Being Sent for the Work of Justice


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city land scape

Herb Montgomery | April 9, 2021


“We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor? Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated? Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people? Is the ‘Lord’s favor’ we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled? What does concrete good news look like in our social context today?”


This week’s reading is from John’s version of the Jesus story:

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:19-31)

There is a lot in this passage that would be tempting to focus on this week. Thomas’ doubt. Jesus having a physical body that can be touched and that feels hunger, post-Easter, despite John’s gospel being associated with early gnosticism (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.1).

But what jumps out at me most this year is this phrase:

“‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

This theme of following Jesus’ example repeats with the Johannine community:

“Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

The Jesus of John’s story doesn’t do things instead of us, as our substitute so we don’t have to do them. This Jesus calls his followers to participate in his actions alongside him.

This idea isn’t only in John’s gospel. Consider this passage from Mark:

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38)

As Marcus Borg and John Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“For Mark, it [the story] is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Kindle location 1592)

Over the last few weeks, we have discussed the harmful teaching that suffering is redemptive. I don’t believe that Jesus invites us into his death but does invite us into following the example of his life, even if unjust oppressive systems threaten us with death for doing so. I understand this is a subtle difference in interpretation but it creates a huge difference in how we response to injustice. Suffering some type of pushback for speaking out against injustice may be part of our story, but not because it is intrinsic to following Jesus. I don’t believe we have to die to reach Jesus’ vision for human society. He showed us a path toward distributively just living, and death only enters the picture when those threatened by a distributively just world choose to threaten death or some other penalty if we keep stirring up trouble and disturbing the unjust status quo.

I believe this is a much healthier alternate interpretation to being willing to take up Jesus’ cross and following him. Rather than calling us to be passive in the face of injustice, Jesus calls us to action, even if that action should end up with us being put on a cross. It’s not about choosing to die, but about choosing life, even in the face of death. Jesus didn’t choose the cross. His social opponents choose to answer him with a cross. Jesus chose a life of calling his society to justice, like the Hebrew prophets within his own Jewish tradition, even if they threatened to kill him.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ life and, in the words of our passage this week, to be “sent” as Jesus was “sent”?

I resonate deeply with the characterization we find in Luke’s gospel:

“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 prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

So this declaration invites some questions of us:

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people?

Is the Lord’s favor we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled?

We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. People didn’t get put on Roman crosses for talking about spiritual transformation. Romans killed people who made claims about concrete changes to the status quo, a status quo that benefitted some in society at the expense of the many.

What is does concrete good news look like in our social context today, for those who are materially poor, physically incarcerated, socially and economically oppressed, exploited and marginalized, or so deeply indebted that they feel they will never be free?

Firstly, I think of our current criminal justice system and those in various areas of the U.S. having their charges expunged due to the legalization of cannabis. I think of the calls for universal health care, and how so many families have to file for bankruptcy when they become sick, even if they do have health insurance. I think of the calls to forgive student loans that are so inescapable that they even impact seniors in retirement. Our trans and non-binary siblings also come to mind, especially with Thursday, April 1, being International Transgender Visibility Day. I wonder how good news from Christians to this oppressed and marginalized community could be so very different if we would stop to listen to and believe their experiences including harmful experiences from our hands.

Secondly, there’s a phrase in this week’s passage that is deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. In one translation, the passage states, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” I’m thankful that the translators of the NIV altered their translation to say “Jewish leaders,” a change that lends room for distinguishing between classes in the society where this story took place. The gospel writers are clear that Jewish common people loved Jesus (Mark 14:2). But with each successive version of the Jesus story told—first Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John—antisemitic hatred or fear of the Jewish people grows more and more. It’s barely present in Mark, but by the time we get to John, as in our passage this week, it is full-blown.

We can do better today. “Fear of the Jews” has a long and violent history in the Christian tradition. We can choose to tell the Jesus story in better, more life-giving, different ways, today.

And lastly, I want to draw attention in this passage to the scars of injustice remaining on Jesus’ body. This is not a story that promises all the scars of past injustice will one day disappear. They may not. This story points the way for people to make reparations for past mistakes and make better choices today that move us closer to a more distributively just future, God’s just future.

It’s to the work of creating that just future in our present world that we are sent today.

As he was sent back then, so are we now.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What are some parallels you notice in Luke 4:18-19 with much needed justice work in our society today? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Politics of Jesus

Herb Montgomery | March 26, 2021


The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead . . . certainly we can do the same with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.


Our reading this week is from Luke’s telling of the Jesus story:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The first thing that stands out to me about Luke’s telling of the Jesus story is how it differs from Matthew’s. The message from Heaven comes to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. Joseph is the recipient in Matthew’s version, but in Luke, it’s Mary. Luke has already patterned one pregnancy so far after the pregnancy stories of other matriarchs in Hebrew folklore: for Luke, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, is a contemporary Sarah (Genesis 17-18) or Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2).

But Mary’s conception is quite different. Mary is not past child-bearing age like Elizabeth and the other women of the Jewish stories. Her story is not a miracle after the birthing time of life has passed. Mary is young, independent of men, and quite capable of bearing children. She is at the beginning of her life journey. Her conception will be a miracle of quite a different nature.

This point must not be lost: Whereas miraculous conception does exist in Jewish tradition, Divine conception does not. Divine conception is a Roman cultural tradition, and Luke’s story will repeat the point that the Jesus of this story should be compared and contrasted with Caesar and Roman social values.

