Herb Montgomery | December 9, 2022
To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.
“Today, we must let the kernel of concern for some people’s material needs found in the Hebrew prophets and the gospels evolve to include everyone, including people whom expressions of Christianity have struggled to apply this concern to, including women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, disabled people, and so many others. This Advent season, what does love (and justice) look like to you?”
Our Advent reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:2-11)
Love is a traditional theme during Advent. In the gospels, love holds the most concrete meaning for me when spoken of in the context of justice. We don’t see a lot of familial love in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. We don’t see romance. But we do see love demonstrated though concrete actions of justice for the marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded.
If we interpret the central message of the four gospels as universal love, what we see over and over in the stories is love and justice together, just as Dr. Emilie Townes once said in a documentary:
“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” —Dr. Emilie M. Townes, Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology
In our reading this week, Jesus uses his actions of justice and liberation to validate his ministry to the imprisoned John:
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Each of these, except for leprosy, is from the book of Isaiah:
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:5-6)
“In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind will see.
Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD;
the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 29:18-19)
“But your dead will live;
their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust
wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.” (Isaiah 26:19)
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)
It’s my opinion that the gospel writers add leprosy to this list because its concrete personal suffering and social effects were an appropriate metaphor at the time for Roman Imperialism’s destructive effects on rural communities. (For more on this, read our October eSight, Trading Individualism for Community.)
But the list is complicated. Folks without the ability to see, or hear, or have difficulty moving have their disability listed alongside leprosy and death and that is another example of the ableism in these ancient stories. We can glean much from the gospels while also being honest about how our stories have harmed those with different experiences from the stories’ authors. The gospel stories were written from the perspective of non-disabled people and have harmed people with disabilities. (For more on this, see The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy L Eiesland. This volume was on Renewed Heart Ministries’ recommended reading list in 2022.)
Today, we can acknowledge how the ableism in our gospels stories has born harmful fruit, and in the spirit of our Jesus story, do better.
One item in this list that does resonate with me deeply this year is the last phrase, which sums up Jesus’ message as good news to the poor. In my early years in ministry, I thought I was preaching the gospel for years. But I never mentioned the poor, ever. I realize now that what I called the gospel then were themes Jesus never spoke of, while the themes that Jesus centered and most emphasized, I never mentioned in my preaching and teaching.
Whatever we define as the gospel, if it isn’t first and foremost good news specifically to the poor, then we should recognize that whatever we are preaching as “good news” is different than the gospel that the Jesus of our stories preached. Today, a lot of Christians preach a gospel about Jesus but I have found in my experience not as many are interested in the gospel Jesus in the story himself preached.
Advent and Christmas has historically been a time when Christians make charitable gifts to the poor. And while charity has saved many lives, it still leaves systems that create the need for charity unchanged. The Jesus of our gospels stories taught more than charity toward the poor. He also taught love for people living in poverty lived out in economic justice.
One of my favorite quotations from Gustavo Gutierrez is from his book The Power of the Poor In History:
“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)
Our reading this week ends with Jesus referring to John the Baptist as the greatest prophet who had ever lived. Both Jesus and John align themselves with marginalized communities, not the centralized political power communities of their society. In addition, they, like other Jewish teachers, choose to stand in the rich Hebrew prophetic tradition of justice.
The prophetic tradition in the Hebrew scriptures is complicated too. Many of the Hebrew prophets use rhetoric that is life-giving for “the poor” and also death-dealing for women. This is another opportunity for those of us who value this tradition to practice honesty as we use it to inspire justice.
