Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil 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 will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

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,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

Response to a Town’s Rejection

by Herb Montgomery

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

Picture of dirty sandaled feetCompanion Texts:

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

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

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

What is a better way to understand this ancient practice?

Shaking Dust from One’s Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sodom’s Story: Not Finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ezekiel had previously said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for joining us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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

For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

Luke 7:29-30: “(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)”

Matthew 21:32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

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

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

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.

Impartial Love 

by Herb Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Pride; Jewish Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prozbul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

See you next week.

The Golden Rule 

by Herb Montgomery

Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus

Left to right: Confucius, Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

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

Renouncing One’s Rights

by Herb Montgomery

Picture of Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, and Dorothy Day

Left to right: Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., Dorothy Day

“The one who slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other as well; and to the person wanting to take you to court and get your shirt, turn over to him the coat as well. And the one who conscripts you for one mile, go with him a second. To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours.” (Q 6:29-30)

The International Q Project has titled this section of Sayings Gospel QRenouncing One’s Rights.” While I agree that rights are central to this passage, I want to emphasize that this teaching was not instruction to renounce those rights nor to become 1st Century door mats. Rather it was a tactical strategy for them to use in the midst of persecution (we discussed this two eSights ago), respond to their persecutors with love (see last week’s eSight), and actively furthering their work toward a safer, more compassionate world for all. That last item is what this week’s eSight is all about.

Let’s begin, as usual, by looking at our companion texts.

Luke 6.29-30: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

Matthew 5.39-42: “But I say to you, Do not [reciprocate evil toward]* an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

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

There is much to unpack in this week’s passage from Sayings Gospel Q. The list of peace activists from the last two centuries is long. This week’s saying has been influential, both directly and non-directly, in many of the nonviolent movements around the globe toward positive social change. Some of the most well known names in the last century were Gandhi in South Africa and India and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in America. There are lesser known names, as well, such as Dorothy Day and her nonviolent direct action on behalf of the poor in New York City. So let’s dive right in.

As we have shared repeatedly in the past, in this passage, Jesus is teaching a bold and disruptive expression of nonviolence. It’s a nonviolence that seeks to confront one’s opponent and offer an opportunity for transformation. With each of these three examples, the oppressed person is shown potential ways of taking control of the situation, confronting their subjugator, and stripping them of the power to dehumanize. Let me explain.

First, let me say how deeply indebted I am to Walter Wink’s research on the cultural backdrop of the saying of Jesus we are considering this week.  I’ll place a link to his work at the end of this section for further consideration. I consider his volume Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way to continue to be a revolutionary masterpiece.

Matthew’s version of this passage specifies that the cheek being struck is the “right” cheek. As most people are right-handed, the only natural way for a blow to land on the right cheek was if the striker used the back of their hand. This kind of blow in the culture of 1st Century Palestine was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior: one would not strike an equal in this humiliating way because doing so carried an fine of up to 100 times the normal amount. Four zuz was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding one’s peer. To strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap, was perfectly acceptable and no penalty was attached (see Mishnah Bava Kamma 8.6).

Try to picture the scene in your head. Since the left hand was only used for “unclean” tasks in that culture, people would not strike a person’s right cheek with that hand. At Qumran, even gesturing to another person while speaking using one’s left hand carried a penalty of exclusion from the community accompanied by ten days’ penance. (See The Dead Sea Scrolls, I QS 7, “Whoever has drawn out his left hand to gesticulate with it shall do penance for ten days.”) Any blows would have either been from a closed right fist with one’s right hand on someone’s left cheek, or a back-handed slap with one’s right hand on someone’s right cheek. A closed fisted blow from a person’s right hand on one’s left cheek acknowledged that the striker believed the one they were striking was their social equal.  Someone claiming superiority over another would not want to strike them in this way. They would want to use an open-handed slap with the back of their hand on the other person’s right cheek as an attempt at humiliating the one they were striking. It was the equivalent of saying, “Get back in your place.” Also, keep in mind that any retaliatory blows from the person being struck by a “superior” would have only caused the violence to escalate.

