can do better.

Some of the most progressive, historical Jesus scholars see in this story a reflection of actual deeds the historical Jesus did. Jericho, where this story happens, was the last stop before the Temple State’s capital, Jerusalem, and there’s an economic thread to this story as well. As I said earlier, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to flip the tables of an economic, social, political and religious system that privileges a few at the expense of many.

Jesus meets Bartimaeus at what would have been a popular location for Jericho’s beggars to gather. With the holiday coming up, many people would making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. The holiday would have put them in the spirit of giving, and their tithes and offerings would have given them the means to give to so many of the begging people.

Bartimaeus’ name in this narrative also holds meaning. It could mean either “son of him who is honored or highly prized” or “son of the unclean or uncleanness.” In this story, he is both.

This story offers a repeated theme within the gospels: the crowd obstructs Bartimaeus’ attempts to get at Jesus and Bartimaeus’ increased efforts in response. I think of women pastors who belong to religious traditions that oppose women’s ordination, and how much harder they must work to follow their calling. I think of how hard people of color have to work to survive within historically White churches. And I think of the deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia present in most of Christianity still today, and how my LGBTQ friends who love and follow Jesus must work to stay in their faith traditions, even on the edges. Then and now, the crowd closest to Jesus is often the biggest obstacle to those on the margins of society who desire an audience with him.

I also love how our story has the poor beggar Bartimaeus “throwing his cloak aside” when he is finally able to get up and go to Jesus. This cloak, which would have been his only one, was also his most prized trade tool. He would have spread out his cloak to collect coins from those passing by: it was his own meager means to get his small livelihood, and he just tosses it aside. Consider the rich man in the last chapter who was called to make reparations and couldn’t let go of anything.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he had asked of James and John:

What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51 cf. Mark 10:36)

The disciples wanted Jesus to grant them positions of privilege and honor in their own erroneous definitions of what the reign of God would look like. They assumed the reign of God would still mean privilege some at the expense of others.

But Bartimaeus is not asking to be made greater than others. He’s asking to be placed on the same level ground with others in an ableist society that economically, socially, religiously, and politically evaluates him as “last.” He just wants to see. So many disenfranchised and underprivileged people just want to be able to live and thrive on the same level ground as those who are privileged in our present system. For my LGBTQ friends, LGBTQ Pride month doesn’t mean they desire to be better than others: pride for them is the opposite of shame, not the opposite of humility. It is to celebrate being of equal worth to everyone else in a world that continually strives to make you feel inferior.

Bartimaeus just wants to see, and experience all that his sight would enable him to have in his society.

I’m glad the story doesn’t end with Jesus just giving him the ability to see. That wouldn’t go far enough. Fortunately the story doesn’t end with “Immediately he received his sight.” It ends with “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.”

What road was it that Bartimaeus joined Jesus on?

The road to Jerusalem.

That road ended in a temple courtyard with the tables of money changers being overturned. It ended in actions that so threatened the system that they landed Jesus on a Roman cross with other political rebels within the week.

What’s my takeaway from this story?

On our way to creating another world, we are to engage in damage mitigation. While we are working toward a world that a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, we are to work to mitigate damage that our present world is doing by not being just, or safe, or compassionate for everyone. And yet, damage mitigation isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.

And we must do the same.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Damage mitigation, while necessary, doesn’t challenge nor change systems of harm.  What are the differences between charity and justice? Why are both necessary? Why does the church seem to excel at charity, but often fail at justice? What are both the risks and rewards of working for a more just world?

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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We Are Not Just Passing Through

Herb Montgomery | March 20, 2020

earth from space


“Our first concern should not be to leave it all behind, but to bring healing to the world around us. Jesus modeled how we can be conduits of healing to this world, and we are to be about setting that healing in motion. We must be about restoration, not relocation; our goal should not be to depart, but to remain, doing as much good as we can in the time we have been given.”


We at Renewed Heart Ministries are wishing you peace during this critical time.

To read how RHM is responding to COVID-19, click here.

In Matthew’s gospel, we read these words from the sermon on the mount:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

In this verse, Jesus is focusing our attention on earth, not heaven.

Through history, many Christians have emphasized getting to heaven after death as their ultimate goal. The lyrics of the popular hymn This World Is Not My Home read, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up. Somewhere beyond the blue.”

