Herb Montgomery | December 2, 2022
To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.
“In this just future that we are working for now, may all things death-dealing be burned up like chaff with fire that cannot be quenched. May all things life-giving be gathered up and cherished. And may this future be one of salvation for each of us together.”
Our reading this week comes from the gospel of Matthew:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.”’
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)
Our reading this week resonates with the context of Advent at this time of year. Advent is a time to commemorate not only the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also the coming of a just, safe, compassionate world here, one where every person, with all our differences, has space to feel at home.
Our present world doesn’t match that vision yet. In our world, some traits and experiences are privileged and centered while others are pushed to the margins. In this week’s reading, John the Baptist was not speaking from the center of his community. He was speaking from the margins of the wilderness. Ched Myers speaks of a possible narrative meaning for this detail in his book Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship:
“While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)
Our most cherished and sacred Jesus story begins and persists on the margins, on the edges, or in less centered social settings. Not only was Judea a marginalized region of the Roman empire, but the narrative placing John’s itinerant ministry outside the synagogues is a hint that readers or listeners should look toward the margins. For this itinerant ministry to be further located in Galilee, an even more marginalized region for already marginalized Jewish people within the Roman empire, makes Jesus and John’s ministry thrice-located on the margins compared to the urban institutions of their society.
From this narrative point, we learn that restoration, liberation, and life-giving transformations toward a more just world come from marginalized social locations in our societies. Change comes from the bottom up and outside in. To put it in our language today, change begins with the grassroots.
Another thing that strikes me about our reading this week is John’s no-nonsense, offensively blunt comments to the Pharisees and Sadducees who showed up to see what he was up to. It was a callout, but I want to steer clear of Christian antisemitic interpretations here. John the Baptist was Jewish. He was not trying to begin a new religion or rejecting his Judaism. John’s movement was about the renewal, restoration, and liberation of his fellow Jews, not about replacing them with a new people.
John’s attack of Pharisees and Sadducees in this story was not religious as we would understand it in our culture, but it was very much political. Remember, the Pharisees and Sadducees were powerful political parties in John’s society that not only competed with one another for political power, but also were complicit with Roman imperialism and Rome’s colonization of Judea, Galilee, and other small, rural communities across the region. Both Jesus’ and John’s movements were rural movements, not urban. Only at the end of his life did Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem and the economic injustices centered in the Temple state there.
Thus, the wilderness location of John’s ministry was also associated with his practice of a Judaism that rejected complicity with the Roman empire and contrasted with urban institutions including Herod’s family’s reign in Judea and the Temple state seated in Jerusalem.
John the Baptist was part of a Jewish liberation and reformation movement. He, like others, practiced immersion baptism as an act of repentance, atoning for past injustices, recommitting to righteousness, and dedicating oneself to a vision of liberation and restoration for Jewish people. That era of restoration would begin with a global end to all injustice, violence, and oppression.
I agree with scholars who interpret Jesus as having begun as a disciple of John’s. Within John’s community, there is a spirit of looking forward to something that was about to change for the better, and whereas John said it was coming, Jesus said it had arrived, was near, or was already among us, in our midst.
Today, those of us engaging justice work also look forward to and are working toward an iteration of our world that is more in harmony with justice and inclusion. Justice workers who value the Jesus story sometimes refer to this change as God’s just future, the basileia, the kin-dom, beloved community, and more. John the Baptist interpreted this change as the breaking in of God’s work in our world, an intervention in which his followers were invited to participate. Today, we also understand that a more just future depends on our cooperation with each other (and with the Divine for those of you who are theists).
As we wrap up another year, what accomplishments do we have to be thankful for? What lies ahead as we anticipate another year of working toward a world that is a safe and just home for everyone?
This week’s reading concludes with John’s anticipated restoration and liberation being an era of reversal and upheaval, not just restoration. It was to be a time of opposites, where wheat was gathered and chaff was burned up. I’m okay with this imagery if we apply it to life-giving social elements: I actually like the idea of gathering up life-giving things and forming a society out of them. I like the idea of death-dealing elements and systems being burned up in the purifying fire of life, love, compassion, and justice. I can lean into that!