But Jesus is not admonishing the oppressed in this scene to become a doormat or simply do nothing. Turning their left cheek would not be retaliation but defiance, a sign that the one being struck is refusing to be humiliated. The oppressor would now only have two options presented to them: a right-handed punch acknowledging the one being struck was their equal or a left-handed slap with the unclean hand.  Both options would be unthinkable, and so they would lose their power in the situation.  Something I would like to add to Wink’s research is that this would not be an act of self-denial on the part of the person being struck.  The person being struck’s “self” is already being denied by their oppressor.  This is self-affirmation in the face of an attempt by another to dehumanize them.

The next example in the passage involves a serious social problem in 1st Century Palestine: indebtedness. A little background first. The Torah allowed a creditor to take the himation (or outer garment) or chiton (inner garment) as security for loans from the wealthy to impoverished laborers (see Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17). In this era, poor people had few clothes, and wealthy creditors had to return it daily so the owners could have their cloak to sleep in.

In that culture, debt was not the result of economic incompetence, but of an unjust economic system where the wealthy elite took advantage of rural peasant farmers and poor Jewish craftsmen. In our scenario, a poor laborer has defaulted on their loan and has come under the penalty of losing their next-to-last article of clothing.

Jesus’s saying teaches this laborer to “turn over” not just their next-to-last article of clothing but also their last one as well. This would leave them stark naked in the town square. Wink explains that in that society the shame of nakedness fell not on those whose nakedness was exposed, but on those who looked upon or were the cause of their nakedness.  The honorable response would have been to respectfully help them (see Genesis 9.20-27). In a society where only the wealthy wore something similar to underwear, stripping off the undergarment along with the required outer garment would redirect the shame onto “the entire system by which the debtors are oppressed” as if to say, “Shame on you!” The teaching placed the poor laborer in control of the moment, exposing the system’s exploitation of Jesus’ fellow Jewish craftsmen and rural peasant farmers and shaming the powerful who take the last object of value from a sector of society which should be receiving their help. Here in Sayings Gospel Q, we have a 1st Century endorsement of public nudity as a valid form of radical, nonviolent protest, and the protest is designed by Jesus himself!

In our next example, Jesus teaches the oppressed to refuse to play by the rules of the game dictated by those controlling the society’s domination system.

Roman law allowed soldiers to command people in the occupied territories to carry their burdens for one mile—but only one mile. This limitation provided some protection for the people as one could otherwise find oneself having carried a soldier’s burden for an entire day only to end up now a day’s journey away from one’s home as the sun was going down.

Yet even this limitation was not good enough. We cannot be satisfied with merely accommodating the domination system; we must also refuse to cooperate with it. Remember King’s words from last week: “We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” So, Jesus says, when you reach the end of your first, forced mile and the soldier asks for their burden, don’t give it back! Place the soldier in the position of breaking their own system’s rules and perhaps being disciplined for it.

In each of these examples, the subjugated must make hard choices. They must decide whether they are willing to use possible further personal suffering to change society rather than resort to mere retaliation. Are they willing to accept the consequences for breaking unjust laws or policies? Are they willing to cease cooperating with the present order and its rules? And as we asked last week, do they hope for their oppressors’ transformation, or are they satisfied with the failing practice of tit-for-tat?

If you would like to further understand what may have been involved in this Saying, again, consider reading the late Walter Wink’s book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. In this volume, Wink shows how Jesus’s teaching offered the oppressed ways to:

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert [their] own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycle of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand [their] ground
  • Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize [their] own power
  • Force the oppressor to see [them] in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective (pp. 186-187)

The last section of this week’s saying reminds us, once again, to trust that God will send people to take care of us when we are in need enough to let go of our self-concerned hoarding, and that we will be the people God may send today to someone else who is in need. People taking care of people, remember, is what Jesus referred to as “the reign of God” (Sayings Gospel Q) or “The Kingdom” (canonical gospels).

