The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed 

Lone standing tree at sunset

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard, which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:31-32: “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’”

Luke 13:18-19: “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’”

Gospel of Thomas 20: “The disciples said to Jesus: ‘Tell us whom the kingdom of heaven is like!’ He said to them: ‘It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on cultivated soil, it produces a large branch and becomes shelter for the birds of the sky.’”

Daniel 4:20-22: “The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds, Your Majesty, you are that tree!”

Mistaken Classification

In the 1st Century, mustard seeds were considered an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, they’d soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out lest they take over, crowding out crops that are intentionally planted there.

Yet mustard seeds don’t actually grow into trees. The image of a weed growing into a tree that benefits those around it means that we’ve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Mustard plants don’t grow into trees. If what we have labeled as “mustard” grows into a tree, it’s not mustard weed. We’ve made a mistake. It’s something entirely different from mustard.

This week’s saying likens Jesus new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource redistribution to a tree that is originally seen as a weed. In other words, the way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way people viewed Jesus’s teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. Their existence was to be rooted out. They were as welcome as the weed.

But then Jesus’s saying takes a hard right turn. What the people think is a noxious mustard weed doesn’t produce the same results as mustard. It doesn’t take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity! It’s originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses for his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Our saying takes this imagery as a message: “You’re working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if I’m a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful, but life and peace and good for all.”

This week’s saying isn’t saying all weeds should be welcomed in the garden, that we shouldn’t weed, or that all weeds are good now. It’s asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if we’ve made a mistake? What if you’ve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

Jesus’s society was beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so his saying called them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to peace and liberation rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What the people viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Today

I get letters from time to time asking me to explain how on earth I can be a Jesus follower and affirm the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as “lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bible’s teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with “adulterers,” “fornicators,” “alcoholics,” “drug abusers,” and “child-molesters.” And they want me to explain to them how I could affirm LGBTQ people in their allegedly “sinful behaviors.”

One of my lesbian friends is a more devoted Christian than I am. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other.  She is a teetotaler: no tea or coffee, much less drugs and alcohol. To even place my friends in the same category with abusers is offensive.

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this week’s saying and the misclassification of Jesus’s kingless kingdom in the 1st Century, I can’t help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

Let me be clear. This week’s saying is not calling its audience to embrace weeds but to question their classification of a tree as a weed. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful. Rather it should help us recognize that the LGBTQ community does not deserve to be on that “harmful” list in the first place.

There are two lists in the New Testament that my letter writers often mention:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (emphasis added.)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (emphasis added.)

The question I want us to consider is whether the modern phrase “men who practice homosexuality” is the most accurate translation of the ancient Greek word arsenokoitai. It isn’t. In English, the category “homosexuality” wasn’t even used till 1886. And the word wasn’t inserted into any English translations of the Bible for another 60 years after that (1946). There were several English language Bibles before 1946. Yet none of them used the word “homosexuality” or euphemisms for it. The Greek used when the New Testament was written included multiple terms for same-sex sexual activities, and those terms never appear in the New Testament. Instead we find the extremely rare and quite specific term arsenokoitai.

Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network writes:

“The most likely explanation is that Paul is referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day — married men who had sex with male youths on the side. The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today. Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practiced. This would make a perfect target for Paul’s vice lists, and it would explain why, in both lists, he mentions the sin of the arsenokoitai separately after he mentions adultery — because technically, by Greek thought, having a boy on the side wasn’t adultery.” (https://www.gaychristian.net/justins_view.php)

What many scholars today agree on is that these two passages are referring to the then-common practice of pederasty, not to what we now know as homosexuality. Using the term homosexuality is not accurate.

Consider how the passages would read if we were more careful with our translations:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (emphasis added)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

For more on the other passages in the Christian scriptures typically used in this debate, read Justin’s View from GCN.

Our saying this week isn’t a call to let one’s garden be overrun by weeds, and, yes, the vices in Paul’s lists are weeds. This week’s saying challenges the misclassification of Jesus’s movement as a weed that must rooted out. We could learn a lot about what it’s like to be misclassified by listening to LGBTQ people and others whom the Christian community has misclassified and tried to root out.

We have misclassified as a weed something that produces good fruit and doesn’t look like a weed at all. In fact, it’s our misclassifying the LGBTQ community on this list that’s producing noxious weed-like results. It’s at the root of the disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but quite literally death.

Here are just a few of the lessons I have learned as I’ve listened to the LGBTQ community:

  • An apology that simply calls straight Christians to a more loving and respectful form of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms of reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even “respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not “creating safe space.”

