Calling Good Evil (Part 3 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 15, 2019

Picture of ripples from a droplet in a rainbow colored pond.
Photo Credit: Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

“Using the term ‘homosexual’ in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read ‘pederasty.’ One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

This week we’re continuing our look at passages that Christians have typically interpreted and used in ways that harm LGBTQ people and others. There are a myriad of ways to interpret the passages we are considering in this series, so I want to remind us to continue asking ourselves, what is the fruit of how I interpret these passages? Are my interpretations doing harm or are my interpretations life giving? As Jesus said, “No good tree [or interpretation] bears bad fruit.”

A few years back, I listened to a presentation by Justin Lee where he mentioned Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Lee brought up Noll’s book because of the striking similarities between the theological crisis slavery and the abolition movement brought to Christianity in America and today’s schisms caused by churches’ refusal to recognize, include, embrace, and celebrate Christians who identify as LGBTQ. The United Methodist Church’s recent decisions are just one example. Immediately after listening to Lee, I purchased Noll’s book and was shocked at how similar the arguments for and against abolition were to today’s arguments for and against inclusion of LGBTQ Christians as members and as clergy in the Christian church. 

Noll writes: 

“Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.” (Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 49)

As we turn to the New Testament passages under our consideration, we too must pay attention to nuance. We must do more than engage in surface readings of passages that too easily can be interpreted through our own unseen biases. We need not throw out our sacred text. We must simply learn to look more deeply at passages in their context and in our context today to arrive at life-giving interpretations. 

This is keenly true of our first two passages.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The term “homosexuality,” though invented in the late 1800s, did not appear in any Bible before 1946. This is significant. As I argued last week, the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Christians typically associate with loving same-sex relationships were not addressing same-sex attraction as we understand it today. Christians for most of history read these two New Testament passages very differently than those translated recently.

I want you to see the progression in translations. 

King James Version (1611):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 

1 Timothy 1:10: For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

Revised English Bible (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Surely you know that wrongdoers will never possess the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or sexual pervert. 

1 Timothy 1:10: And fornicators, perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers—in fact all whose behaviour flouts the sound teaching

The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate. We’ve seen that the passages in the Hebrew scriptures usually associated with our topic are actually referring to sexual violence that men used to terrorize or dehumanize other men in times of war. Brownson also reveals that these two passages were not speaking of what we call homosexuality today, but were describing the abusive Roman practice of pederasty (sex between an older man and a young boy): sex with a minor, which would today be condemned as rape by the LGBTQ community.

“[Arsenokoitai] is particularly problematic because there is no attested usage of this word preceding the New Testament documents — that is, in extrabiblical literature — that might provide additional information about its range of meaning. But the most important thing to recognize is that there are two words, not just one. Most scholars recognize that the presence of these two words reflects widespread assumptions throughout the ancient world about male-male homosexual activity: almost all the documents discussing male same-sex eroticism assume a distinction between active older men (commonly referred to in Greek as erastai) and passive younger males (commonly referred to as erōmenoi) — in other words, the practice of pederasty. The malakoi (“ softies”) are the younger, passive erōmenoi, and the arsenokoitai (“ man-bedders”) are the older, active erastai. (James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 274, emphasis added.)

Brownson concludes on the next page:

“But when we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Ibid., p. 275.)

After 1946, though, there is an obvious homophobic bias in New Testament translations that is not warranted by the original languages. Where the original languages address sexual and power violations between an adult and a child, i.e. injustice, we begin to see after 1946 generic homophobia instead.

Here are a few examples from more contemporary translations:

New International Version (2011):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

Notice how in the NIV the wording is “men who have sex with men.” The pederasty reference in the original language is completely and, with bias, ignored.

New American Standard  (1960):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 

1 Timothy 1:10: and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 

Today’s New International Version (2005):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

New Revised Standard Version (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 

1 Timothy 1:10: fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.

We’ve considered what was really happening in the ancient Sodom story. The term “sodomites” used in the New Revised Standard Version is a misnomer and betrays a heterosexist bias and the cultural normativity of our day. 

That’s the biggest point this week. Those who seek to interpret these Bible texts in more life-giving ways within the LGBTQ community are often accused of allowing the present culture to bias them. But what we see in the progression of translations over the last half-century is that translating 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 terms as homosexuality rather than pederasty allows contemporary cultural homophobia to bias the translations while completely ignoring the cultural context which these passages were originally intended for and written in. 

