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.

Zacchaeus and Christian Support of Destructive Administrations

“What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them?”

Luke’s gospel brings us the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who walks away from his support of and participation in a systemically unjust and exploitative system to become a Jesus follower. In response to Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

The picture we get from the synoptic gospels is of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor traveling through his society’s margins, teaching and calling his audiences to a distributively just society where those on the edges are included. Jesus appears in the stories as one who, like prophets such as John the Baptist before him, was a voice on the margins, “crying in the wilderness. ” Jesus’ vision was of the kind of society that the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas refers to as God’s just future.

Do Jesus’ ethical teachings still offer anything relevant to us in the 21st century, as we work to reverse systemic injustice? I’m convinced they do.

Luke’s story indicates that Zacchaeus was Jewish but also complicit in the injustice of the larger Roman empire. Like many Christians today who continue to unconditionally support the present administration in the U.S. despite harms to decency, democracy, minoritized people, and our planet, Zacchaeus participated in Rome’s economic exploitation of the vulnerable people around him.

Yet Zacchaeus finally wakes up. Luke doesn’t tell us what caused him to. He only tells us that Jesus declares his intention to go to Zacchaeus home, and the crowd objects, rightly accusing the unjust Zacchaeus of being “a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stands up and declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

This was a deep reversal for Zacchaeus. He not only walks away from his support of Roman administration but he also offers reparations to those his previous actions harmed.

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

For my Christian friends, Jesus does not define salvation as a legal transaction in heaven that assures Zacchaeus of post-mortem bliss. Nor does Jesus define Zacchaeus’ salvation as a pardon or letting him off the hook. Jesus instead defines salvation as the healing of Zacchaeus’ most inward being, healing that manifests in Zacchaeus’ rejection of an unjust system and his decision to work to undo the injustice of that system.

When, as Christians, we view salvation as remote forgiveness, as convincing God to let us off the hook, or as obtaining a celestial ticket to heaven, we are actually defining salvation differently than Jesus did.

For Jesus, salvation was not about getting a person from a state of being unforgiving to a state of being forgiven. It wasn’t about getting someone out of a post-mortem hell and into a postmortem heaven. Salvation for Jesus in Luke was about change for those in Zacchaeus’ social location.

I want to be careful here. The change was not so that a person could be saved. The change itself was the salvation. When we define Jesus’ vision of salvation as getting free of heavenly legal charges rather than the healing, liberation, and reparations he taught during his life, even salvation labeled as “by grace” is just another form of legal-ism. In this story we see something different: someone was complicit with an unjust system’s harm of others and that someone made a radical change in the direction in his life and became a follower of Jesus, the Jewish prophet of the poor.

The second thing Jesus declares when Zacchaeus changes is “This man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus had been living outside of the distributive, economic teachings of the Torah, yet Jesus declares that he is a “son of Abraham, too.”

Luke contrasts the tax collector Zacchaeus with the wealthy religious teachers who had made fun of Jesus’ economic teachings two chapters previously.

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

What this story communicates to me is that rejecting systemic injustice is not optional for those who desire to follow Jesus. People may bear the name of Christian, but if they support corrupt administrations who do harm in exchange for political favor or for the sake of winning a decades-long culture war, they are out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.

I’d like to believe Zacchaeus understood this. Political, economic, religious, or even social advantage does not justify participating in or supporting a corrupt system that does harm.

What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them? What is needed for Christians to be more than simply believers in Jesus of the story, but followers of him as well?

Remember, the picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is of an itinerant teacher gathering those who will join him in a distributively just way of organizing and doing life as a community called “the kingdom of God.” The “kingdom of God” is not a place in the heavens or a place some go when they die. The “kingdom of God” is a vision of a just future in which people prioritize the least of these. History will judge us most critically by how we take care of “the least of these” among us.

Jesus’ vision of a distributively just future was about how we do life in the here and now. He called his listeners to go against what the status quo had taught them and to organize society instead, in ways that are life-giving for all.

Today, the Jesus story still invites us to choose a world shaped by distributive justice. To follow Jesus and live the Jesus way is not about saying a sinner’s prayer or attending a service once a week and then going back to the way things have always been done. To follow Jesus means adopting a life-giving way of living.

But the “kingdom of God,” God’s just future, received pushback then, and it will also receive as much from today’s elites. The cross was the elite of society’s violent “no” to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The resurrection undid all the violence of Jesus’ death, causing the hope of a just future to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. I believe that hope can live on in those who bear Jesus’ name today. Much will have to change in certain sectors of Christianity for that to happen, but I believe nonetheless that it’s possible.

I believe following Jesus is about learning to follow Jesus’ practice of love, inclusion, just distribution, and mutual aid, nonviolence, and compassion toward others. His practice was reparative and transformative and has the power to change our lives personally and systemically. If politics is society deciding who gets what, when, and how, and if we consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the politics of the Jesus story are:

  • Eradicate poverty by centering society on the poor.
  • Comfort those whom the present system causes to sorrow.
  • Create a system that takes care of those who are meek.
  • Give equity to those who hunger for things to be put right.
  • Stand with the merciful, those who refuse to acquit the guilty for bribes, the peacemakers working for distributive justice, and those the privileged and the powerful persecute, slander, and exclude for demanding change. (cf. Matthew 5:3-10)

Jesus’ vision of a just future is for the here and now.