Not one conception in Jewish history fits Luke’s description of how Mary conceived Jesus. But in Rome, the story of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to the son of God had a political context.

The most well-known Roman story of divine conception was of Caesar Augustus. In The Lives of Caesars, Suetonius cites Discourses of the Gods by Asclepias:

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent [Apollo] glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (94:4)

Many scholars believe the divine Caesar Augustus’s conception story was patterned after Alexander the Great’s conception legend as well as that of the Roman general Scipio Africans, imperial conqueror of the Carthagians. In these Greco-Roman stories of divine conceptions, male gods impregnating human women to bear great leaders or conquerors were quite common.

So it appears that Luke’s divine conception of Jesus, with the spirit of God coming upon Mary (Luke 1:35), laid the foundation for concluding Jesus was superior to Caesar. That world did not think conception by human-divine interaction was impossible, and so Luke’s telling of the Jesus story had to begin on equal footing with Caesar’s. Consider the story of Jesus’ birth through these political lenses, not modern scientific ones. Luke contrasts the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Both Jesus and Caesar were referred to as the son of God, both were referred to as the savior of the world, and both were also titled as Lord. Luke’s listeners would have to decide which peace was genuine, lasting and life-giving: the Pax Romana from Caesar, his armies, and his threats, or the peace found in following the teachings of Jesus. Roman peace came through military conquering and the imposed terror of threat toward anyone who disrupted Rome’s peace. Jesus’ peace came through a distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough and everyone sat under their own vine or fig tree (Micah 4:4).

We’re now nearing the season of Easter. Let’s not forget that Jesus was crucified by Rome not because he was starting a new religion, but because his political teachings on justice for the oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised threatened to upset the status quo underlying the Pax Romana. His audience was growing and Rome had to silence his voice.

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead. This makes me wonder how our own contemporary society’s political goals would fare if we compared and contrasted the values of the American dream with the values we find in the Jesus story.

How does imprisoning children on the southern border or anywhere else in the country compare with Jesus’ vision of world where no one is illegal?

How does forgiving student loan debt compare with Jesus’ vision for world where all debts are cancelled?

How does universal healthcare or health care as a human right compare with Jesus’ life of healing those on the margins of his society?

How does eliminating poverty or closing the vast wealth gap between classes and races compare with Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom that belongs to the poor?

How do reparations for America’s heritage of slavery and genocide compare with Jesus’ call for those with ill-gotten wealth to sell everything and give the proceeds to those they exploited?

How do police reform or abolition compare to a Jesus story where the central figure was the victim of state brutality himself?

Do the values of the Jesus story offer us something better today than the status quo the privileged and elite still desperately hold on to?

I don’t mean that our society should become Christian. Christianity has proven unsafe when it comes to protecting vulnerable human populations from harm: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and many others have been harmed and their stories have yet to be listened to in many sectors of Christianity today. Even the sacred text of Christianity has been too vulnerable to abuse by those with power, prejudice and bigotry. The recent murders in the Atlanta spas are yet another sad example. (Sadly White and/or colonial Christianity is the only form of the faith most of the world has been touched by.) Whatever one’s interpretation of Christianity’s sacred texts, the voices of those who have been harmed are still needed to ensure our interpretations are genuinely life-affirming and life-giving.

If Luke could compare Roman economic, political, and social policy with Jesus’s teachings, then certainly we can do so with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.

There are exceptions to this pattern. It burdens me that they are merely exceptions. Support for progressive movements that resonate with Jesus’ distributively just economic, political and social values could be the rule for Jesus followers today, if we would choose it. And conscious choices are exactly what it will take.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What comparisons and contrasts can you make with Jesus teachings and current discussions in your own society regarding how we resources and power is distributed? Share with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 

Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


“And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (‘the kingdom’) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.”


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12)

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is believed to have been a part of the earliest Jesus tradition. In each of the next two synoptic gospels written, the story is given more detail.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus rejected the Satan three times. And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (“the kingdom”) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.

Bread

Jesus chose not to justify a system simply because it offered bread. Rome promised sustenance to its inhabitants but at what cost?

In our time, Duke Energy recently abandon its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs due to activist obstruction. Some people with power pushed back against this monumental decision by pointing to the jobs that would now be lost. Such people believe placing profit above the planet was justified because, despite the ecological damage, the pipeline produced jobs for the working class and profit to company owners: it produced bread.

Exploitative economic systems create scarcity to create a narrative needed for their survival. The scarcity of things we need produces undercurrents of survival anxiety for us. Our desire for security and assurance that our needs will be met (“bread”) drives us to support systems that promise to fulfill those needs regardless of how people and our planet suffer as a result. And, without fail, those who are most driven by this economic anxiety protect and defend these systems at all costs. This is the essence of exploitative economies, and it comes with a long list of victims upon whom we lay the costs of our hopes that these systems will give us the bread we need.

Jesus’ first temptation was to coerce nature, to “turn stones into bread.” Think of Monsanto, or the meat and dairy industry here in the United States, which has deemed essential workers expendable during this pandemic. Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who control the food supply control the people.” Now and in the times of Jesus, the way to establish an exploitative system economically was to control what supplies people’s “bread” needs. Jesus rejects the use of such methods in establishing God’s just future, quoting from Deuteronomy:

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus saw what the temptation really was. He refused to prioritize profit or “bread” over justice, and instead chose the ancient Hebrew narrative of manna: needs will be supplied not by accumulation and exploitation but daily, as needed. There will be more manna tomorrow.