Using the term “homosexual” in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read “pederasty.” One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us. 

In the Jesus story, some religious leaders (scribes, Sadducees, some Pharisees) taught interpretations of the Torah and practiced a kind of holiness that marginalized the most vulnerable. Jesus, like the prophets before him, instead valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of holiness that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. Even if, as a Christian, you deem same-sex attraction as condemned by your sacred text, you still have one grave reality staring back at you in the face: As a Jesus follower, why are the results, the fruits, of your interpretation so different from Jesus and so identical to those in the story who crucified Jesus? We must let this contradiction confront us.

Regardless of our claim, the fact that LGBTQ Christian youth have such a higher suicide rate in our Christian faith tradition, a rate that is increased by their being “Christian” and having been rejected by their religious families, a rate that is eight times higher rate than non-Christian youth who are accepted, all of this screams to us that in all our piety and holiness, we have imbibed more the spirit of those who stood in opposition to the Jesus of the story than we have the spirit of Jesus himself.

Being LGBTQ has not taken the life of one Christian gay young person, but our interpretations and the way we are relating to them has.

If sin is wrong because it produces death and does harm, and how we are to responding to our LGBTQ population is producing death, you have to ask where is the sin? First get the log out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly to get the dust out of someone else’s.

For the sake of every Christian LGBTQ young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every last phone call made and every effort engaged to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. 

If you are following Jesus, it’s time for change. Please don’t say you’re simply standing up for what is right. Those who rejected and crucified Jesus felt they were too. Jesus stood up to defend those who were being damaged by those who were standing up for what they interperated as right. It’s time that we and our Jesus looked more like the one in the story.

Next week, we’ll consider Romans 1.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

HeartGroup Application

First let me say, it’s good to be back.  While I have been traveling over the past few weeks, a lot has been happening in the Christian LGBTQ community in relation to the recent decisions made by the United Methodist Church.

It was a deeply disappointing to watch for many of us who were hoping for and even expecting a very different outcome. I’m encouraged personally to see how many within the Methodist tradition are standing their holy ground.  Churches who have been welcoming and affirming across the nation are choosing to be excluded on the basis of whom they include rather than included because of whom they exclude.

I would like your HeartGroup this week to sit down and discuss three ways your little group can become more welcoming and affirming, too. It’s never a bad time to become more inclusive of those others are marginalizing. As we have often discussed, Jesus modeled and practiced a preferential option for those others excluded. How can your group do the same. 

After you’ve listed three, make a timeline, and begin putting all three into practice.

Together we have the ability to be a source of change in our society. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.   

Calling Good Evil (Part 2 of 5)

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2019

“My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.”

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

As I shared last week, I’ve refrained from debating the passages we’ll be considering this week. I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t want to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet, as I said, I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about this does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent: not silent in my affirmation, but silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So I’ve promised to amplify two voices on this topic: the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a writer and speaker in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to, and James Brownson, a Bible scholar and parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. 

With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality,is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey of learning about affirming theology.

What follows is a brief explanation of how I interpret each passage typically used to address LGBTQ people. These are not exhaustive defenses of each passage, but brief summaries—an introduction to get you started. For a more detailed discussion of each passage, I recommend the two resources above. 

Let’s begin.

Genesis 19

This passage is an ancient story of a city’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality to strangers. This refusal came out of the townspeople’s desire to protect their affluence from the threat of having to share with others. The city, Sodom, was located in a coveted, agriculturally fertile region. Much like the U.S., which has recently separated migrant children from their parents on its southwest borders, Sodom developed an effective strategy of terrorizing potential migrants to keep foreigners away.

In the story, Lot was different. He saw two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly on their way at the first light of dawn. What happened that night was terrifying and an intentional message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.’ ‘No,’ they answered, ‘we will spend the night in the square.’ But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” (Genesis 19:1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those with same sex attraction/orientation or in same sex loving relationships. I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. 

In this story and culture, rape was a way to inflict the worst possible humiliation on another, and was rooted in ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. (See Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East) The laser beam of convicting truth in these ancient tales should not be focused on members of the LGBTQ community but rather on people who use sexual violence (or any form of terror) against others and on the kinds of xenophobic actions the United States is committing at its borders and against immigrants across the country. 