This last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Paul’s writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a person’s skin color than their actions. It’s not something to be changed; it’s who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is an attempt to weed out a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, it’s a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like you as they share the harm that has been done to them through misclassification offers you the opportunity to make a choice between compassion or fear. I remember a statement that Justin Lee once made during a presentation. He likened straight, cisgender people’s emotional response to LGBTQ folks to the emotional response one might make to the statement, “Aliens have landed.” It all depends on whether you grew up watching the movie E.T. or War of the Worlds. Differences can be scary, but they don’t have to be. Remember, although we have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Those who are different from you are also someone’s child. They are someone’s sibling. They are someone’s best friend. Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

Have you ever been misjudged or misclassified?  The mustard seed that was considered a noxious weed actually grew into a tree, providing “shelter” and “nesting places in its branches for the birds.”

Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary says it best:

“Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard [considered to be a noxious weed], which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

HeartGroup Application

This week I need your help. We are updating our HeartGroups page on the Renewed Heart Ministries website and we want to be able to share testimonials from those of you who’ve experienced what HeartGroups have to offer.

Please share how HeartGroups have been a benefit to you, either as a group or individually, by going to the Contact Us page and typing in your testimony.

I want to again thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. People like you enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

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All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The One not with Me 

by Herb Montgomery
Fast moving train

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:

Context.
Context.
Context.

Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.

Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?

I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963.  The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey.  King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.

In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.

While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”

Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.)  He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul.  His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened.  This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.

Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral.  I don’t want to take sides.”  And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable.  But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side.  It’s taking the side of oppression.  Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19)  Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice.  Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.

Matthew, Luke and Q

In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil.  As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America

I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity.  Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in.  An example is in the white Bible belt of the South.  White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement.  Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration.  The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children.  The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry.  So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.

Whether it be:

  • White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
  • Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
  • White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
  • Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
  • Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.

This history has been repeated over and over again.

Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest.  I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him.  I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.  This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out.  They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply.  They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC.  Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.

Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years.  What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many.  They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves.  They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered.  This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”

Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.

It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition.  It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.

It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to:

1.  As a group, together sit down and read aloud both the public statement by eight Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity side by side with King’s response Letter From Birmingham Jail

2.  What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.

3.  What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.

I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.”  It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review.  But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift.  I’m so excited for you.

Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [read cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:27-28)

This week we are looking at how some sectors of Christianity focus on the end of the world, to the exclusion of redeeming the present.

Historically, Christians have taken an interest in alleviating human suffering, and have been involved in human rights movements from abolition and temperance to disaster relief and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. Yet some sectors of Christianity are much more concerned with saving people from some end-time-calamity in their future life, than they are with people’s present life, and even those sectors that do alleviate present suffering typically focus on individual change rather than structural change.

The traditional Christian effort in regards to poverty is just one example. The effort usually takes the form of charity such as giving people food for today, yet not addressing the systemic causes that created their hunger to begin with. I’m not saying that charity is wrong. It’s vital. It simply is not enough. More recently, some Christians have begun offering financial education and seminars aimed at enabling and empowering the poor to succeed within the present economic system. But these seminars don’t ever look at the financial system itself and ask whether this system is, in fact, just.

Both the service and education approaches inadvertently place the blame for poverty on the victims themselves, i.e. “It’s your fault you’re poor.” Sometimes a person’s individual choices do cause them to suffer. And sometimes there is a much bigger picture that limits the choices that person can make. Either way, it is victim-blaming to focus on delivering folks from personal sin and leave untouched the sinful social structures that cause their suffering and oppress them. Sin moves both individually and socially, and grace also moves both individually and socially.

Far too many sectors of Christianity don’t even go this far, and focus solely on saving people from affliction at the end of time, without regard to what afflicts them in this right now, today. That is directly opposed to the approach of the gospels’ Jesus.

  • We never see Jesus walking around trying to get people to say a sinner’s prayer so as to either go to heaven when they die or be raptured from global catastrophe in the end of time. (This is not to be confused with Jesus’ call to nonviolence endeavoring to offer Jerusalem a different fate than being destroyed by Rome.)
  • We do see Jesus liberating those he came in contact with from those concrete things that oppressed them in present time.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to allow for laziness in matter of social justice, now.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to preserves the present position of those benefiting at the expense of others from the current status quo.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to leave those presently poor, mourning, and hungry un-blessed by the gospel of Jesus. ( See Luke 6.20-26)

To see Jesus as Present Liberator, not merely End-of-the-World Savior, let’s look at Mark’s stories of the demoniacs. First, a few words about the apocalyptic worldview of the early Gospel authors.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Writers of the early gospel stories subscribed to an apocalyptic worldview, which means that they saw this world as the battleground for the cosmic forces of good and evil.