Jesus rejected a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, and exploitation for a narrative of trust, gratitude, sharing, and generosity. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.”

The accumulation of bread is not the highest value of God’s just future. God values how that bread is produced and what its production violates or affirms. Our hope is “not by bread alone.”

Self-Sacrifice

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus is also tempted to sacrifice himself while assuming that he would be spared death. His response is to not “put God to the test.” On the temple mount the devil told him to leap from was the symbol at the core of his society’s political, economic, and religious systems. His temptation was to sacrifice himself in front of this system with the promise that in the end, God’s just future would come through his sacrifice.

This temptation strikes at the heart of the method most pushed on masses who desire social change. I don’t believe the oppressed must sacrifice themselves to achieve social change, but. The sacrifice of innocent victims for achieving social change has a long history.

Speaking of how the idea of sacrifice has impacted women in Christianity, Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

In Brown and Parker’s essay in the same volume, “For God So Loved the World?” they write:

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

Mary Daly makes a similar comment:
“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

Again, Brown and Parker:
“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Brown and Parker also critique nonviolent movements that use self-sacrifice to drive change. They use some of the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. King saw suffering as:

“‘a most creative and powerful social force’ . . . The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20)

Finally, Delores Williams’ classic book Sisters in the Wilderness builds on this critique with applications specifically for Black women. These insights have been powerfully transformative for me personally. I want to share them with you here:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love” manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“ whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents— the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

“The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

“Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

Again, Brown and Parker:

“Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed. The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world. To be a Christian means keeping: faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (“For God So Loved the World?”)

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18,)

“Such a theology has devastating effects on human life. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph. It can lead to extended pain if it is not refused or fought. It can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity. or creativity. It can lead to actual death.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

Jesus did not choose the way of sacrifice. He rejected the way of sacrifice and, instead, “chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures…. Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

These insights have grave implications for how some sectors of Christianity have traditionally interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus. (For more on these implications see my presentation Nonviolence and the Cross)

As Katie Cannon sternly admonishes us, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.”

And there is a third path the Jesus of the story rejected, too.

Complicity

Lastly, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was tempted to arrive at God’s just future through being complicit with exploitative and oppressive systems. But he resisted that temptation of achieving God’s just future by “bowing down.” He instead worshiped God and God’s just future only. God’s just future cannot be achieved through compromise with exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

Christianity has a long history with being complicit in systems that oppress, and some adherents still use it to promote White supremacy, neocolonialism, and capitalism today.

Much more needs to be said about this.

I’m reminded of the words that the late Peter Gomes wrote in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. When Jesus’ followers choose complicity, he explains, “The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.”

These early Jesus story narratives give us much to think about as we, too, continue the work of moving toward a more just future today.

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Systems of Sacrifice

Herb Montgomery | July 24, 2020

picture of a classroom


As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and set new records each day, remember that the world that exists post-COVID will be determined by the kind of people we choose to be right now during COVID. Will we be people who sacrifice others, or will we choose a more perfect union, one, this time around, rooted in the golden rule and love of neighbor?


In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7, emphasis added)

And in John’s gospel, we read,

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healed through him.” (John 3:17, emphasis added)

The word John uses here, often translated as “saved” in this gospel rather as “healed,” is sozo. In other gospels, translators more often emphasize healing:

She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed [sozo].” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed [sozo] you.” And the woman was healed [sozo] at that moment. (Matthew 9:21-22)

He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed [sozo] and live.” (Mark 5:23)

And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed [sozo]. (Mark 6:56)

These aren’t just texts where scholars can argue the meaning of a word. This word, sozo, represents the entire story. The story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the story of a Jesus who went about “doing good and healing all . . .” (Acts 10:38, emphasis added).

In these gospels, salvation is not about Jesus making a sacrifice that allows a cosmic Being to let us off the hook. Rather, it’s about healing. The Jesus of the canonical gospels brought personal healing, and he also called for societal and systemic healing: a society that included and prioritized the excluded and marginalized.

Jesus’ political and economic protest in the temple courtyard was standing up to systems that sacrifice the vulnerable: the poor widows and fatherless.

“They devour widows’ houses.” (Mark 12:40)

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.” (Mark 12:42-43)

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

I also want to note, because some people repeatedly bring Jesus’ temple protest to my attention in an attempt to ignore Jesus’ nonviolent teachings, that Jesus’ actions in the Temple were not because of a violent fit of rage or Jesus losing his temper. His protest was premeditated, intentional, and purposeful (Mark 11:11), and it is in perfect harmony with his teachings on nonviolent resistance, even given the property damage involved.

Jesus valued people over profit and the property of the privileged and powerful. His protest shut down the economic activities of the temple that day, making it impossible for things to continue on as normal.

It reminds me of Sam Wells’ introduction to Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus by Ched Myers:

“The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?”

Jesus was making life uncomfortable for the powerful of his day. So the gospel authors attached Jesus’ protest to the words found in Jeremiah.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the orphan,, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, THEN I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7:9-11, emphasis added.)