The arc of history can bend toward justice if we bend it that way.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

We have choices to make.

Who will be our Zacchaeuses today?

HeartGroup Application

1. What parallels and contrasts do you see with Zacchaeus’ story and U.S. Christians today who fail to disavow the U.S.’s present destructive administration? If you need an example, ponder the children still in cages along the U.S. southern border. Discuss as a group.

2. Five years into the reign of the German Reich, in 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24) . . . But with this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak [or vulnerable] and poor . . .”

(Confirmation, Kieckow, April 9, 1938, quoted in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 203)

What does this Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy mean for you today? Discuss as a group.

3. Create a list of how you can collectively say “no” to injustice as a follower of Jesus in our present context. Pick something from your list and begin putting it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

The Refusal of the Older Brother

Herb Montgomery | February 7, 2019

man sitting alone on hill


“If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.”


The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

This story in Luke’s gospel may be the most famous one Jesus ever told: the story of the prodigal son and the older brother. Jesus told this story for a reason.

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

In response, Jesus tells three stories, the last of which is the story of the older brother we are considering here.

“But while he [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ THE OLDER BROTHER BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. SO HIS FATHER WENT OUT AND PLEADED WITH HIM. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son OF YOURS who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-32, emphasis added.)

The context of this story is economic. “Prodigal” is not a synonym for “sinner.” It means someone who spends money and resources recklessly with no thought of the future.

People labeled others sinners in Jesus’ community when they lived outside of certain interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to the teachings of the day. The label “sinner” has always been tied to the social purpose of marginalizing and/or subjugating certain folks while privileging others. I’m not saying that there are no such things as intrinsically destructive choices. I am saying that designating someone as a “sinner” is bound up with social, political, and economic exclusion because it is based on the interpretations of those centered in society.

And in this story, Jesus is including those whom the elite of his day taught should be excluded.

I was once a fundamentalist. I used to believe that the only reason anyone would not be “saved” in the end was that they had rejected God’s love for them. But the longer I ponder the story of the prodigal and his brother, the more I see how mistaken I was.

The context of this story shows that if any are left in “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) if any are left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future, it will not be because they could not believe God’s love for them. Rather, like the older brother in this story, it will be that they cannot accept the inclusion of someone else that they feel should be excluded. It’s labeling someone else as other and seeking to exclude them from the table that causes us to be intrinsically out of harmony with Jesus’ vision for God’s just future—a world of safety, compassion, inclusion, justice, and love—a future we can shape.

Again, the elite class of the Jesus story didn’t reject Jesus’ vision of God’s just future because God’s love for them was too good to believe, but rather because God’s love for those they thought should be excluded was too inclusive for them to embrace.

One last example.

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. ALL THE PEOPLE SAW THIS AND BEGAN TO MUTTER, ‘HE HAS GONE TO BE THE GUEST OF A SINNER.’” (Luke 19:5-7, emphasis added.)

This is the famous story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who climbed into a tree to see Jesus pass by (see Luke 19:1-2). As a person who is also of a shorter stature, I know that if you are short, you step up onto the curb to see a parade, and the taller people stand behind you. This works unless some people do not want you there and shut you out from a good view.

But Zacchaeus, being resourceful, knew the procession route, ran ahead and climbed a tree.

When this parade begins, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the economic injustice of the economic, political, and religious elite at the heart of that society. But Jesus stops along the way to include this tax-collector who he perceives is changing his mind about Jesus’ economic teachings on the poor. Imagine the people objecting to Jesus, “But Jesus, this man is a sinner!”

Zacchaeus interrupts them all:

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

Just a few days earlier, some of the Pharisees had responded to Jesus’ call to give their possessions to the poor by “sneering” at him (see Luke 16:13,14). I can imagine Jesus with tears of joy in his eyes at this chief tax collector responding so differently. “Today,” he says to Zacchaeus, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Not everyone acknowledged that salvation had come.

Those left outside in Jesus’ story about the prodigal and older brother are not those whom the elites had labeled as “sinners” to be excluded. No, the ones outside the party are the ones who cannot handle Jesus modeling a just future where those they feel should be excluded are included instead.

What is the Jesus story whispering to us here?

Those left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future won’t be those who couldn’t believe in God’s love for themselves. They’ll be those who could not embrace God’s love for someone else—someone whom they thought should not be included. If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.

If in the gospels, God’s just future looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like the one we find in the Jesus stories, then this should give those who believe in and practice exclusionary forms of Christianity quite a bit to ponder. Some sectors of Christianity today still practice inequality for women. Some sectors of Christianity still practice the bigotry of colonialist, European, and American White supremacy. Sectors of Christianity still practice the same economic classism our society does. Large sectors of Christianity passionately exclude our LGBTQIA siblings. But to the degree that Christianity has practiced and led others in the practice of systemic and private distributive and inclusive justice, it has thrived. To the degree that it has failed to practice justice, it has done much harm to people and to itself.

