Not Just Saying Master, Master

by Herb Montgomery

Dictionary entry of the word ethics. “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Companion Texts:

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

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

Where We Stand

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine came up to me with concern after one of my evening presentations. We were in the middle of a week-long series on the Sermon of the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. We’d progressed through Jesus’s rejection of violence and his teaching on sharing our surplus with the poor, and those two teachings alone were about enough for him. He said, “Herb, I feel like you are just giving us a really difficult way to get to heaven.”At that moment, I really didn’t understand all that his statement meant. But as I thought about it, some things began to become clear for me.

First, I didn’t write the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, there are things in it that are difficult to accept, especially for Americans today. Its statements on nonviolence (e.g. Matthew 5:39) and anti-capitalism (e.g. Matthew 19:23) are potently un-American. So yes, some things in Matthew’s gospel are difficult for us.

But before we chuck the entire message, let’s first ask what sector of society we’re encountering these teachings from, where we stand in society. Those of us who are privileged in the status quo always find the teachings of Jesus difficult, whereas those who are subjugated tend to resonate with his teachings as good news. (Both oppressor and oppressed are challenged with the practice of nonviolence, although it challenges them in very different ways.)

So if a saying of Jesus initially strikes you as difficult, first begin by locating yourself within the socio-economic pyramid, and why your place in society might make his teaching hard to accept.

Second, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus present us with a nice and easy program to follow so we can obtain post-mortem bliss (i.e. heaven.) You won’t find it. Jesus teachings were about the “empire” of God here on earth “in this generation,” through people learning how to take care of people. It is Paul’s gospel that addresses post-mortem bliss, not Jesus’s. Jesus placed before us a vision of things on earth being transformed to be “as they are in heaven.” He was not giving us a difficult way to get to heaven, but rather a risky and often deeply challenging way to heal this world. I believe Jesus was showing us a path, a “way,” to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all through mutual participation and mutual care.

Doing As Jesus Said

G.K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying that the history of Christianity does not prove that the teachings of Jesus have been “tried and found wanting,” but that those teachings have been “found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World). But again, Jesus isn’t trying to make it hard for us to get to heaven; he is being honest about how hard it really is to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone. When we tell the truth about this, we don’t make following Jesus hard. We are simply honest about how hard it can be for those at the top of our socio-economic pyramids to follow him. It’s easy to worship Jesus. It’s easy to hold a cosmological notion about Jesus. It’s much more challenging to distill his ethical teachings from a first century Jewish context and apply them to the challenges we face in our society today. And it’s still more challenging to actually follow through with those actions.

But I believe the challenge is worth it. No medical student graduates from medical school and says, “What a bunch of legalistic professors! All they told me for four years was ‘Do this and do that! Do this and don’t do that!’” Instead, they go out into the world with a set of skills and perceptions that we all hope will enable them to alleviate suffering in our world.

It’s the same with Jesus. Jesus didn’t give us a list of doctrines to believe. He left us a set of teachings, wisdom teachings. As we endeavor to put them into practice, our experience grows, our practice becomes more skilled, our listening becomes more honed, and our actions become more intrinsically healing and liberating to those who are not privileged by the current status quo.

Matthew is clear: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the “empire” of God. (I’m beginning to prefer the term “empire” over “kingdom,” because I believe it is more historically consistent with the time in which Jesus taught, when that whole region lived under the oppression of the Roman empire.)

Luke is clear, too, that the sayings of Jesus must be “put into practice.” This set of teachings includes the “Way” of grace, nonviolence, peace-making, loving enemies, forgiveness, restorative justice, transformative justice, social justice, economic justice, working alongside those who are oppressed, marginalized, disinherited, excluded, a generous inclusivity, a radical sharing, and a community built on the principle that the empire of God is people taking care of people, rather than people competing with people.

If I had to choose between someone who believed in all the cosmological claims about Jesus but did not wish to put into practice the teachings of Jesus, and someone who doubted the cosmological claims but saw intrinsic value in Jesus’s teachings and sought to both understand and practice them in the here and now, I would have to choose the latter. The former has brought too much suffering on our world, whereas the latter endeavors to alleviate that suffering and sometimes succeeds!

A history worth reading is Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. This book will be one of our Annual Reading Course books either this year or next.

Calling Jesus “Master”

I want to address the word “Master” in this week’s saying.

As we progress through Sayings Gospel Q, we are going to see that Jesus taught what we would today call anarchy. Anarchy does not mean chaos; it means the rejecting of hierarchy. Anarchy rejects the way of domination and subjugation. 