But I want to lean away from any interpretation of this passage that applies threshing, gathering, or burning to people. We can say “no” to injustice while not letting go of the humanity of those responsible for that injustice. We can obstruct them and their activity today while holding space for them to change if they should choose to tomorrow. We want to reclaim and hold on to our own humanity while not letting go of anyone else’s. I love the way Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church says it in her book Fierce Love:
“As a scholar who has studied religion and psychology, as an author of books on identity development and the power of stories, as a professor who teaches about leadership and anti-racist work, I understand why and how people and systems change. I know this to be true: The world doesn’t get great unless we all get better. If there is such a thing as salvation, then we are not saved until everyone is saved; our dignity and liberation are bound together.” (Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Fierce Love, p. 14).
During this season of Advent, we commemorate where justice, liberation and salvation has arrived in the past and make time to look forward to where it may arrive again and how we can participate that just future today. In the spirit of Lewis’ inclusive salvation for everyone, I’ll close with a quote from Pam McAllister who, in explaining the work of Barbara Deming, shares this applicable wisdom:
“Barbara wrote about the two hands of nonviolence. She wrote that nonviolence gives us two hands upon the oppressor . . . This visual metaphor is particularly helpful in describing the basic attitude underlying the nonviolent sensibility. With one hand we say to an oppressor, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, but maybe not—but always outstretched with the message that (as Barbara wrote), ‘No, you are not the other, and no, I am not the other. No one is the other.’ With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you’re ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ The peculiar strength of nonviolence comes precisely from the dual nature of its approach—the two hands.” (Pam McCallister, You Can’t Kill The Spirit, p. 6-7)
In this just future that we are working for now, may all things death-dealing be burned up like chaff with fire that cannot be quenched. May all things life-giving be gathered up and cherished. And may this future be one of salvation for each of us together.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What does inclusive, societal salvation look like to you? 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.
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My new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels is now available at renewedheartministries.com
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
Now Available at Renewed Heart Ministries!
It’s finally here! Herb’s new book Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is available at renewedheartministries.com , just in time for the holidays!
Here is just a taste of what people are saying:
“Herb has spent the last decade reading scripture closely. He also reads the world around us, thinks carefully with theologians and sociologists, and wonders how the most meaningful stories of his faith can inspire us to live with more heart, attention, and care for others in our time. For those who’ve ever felt alone in the process of applying the wisdom of Jesus to the world in which we live, Herb offers signposts for the journey and the reminder that this is not a journey we take alone. Read Finding Jesus with others, and be transformed together.” Dr. Keisha Mckenzie, Auburn University
“In Finding Jesus, Herb Montgomery unleashes the revolutionary Jesus and his kin-dom manifesto from the shackles of the domesticated religion of empire. Within these pages we discover that rather than being a fire insurance policy to keep good boys and girls out of hell, Jesus often becomes the fiery enemy of good boys and girls who refuse to bring economic justice to the poor, quality healthcare to the underserved, and equal employment to people of color or same-sex orientation. Because what the biblical narratives of Jesus reveal is that any future human society—heavenly or otherwise—will only be as good as the one that we’re making right here and now. There is no future tranquil city with streets of gold when there is suffering on the asphalt right outside our front door today. Finding Jesus invites us to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ on our feet as we follow our this liberator into the magnificent struggle of bringing the love and justice of God to all—right here, right now.”—Todd Leonard, pastor of Glendale City Church, Glendale CA.
“Herb Montgomery’s teachings have been deeply influential to me. This book shares the story of how he came to view the teachings of Jesus through the lens of nonviolence, liberation for all, and a call to a shared table. It’s an important read, especially for those of us who come from backgrounds where the myth of redemptive violence and individual (rather than collective) salvation was the focus.” – Daneen Akers, author of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and co-director/producer of Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film about Faith, Identity & Belonging
“So often Christians think about Jesus through the lens of Paul’s theology and don’t focus on the actual person and teachings of Jesus. This book is different. Here you find a challenging present-day application of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. Rediscover why this Rabbi incited fear in the hearts of religious and political leaders two millennia ago. Herb’s book calls forth a moral vision based on the principles of Jesus’ vision of liberation. Finding Jesus helps us see that these teachings are just as disruptive today as they were when Jesus first articulated them.” Alicia Johnston, author of The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists.
“Herb Montgomery is a pastor for pastors, a teacher for teachers and a scholar for scholars. Part memoir and part theological reflection, Finding Jesus is a helpful and hope-filled guide to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who he can be. Herb’s tone is accessible and welcoming, while also challenging and fresh. This book is helpful for anyone who wants a new and fresh perspective on following Jesus.”— Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families
Get your copy today at renewedheartministries.com
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