Hospitality toward strangers was and still is a deeply held Jewish value (see Deuteronomy 26:12; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Jewish followers of Jesus carry on this tradition of hospitality toward strangers in the New Testament scriptures as well. This passage from the book of Hebrews almost echoes the story of Sodom:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The story of Sodom is not about the LGBTQ community or LGBTQ people’s loving relationships. Instead it has everything to do with people who were extravagantly affluent and did not wish to share. 

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16.49-50)

The story of Sodom has nothing to do with sexual orientation.or loving same-sex relationships. It’s rather about the evil of responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, especially when their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. And it is a warning against xenophobia and the terror tactics xenophobes employ. (For additional background, read Judges 19:11-30; see also Rape as a “weapon of war” against men, Male rape survivors fight stigma in Uganda, and Male Rape and Human Rights). 

Leviticus 18

Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” 

Christian affirming theologies interpret this passage in many different ways. The way that speaks most deeply to me and my sense of justice is related to our previous story in Sodom, which does not address same-sex sex between women but only what men to do other men. 

Again, this passage is not informed by what we understand today as sexual orientation. It’s informed by the sexual violence that men inflict on other men to diminish them (see again Judges 19:11-30, Genesis 19:1-5, and the above sources referenced). As I just explained, a man raping another man intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation on him. In that culture, women were wrongly considered less than men and so one way to dehumanize a man was to lower him to the same status as a woman. 

So in this culture the law prohibited diminishing men by treating them as if they were women. Both men and women were raped in times of war and conquest, and still are today. But it is shocking to see how lightly many portions of our sacred text considered the rape of women. We seem to see much more concern with protecting men from being raped by other men than with protecting women from rape or raping women being “detestable.”

Again, this was an androcentric culture of deeply rooted patriarchy. Today, we still see misogyny and toxic masculinity at the heart of many men’s reaction to same sex relationships between men. Many men today seem to more easily tolerate same sex relationships between women than those between men. Some even treat same-sex sex between women as a sexual fetish. 

I remember sitting in a restaurant speaking with a friend of mine whose son had just come out to him as gay. My friend was beside himself. He stated how deeply repulsed he was by same-sex intimacy between men. He said he didn’t even want to be in the same room with “them,” and now his own son was “one of them” too! 

I looked at him and risked an accusation. I was banking on our relationship allowing me to get away with it. I looked him in the eye and said, “You just don’t like the idea of men looking at you the way you typically look at women.” 

The light came on in his eyes and the coin dropped in the slot. His misogyny and objectification of women was deeply tied to his inability to accept same sex relationships among men, including his own son’s.

I’m happy to say that conversation was a turning point for my friend. Today, he fully embraces and celebrates his son, and his relationships with women have become a million times more healthy. He is an outspoken ally of LGBTQ folks. He’s come a long way. 

What a contemporary reading of Leviticus should warn men about today is the intrinsic harm of believing women are somehow less than men. I’m convinced that if someone truly believed women were equal with men, then seeing men who don’t align with our culture’s toxic definitions of what it means to be a “man” would not threaten those of us who identify as male. And yet, even in saying all of this, it says a lot when “masculinity” is still defined as “not femininity.” When that’s the case, the rape of men is a problem because it treats men like women. The deeper violation is that sexual violence is a problem on its own terms and one that harms people of all genders. To fail to see this is still as androcentric as the culture out of which Leviticus was written.

We’ll look at four New Testament passages next week. Then we’ll close with a look at Genesis 1. 

For now, remember:

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

HeartGroup Application

I grew up in a faith tradition that looked at the Bible as having only one right interpretation and many wrong interpretations. I was wrongly taught that one could objectively find this one right interpretations if one practiced the proper hermeneutics. 

I no longer subscribe to this way of looking at sacred texts. Our biases are inescapable. We all have blind spots. Even in our attempts to be objective, we rarely recognize our own biases and blind spots. Fish don’t know they are wet. When we look at the text as having only one right interpretation, the result is that we seek to find that right interpretation, regardless of whether that fruit is harmful for life giving.  We want to be right rather than being righteous.  The goal, I believe, should rather be to allow the text to speak to us in our contexts today with the most life giving, life affirming, life celebrating interpretations our present level of knowledge will enable.