I want to be clear here. While anarchy is commonly associated with freedom, Jesus didn’t teach “freedom” as we individualistically understand it today. He taught that although we are not to seek to dominate or subjugate one another, we are also not free from one another. We are connected! We are interdependent. No person is an island, and, as branches on the vine, we are all dependent on each other. Jesus taught the way of mutual aid, and he cast a vision of a world of people mutually serving each other. The hope for our world in Sayings Gospel Q is not in our devising more efficient ways of subjugating others, but in our discovering more effective ways at taking care of one another.

And yet we have this word “Master” in this week’s verse. I don’t believe the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q actually wants to be anyone’s “Master” or even “Lord” in the sense of an emperor or feudal baron. I see no example of Jesus grasping that kind of power in any of Sayings Gospel Q. Like all wisdom teachers, Jesus desires to lead his listeners to a better way. And I don’t see him in any of the synoptic gospels wanting to dominate others. His desire was not to be served but to model what it means to serve.

Mark 10:41-45: “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Matthew 20:24-28: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Luke 22:24-27: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’”

Even in John, which was written much later than the other canonical gospels and uses “Lordship” language the most, we find this narrative:

John 13:4-5: “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

John 13:12-15: “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’”

These passages suggest to me that Jesus was much more interested in modeling and teaching a different way for us to live together as members of the human family. Even when he uses the phrase “empire of God,” he subverted the Domination Empire of his day and cast a vision for a world where people no longer dominated and subjugated each other as they did in the empires of that time.

Jesus did not emerge in Judaism only to become another in the long list of lords who practice domination. Instead, he showed us something very different.

This week’s saying is a significant challenge to today’s Christian culture. Today, we overwhelmingly emphasize verbally acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” so that a person can be assured of a post-mortem seat in the non-smoking section. Yet, in many sectors of the Christian religion, the sayings of Jesus on nonviolence, his preferential option for the poor, and his critique of domination systems are largely ignored by those who call him “Lord.” We read these sayings of Jesus in the gospels, but don’t hear them. The sayings pass right by us without substantially challenging the shape of our world. It is a very strange phenomena to me, one that I, too, used to experience.

I recently finished a book entitled Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. If you have not read it, I recommend it. Day is an example of a modern Christian who tried to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. Day wrote, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” (The Catholic Worker, May 1940) The contrast between this paradigm and the paradigm I hear from some Christians today is stark.

And yet there is hope. There are many who have woken up and are waking up to this contrast. To each of you, this week’s saying serves as encouragement. You are working in the light given off by this question:

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

HeartGroup Application 

This week, pick either Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Dedicate some time to reading either one. And then, after you have read through your selection:

  1. Pick a saying that you would like to lean more deeply into.
  2. Research that saying, including different perspectives and interpretations of this saying. Start with a simple Google search if you don’t know where else to begin. Remember what we covered last week. Consider what fruit varying interpretations have yielded or could produce.
  3. Experiment putting this saying into practice in this coming week. When you do, journal about the experience before you forget, and share your reflections with your HeartGroup when you come together.

Thank you so much for joining us this week. Let’s keep putting the sayings of Jesus into practice together, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Is Your Theism An Opiate? 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10.31-32, Emphasis added.)

The German philosopher and economist Karl Marx’s statement, “Religion is an opiate of the people,” Is often quoted. Does your flavor of Theism function as an opiate for you? Let me explain what this means.

One website estimates that 73% of theists, when faced with injustice in the world around them, do nothing. This is a shocking statistic on its face. And many of you may be part of the 27% it doesn’t apply to. Nonetheless, 73% is an incredibly high ratio.

If this is true, why should it be? It could very well be that many kinds of theism include a belief in the apocalyptic and the afterlife. We talked a few weeks ago about apocalypticism and how beliefs about the afterlife often accompany pessimistic views of the present: people tend to believe that things simply are the way they are in the present and cannot be fixed until the next life. As a result, theists from several religions may look at injustice in this world as an unfixable reality that we must simply accept until God puts it right in the hereafter.

That is the philosophical background we discussed recently. Yet there is another possible reason for theists who do not intervene in injustice, and I’d like to address it this week.

A Personal Relationship With A God That Is Love

The deep disregard for injustice that I’ve witnessed among theists seems to be rooted in a drug-like attachment to a private relationship with a Divine being, and they believe this Being is the very essence of Love. How can something so good yield something so damaging?