Yet this focus is a late development in the Christian religion and is tellingly absent from the Jewish teachings of the Jesus described in the synoptic gospels.

This absence in Matthew, Mark, and Luke should challenge or even confront the post-mortem, other-world emphasis in Christianity today.

Consider these two other passages from Matthew:

“You are the salt of THE EARTH. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13, emphasis added)

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, emphasis added)

By much of White Evangelical Christianity’s focus one would assume Matthew’s gospel instead read, “Blessed are the meek for they shall make it to heaven.”

This departs from the early Jewish Jesus moment, which focused on healing our world, not escaping it. Jesus and his early followers viewed this world as our home. We were not simply passing through it to someplace better.

With a focus on heaven, we have emphasized the spiritual over the material, and defined the material as less-than or “sinful.” This focus has also done immeasurable damage by inspiring complicity with, participation in, or sponsorship of earthly systemic injustice, economic, racial, gendered, sexual, and more. Many Christians also live unmoved by the deep ecological crisis we are now facing as a human race.

What we find instead in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that Jesus did not focus on getting people out of this place to some far distant heaven. Instead, he focused on bringing justice, liberation, reparation and healing to his fellow earthly inhabitants, in his own Jewish society.

Jesus after all was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and healing our world has a rich Jewish history. Bringing healing and transformation to earthly systems of injustice was the Jewish prophetic soil in which the roots of the gospels grew.

The gospels’ earthly focus traces back to the ancient Hebrew Genesis narrative, as well.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26)

The early Christian community, which also persevered for us the last book of the New Testament, ends the canon not with Earth being forsaken for a heavenly dwelling, but with the earth being repaired, restored, and healed.

“I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’.” (Revelation 21:2-3)

Whatever one makes of the book of Revelation and its many interpretations, its story ends on Earth, not in heaven.

There are some differences of belief in contemporary Christianity on this point. Some believe we go to heaven permanently at death. Some believe instead that heaven is a temporary resting place before Earth is finally restored. Martin Luther and some Anabaptists such as Michael Sattler believed this in the 16th Century. And still some other Christians don’t believe they will ever enter a cosmic heaven, but believe that death is a sort of “sleep” where they wait on a future resurrection here on Earth.

I’m not personally concerned with these minute differences. I’m concerned about what fruit the beliefs we do hold produce in our lives. Is our focus getting a cosmic heaven while we ignore systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways here on earth? Does a person’s beliefs enable and empower them to engage justice work here in our world, now presently?

I don’t believe that as a follower of Jesus, we should be living as if “this world is not our home.” Let’s no longer say, “We are just passing through.”

I remember an advertisement for an interfaith chapel in Atlanta’s international airport years ago. The advertisement had clip art of a kneeling person, and under the image it said, “Because we’re all just passing through.” It was a fitting slogan for an airport where people are literally “passing through” every day.

But the more I pondered it, I don’t believe Jesus taught that. This world IS our home and we have a lot of work to do yet. “ON EARTH as it is in heaven” is a prayer not yet answered, and we are the ones that must answer it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting on, as Alice Walker stated, and Jesus showed us how.

We have to first let go of our fixed idea that this world is evil and something we must escape. No. This world has evil in it, but it has beauty, too. It has injustice, but also compassion, justice, charity, and love. As Jesus-followers, we are called to foster justice and compassion and care where they are thriving. We are called to sow the seeds of life-giving change. We are called to display what our world could look like if it was shaped according the ethics of resource-sharing, mutual aid, distributive justice, the connectedness of people, and the interconnectedness of the communities we belong to.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus commissioned his followers “to proclaim the kingdom of God and TO HEAL THE SICK” (Luke 9:2, emphasis added).

There is sickness in our world—physical, economic, political, social, and ecological. Our first concern should not be to leave it all behind, but to bring healing to the world around us. Jesus modeled how we can be conduits of healing to this world, and we are to be about setting that healing in motion. We must be about restoration, not relocation; our goal should not be to depart, but to remain, doing as much good as we can in the time we have been given.