Sacred texts of all religions, including the Bible, can have a myriad of interpretations and applications. The goal is to embrace life giving interpretations and move away from interpretations that do harm to oneself and others. Asking whether an interpretation is right or not, I believe is the wrong question.  We must ask if our interpretations are righteous. What fruit do they produce? Is the fruit harmful or life embracing, life giving?  Does it liberate or oppress? Do our interpretations fuel injustice or do they empower us to move away from injustice toward the work of shaping of a just, compassionate, and safe society for everyone?

The choice, including in our interpretations, is an ancient one—life or death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-2) How can you know if you’re on the right track? Consider if your interpretations are bringing life or doing harm. “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) If your interpretation of a passage is doing harm, don’t hold on to out of a prioritized value of being right or because it is an interpretations that most resonates with your own biases, perceived or otherwise. Prioritize people first. People matter. Loosen your grip on harmful interpretations regardless of how long you’ve held on to them, and be open to embracing other interpretations that are righteous, that prioritize people’s well being, that are just, and that give life.

This week:

1. Come up with a list of three (if you can) interpretations of Bible passages that you believe are harmful. 

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup the harm you have witnessed from these interpretations.

3. Discuss with your group alternative interpretations and/or begin seeking out new interpretations with the goal of interpreting your sacred texts in more life giving ways.

Thanks for journeying with us so far. I’m deeply grateful that you’re here.  We’ll keep exploring next week. This week, wherever you are right now, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Calling Good Evil (Part 1 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2019

“And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic.”

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

In the last month, I’ve spent the last two weekends in the company of LGBTQ Christian communities. Every time I spend time with communities like these, I am deeply moved by their compassion, insight, and wisdom. The people I’ve met have always failed to match the mischaracterizations that homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic Christian communities assign to them. I walk away from each experience with a deeper understanding of my own faith and what it means for me to follow Jesus today our work of love, compassion, action, and justice.

During these visits I bumped into a high school friend who I haven’t seen since graduation. He told me of his sister, a deeply Christian lesbian woman, who recently married the love of her life, a pastor. On the morning of her wedding, her mother sent her a very ugly email. This mother, who had refused to attend the wedding, wrote this message to her daughter: “What you’re doing today makes me want to go jump off a bridge.”

When I heard this story I sat aghast. What is it about anti-LGBTQ Christianity that causes parents to so deeply reject and shame their own children? I have yet to understand this. 

For many Christian parents, discovering their child is attracted to those of the same sex or identifies with a different gender than the one on their birth certificate begins their journey of discovering that everything their faith tradition has taught them of the LGBTQ community has been deeply misinformed at best and intentionally maligning at worst. They discover they were wrong. 

But far more parents in these same faith traditions don’t make this journey. Far more often, parents reject their own children in order to be faithful to their anti-LGBTQ faith. Religion can be a powerful force of good in the world. It can also be a powerful force of the worst kinds of evil.

This week I want us to consider a story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew where Jesus was also mischaracterized and maligned. Jesus has strong words here for those who malign that which is holy, just, and good and call it evil.

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matthew 12:24-37; see also Mark 3:23-29)

In this story, Jesus teaches the principle of knowing a tree by its fruit. His community had ways to interpret their sacred texts that could gave them ample basis to reject him. But there were also other ways to interpret those same sacred texts that would have freed them to embrace him and his life-giving teachings. 

How do we know if our interpretations of our sacred text, in any religion, are moving in the right direction? Jesus tells us in this story: What is the fruit of your interpretation? If the tree is good, its fruit will be good. If the tree is bad, its fruit will be as well. 

While I was in Arizona last month, a sincere questioner asked me how I interpret the Bible’s passages that contemporary homophobic and biphobic Christians use to scare people away from affirming LGBTQ people. For a long time, I’ve refrained from debating these passages. A dear friend of mine calls such debates “text hockey.” I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t what to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic. First is the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a voice in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to. The second is James Brownson, a parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

I want to share their work with you so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you to how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey learning about affirming theology.

As Vines reminds us, “Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered” (p. 24). He also writes, “The telescope didn’t lead Christians to reject Scripture. It simply led them to clarify their understanding of Scripture” (ibid. p. 38). 