The apocalyptic world view possessed four tenets: dualism, pessimism, judgment and imminence.[1]

Dualism

Within the Apocalyptic world view the world is dualistic, meaning it has two parts: this world that we see and the cosmic world that we do not see. The cosmic world is composed of good cosmic powers and evil cosmic powers, each power works through earthly participants, and the cosmic forces of evil are the enemies of a good God. For first century apocalyptic Jews, these evil cosmic powers were sin, death, demons, and Beelzebub (or the satan). According to this view, the historical earthly participants with these cosmic powers were Babylon, the Persians, Greece, and Rome: all of these historical earthly powers were oppressors of the weak

Within this worldview, the cosmic evil forces are presently in control of the earth (see 1 John 5:19) Accordingly, those who choose the side of good will suffer and those who choose the side of evil will prosper.

Pessimism

Those who subscribed to this worldview believed in the eventual overthrow of these evil forces, yet also believed there was nothing we can do in the meantime. There were variations on this belief, though. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed they could hasten the eventual overthrow of evil through obedience to the purity laws of the Torah. Their pessimism produced the view that there are two ages: the present age where the forces of evil are in control, and the age to come when these powers would be defeated, Earth would be liberated, and those on the side of good would be vindicated. For now, according to this belief, all we should expect is that the world would get worse and worse until the very end when the suffering of the good would be traded for vindication.

Judgment and Vindication 

The apocalyptic worldview also included the belief that the age to come will arrive with a cataclysmic breakthrough that would usher in utopia. That breakthrough was understood to be the inauguration of God’s Kingdom as spoken of by the prophets here on Earth. It would be accompanied by the bodily resurrection of those who had died previously, and then everyone, those living and those resurrected, would face either a punishment or a reward. (See Daniel 12.2)

Imminence of the End

Those who held to an apocalyptic worldview believed that the age to come, and all of the events associated with it, was just around the corner.

Positives and Negatives

This worldview had positives and negatives. The positives were that it took evil seriously. There are evils that are bigger than any of us individually. And it provided hope that there was a cosmic force for good that would eventually put things in this earth to right. The negative was that it tended to produce a moral complacency in the face of injustice, violence, and oppression here and now. In other words, there really is nothing we can do to change human suffering around us until the age to come, so the best we can do is try and survive.

The Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Today, our culture mostly subscribes to a naturalistic world view, which means that many people see this world as the result of observable, measurable forces that have repeatable impacts on the things and people in the world. This view is not dualistic, but assumes that everything that happens on this planet can be explained by natural causes and effects.

The early canonical gospel authors were not naturalists. They drew from the worldview of their time, the apocalyptic worldview. This is important to understand because it explains much of what we read in the gospel stories they wrote. They believed that in Jesus’ life and teachings, which climaxed in his execution and resurrection, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened!  I do not believe that someone has to hold the apocalyptic world view to find benefit in the Jesus story, today.  Someone can hold a naturalistic world view and still gain much from the ethical teachings of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that will help create a safer more compassionate world for us all.

Most Christians today subscribe purely to neither an apocalyptic nor a naturalist world view, but a hybrid of both which is influenced by the narratives of their religious tradition. On a spectrum of apocalypticism at one end and naturalism at the other, the more fundamentalist a Christian is, the more they will hover near the apocalyptic end of the spectrum; the more progressive a Christian is, the more they will hover near the naturalist end. Both will likely draw at least some elements from the other worldview as well. I’ll be contrasting the naturalistic world view with the apocalyptic world view in next week’s eSight.

What I would like to contrast this week is the apocalypticism of the early church with the apocalypticism of many fundamentalist Christians today.  There is a stark difference between the two.

The Christian apocalyptic world view of today typically holds to some level of dualism (cosmic forces of good and evil working through earthly powers and systems.) It, too, looks toward a future judgment/vindication that is referred to by many who hold this world view as “the end of the world.”  The view also holds that this “end” is imminent.  It is just around the corner.  We do not have much time left.  Lastly, this view also tends toward a pessimistic passivity.  Things are just going to get worse and worse.  There’s nothing we can do until the end, and Jesus comes the second time to set things right.  Things will not any get better till the end of the world arrives.

This contemporary form of the apocalyptic world view, though, is a subtle denial of Jesus.

The authors of the Jesus story did subscribe to an apocalyptic world view as well.  Yet there was a difference.  The difference between their apocalypticism and contemporary apocalypticism is that they believed that in Jesus, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened! They were no longer focused on some future event.  The authors of the Jesus story in the New Testament were looking at the present through the lens of the life, teachings, execution, and resurrection of their Jesus.