This world IS our home. We are NOT just passing through; we are here to stay. Even if your beliefs state that at some point in the future you will find yourself elsewhere, it will be at that location that you can sing that you are “just passing through.” The story of the New Testament ends here, on Earth, and for the sake of those that will come after us, we must take up the work on healing our world here today.

This may take some deep transition in our beliefs. It also must create an even deeper transition in our actions.

We must become more concerned with present systemic injustice.

We must become more concerned with ecological destruction as a result of prioritized capital gain.

We must begin to place people and planet over power, profit, and privilege.

If we are to have a brighter tomorrow, we must lay the foundation for it today.

To follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is to deeply, humbly engage our communities and our society. What we’ll find when we do is that this kind of work is already being done by many who have been doing it quite a while. We’ll find that they have wisdom that they will offer, if we are humble enough to listen and learn. And there is plenty to do. We can come alongside them, put our hand to the plow, and invest our energy into the work as well.

I’m reminded of the words referenced by Rami M. Shapiro in Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” (p. 41)

We are in this together.

Together we can create beautiful communities of love and justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And we can.

I’ll close with these words the Jewish Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues on Sabbaths throughout the year:

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

HeartGroup Application

It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

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

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

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

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

“The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44) 

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

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

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

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

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

John’s Inquiry about the One to Come

(Healing versus Destruction)

woman helping homeless man on park benchby Herb Montgomery

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ And in reply he said to them: ‘Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.’” (Q 7:18-23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11.2-6: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Luke 7.18-23: “John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Isaiah 35.5-6: Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

As we discussed briefly last week, the story of the centurion, Jesus as a healer, and the liberation sayings of Jesus in the gospel narratives all led up to embracing Jesus as the “one to come.”

The blind regain their sight.

The lame walk around.

The skin-diseased are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor receive good news. 

Jesus is the proof of these liberatory hopes and expectations. Yet there are two kinds of liberation here. One is physical, and the other is economic. Understanding this is one of the hooks that prevents me from simply throwing out the Jesus story. Yes, the Jesus story includes supernatural healing stories. Yet its primary focus is not Jesus the miracle worker, nor Jesus the magician, but rather the Jesus the liberator of the suffering, the poor, the oppressed, the disinherited, and the marginalized. Liberation is the genus of his ministry, and physical healing and economic healing are two distinct species.

It’s worth noting that the original Jesus followers were not postmodern, modern, or post Enlightenment people as we are. They were a product of their own times, and the Jewish world view they subscribed to most was a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. (I have written on the tenets of Jewish apocalypticism; please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator.) As we’ve shared before, the apocalyptic worldview, influenced by Zoroastrianism, saw this world as the visible expression of a much larger, behind-the-scenes, cosmic conflict between forces of good and evil: earthly political and physical forces were only the extension of that cosmic conflict. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome would all have been viewed by Jewish apocalypticists as simply the puppet-empires of YHWH’s and Israel’s cosmic enemies.

They applied this belief in cosmic war to physical illness and disabilities as well. They had no understanding of germ theory or physiology, or even the insight modern people have into anatomy. If someone was sick, for example, it was the work of unseen cosmic forces from which the person’s need was liberation. Healing, was not supernatural, but rather liberating, about an assumed relationship between a seen effect and its unseen cause.

For Jesus to be a liberator in the way that his original audience would have understood it, Jesus’ liberation had to include economic and political liberation. The fact that it also included physical healing classified Jesus as a complete liberator in an apocalyptic dualist sense as well. This would have been deeply significant in their 1st Century setting.

A Noteworthy Transition

There is a noteworthy difference between the traditional apocalyptic liberator and the Jesus of the Jesus story, however.

Sayings Gospel Q begins with John announcing a coming judgment.

“He said to the crowds coming to be‚ baptized: ‘Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage? So bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to tell yourselves: We have as forefather Abraham! For I tell you: God can produce children for Abraham right out of these rocks! And the ax already lies at the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing healthy fruit is to be chopped down and thrown on the fire. I baptize you in water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. He will baptize you in Spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.’” (Q 3:7-9; 16b-17)

Just as the apocalyptic world view viewed visible agents on earth as conduits of cosmic good or evil forces, John’s statement also looked forward to a dualistic judgment where the earthly oppressed conduits of cosmic good would be vindicated and liberated while their earthly oppressors, viewed as conduits of cosmic evil, would be judged, punished and destroyed. He foresaw liberation for the oppressed but vengeance on oppressors.