Certainly there are multiple ways texts can be interpreted. We must reach for the most life-giving choices when possible. What are the fruit of the interpretations we choose? We must be honest about the fruit that is born from homophobic and biphobic theologies. We must also be honest about the life-giving fruit of our Christian LGBTQ siblings’ affirming theology. The life-giving fruit of their affirming theology is something we cannot afford to ignore.

Jesus said that it’s one thing to mistake an evil thing good, and quite another to label something that’s holy, just, and good evil. Jesus called the latter unpardonable. 

So next week, we’ll begin in the book of Genesis and progress through the texts Christians typically use to harm our LGBTQ friends, relatives, and neighbors. Each text will be well worth our time to explore. I’m so glad you’re here with us on this journey.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application

In your HeartGroups this week, discuss the meaning of these two words—intrinsic and imposed

  1. Have you ever experienced imposed rules within a community (religious or secular) prohibiting actions that you knew had no negative intrinsic result? 
  2. Have you ever experienced a lack of concern, acceptance or even encouragement of attitudes and actions that you knew to intrinsically bring harm or bear destructive fruit?
  3. Discuss both of these experiences within your group this week. What are the differences between actions to which are added imposed results such as imposed penalties or affirmation, and actions that have their own intrinsically harmful or beneficial results? Is there a place for imposed rules and consequences when properly associated with actual intrinsically destructive choices? Can imposed rules be abused? Can they be misapplied in ways that label things as bad or harmful that can are actually good or at least neutral?  What can your group learn from this discussion? How can your group become a healthier community that bears life-giving fruit, itself? How can your HeartGroup community impact your larger community in life-giving ways as well?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Children against Parents 

girl spray painting a graffiti heart on wall

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53) 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:34-38: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

‘a man against his father,a daughter against her mother,a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 12:49-53: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Gospel of Thomas 10: “Jesus says: ‘I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.’”

Gospel of Thomas 16: “Jesus says: ‘Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the earth. But they do not know that I have come to cast dissension upon the earth: fire, sword, war. For there will be five in one house: there will be three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father. And they will stand as solitary ones.’”

Micah 7:6: “For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.”

Two Types of Peace Making

There are two types of peace-making. One type uses force of arms. It amounts to being the biggest bully on the hill: if you’re big, strong, and bad enough, no one will mess with you and they’ll do what you say. The other type uses distributive justice. It makes sure everyone is taken care of and everyone has enough so that there can be peace.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan mention these two types of peace in their joint volume, The First Christmas:

“Empire promises peace through violent force. Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice. Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative option— peace through justice.” (p. 75)

Later they insightfully contrast the two:

“The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (p. 166)

Nonviolence Isn’t Peaceful

The road to peace isn’t peaceful, however. Even if, like Gandhi, one defines Jesus’ activism as nonviolent resistance, our saying this week indicates that Jesus wasn’t about “keeping the peace” with a lack of conflict.

The Jesus of the gospels came to “bring fire and sword.” But how we understand this saying makes all the difference.

Too often, Christians have misinterpreted these words, chosen to be the ones wielding the sword against others, and literally set heretics, witches, Muslims, and Jews on fire. Let’s look this saying more closely.

In response to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by participating in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King stated:

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” (In Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr by Stephen B. Oates)

As we move toward distributive justice, nonviolent resistance to systems of disparity should disrupt. It should confront, it should disturb, it should prevent the unjust system from continuing on as normal. Unless nonviolence is disruptive, its goal is not achieved. On August 3(4), 1857, Frederick Douglass gave an address on West India Emancipation in Canandaigua, New York:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress . . . Men might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” (Source)

And although Douglass did not subscribe to the theories of nonviolence as King did, he was right: Whether it be by disruptive violence or disruptive nonviolence, the point is that there has to be disruption to the status quo. Even nonviolence can be disruptive when it isn’t a co-opted nonviolence that passively demonstrates without changing a thing.

Don’t miss that the sword mentioned in this week’s saying is one being raised by the unjust system against Jesus and his followers. It isn’t a sword that Jesus and his followers raise against others. It’s a fire of disruption and a part of resistance that the those benefited by the status quo seek to extinguish. Jesus words about taking up the cross are still ahead of us in this series. They must be understood in a way that does not promote the myth of redemptive suffering.