Christians who hold a contemporary apocalyptic world view today are still looking toward the future event for world change.  Many of those are remaining passive until those events take place.  The writers of the Jesus story believed that in Jesus, the future apocalyptic event, in the form a mustard seed, had arrived and they were actively working to participate in Jesus’ liberation from suffering here and now!  

They were no longer waiting on the future, the Kingdom had come!

They were no longer entrenched in passive pessimism, but active participation in Jesus’ work of liberation now! (see the book of Acts)

Holding to an apocalyptic world view, the gospel writers believed Jesus was their long awaited Messiah who had ushered in the Age to Come. (It had come in the form of leaven placed in dough.)  Jesus was their liberator from all things that oppressed them, both cosmic evils and those force’s earthly collaborators, specifically Rome.  These writers saw Jesus as their Liberator from all things that oppressed them then!

Mark’s stories of Jesus performing demoniac liberation are classic example of earthly acts of liberation from cosmic forces of evil. For those modern readers who subscribe to a more naturalistic world view, the demon stories of Mark (found in Mark 1:32, 34, 39; 3:15, 22; 5:18; 6:13; 7:26, 29-30; 9:38) are intellectually and philosophically troubling to say the least. But when we read them as part of an apocalyptic world view and their view of Jesus as arrival of the fulfillment of that worldview, we see the importance of the demoniac stories to the early Jesus followers.  (As well as the stories of raising people from the dead, forgiving peoples sins, and healing those who were sick).  Jesus, to them, was not a post mortem savior, nor a someone who told them to keep looking toward the future.  Jesus was to them a present liberator from all things that concretely oppressed them now!

These followers saw Jesus as the Earth’s liberator from the cosmic forces of evil. As such, it was important that Jesus demonstrated power over theses cosmic demonic forces.

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [i.e. cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:27-28)

Apocalyptic Liberation (the Kingdom) Has Come!

Whether someone subscribes to a more naturalistic worldview or a more apocalyptic world view, the Jesus story can still be relevant. Regardless of how one explains human suffering, whether it be through natural causes or cosmic evil forces, Jesus is the liberator from things that cause oppression, violence, and injustice now!

The gospel is not as much about an afterlife, as it is about freeing people from anything that oppresses them here and now. To follow Jesus means to participate in Jesus’ work of liberating people from things that concretely oppress them in this world.

Whether it be sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, consumerism, authoritarianism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, binarism, or whatever, the focal point of the Jesus of the Jesus stories is liberation from all things that concretely oppress people. He started his public ministry with this litany:

“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 the blind [prison blindness],
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [liberation from oppressors].” (Luke 4.18)

This is the liberation that Jesus referred to in his announcement of the coming near of the kingdom of God. The very material term “kingdom” is rooted in Jesus’ Judaism. Unlike the kyriarchical kingdoms of that age, however, Jesus’ kingdom would be based on sibling relationships and friendships. We see this demonstrated as Jesus, whom the disciples called “Lord,” stooped to wash the feet of those same disciples. A more contemporary term for Jesus’ new social order might be “kinship” rather than an imperial “kingdom” (see Matthew 23:8)

In short, the gospel is the good news of liberation now, not an announcement of good to come one day. The gospel is not a end-of-time fire insurance policy over which Christians must now argue over the amount of the premium to be paid. The gospel is the good news that the seeds of liberation from things that concretely oppress now are to be found in the teachings of this nonviolent, Jewish revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

As we gather together around Jesus’ shared table, the teachings of Jesus call us to live out the values of his gospel in our community, first within our HeartGroups and then within the larger communities outside of our HeartGroups.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to list what those within your group needed to be liberated from and to practice ways you could come along side each group member in living out the values of the Jesus story.

1. This week, take inventory of how you are doing.

2. Acknowledge areas where you need to make some adjustments. List areas you could be doing more in, things that didn’t work, and things that you choose to do but did not yet follow through with.

3. Adjust you what you have been doing to better meet the needs of those in your HeartGroup. Don’t be afraid of adjusting again whenever you feel that what you used to do is no longer working.

Again, the teachings of Jesus contain the seeds of liberation, now, not later.

Like mustard seeds, they will grow if we choose to water them.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep coming to the shared table. Keep endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus. Keep living in love—until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Many voices, one new world.

I love each you dearly.

I’ll see you next week when we take of look at the strengths and weaknesses of the naturalistic world view for a Jesus follower.

 


1.  These four tenets are adapted from Bart Ehrman’s The Underlying Tenets of Apocalypticism in his book God’s Problem, pages 214-219 (Kindle Edition)