Sayings Gosepl Q shows a transition from John’s more punitive liberating judgment to Jesus’s restorative liberation: for Jesus, the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors would be restored. (See last week’s eSight to recall how this story relates to the story of the centurion.)

The liberation represented in the sayings of Jesus was not simply justice for the disinherited and vengeance on their enemies, but also a liberation marked by the healing or restoration of both sides, the subjugated as well as the subjugators. Jesus’s liberation called people away from the dehumanizing way of domination, where we endlessly create more and more effective ways of achieving power and control over others. He instead cast before our imaginations a world of mutual aid and resource sharing, where we together work to survive and then thrive as members of an interconnected human family.

When one couples this description of what the liberation of Jesus looked like—healing, restoration, liberation, and good news to the poor—with last week’s section of the gospel narrative, the point becomes stark. Jesus emerges not as a liberator wielding mass destruction on enemies, but as a liberator who works through restoration, healing, and even the nonviolent transformation of one’s enemies. It’s a humanizing liberation for all.

Granted, those who benefit from the way of domination (i.e. the dominators or those who participate in some way) don’t see this as good news today and didn’t in Jesus’s time either. As Peter Gomes stated in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Jesus’s statement that “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” “is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions [but] is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (p. 42). What is good news to the people at the bottom of the social pyramid will never be perceived as good news to those at the top.

Jesus’s liberation was also problematic to those among the people who thought violent revolution was their only hope. A nonviolent revolution did not seem very promising in the 1st Century; remember, this was before Gandhi and others demonstrated nonviolence. Though it may seem otherwise, liberation rooted in enemy love and transformation rather than the mass destruction of one’s enemies is good news.

Matthew and Luke both use the narrative of John’s disciples to connect Jesus’ liberation of the poor and oppressed with the liberation Isaiah looked forward to. Matthew includes this theme in his expansion of Mark, and Luke expands this theme even more so in his own gospel. An example of Luke’s greater emphasis on liberation is the story only found in Luke from Luke 4:16-20 where Jesus (who by all cultural expectation should have been illiterate) actually reads from Isaiah itself (cf. Isaiah 61.1-2).

For Q, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the long awaited arrival of the liberation that Israel had been looking forward to since the days of Isaiah. Isaiah 35.5-6 states, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” But the nature or character of Isaiah’s liberation brought its own set of challenges, some of which we have mentioned this week. One element of the liberation found in Isaiah, which would have been and still is very puzzling for many, was the image of the suffering servant.

It’s important to realize that the Jesus of the gospels is not inventing nonviolence. He is simply taking the nonviolence in Isaiah seriously. He is leaning into it, exploring where it could lead if skillfully and intentionally applied to his own day and the dynamics between Rome and the Jewish poor.

Healing Versus Destruction

Today, we must be careful in both religious and secular settings not to describe the liberation we’re working toward as a vision of destroying people who oppose our work. Our goal is not to destroy our enemies but to transform them by winning them. John the Baptist’s “one to come” was a destroyer, separating humanity and bringing fire upon the chaff. But Jesus doesn’t quite line up with that description, and it causes John to question whether the people should be “looking for another.”Jesus teaches John that his liberation was quite different: it was to be a different “recompense.” Jesus’s liberating ministry is characterized by the healing, restoration and a radical change in the lives of those the status quo impoverished, for sure, but it was also to be a radical change in humanizing even the oppressors.

Rome had already made life a desert for the majority of Jewish citizens through violent oppression. Jesus did not come as another destroyer promising peace, but as a teacher showing the path toward liberation, life, and healing. He pointed the way to a world where, as Isaiah and Micah had hoped, there was enough for everyone.

“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the YWHW from Jerusalem. He will govern between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2.3-4)

“Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4.2-4, emphasis added.)

This is a world that can be characterized as a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all where all injustice, oppression and violence has been put right.

The question we’re returning to in this series is whether that vision cast by the Jewish Jesus in the 1st Century has any relevance to our world of corporatism, militarism, bigotry, and fear. Many in Jesus’s Galilean audience desperately longed for a change from Roman imperialist tyranny. And Jesus offered a path rooted in our interconnectedness with each other; a subversive way that called us to take up the work of making our world a safer home for us all.