If you find great value, meaning, and purpose in a relationship with a Divine being that fits this description of ultimate love, by all means, please continue to do so. And also please hear me out. There is another aspect to this that we must also hold in tension to avoid being spiritually deformed.

Have you ever noticed how a couple that is newly in love can be completely oblivious to the world around them? Hold this illustration in your mind as we continue.

“God Loves You”

I find it curious that the idea of God’s love for us does not surface in three of the four, earliest canonical gospels that we have today. The gospel of John is loaded with this concept, but John’s gospel was not written until the end of the first century or beginning of the second. That means that for most of the Jesus’s movement’s first century, followers focused on the principles of Matthew, Mark and Luke—the teaching that calls us to love rather than to bask in being loved.

In these three early Gospels, Jesus spends his time teaching us how to love God, how to love our neighbor, the marginalized, the “sinner,” and how to love our enemies. There is not one example in these three gospels of Jesus sharing a teaching where the focal point of the teaching was trying to get us to embrace how much we are individually, privately loved by a Divine being.

It’s also curious that in the book of Acts, which is the story of the early Jesus movement growing and proclaiming the gospel, the early Apostles preached the good news without once discussing love. Search the entire book of Acts; the word “Love” can’t be found.

As New Testament historian N.T. Wright stated in the podcast Jesus and the Kingdom of God — Today and Tomorrow, “The good news is not a message about you, it’s a message about Jesus. Now, of course, because it’s a message about Jesus it is then a message about you. But if you say, ‘The Gospel is — God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life — this makes it incredibly me-centered. The gospel is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ The crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the World. And under that great statement there is all the room for you to find new life in the present and in the future. There is all the room for you to find new work to do for the Kingdom, but that’s the Gospel — the message about Jesus.”

The message the early apostles proclaimed was the good news, and that good news was not the news that God loves you. Rather they proclaimed the message that the crucified Jesus was risen and is Lord* of this world.

Lastly, I find it curious that nowhere in the New Testament are we ever encouraged to or told how to have a private, personal relationship with God. The language of “personal relationship” that modern evangelicals are so familiar with simply isn’t there.

The Sermon on the Mount may be the most famous summary of the teachings of Jesus, and even it never encourages us to embrace a God who loves you privately. Rather it’s a list of things for the followers of Jesus to do, not to get to heaven, but to heal the hurt of the world around us. In these chapters, we find teachings about a God who loves THE WORLD. Our God loves the world and the people of the world, and therefore we are called to love them, too. (See Matthew 5.45-48.)

Yes, there are Christians that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. And there’s another extreme in the cult of the “private Jesus.” We must guard against getting so lost in being loved in a private, internalized, individual love-fest with our own personal Divine being. The risk is of being so wrapped up in how much we feel God loves us personally that we become insulated against awareness of our culpability in the injustice, suffering, and oppression of this world and our responsibility to reduce it.

My own experience is some of the people who’ve given the loudest “amens” to my teachings on a God of love are also the very ones who’ve offered the loudest objections to my presentations on Jesus’s followers being agents of healing, restoration, and social justice.

We must be careful that the message of a God who loves does not simply become a pacifying drug for those privileged in our social/economic/political pyramid, something that absolves them of conviction about our responsibility to act. The message of God’s love must be more to us than something that helps the privileged—us!—to sleep better at night.

Yes, God is love, and, as Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Again, if you, have found great value, meaning, and purpose in having a relationship with a Divine being that to you is the very essence of love, by all means, please continue. But please don’t allow yourself to get so lost in the Divine, Loving embrace that you forget about those around you who your God loves just as much as God loves you yet may not be in as beneficial a position as you are in the present social order. A God who is love, also loves them, and this should cause us to be keenly aware of those whose suffering make our “blessings” possible.

A suffering world cannot find us credible when we speak of a God who is love and yet “pass by on the other side” when it comes to systemic violence. It matters little whether someone is lost in the hope of an afterlife or entranced by their own private spiritual experience if they are not making a difference in the world around them. Both forms can be subtle denials of the way that our Jewish teacher, Jesus, taught us through his life.

The Way of Jesus (and the prophets)

Did Jesus spend personal, private time, alone with God? Absolutely! Here are a few examples.

Mark 1:35—Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Mark 6:46—After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Matthew 14:23—After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

Luke 5:16—But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke 6:12—One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.

Matthew 26:39—Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed . . .

Notice that Jesus’ time in private prayer empowered him to return to the public scene rather than retreat from it: he engaged the world as an agent of healing and did not perpetually isolate himself. Jesus, like the prophets before him, engaged in a contemplative practice that moved him to action, not withdrawal.

“The prophets have dirty hands (and mouths too sometimes), because you’ll find them wading without apology through the mess of life. Their target audience begins with the church and its religious leaders but extends to nations and heads of state and to corporations with their economic power brokers. They have unabashed social agendas and are not afraid of being perceived as political. Their concern is for the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the enslaved. The mature prophets call for both personal righteousness and social justice. They retreat inward in contemplation then explode onto the public scene as spokespersons for God’s heart and as advocates for the downtrodden.” —Brad Jersak, Can You Hear Me

Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31.9)

In our society, today, the “rights of the poor and needy” include those of all races, cultures, countries, genders, orientations, sexes, education levels, not merely economic status. And this makes it even more important that theists, especially the followers of Jesus, learn how to be agents of healing. Just as our Jesus was.

HeartGroup Application

This week I’m going to let you into something very private for me: my own personal contemplative practice.

I spend a set time every day contemplating the values and teachings taught in the Jesus story. Even if you only have 15 minutes, you’d be surprised what a difference 15 minutes can actually make.

My weekly schedule is:

Sunday: Restoration

Monday: Forgiveness

Tuesday: Reconciliation

Wednesday: Golden Rule / Interconnectedness

Thursday: Nonviolence

Friday: Justice

Saturday: Compassion

This list changes regularly, but this is what it is right now. You can make your own list of values from those in the Jesus story and dedicate some time each day to contemplate them.

  1. Try this yourself. Either create your own list or use mine for now. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and contemplate what each value means; what it looks like in daily life; what its application may be for your own journey; how you can embody this value. Just spend 15 minutes meditating and contemplating each value, daily, for a week.
  1. Journal what insights, changes, challenges, motivations, or benefits this exercise produces in you.
  1. Share your experience with your HeartGroup.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reigns,

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

* We hold the term Lord in tension with the non-kyriarchical teachings of Jesus. (Mark 9.33-35; Mark 10.42-44; John 15:15; John 13.12-15)

Both David’s “son” and “Lord”

 BY HERB MONTGOMERY

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” ’
David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” (Mark 12.35-37)

This week we are looking at a question Jesus asks in Mark’s gospel on the Tuesday of his final week. So far on that day, Jesus has responded to multiple attempts to discredit him in the eyes of the people after his nonviolent, anti-imperial entry on Sunday and his Temple demonstration against religious imperialism on Monday. For the first time in Mark’s narrative, Jesus moves away from reactive defense of his actions to a more proactive teaching.

As he teaches on King David and the Messiah, Jesus is quite clever. He asks, how can the Messiah be David’s son when David refers to this messiah as “Lord”?

The passage Jesus is referencing is Psalm 110:1, a psalm that reassures David of God’s aid defeating Israel’s enemies :

The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

By the 1st Century, according to Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in their wonderful volume The Last Week, this psalm had come to be understood as a messianic psalm.

By alluding to this psalm, Mark’s Jesus focuses on how David describes the “coming one” as David’s “Lord.”

Since returning from exile during the 7th Century BCE, the Hebrew people had held the restoration of “the house of David” as a nationalistic hope. The writers of the Jesus story are writing from within this tradition.

Mark wants his readers to see Jesus as superior to David. Jesus is seen by the early Jesus community as the fulfillment of their long held Davidic hope for the liberation of Israel from foreign oppression and the restoration of Israel as a self-determining, self-governing people. Mark’s Jesus was also to be different in some significant ways from the David of the Hebrews’ most cherished stories.

How did the early Jesus community perceive Jesus to be different/superior to David?

Jesus was anti-imperialist

Today, most scholars agree that Jesus’ teachings and demonstrations include anti-Roman-Imperialism principles. Jesus consistently critiqued the way some Jewish leaders and the temple aristocrats legitimized Rome’s domination system.

Yet the Jesus of the gospels isn’t only opposed to foreign domination systems in Israel. He also imagines a new human society not based on the domination of others at all. For Jesus, our hope as humans is not in our ability to devise more efficient ways of subordinating others, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35)

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10.42-44)

Jesus demonstrated that his Way was to lay down our desire to fashion human societies on the basis of domination and choose instead lovingly caring for the needs of one other.

Jesus was committed to nonviolence

Another way the early believers saw Jesus as different from David was in Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.

Follow Mark’s logic.

Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, and as such has the political/religious title of “son of God.” Mark’s first verse announces “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title, son of God, had a twofold meaning in the 1st Century. It first pointed back to David who also had the title “son of God” (see Psalm 2:7), and it also poked at the Roman title for Caesar.  All three receive their titles after being anointed.

“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.10-11, cf. Psalm 2:7 as well as 2 Samuel 7:14)

Jesus is anointed with the Spirit just as Samuel anointed David with oil in the ancient story when David was chosen to be king (1 Samuel 16:13). Yet Mark’s anointing Spirit comes in the form of a dove. 

In Roman culture, the dove opposed Rome’s imperial symbol, the eagle. The culture also viewed certain birds descending on political figures as an omen.

Two examples:

“Claudius entered on his belated public career as Gaius’s colleague in a two-months’ consulship; and when he entered the Forum with the consular rods, an eagle swooped down and perched on his shoulder.” (Suetonius, Claud. 7)

“At Bononia, where the army of the Triumvirs Augustus, Antony, and Lepidus was stationed, an eagle perched on Augustus’s tent and defended itself vigorously against the converging attack of two ravens, bringing both of them down. This augury was noted and understood by the troops as portending a rupture between their three leaders, which later took place.” (Suetonius, Aug. 94)

Doves contrast with eagles much like lambs contrast with wolves/lions in other literature, in addition to the Christian gospels:

“By the brave and good, are the brave created: their sire’s virtues exist in horses and men, while the ferocious golden eagles don’t produce shy doves.” (Horace, Odes 4.4)

(For more on this line of thought see Jesus and the Dove: how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark by Neil Godfrey.)

So the contrast between the eagle descending on Roman leaders and the dove descending on Jesus is the same contrast we find in all the Jesus stories: the Roman cross signals victory for Rome, whereas the empty tomb is the early Christian icon of God overturning, undoing, and reversing all that the Roman cross accomplished.

So what about Jesus and David? If Jesus had only been a 1st Century David figure, the symbolism used for him should have been a fiercer bird of prey than the eagle. (The eagle is an appropriate symbol for a political power that wants to portray itself as undefeatable as eagles have no known natural predators.)

Yet the gospels represent Jesus with a dove. Jesus’ new world would not come through overpowering the present order through shows of force. No. Jesus’ new world would be much more subversive.

Jesus’ way is the way of the cross, not of a sword. It comes through offering the left cheek rather than striking back; through going the second mile, and throwing off the second garment.

This is why the dove has come to be a symbol of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. In the book of Revelation, a lamb defeats a dragon, contrary to most folk stories that picture the dragon feasting on helpless lambs. A great story I learned while I was in Poland (I gave a series of presentations in Czestochowa in the spring of 2003) is of lambs being used subversively to defeat the Wawel dragon.

Yet as I have offered before, Jesus’ nonviolence was not passive withdrawal from crisis or injustice. It was also not merely nonresistance, it was a Way of resistance. Jesus’ nonviolence was self-affirming in a world where the lives of the weak were already being denied by their oppressors. Jesus called his followers to imagine Jewish nonviolent direct action against Roman imperial domination.

David represented the violent defeat of Israel’s enemies—so much so that the Hebrew Bible describes his hands as too bloody to build the temple. Jesus represents the nonviolent end of Israel’s enemies because he transforms those enemies, even the Roman ones, into his friends. As the old proverb goes, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Jesus’ nonviolence is rooted in justice for the oppressed. It is the liberation of the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressor.

Violent revolutions like those David once led only place those on the bottom of our societies in a new position of power and create new hegemonies. Jesus’ movement, as shown above in Mark 9 and 10, is non-kyriarchical and is based on service, not domination.

HeartGroup Application

I rarely recommend a book for HeartGroups to read and discuss together. HeartGroups are shared tables where we all sit side by side, in equity, sharing with one another, and mutually submitted to one another. HeartGroups are not book clubs. Yet sometimes, reading a book together can lead us into the dynamics of Jesus’ shared table. This week I’m going to recommend a book for HeartGroups to read and discuss together.  and is a book that I have referred to in my talks over the last 18 months.

  1. Read a chapter of Jesus and Nonviolence each week on your own.
  2. Discuss the chapter that you read when your HeartGroup comes together.

Jesus’ new world is characterized by at least two values: service rather than dominance; and the non-violent self-affirmation of oppressed people alongside the subversion of domination systems and the transformation of those who oppress them.