Both Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ society had grown into a system of oppression where those who were vulnerable— the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the innocent—were sacrificed for the benefit of those in power. This also brings to mind how our working population is being sacrificed today in the name of the economy during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jesus story calls us away from a way of life that sacrifices foreigners, orphans, widows, and innocent victims. The gospel story ties social healing to our choice to end systems that sacrifice people and to start a different way of doing life. Economic and political systems of sacrifice that demand the death of innocent victims for the benefit of the masses were the focus of Jesus’ protest that day.

It also does not matter whether the sacrificial system depends on the death of political enemies or patriotic, a religion of war that sacrifices the present generation and assumes that citizens are worthy of their sacrifices. It doesn’t matter whether the sacrificial system is religious, rooted in fear of the Divine, or based on the shunning, marginalization, and scapegoating of those deemed “less than” or “other” to maintain the favor of a god or gods. It doesn’t matter if the sacrificial system is economic, driven by greed, and sacrificing essential workers to maintain the lifestyle of those at the top of the social pyramid.

The Jesus story does not affirm those political, patriotic, religious, or economic “holy places” of sacrifice, those “dirty rotten systems” as Dorothy Day called them. In the Jesus narrative, our future hope is not found in sacrifice but in a more distributively just future where everyone has what they need to thrive. This story calls for a new beginning of a world where we bend our societies’ moral arc toward justice, compassion, inclusion, and equity.

Jesus’ last supper with his disciples invites us to be the kind of people who work toward that world while we continue an ongoing critique of the way our world is sacrificially shaped.

“It is in food and drink offered equally to everyone that the presence of God and Jesus is found. But food and drink are the material bases of life, so the Lord’s Supper is political criticism and economic challenge as well as sacred rite and liturgical worship.” (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of the World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 31)

The Jesus story calls us first to recognize systems maintained by the sacrifice of others, and then to live our lives in opposition to them. Ultimately systems of sacrifice are not sustainable. As our original passage reminds us, the Jesus story is about healing the brokenness of our world, and that healing begins with saying no to systems of sacrifice.

Earlier this year, many were willing to sacrifice elderly people for the economy. I was deeply alarmed by that rhetoric. Then when Black communities and communities of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, their deaths were also a sacrifice many were willing to make. Then came a willingness to sacrifice “essential workers,” but making them more expendable than essential. And people’s obstinate refusal to wear a mask in the name of individual freedom expresses willingness to sacrifice someone else. Most recently, the system is proving willing to sacrifice our children to force local governments to re-open schools. There will be a housing and food crisis if we do not find another way.

All of this doesn’t have to be the case. We can allow COVID to inspire us to create a more life-giving society where the most vulnerable people are prioritized and cared for. If we don’t, this crisis will only deepen our willingness to sacrifice people’s lives and the status quo will remain unchanged.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and set new records each day, remember that the world that exists post-COVID will be determined by the kind of people we choose to be right now during COVID. Will we be people who sacrifice others, or will we choose a more perfect union, one, this time around, rooted in the golden rule and love of neighbor?

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”—Matthew’s Jesus

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. What are some ways can you imagine our society in the U.S. responding to COVID-19 that does not sacrifice the vulnerable, those disproportionally impacted, or deem any human life as expendable? How has politicizing our present pandemic placed vulnerable groups in the path of sacrifice? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Mislabelling Social Justice as Foolishness

by Herb Montgomery | July 17, 2020

church steeple and social justice


“I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice ‘fools.’ It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change.”


In Matthew’s gospel, we read,

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)

Context is always important, and with this week’s passage, it’s vital. Jesus is warning his followers about mislabelling those who call for social justice “fools” or foolish.

He is not prohibiting the term “fool.”

After all, Jesus himself calls others “fools” in Matthew’s gospel:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16, emphasis added)

Luke’s Jesus has God referring to someone emphatically as a “fool”:

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:20, emphasis added)

So the passage in Matthew isn’t about using the term “fool,” but about mislabelling as fools those who call for justice, inclusion, and systemic change as Jesus and Jesus’ followers did within their own society.

Consider what Jesus warned his followers about: a “Gehenna of fire.”

Contrary to many modern translations, Gehenna is not what modern Christians understand as hell. It is rather a deeply Jewish concept with a rich history.

Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). To avoid misleading us, I have taken the time to “untranslate” each reference to hell where the original word is simply Gehenna:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:29-30)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18:9)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23:33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47)

In order to understand what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.

The Jewish history around Gehenna
The political climate of Jesus’ day
How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both

Let’s dive in!

First, Gehenna was a literal place in Jewish history as far back as the time of Joshua:

“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15:8)

This place became the site of Judah’s terrible history of child sacrifice.

“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

Gehenna, the valley of the son of Hinnom, was the cultic location where the Canaanites offered children as sacrifices to the god Moloch. At some point it became known as Topheth for the hearth where the child was placed: the Hebrew term has parallels in both Ugaritic and Aramaic that mean “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars believe Topheth was at the edge of the valley of the son of Hinnom, next to the Kidron Valley, and likely southwest of Jerusalem. An 8th Century BCE Phoenician inscription describes sacrifices made to Moloch before the Cilicians battled their enemies.