To each of you on this path of healing and restoration as opposed to the path of destruction: may this week’s section of Q encourage and confirm you in the energy you invest in those around you:

“ . . . the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor . . . ” (Sayings Gospel Q 7:18-23)

Whatever portion of the work you are investing your time in, be of courage. Together we are making a difference in bringing liberation to the lives of those who are suffering.

HeartGroup Application

This week, go back and review John’s description of what he thought Jesus would be and the gospel writers’ description of what Jesus actually was.

  1. Try listing at least five contrasts between the two.
  2. Do you see these contrasting visions in contemporary religious groups of people who value the Jesus story? Which some communities do you see continuing John the Baptist’s work, warning of a coming destruction, living an ascetic life, and crying out repent? Which communities do you sense are focused on healing and liberation from suffering today? Which communities, like the one I grew up, are a hybrid of both?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how you can lean into being a community centered in healing and restoration, and pick at least one action step from your discussion to begin implementing.

We are in this together, and there’s still so much work to do. Thank you for being on this journey of transformation and restoration, too. Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

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

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

 Jesus—Liberator of the Oppressed, Physician of the Sick

IMG_0283BY HERB MONTGOMERY

As Jesus was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:14-17

I want to begin this week by thanking you for your patience over the last couple weeks. We’ve been moving our oldest daughter into college. She is our first-born child, and we’ve felt a mixture of bittersweet emotions: business, grief, excitement, joy and sorrow. I was not prepared for what I’ve been feeling about her leaving home. Please pray for me and for us as family.

We started by reading from Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. Let’s take a look at Jesus and the dinner he attended at Levi’s house.

In Mark’s gospel, salvation is defined as Jesus’ liberation from all that oppresses. Mark’s Jesus is not preoccupied with getting people through life in moral condition so their post-mortem, disembodied soul is eligible for the pearly gates. Mark’s Jesus is busy liberating those he encounters from whatever oppresses them today, right now.

Mark’s gospel also draws from the apocalyptic, dualistic world view that connects everything here on earth with a fight between good cosmic forces and evil cosmic forces. In other words, if someone is being oppressed, their oppressors are the puppets of cosmic evil. Jesus envisioned himself as a conduit of cosmic good, here to liberate those oppressed on earth. This is why Mark jumps into supernatural acts of liberation this early in the Jesus story.

Mark shows us that Jesus possessed a preferential option for the poor. Jesus wasn’t working for the equal opportunity of all to compete in a system of winners and losers. He aimed instead at a radical restructuring of human communities where there are no more winners and losers. Jesus pointed us toward communities of mutual aid, where we each strove to take care of one another rather than competing against each other. In Mark 10, Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” He envisioned community not rooted in win/lose survival, but win/win cooperation.

In the second chapter of Mark, we see the wealthy tax collectors and “sinners” responding to Jesus’ call to wealth redistribution and the wealthy Pharisees not responding well. We begin here to see in Mark’s gospel a Jesus who prioritizes liberating the oppressed over religiously defined purity and fidelity to religious ritual.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes his mission clear:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those with prison-blindness,
to let the oppressed go free.”
Jesus, Luke 4:18

The Pharisees in Mark are upset that Jesus is eating with “tax-collectors and sinners.”  Jewish tax-collectors were viewed as unfaithful to the national interests of their own people and collaborators with the oppressive political and economic power of Rome. A sinner in the gospels was someone perceived to be living contrary to the Pharisees’ and teachers’ interpretation of the Torah.

Notice that those who were thought to be guilty of nationally infidelity and/or religiously disobedient were responding to Jesus’ economic teachings, yet the Pharisees, who valued national faithfulness and strict obedience to the Torah’s ritual and purity laws, were not.

Mark offers another clue to understanding what’s happening in Mark 2. In the next two stories in his gospel, Mark focuses on the Pharisees and the rituals of fasting and the Sabbath. Asked about the Sabbath, Jesus responds, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food” (Mark 2:25). The Torah declared it was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat the bread of the Presence. But when it came to feeding the hungry and strict adhering to the ritual laws, Jesus chose to labor for the oppressed and to prioritize feeding the hungry over the Torah rule. The people were a weightier matter than the law.