Jesus showed us The Way. It’s up to us to choose to put his teachings into practice.

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

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus, the Meek, and the Golden Rule

Jesus’ non-exclusive, non-homogenous, non-kyriachical, shared table.

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

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

Agape_feast_07

Early Christian Painting of the Shared Table

As we look at the “blessings” of Matthew 5 this week, know that they do not say that any state is  an intrinsic blessing. Rather they each say, that if you have any of the experiences Jesus describes—poverty, mourning, or persecution you will be particularly blessed by the changes Jesus came to make.

The first blessing, “Blessed are the poor,” is a great example. It’s not a blessing to be poor. No one strives and works hard so that one day they can be poor. But Jesus was saying that if the present arrangement of this world has left you poor, you are blessed because the changes I’ve come to make are in your favor. This is also true in the statement we’re  looking at this week, “Blessed are the meek.”

Merriam-Webster defines “meek” as having or showing a quiet and gentle nature, not wanting to fight or argue with other people. It can also be defined as easily imposed on or submissive. There is no intrinsic blessing in being meek in the present world structure. In fact, meekness is a disadvantage in a world where everyone’s looking out for number one, trying to get ahead, looking out for themselves. The world is presently arranged in such a way that it does not reward the meek, it steam rolls over them.

I experienced multiple examples of the truth of this in my travels this summer.

The first was driving in Los Angeles. Driving in L.A. is very different from driving in Lewisburg, WV. In Lewisburg, we look out for everyone on the road. Even cautious drivers are let in and taken care of. Suffice it to say, it is not this way in L.A. If you drive with any degree of meekness, that’s the degree to which you’re going to get run over!

On one of our flights, a large, muscular young man threw a fit in order to intimidate a flight attendant into giving him the seat he wanted. And it worked! As he passed by my seat, I noticed the tattoo on his arm in large lettering: “I trust no one.”

In this world, a world based on competition rather than cooperation, it’s not the meek who are blessed but those who know how to play the game with the greatest skill. Even in something as simple as getting on the airplane, we don’t look after the meek. Each passenger already has their seat assignment, and we will all be taking off and arriving together at the same time. Yet some people need to be the first on the plane to the degree that they will roll over others to do so.

Jesus isn’t telling the people in his day to be meek.  He is telling those listening that the world he was creating would bless even the meek, by contrast to the present world that doesn’t.

Can you imagine a world, where everyone—everyone—treats another simply the way they would like to be treated? Matthew’s Jesus points to that world using the language of his own Jewish tradition:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7.12)

Jesus is sharing a universal truth here. This is how it sounds in the language of other cultures:

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” –Confucius (Ancient China)

“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”—Egyptian, Late Period Papyrus (Ancient Egypt)

“Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you.” –DIsocrates (Ancient Greece)

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” —Udanavarga (Ancient Buddhism)

“Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”—Tobit 4:16 (Ancient Judaism, at least 200 years before Jesus)

“Recognize that your neighbor feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes.”—Sirach 31:15 (Ancient Judaism)

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”—Talmud, Shabbat 31a (Judaism)

“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires.”—Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8) (Ancient Hinduism)

This universal truth that Jesus teaches in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels contains the building blocks of a whole new world. And if we follow it to its furthest conclusion, we find it’s a world that takes care even of the meek. Follow closely.

Jesus modeled this new world for us in his practice of a shared table. Let’s look:

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15.1)

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9.11)

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5.30)

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7.33-34)

Please remember that Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. In first-century Judaism, unlike in our time and culture, the label “sinner” was not a universal term. It referred only to those within the covenant community who were thought to be living out of harmony with the Torah.

Jesus chose a table that included those who, at best, were politically and religiously marginalized, and, at worst, were excluded by their culture’s status quo. Jesus modeled a table, that to a certain degree, was non-homogenous (think of Simon the zealot and Matthew the tax collector).

In other places in the canonical gospels, Jesus is clear that his table must also be non-kyriarchical.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15.15)

But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you.” (Luke 22.25-26)

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. t will not be so among you.” (Matthew 20.25-26)

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.” (Mark 10.42-43)

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13.12)

He modeled an inclusive, non-homogenous, non-kyriarchical shared table. And he invited us to sit with him there.

I believe Jesus understood that exclusivity creates a world where certain voices and perspectives are not heard, a world that does not fully take into account how others would desire to be treated or how we would wish to be treated if we were in their position.