The question Jesus followers today must ask is this: when we see Jesus’ inclusion being practiced, do we celebrate like those who “went in” in Jesus’ story, or do we mimic the “older brother,” refuse to “go in,” or even threaten schism to protect our practices and sense of superiority?

HeartGroup Application

  1. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion and mutual participation in your faith communities? As a group, make a list.
  2. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion, representation, and equity in our larger society? As a group, make a list.
  3. Brainstorm with your group how you can collectively participate with the work you see being done in both areas. Pick something from what you’ve come up with and put it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2020


“This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

In Part 1 we discussed what the ethic of enemy love may mean and what it most definitely does not mean.

Socially and historically, one of the most used methods for uniting a society or community has been to rally that community against a common enemy. It’s effective and it’s easy. Produce a common enemy, and people who were once enemies will join together against that enemy. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Henry gives this advice to his son, who will become Henry V after him:

“Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.”
(Henry IV Part II, Act IV, scene V)

Another example is found in Luke’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Herod and Pilate struck up a friendship, yet until Jesus appeared on the scene, they had been enemies.

“That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this, they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12, emphasis added, cf. Job 16:10)

Jesus taught a different way of living life together. One of the ethical threads in the fabric of his community was that members would no longer be united in hatred for a common enemy. Rather they’d be united in the practice of loving their enemies.

Jesus was calling his Jewish community back to its roots of enemy love when he said:

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

This teaching went back centuries:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Proverbs 25:2, cf. 2 Kings 6:21-23)

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” (Exodus 23:4,5)

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17, cf. Job 31:29)

At the same time, in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, one can also find support for hating one’s enemy. What made Jesus stand out in his own time and culture was his ability to parse and interpret his community’s teachings in life-giving ways. We are called to do the same.

Jesus’ vision of a just, safe and compassionate society calls us to include those who are presently our enemies, those who oppose a more compassionate society. For Jesus, enemies were to be seen as capable of change. No person was disposable, no matter how wrong they may have been. We are all connected, all of us. And as difficult as it may be, we are in this together.

Evolutionary Survival Ethic of the Past

A few years ago, I placed my 16-year-old daughter on an airplane and she flew from West Virginia to Colorado all by herself to visit her grandmother. Because she was underage, she was assigned a flight attendant to watch over her and get her safely from our care to her grandmother’s.

Before my daughter reached her grandmother, she had to comply with everything the flight attendant asked her to do. But once she was in her grandmother’s company, it would have been foolish for her to cling to the flight attendant. The attendant would want my daughter to go with and listen to her grandmother, even if, over the course of the flight, my daughter and the attendant had become fondly attached.

It could be debated that hatred of one’s enemies has, in the past, worked toward our survival as a human species. Even if that proves true, I would offer that the time for such has passed, we have outgrown its usefulness. The future does not belong to those who hate, but to those who have found a way to love, even their enemies.

Love is Not Naive

Enemy love does not mean we accept our enemies’ behaviors and choices. It means we refuse to allow their actions to change who we are. We remain responsible for our own choices and are able to choose how we respond (response-able) to our enemies’ choices. We act, proactively, out of the kind of person we choose to be. We don”t simply react to the types of people our enemies choose to be. As we said in part one, we’re part of a humanity that also includes our enemies. Yet we choose not to be the same kinds of people our enemies are choosing to be.

James Baldwin, whom I admire greatly, wrote of this principle in his classic The Fire Next Time:

“I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (p. 83, emphasis added)

Love acknowledges the choices our enemies make. Love even obstructs enemies’ harmful actions. Yet it stops short of allowing a person to become the same type of person as their enemy. Love means choosing not to debase another person in the way they have debased us. We don’t ignore the actions of our enemies. We simply choose to be shaped by something greater than their actions.

This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them. It breaks the mimetic tendency we as humans have to simply mimic each other, even in violence. It breaks the chain and enables us to be different, to do differently than what has been done to us.

While holding our enemies accountable, we can do so with a transformative, reparative, and restorative perspective rather than with retribution in mind. This approach holds on to our enemies’ humanity and seeks a path toward a just future that includes transformation for them too. Dr. King, who strove to understand and rightfully apply the ethic of enemy love, stated as much in his sermon Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in November 1957:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption . . . It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says, love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”

So it would seem that there really isn’t a middle ground. We either permit our enemies’ actions to shape us, to determine the kind of people we will be, or we choose a path that has the potential (without guarantee) to shape our enemies as we choose to be the kinds of people we aspire to be.

Liberation theologies today might say we can choose to remain free internally, in our own inmost being, while we work to become free outwardly.

Enemy love is difficult. But most things that are worth it are.

HeartGroup Application

1. Are there stories of enemy love that you find compelling for you, today? Share one with your group.

2. What did you learn from last week’s exercise/practice? Share with your group.

3. How can your HeartGroup deepen its practice of enemy love collectively this coming year?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week.