Jesus’ teaching matches something that Judaism refers to as pikuach nefesh, the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other religious considerations. The Pharisees in our story this week subscribed to a different way of interpreting the Torah; their principle was that ritual and purity laws may not be violated, even when a life is in danger. (You can see this principle at work in Mark 3 as well. Some members of every religion still argue for this approach to religious obedience today.)

Mark’s Jesus prioritizes the lives of those who are being economically oppressed.

Following Jesus is not about greater patriotism to nationalistic interests, nor is it primarily about religious observances. Following Jesus means defining salvation not as getting to heaven but as liberating humanity today from all things that oppress and using the principles Jesus taught himself.

Those who participate in this liberation work are, by definition, following Jesus in his work. Those who don’t may be very religious, yet are not following him in the way he walked while here on earth.

Our story ends with Jesus responding, “Those that are well don’t need a physician. I came to call not the righteous, but the sinners.”

I believe Jesus was using the religious leaders’ own paradigm here. They felt they were “righteous,” and called those Jesus embraced “sinners.” Yet Jesus took on the role of a liberating physician, and those labeled “sinners” and “sick” were responding to him. They were the ones seeing the sickness of the system they’d participated in. They were the ones choosing to move in a different direction. Jesus hadn’t come to affirm or reward those who were “righteous.” He had come to heal the sick, to liberate the oppressed.

Jesus suggests to the religious leaders that even if they were more politically “righteous” than the tax collectors and more ritually “righteous” than those they referred to as “sinners,” they were just as much economic “sinners” as the wealthy tax-collectors, and just as much in need of liberation as the people they condemned. As long as they refused to consider this reality, they could have no part in and no understanding of Jesus’ work for the poor and oppressed.

This week, don’t ask yourself how successful you are in the merely religious aspects of your life. Ask yourself what you and those around you need to be liberated from so you can be fully human. Ask what you are doing in your own sphere to live out Jesus’ liberation.

Just recently, someone responded to one of my critiques of social political and economic abuses.  “What are you, Herb,” they asked me. “A minister or a politician?” My response is that I’m neither. I am simply a human being endeavoring to obediently follow Jesus. And it is that obedience that dictates that I must concern myself with more than the afterlife. I must also concern myself with whatever people need liberation from today in order to be what the great Heart at the center of the universe brought them into existence to be.

To the degree that we’re living out Jesus’ ministry of liberation from all things that oppress, to that same degree we’re working alongside Jesus. Unless we live out the wisdom of the Jesus story, we may still possess some assurance that helps us sleep at night, but we’re not following Jesus’ way.

If our Jesus today is not first and foremost a liberator of the oppressed as he declared in Luke 4:18, then we must at least ask whether our Jesus is the same one the gospels describe.

HeartGroup Application

The Jesus story calls us to fundamentally rethink theology from the standpoint of the poor and oppressed, to envision a God who is on the side of the poor and the oppressed of our world. The Jesus story calls us away from being preoccupied with getting people through life in good religious or moral condition so that when they die they can be admitted into heaven. Hope of a post-mortem Heaven, dear as it may be, cannot be our cause for excluding or ignoring the basic conditions anyone lives in today. The Jesus story calls us to ask, “What do we need to be fully liberated from in order to be fully human?”—and that liberation is physical, economic, political, religious, and social.

What do we and those around us need to be fully liberated from?

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and take inventory: what in your everyday lives do each of you need to be liberated from? List the issues, experiences, or needs.
  1. Brainstorm ways the group can come together along side of those needs, and live out the liberation values of the Jesus story. Write them down.
  1. Pick three things you have written down in number 2, and coordinate the carrying out of the actions previously discussed.

Charity addresses our immediate needs, but justice gets at the root of what is causing the oppression. Again, the Jesus story defines salvation as liberation from all things that oppress. Within the teachings of Jesus are the seeds of how we can embody Jesus’ work of healing in this world (see John 3:17). His teachings are where a Jesus follower begins to discover how we live out this gospel in our community and incarnate the values of this story which we hold dear.

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

Here’s to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate home for us all. I wish each of you much love, peace and liberation this week.

I love each one of you and I’ll see you next week.