But its history does not end with those histories. It also resurfaces in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:

“And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31–32)

Jeremiah is saying that Babylon is coming with such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will become a burying place overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of the population Babylon devastates. Notice that Jeremiah is warning not of a postmortem experience, but of a distinct this-life and this-world experience that would truly be “hell” for anyone caught in it: the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)

This passage in Jeremiah 7 is also the very passage Jesus quoted as he demonstrated against his own temple state’s exploitation of the poor. Jesus stood in Jeremiah’s prophetic lineage and quoted him directly:

“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46)

Jeremiah used Gehenna in specific ways:

“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19:2–6)

For Jeremiah, Gehenna had an end. It was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God and the fact that Jeremiah thought of it as temporary suggests a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31:38-40)

“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:37)

“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

Now let’s address the political climate of Jesus’ day very briefly. Jesus repeatedly called for wealth redistribution, for the community to prioritize economic equity and justice, and for the centering of marginalized people. He repeatedly warned that if the people did not embrace a more distributively just society, no matter how much the elite named it foolish, they would all face Gehenna.

Looking back at their history we can see this beginning with the poor people’s revolt that grew into the Roman Jewish war of 66-69 and ultimately resulted in Rome’s violent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Jesus picked up Jeremiah’s warning about Jerusalem being destroyed by a foreign oppressor, and the gospel authors connected Jeremiah’s passages, Jesus overthrowing the Temple tables, and Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jeremiah shattered a vessel on the Temple floor, symbolizing how Babylon would shatter Jerusalem, and said they had turned the Temple into a “den of robbers.” Jesus overturned tables and scattered livestock in the Temple, and the gospel authors use this to foreshadow the result of their turning the Temple into a “den of robbers.”

Jesus adopted Jeremiah’s Gehenna meaning as well as his language. Jesus was not warning about the postmortem experience described by Dante or Jonathan Edwards. He was speaking of Gehenna as a horrific devastation that would be wrought on Jerusalem by a foreign power. It would not be Babylon this time but Rome.

Luke’s Jesus quotes the battle cry of the militaristic Maccabean revolt, which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day romanticized. But Jesus subversively turned it on its head. Here is the original passage Jesus used as recorded in the Apocrypha:

“Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, ‘Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives, and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.’” (4 Maccabees 13:14-15)

Note two things from this passage. First, the Hellenistic idea of postmortem, eternal torment had already crept into Jewish thinking at this stage. Scholars agree this was a product of the Jewish dispersion around the Greek empire and was not a part of the pre-diaspora Jewish worldview. Second, Jesus quotes the passage from 4 Maccabees with a twist and transitions into the words of Jeremiah:

“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5)

The him here is not God, but a violent messiah leading the poor people’s uprising sure to come if the elite power brokers continued to refuse a path away from societal inequity.

Matthew’s version (Matthew 10:28) is even more telling:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”
Jesus began with the words of 4 Maccabees, which were very familiar to the Jewish leaders of his day, and then transitioned into Jeremiah.

“rather fear him”
He is the person or people who will lead a poor people’s revolt if things did not change

“who will destroy both soul and body”
Soul and body suggests not eternal torment after death, but complete annihilation in this life

“in Gehenna“
Jeremiah’s term referred to destruction by a foreign power.

Jesus’ warning was of an even worse fate than what Jeremiah warned about. For Jeremiah, destruction by Babylon would be temporary. But for Jesus, destruction from Rome would be absolute.

What does this have to do with us today?

We are faced with the same choices today. Our present system is not sustainable. Tensions are building, and our path is trending toward social eruption. People are suffering as a result of the systemic inequities of our society, and today we also have those calling for social justice, both among Jesus followers and those who do not claim him. I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice “fools.”

It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change. We should not focus solely on his work on changing individuals. Both kinds of change are needed. And those who call for social change, seeking a more just, safer, compassionate, inclusive society, are not fools. Whether they claim his name or not, they are traveling in the footsteps of Jesus and all those who have gone before them.

To Christians today who would label social justice work as foolishness, Jesus offers these words, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. How do you wish your own faith tradition, local faith community, or your denomination if applicable, would support and work alongside societal justice movements? Discuss with your group and list any social justice movements you believe would be worth supporting and why.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

More Effective Ways To Care

Herb Montgomery | July 10, 2020

hands working together


“The question I wrestle with most when considering communities like those I just described is how do we protect certain community members from others who may use their strength to overpower, take advantage of, and do harm to those vulnerable within the community? Perhaps you wonder this too. Humanity is not perfect. Humanity is messy. How do we handle that messiness in non-authoritarian ways that mitigate or prevent harm?”


In Matthew’s gospel we read this beautiful passage describing the egalitarian, human community Jesus was seeking to create:

“But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)

Humility is a characteristic of Jesus’ vision of human community and God’s just future that still resonates with me deeply. It’s also a trait still mostly ignored in many sectors of organized Christianity.

What does it mean to live a life devoid of any attempt to exalt oneself above others? This passage is quite possibly the most anti-authoritarian passage in the gospel stories, second only to an earlier passage in Matthew 20:25-26:

“But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.’” (Matthew 20:25-26)

What does it look like for us as Jesus followers to create ways of organizing communities that display a way of human organizing where we don’t seek to dominate but do protect and care for one another. What Jesus was doing for his early Jewish followers was commissioning them to display what a community could look like if full of humble egalitarian relationships rather than hierarchical ones.