This call to trust had its own history with Jesus’s Jewish culture.

Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish history, lived somewhere between 110 BCE to 30CE. He was the first within Judaism to teach what today is referred to as the Golden Rule. Karen Armstrong in her excellent work The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions writes this about Hillel:

Perhaps the greatest of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (c. 80 BCE–30 CE), who migrated to Palestine from Babylonia. In his view, the essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit, which he summed up in the Golden Rule. In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that one day a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” (Kindle Locations 7509-7515)

The most famous of the enactments attributed to Hillel is the Prozbul.

The Torah included a rule of protection for the poor against ever-increasing debt. At the end of every seventh (Sabbatical) year, all debts among the Jewish people were to be cancelled. By the 1st Century, even though it was forbidden to withhold a loan before a Sabbatical year (see Deuteronomy 15.9-11), some members of the wealthy elite were unwilling to lend to poor craftsman and rural peasant farmers who needed loans to survive.

In this context, Hillel created a loophole in the Jewish law. A declaration could be made in court before a loan was executed to the effect that the law requiring the release of debts upon the entrance of the Sabbatical year would not apply to the loan to be transacted. This declaration was called the Prozbul, and it benefitted both the rich and the poor in that the poor could more easily obtain the loans they so desperately needed whenever they needed them, and the rich would more freely lend with the assurance that the capital loaned was exempted from the law’s Sabbatical debt relief. (For more, read the Jewish Encyclopedia’s entry: Prozbul.)

Where Jesus’s teaching on the Golden Rule placed him squarely in the teaching stream of Hillel, Jesus parts ways with Hillel on the Prozbul. (I’ll talk about Jesus’s relationship with the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai next week.)

Jesus taught that his followers should recklessly abandon their capital to aid those who need our help. We will study this in detail in upcoming weeks, but for now, know that to Jesus, a world under the reign of God looked like people trusting in God enough to believe that God would send others to take care of them tomorrow, so they could let go of what they were hoarding for future emergencies and take care of those whose emergencies were transpiring today.

Anxiety about the future can lead us down paths of accumulation, hoarding, greed, covetousness, jealousy, competition, and violence. It can cause us to look the other way and ignore those around us today who may be in need. But Jesus is calling us to let go of that anxiety about the future and all that it brings in its train. Let’s imagine, instead, a world where, rather than individualistically accumulating in order to take care of oneself in the future, everyone trusts that if we all begin taking care of one another today, we will have a future where others take care of us. In other words, if you will take care of someone else today, you will set in motion a world where, tomorrow, someone else will take care of you.

In the words of the sayings of Jesus held dear by those first-century Jewish followers:

“To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours” (Q 6:29-30).

HeartGroup Application

There are two parallel narratives we can chose to live by:

Scarcity                     Abundance
Anxiety                      Trust
Accumulation            Sharing
Greed                       Generosity
Monopoly                  Mutual Aid
Violence                    Peace

  1. Ponder the words in the parallel narratives above. Look up the definitions of each word. Consider how each concept leads to the next. We can live in a world where we subscribe to scarcity, believing there is not enough to go around for everyone so we’d better look out for ourselves, or we can live in a world where as Gandhi is thought to have said, there is “enough for every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.”
  2. Discuss with your HeartGroup how the worlds created by these different narratives look. How do they differ? What are their costs? What are their benefits? Which world would you rather be a part of?
  3. Make a choice. This week, make a choice to do something small or large in your life that moves you into the narrative you would rather live in.

Thanks for taking time to journey with us this week as we continue our consideration of Sayings Gospel Q. I’m so glad you are with us.

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.


* In these cases, Jesus’ instructions are NOT commands of passive nonresistance. The phrase “resist not an evildoer” could be problematic if Jesus did not then demonstrate in these stories exactly what He meant. The underlying Greek word here is anthistemi. It indicates resistance by returning violence for violence, overcoming evil with evil, rather than overcoming evil with good.