I believe Jesus understood that homogeneity creates a world that’s unsafe for anyone who is different or unlike those seated at the table. To the degree that someone is not at the table, to that same degree those present will create an unsafe world. Ultimately, homogeneity leads to exclusion and exclusion leads to extinction.

Jesus understood that hierarchies where one human exercises authority over another human deny the image of God within both, and create a subjugation that leads to oppression.

I see this truth modeled in the Eucharist. We honor the memory of all who have been excluded, subjugated, and exterminated in the past. These were the ones Jesus also stood in solidarity with, and that solidarity cost him his life at the hands of the status quo. We choose, in the name of Jesus and in the face of this world’s present structures, to shape communities in the form a shared meal, a share table.

Regardless of gender, race, orientation, sex, education, and economic achievement, everyone must be invited to the non-kyriarchical, non-homogenous table. And if we would only choose to learn to follow Jesus and sit around this table with others, especially those who are not like ourselves, we could embrace a world devoid of oppression, subjugation and destructive violence.

I have not always understood this myself, but I am continuously learning. Today I see that if we would choose to live in the manner of a shared table, this would create a world respectfully and compassionately shared by and with us all, even the meek. 

In that world, even the meek are blessed, for they, too, will inherit the earth.

Many voices.

One shared table.

One new world.

HeartGroup Application

1. What are some ways your HeartGroup can lean more deeply into practicing the universal truth of treating others the way you’d like to be treated?

List, together, at least ten.

2. Discuss what it is going to take to begin putting this into practice.

3. What challenges does your HeartGroup face now that this principle would significantly help?

List them.

 

It’s my hope that your heart will, with mine, continue to be liberated, healed and renewed, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

No Such Thing As “Dogs and Pigs” . . . Only “Children.”

How “Listening” is the Cure for our Blindspots

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Happy kids embracing and smiling in the elementary schoolyard. Interracial  friendship.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

This week, I want to place some puzzle pieces on the table for you that may not seem to fit together at first. Once we get them all on the table, though, I hope that we’ll see something fresh and relevant in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Let’s begin by defining three terms.

The first term is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. It describes oppression as an interlocking matrix. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

The second term is kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other dominating hierarchies that encourage people to internalize and institutionalize the subordination of one person or group to another.

The third term is colonialism, the establishment, exploitation, acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of colonies in one territory by a political power from another territory. Colonialism depends on a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between colonists and the territory’s indigenous population.

Let’s use intersectionality, kyriarchy, and colonialism to look at the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem during the life of the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Ponder the status of Jerusalem in the world during that time. Consider the Hebrew people and their own history. Jesus emerged from a people who had participated in forms of kyriarchy and colonialism but, under Rome, was now disinherited.

Jesus presents some images in his teachings that are directly related to this oppressive context.

Dogs and Pigs 

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6) 

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers, and the Hebrews considered them to be unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog.” But this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for those gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people, such as the Romans. Today, some use the term “pig” to refer to police constables who have become oppressive.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple for Imperial purposes. That’s the most direct interpretation of the passage. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—and not merely outward ones. So I have a hunch that in this passage, Jesus is speaking about the ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space within them to be co-opted and used for hatred toward their oppressors. Howard Thurman writes about this in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.

Tyre and Sidon

As well as teaching about dogs and pigs, Jesus also taught about Tyre and Sidon. (See Luke 4:25-26; Luke 10.13-14; Matthew 11.21-22)  In our story this week, Jesus had retreated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities, for a respite.  Yet what many miss is that while Jesus is there, he is met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician.  “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mark 7.26)  It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to turn our attention. This woman, being from Syria, was of Seleucid decent. (Syria was the short-hand name used by Rome to refer to the Seleucid Empire.) Why does this matter? These were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome! Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanies, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. And although the Seleucids and the Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, there was a time when the Seleucids conquered and occupied the Hebrew nation. Jesus’ exchange with this woman, a descendant of those how had sought to wipe out the Hebrew people under Antiochus, takes place in a time when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

Before I talk about the Syrophoenician woman, I want to turn to Howard Thurman’s insightful comments on Jesus’ exchange with her.

“Opposition to the interpretation which Jesus was giving to the gospel of God had increased, and Jesus and his disciples withdrew from active work into temporary semi-retirement around Tyre and Sidon. The woman broke into his retreat with an urgent request in behalf of her child . . . ‘What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind? And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due.’” (Thurman, Howard; Jesus and the Disinherited [pp. 90-91] Kindle ed.)