According to the Hebrew creation narrative, hierarchical relationships are a fruit of the relational schisms that took place in the primordial garden. They don’t reflect God’s original vision for the created order. In Genesis 1:26, although we are to steward the ecology of our world as our home, the authority mentioned there was not to be over others. The narrative that follows Genesis 1:26 hints at humans’ inability to exercise authority over one other without doing harm.

I think Jesus’ early followers tried to get their heads around this and experimented with the practice of humility, though they were still working within the limits of their own time, space, and cultural constructs.

One example: Paul describes how the church that met in Corinth functioned: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14: 26, emphasis added)

The gatherings of Christians in Corinth do not seem to be gatherings where most members sat passively silent under the authority of the same person teaching every week. I wonder how patriarchal these early gatherings were. Regardless, these were communities that embraced the anti-authoritarian elements we encountered Matthew’s passage, each one possessing a gift to share that would contribute to and build up the health of the community.

This is very different from how a lot of church gatherings function today. Today’s gatherings are characterized much more by most attendees’ passive spectatorship at a service or program than by each person bringing something to share at small open, mutually participatory gatherings. To be sure, some are gifted teachers; yet each member of the community, sharing from their own varied experiences, nonetheless has something to offer.

The early followers of Jesus believed that together they collectively became a dwelling place for the Divine:

“You [plural], too, are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22, emphasis added.)

“You [plural] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2:5, emphasis added.)

Even those given the task of keeping the vulnerable safe within the community were not to use their role as a means of lording authority over the community: “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).

Communities that can function like this resonate with me deeply.

In the gospels, we see a vision of God’s just future where human communities are organized so that a few do not practice hierarchical authority over others. It was a vision for the practice of a preferential option for the care and protection of the vulnerable, the inclusion of the marginalized; a vision that could be practiced within egalitarian communities, collectively, without lorded authority.

There is a beautiful mutuality and working together rather than hierarchical submission in this.

What does this mean for us today? Jesus’ teachings still invite us to experience community where, rather than exercising power over others, we—together—learn how to listen to one another. And instead of lording power or position over each other, we learn what it means and what it looks like to care for each other.

I am convinced that, personally and systemically, our hope as a species is in discovering more effective ways of taking care of one another, not more efficient ways of dominating one another. Today, a few people have solved the human dilemma of their own survival at the expense of others. In so doing they’ve lost a part of their humanity. They’ve lost touch with reality that, whether we live like it or not, we are part of one another. We are all connected. What impacts one, directly and indirectly, impacts us all.

The question I wrestle with most when considering communities like those I just described is how do we protect certain community members from others who may use their strength to overpower, take advantage of, and do harm to those vulnerable within the community? Perhaps you wonder this too. Humanity is not perfect. Humanity is messy. How do we handle that messiness in non-authoritarian ways that mitigate or prevent harm?

I’m reminded of the work of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian activist, writer, revolutionary, and philosopher who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Century. In his book Mutual Aid, he wrote:

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.”

In Kropotkin’s model, the fittest communities are not those where the strong eat the weak, but those where those who have the ability to take care of those who need their care do so.

From the US government’s failed responses to COVID-19 to our country’s continued refusal to listen to those most deeply harmed by our systemic racial injustice and militarized policing, the past few months of life here in the U.S. have revealed how desperately we are in need of a raised consciousness. We need to recognize the truth that healthy communities are not competitive communities of winners and losers where the disparities between the haves and have-nots continue to expand. Instead, they are communities of care and cooperation where we have learned how to ensure those presently made “least” are centered, cared for, and prioritized.

As Mathew’s gospel reminds us, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

I long for the day when we don’t treat others with dignity, care and respect because we see Jesus in them, although that would be a good start, but we do it simply because we see them as fellow humans, fellow travelers, fellow inhabitants in the short period of life we have been given.

Peter Maurin wrote in The Catholic Worker in August 1936:

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

I want to believe a world like that is possible.

At the very minimum, I believe it’s worth working toward.

And to all those who are already working toward a world that looks like this, may future generations look back at you and be grateful. May our work today, building off the work of those who have come before us not be in vain.

And may a just future come, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What might be non-authoritarian methods of protecting vulnerable members of more egalitarian communities? How might we, together, protect certain participants in the community without resorting to hierarchical relationships of power? Is this possible? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Path Toward Societal Equity

Herb Montgomery | July 3, 2020

red wall


“Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too. How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?”


“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ He replied: ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them . . .” (Luke 21:5-9)

Most scholars today date the gospel of Luke after the events described in Luke 21. In this passage, Luke’s Jesus lays out two potential paths for his society, each with its own outcome.

The disciples are remarking on the physical beauty of the temple. But Jesus, seeing instead a system that exploited the poor, widows, and other marginalized people, saw it as a political and economic symbol of that systemic exploitation. This difference in perspective explains Jesus’ table-flipping protest in the temple courtyard: the temple was the capital of the temple-state.

As we must say repeatedly when reading the latter half of Luke’s gospel, Christians have a long history of interpreting passage like this in antisemitic ways. But the passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It is a critique of a civic and economic system, not a religious one. Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is instead about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the Jerusalem temple-state who resisted his teachings and the distributive, economic justice teachings in the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to any system that is rooted in exploitation and valuing products and profit over people. Today’s climate for those deemed essential workers during our present pandemic is similar. As the Swiss author, Max Frisch wrote, “We asked for workers; we got people instead.” Any society produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides. Jesus responds to the people by warning them not to follow violent messiahs.