In her classic work, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Dr. Elisabeth Fiorenza writes:
“Feminist critics of the prophetic Israelite tradition have pointed to its devaluation and suppression of Goddess worship among Israelite women (cf. Jer 44:15-19) as well as to its transference of the patriarchal marriage pattern to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel, in which Israel is seen not only as the dependent virgin and wife but also as the unfaithful harlot. Postbiblical feminist objections against the prophetic tradition—that it eliminates the divine female symbol as well as perpetuates the patriarchal subordination of women—must be dealt with critically from a historical perspective before feminist theologians can claim the prophetic traditions as ‘liberating’ for women.” (Elisabeth Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, p. 135)
Alongside the rhetoric of certain of the prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, etc.) we also find strong calls for justice toward those their society had made economically vulnerable to harm. Within these same prophetic traditions we also find statements like the following from Amos that have been an inspiration to our some of our contemporary justice movements today, of which the civil rights movement is only one example:
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
We must couple the message of universal love with a concern for the concrete needs of those we love: their liberation, justice, wellbeing, and thriving. Our material lives matter, and concern for the material needs of others is part of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Liberative and distributive justice is what love looks like in public.
Today, we must let the kernel of concern for some people’s material needs found in the Hebrew prophets and the gospels evolve to include everyone, including people whom expressions of Christianity have struggled to apply this concern to, including women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, disabled people, and so many others.
This Advent season, what does love (and justice) look like to you?
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. Based on the ethics of the Jesus story, what communities do you feel Christians could evolve to be more inclusive with their concern for their concrete material thriving? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
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My new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels is now available at renewedheartministries.com
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
Now Available at Renewed Heart Ministries!
It’s finally here! Herb’s new book Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is available at renewedheartministries.com, just in time for the holidays!
Here is just a taste of what people are saying:
“Herb has spent the last decade reading scripture closely. He also reads the world around us, thinks carefully with theologians and sociologists, and wonders how the most meaningful stories of his faith can inspire us to live with more heart, attention, and care for others in our time. For those who’ve ever felt alone in the process of applying the wisdom of Jesus to the world in which we live, Herb offers signposts for the journey and the reminder that this is not a journey we take alone. Read Finding Jesus with others, and be transformed together.” Dr. Keisha Mckenzie, Auburn University
“In Finding Jesus, Herb Montgomery unleashes the revolutionary Jesus and his kin-dom manifesto from the shackles of the domesticated religion of empire. Within these pages we discover that rather than being a fire insurance policy to keep good boys and girls out of hell, Jesus often becomes the fiery enemy of good boys and girls who refuse to bring economic justice to the poor, quality healthcare to the underserved, and equal employment to people of color or same-sex orientation. Because what the biblical narratives of Jesus reveal is that any future human society—heavenly or otherwise—will only be as good as the one that we’re making right here and now. There is no future tranquil city with streets of gold when there is suffering on the asphalt right outside our front door today. Finding Jesus invites us to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ on our feet as we follow our this liberator into the magnificent struggle of bringing the love and justice of God to all—right here, right now.”—Todd Leonard, pastor of Glendale City Church, Glendale CA.
“Herb Montgomery’s teachings have been deeply influential to me. This book shares the story of how he came to view the teachings of Jesus through the lens of nonviolence, liberation for all, and a call to a shared table. It’s an important read, especially for those of us who come from backgrounds where the myth of redemptive violence and individual (rather than collective) salvation was the focus.” – Daneen Akers, author of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and co-director/producer of Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film about Faith, Identity & Belonging
“So often Christians think about Jesus through the lens of Paul’s theology and don’t focus on the actual person and teachings of Jesus. This book is different. Here you find a challenging present-day application of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. Rediscover why this Rabbi incited fear in the hearts of religious and political leaders two millennia ago. Herb’s book calls forth a moral vision based on the principles of Jesus’ vision of liberation. Finding Jesus helps us see that these teachings are just as disruptive today as they were when Jesus first articulated them.” Alicia Johnston, author of The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists.
“Herb Montgomery is a pastor for pastors, a teacher for teachers and a scholar for scholars. Part memoir and part theological reflection, Finding Jesus is a helpful and hope-filled guide to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who he can be. Herb’s tone is accessible and welcoming, while also challenging and fresh. This book is helpful for anyone who wants a new and fresh perspective on following Jesus.”— Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families
Get your copy today at renewedheartministries.com
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