The issue here is not that this woman was a Gentile. Though the most prominent Phoenician woman in the Old Testament was Jezebel, Elijah also helped a Phoenician woman (1 Kings 17:17) So her non-Jewishness is not the point. In addition to being Phoenician, the woman was also of Syrian descent: she was Syro-phoenician. As Mark writes, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). Syria was the term Rome used to refer to the historical Seleucid Empire.

The issue in this story is that Jesus understood that his announcement of “the favor of God” was to apply to Gentiles too (see Luke 4:25-29; Matthew 8:5-13). But this Gentile begging him for a blessing was of Seleucid descent. This would be the equivalent of descendants of a Holocaust survivor being asked to share survivor reparations with a descendent of the Nazis who had fallen on hard times. It would be comparable to a White American asking to receive reparations intended for the Native American community here in the United States. It would be as if, two hundred years from now, a same-sex married couple were asked to help the descendent of a fundamentalist-evangelical business-owner from Indiana.

The encounter between Jesus and this women is set up to prick our sense of justice. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. But now one of the oppressors was asking him to liberate her daughter too! Jesus question is valid:

Is it right to give the childrens (the Hebrew people) bread to the dogs (the Seleucids)?

According to the Torah, there were foods that were not to be eaten by the Hebrews but that could be thrown out as dog food (see Exodus 22:31). Jesus is here asking: is it just to give that which was intended to liberate my people to a person belonging to those who violently oppressed us in the past?

There are two ways I have heard this explained. One explanation is that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach the on-looking disciples an important lesson in generosity. The other explanation, which I think is more plausible, is that Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

Yes, this woman belonged to a people who had endeavored to wipe his people off the face of the earth. But she was also a woman. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request as the father does in Mark 5.22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Whatever her circumstances, Jesus asks, is it right to help her? Is this how the liberation and reparations for Israel are to be used: not only to benefit those who have been oppressed but also to benefit the suffering oppressors too?

This is where intersectionality comes in. A person can be both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. After all, the Hebrews were not innocent. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews from existence, the Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews participated in the cultural patriarchy that those in Hellenistic Tyre and Sydon lived by as well. And although the Jews in Jesus’ time suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, the Hebrew had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, the compassion of Jesus wins out. It’s worth asking ourselves just how Jesus made even a small space in that room to listen.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

There is theoretical knowledge and then there is experiential knowledge. Jesus understood a love of enemies in theory and gained a deeper understanding of it that day through experience.

I’m thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. I’m also thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need and their blind spots. Had Jesus sent her away, a great injustice would have been committed. But he listened. And he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic that day instead. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ”Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. Jesus, after all, emerged from the community of the disinherited poor. Jesus faced the same dilemma we face:.how does one embrace enemy love without betraying one’s own people?. How does one stay faithful to both justice for the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressors?

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there is really no such thing as dogs or pigs.  There are only children. We are all siblings of the same Divine Parents. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and we all wear on our faces the very image of God.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Here are just a few of the categories of intersectional privilege and disadvantage in our society here in the West:

White            Wealthy        Certified Educated       Male        Straight            Cisgender

Non-White     Poor            Uncertified Education   Female     Non-straight     Transgender

 

These categories combine to create intersectional experiences of domination and oppression.

Consider how each of the following experiences simultaneously includes some level of privilege in our society and some level of disadvantage. Name where they are privileged first. Then look for where they are disadvantaged.

a. A White lower-class, cisgender, straight, blue-collar male

b. An African-American male president of the United States

c. A White cisgender gay female living in inner-city America

d. A bisexual cisgender woman of color living in rural poverty

e. A single White father of three living in suburban America

f. A middle-class White fundamentalist-evangelical, transgender female

d. Wealthy highly educated White, cisgender straight female

2.  We need each other. What does it mean for us to trade our dominations systems for Jesus’ heterogeneous shared table? How can we learn to listen to those who are not like us? How can we learn to incorporate each person’s varied life experience into a beautiful and coherent whole that leads to a safer and more compassionate world for all? How can we allow others to show us where our own blind spots are and also share our stories that can help others see their blind spots?

3. Discuss your thoughts with your upcoming HeartGroup this week.

I’ll close this week with Howard Thurman’s Three Hounds of Hell that dog the soul of the disinherited—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. The ethical teachings found in the values of the Jesus story as it has come down to us today, I believe, offer the disinherited in any area of society a way to escape those three hounds nipping at our heels. This week, if nothing more, may we all learn to sit around Jesus shared table and simply listen.

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

I love each one of you,

I’ll see you next week.