After the fact, we can see how the tension between the haves and have-nots of Jesus’ society in the latter half of the 1st Century finally did erupt into a protest, then war, and finally desolation. Stating that these violent false messiahs would come, Jesus offers the people another path, a path of hope mixed with persecution and turmoil.

“Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. (Luke 21:10-19)

The context of this whole section is vital. Just before this week’s passage, Luke reminds us of how positively the people responded after Jesus’s protest in the temple:

“Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words” (Luke 19:47-48, emphasis added).

Jesus was not rejected by the people. He was silenced by the powerful and elite of his society who had everything to lose if the people continued to follow him and if the systemic changes he taught actually took root.

Luke then reminds us:

“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple” (Luke 21:37-38, emphasis added).

The picture we get from Luke is that this was a time in Jesus’s ministry when it looked as if society might be turning the corner and actually becoming more economically, distributively just. This brings to mind recent movements in U.S. politics before the pandemic.

According to Luke, those surrounding Jesus as he speaks are farmers forced by taxes and debt to become day laborers. They are also the destitute and the starving who have been drawn to Jesus given his promise that God’s just future would restructure society in their favor (see Luke 6:20-26). Jerusalem, at this time, was a large poverty center. The streets were lined with beggars, and a significant section of the population of Jerusalem lived chiefly or even entirely on charity. Jesus’s words gave this crowd hope!

Yes, Jesus speaks in these passages of expecting persecution, arrest, and imprisonment. The revolution/movement would grow and receive negative pushback from those in positions of privilege, who benefitted from and controlled the status quo. Yet even that backlash would be used to “bear testimony” or raise awareness and move toward greater societal consciousness.

Then things become incredibly detailed. Remember, Luke was written after these events took place. It would have been almost impossible for someone in Luke’s space and time not to attempt connecting these dots for us.

“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its DESOLATION is near. THEN let those who are in Judea FLEE to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people . . . (Luke 21:20-24, emphasis added.)

Luke’s gospel claims that the poor people’s revolt, the Jewish and Roman war, and the events that followed in its wake all resulted from those in positions of power rejecting a path toward systemic, distributive justice. We now know how that played out historically. Again, the poor people’s revolt grew into an all-out open war with Rome in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. In Luke’s gospel, though, Jesus was saying that once there was war, hope was lost. It would be time to leave. It would be time to get out. No more revolution or societal transformation for Jerusalem would be possible. We know Rome’s retaliation was catastrophically violent. But Luke’s gospel claims that all of it was avoidable.

Recently, I listened to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, address New Zealanders and I was honestly moved to tears. I wish we had a leader in the U.S. like her. She has not politicized the pandemic, divided the people along partisan lines, or refused to bring the citizenship together. New Zealand pulled together, uniting its citizenry: it acted quickly, and in the context of greater social safety nets, universal access to health-care, lower rates of inequality, and economic support for its citizens during a shutdown, has now effectively eliminated COVID-19 from its population.

The US crested over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 that same week, and I sat in silence after listening to Prime Minister Ardern, wondering what might have been here in the U.S. I could not help but see that much of what we are now experiencing here in the U.S. would have been avoidable if we just had competent leadership. Much as in our passage, our massive loss of life here was avoidable, and the coming economic fallout is avoidable too.

Luke’s Jesus called for a transformation to a more just, a more equitable society. Even with all the pushback from our status quo, if societies become more just, they avoid an eventual implosion that accompanies societies repeatedly not choosing more justice over and over again.

Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation, or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too.
How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. What social equity changes would you like to see, both within your own faith community, as well as in our larger society to which we also belong? Discuss with your group?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

New Wine in Old Wineskins (Part 1 of 2)

Herb Montgomery | April 10, 2020

wine stains


“Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.”


The loss of human life, our friends, family or even those we don’t know but are also connected to us a part of our humanity, is painfully tragic. At RHM, our hearts are with those who are suffering and those who have lost someone they love. A pandemic provides a unique moment for us to critique our present order or system and to begin both dreaming up and working toward a better way of organizing human communities shaped by justice, equity, inclusion and compassion for everyone.

In the gospels, we find a relevant metaphor for this process. The synoptic gospel authors used the metaphor of new wine being placed in old wineskins.

In Luke’s gospel, we read.

“He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’”—Luke 5:36-39

Over the next two weeks, I want to explore this process. We’ll begin with Jesus’ social vision and cooperative ethical teachings. There are two ways that I often see folks responding to Jesus and his ethical teachings today when something he taught challenges their paradigm.

The first way is continuity. In other words, they say that Jesus is not really bringing anything new to the table. If his teachings seem new to us, that must mean that he is correcting a present-day application of old ethics. This view gives the Biblical narrative an unchanging quality. Jesus’ ethics then belong to a consistent whole or seamless narrative. On the surface, this view gives some privileged folks a sense of security.

But this approach becomes problematic with scriptural passages that have been used to justify oppression. Those who have had the Bible used to marginalize or exclude them (women and the LGBTQ community) or enslave or eliminate them (Indigenous populations, Black people, and other people of color) find this approach simply does not work.

Bible-believing Christians in the Southern region of the United States in the late 19th century believed there was nothing wrong with owning other human beings as property. If we use the continuity lens, the best we can ever get from Jesus is a pat on the back that we now have it all right or a “tune-up” of our already smoothly running theological systems. Never do we become fundamentally different. The Bible or God simply justifies our already present dysfunctions.

Please note three things about the passage we read in Luke.

First, the piece torn from the new garment is incompatible with the old garment.

Second, new wine doesn’t work in an old wineskin. It bursts the old skin and you lose the new wine.

Third, Jesus was lamenting that when faced with an alternative faithful Jewish interpretation of the God of the Torah, the elites preferred interpretations, or “old wine,” that justified their privilege and position of power and their marginalization and exploitation of others less centered in their society. “No one who is accustomed to aged wine says the new is better,” he says.

Take a moment to dream what a world that operated in harmony with the values of cooperation, love, compassion, inclusion, and justice might look like compared, both positively and negatively, with our current system.

I want to add a word of caution here. It is not life-giving to interpret this passage as if Christianity is the new wine and Judaism is the old. That interpretation has led to Christians committing incalculable damage to our Jewish friends and neighbors. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His teachings were not anti-Semitic and weren’t pitting Christianity against Judaism, but rather offered alternative ways to interpret the Torah within Judaism. The voice of Jesus that we discern in the synoptic gospels was one of many in Judaism describing what it meant to be faithful to the Jewish God of the Torah.

This leads me to the second way we can understand Jesus and his ethical teachings when they challenge our favorite paradigms rooted in other Biblical texts.

Consider these passages, for example:

“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD . . . No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation . . . Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:1-6)

Then:

“Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I’m only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigner who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

There is no way to harmonize these two passages using the continuity lens. Notice, too, that neither of these passages pits Jesus against Judaism. These are two Hebrew passages that seem to contradict before we even get to Jesus and the gospels. How can we read these sacred texts and others in the gospels when we run into a discontinuity like this?

We don’t have to ignore problematic texts. We can be honest about their existence. Some texts can be reclaimed through new reinterpretations. But a few others, I have found, cannot. There are texts that support injustice, misogyny, slavery, war, capital punishment, the conquest of Indigenous peoples’ lands, persecution of Jewish people, and dehumanizing of LGBTQ people. We must begin to be honest about these passages.

We must also hold in tension our goal to interpret all sacred texts in life-giving ways. Some passages are easier to interpret that way, and in the gospels, Jesus modeled using these passages to combat destructive passages and destructive interpretations (see Mark 12:24-16). He did not ignore destructive passages or interpretations but met the elites’ use of these passages and interpretations with others that contradicted them and turned them to life-giving ends.

When we can see our sacred text not as a flat book with all passages being equal, but as a narrative, a story over millennia with the end goal of liberation, survival, reparation, restoration, and healing, we can hold problematic texts in tension with the overall arc. We can be honest about problem texts and how they relate or are out of place with the text as a whole. Texts that oppress and exclude should be contrasted with texts that teach the themes of love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice.

In this approach, we push texts that teach oppression and exclusion to the margins, and texts that teach love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice become normative—central to the life of a person following Jesus.

When we take this approach, we open ourselves to a Jewish practice of embracing the reality that within our text, the voice of Love and Justice mixes with the voice of the writers’ own pain and own brokenness, and the writers’ voices can be mistaken as the voice of the Divine. The writers, though inspired, were also human. Sacred texts are a mixture of love and brokenness, love and high ideals incarnated in the writer’s own brokenness. Sometimes the writer cannot distinguish between their own brokenness and need for healing and their own perception of “the voice of God.”

We have to ask what caused texts to be written the way they were. We also must be honest about the distance between our own culture and the cultures of the Biblical authors, as well as the distance between the various cultures of the Bible. Even some more problematic texts can be more life-giving when we see them in their own cultural context.

How do we discern where a passage is the outgrowth of the author’s brokenness or rooted in life-giving love, justice, and healing?

This, in my opinion, is the most important guideline in reading our sacred texts. We must interpret texts in community, but not in just any community: a varied, diverse community where our differences are celebrated. When we do this we realize that we are all equal and our experiences are very different. People who live in different social locations experience life in society differently. These experiences determine the questions we ask of our sacred texts and the answers we can find in them.

Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.

When interpretations cause harm, we can make those interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. Again, some problematic texts can be reclaimed, while others may be unreclaimable now even if they may be reclaimed in the future.

I’ll close with two examples for you to contemplate that I consider being examples of the gospel authors’ contrasting old wine and new wine in their own Jewish contexts:

New wine:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

New wine:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44)

In the gospels, Jesus challenged his listeners to bend their sacred texts and interpretations along an arc that leads to love, justice, equity, inclusion, compassion—life!

I believe we can do the same. Then, and only then, can we allow those interpretations and sacred texts to speak into our work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, today.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

1. What are some problem passages in or interpretations of your sacred text that you have had to reclaim or find new interpretations for? Share with your Group.

2. From your time imagining what our world could look like, share with the group one way you wish our present system in the U.S. was different.

3. What are some ways that you as a HeartGroup can work toward making our world a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone this week? Pick something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And if possible stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

We Are Not Just Passing Through

Herb Montgomery | March 20, 2020

earth from space


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider these two other passages from Matthew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must become more concerned with present systemic injustice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are in this together.

Together we can create beautiful communities of love and justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And we can.

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.