And before we arrive at that discussion, we must note that Jesus’ followers are not the ones with the swords in their hands in this passage. They’re the ones whom those with swords in their hands threaten with crosses. They’re for standing up to what was unjust. They’re being threatened with death for standing up and taking hold of life.

Remember, Jesus didn’t die so you could go to heaven. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo. And even if he did so nonviolently, he stood up to injustice while standing alongside the poor and exploited and marginalized (consider the temple incident).

Social Location Matters

This saying is also at the center of why many parents feel religiously compelled to reject their children and grandchildren for being perceived as out of harmony with their own faith. Painful examples are the disproportionate rates of LGBT homeless young people who are turned out of their religiously fundamentalist homes: their parents’ Christianity is a version that would cause them to reject their own children.

What we must see this week is that in the stories about Jesus’ followers, they’re the ones being rejected, not the ones rejecting. They are the ones Jesus encourages to stand up and resist even if their own family rejects them.

This saying is on the side of the youth being kicked out. It’s on the side of the women who stand up to domestic violence. It’s on the side of slaves that stand up against their enslavement. It’s on the side of straight siblings who choose to stand in solidarity with their LGBT siblings over against the fear of experiencing their parents’ rejection too. It’s on the side of the counselors and clergy that stand with survivors of relational violence and tell them not to just passively accept abuse but to leave, even when doing so will bring rejection from those who subscribe to biblical patriarchy.

This week’s saying is on the side of the abolitionists who were accused of having to throw out their Christian faith to stand against White Christian slavery. It’s on the side of people of color and their white allies who stand firm and say “Black Lives Matter” in the face of rejection from their white peers, Christian and non-Christian alike. It’s on the side of those who find themselves opposing both Democrats and Republicans in saying that bombs won’t grant self-determination for those here or in any country where they’re victims of the global economy.

Yes, when you stand up for the vulnerable, there will be push back. Stand up anyway.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated mid-mass, and who stood in solidarity with the poor beyond U.S. backed military repression in El Salvador said:

Christ asks us not to fear persecution, because — believe me, brothers and sisters — whoever has cast his or her lot with the poor will have to endure the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor is: to disappear, to be tortured, to be a prisoner, to be found dead.” (Quoted by James Brockman in The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, Orbis Books, 1982)

Using the Jewish text of Micah, our saying this week goes on to say, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. (Matthew 10:21)

Jesus message is stand up anyway.

Standing against injustice will produce a sword in the hand of those who are threatened by a more egalitarian world. Standing up will produce a fire storm of criticism: Colin Kaepernick followed all the rules the privileged say defines a legitimate protest and has still been delegitimized and slandered.

Stand up anyway.

If those who are rejecting you for standing with the vulnerable are your own family, biological or religious, stand against injustice, fear, ignorance, violence, and oppression anyway.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who, after his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, returned to Germany to stand with the vulnerable and against Nazism. He wrote, “There remains an experience of incomparable value… to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

One’s social location matters. Reading this week’s saying from the location of those on the undersides and edges of our society makes a difference.

We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister. And it’s encouraging us to stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable will create conflict. But from that soil can grow a distributive justice that produces the fruit of peace. I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone. But when those threatened by the new world do raise their swords and standing up creates a fire storm, stand up anyway.

Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker remind us, “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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you‚ think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53)

HeartGroup Application

Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his book We Drink From Our Own Wells:

“The faith and courage of the members of our communities in the face of threats, misunderstandings, and persecution for justice’ sake are sustained and strengthened by the support each individual gives the others, by the support each community gives the others, by our very struggle and activity, by meditation on the word of God, and by the recollection of the witness given by those who have struggled for justice.”

As a group:

  1. List what types of push back you fear you will experience for taking stands against injustice, oppression, and violence?
  2. Discuss how your group can support members if these fears become reality? Make an actual list.
  3. Create an action plan: people to call or reach out to, ways to respond, things to set in motion that each of you can put into practice this week to support each other if and when pushback occurs. And now, having each other’s back, stand up anyway.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

Again, I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

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If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

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All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Confessing or Denying

woman holding drawing of zipper over her mouthby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Anyone who may speak out for me in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels.” (Q 12:8-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Luke 12:8-9: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

Not Remaining Silent

The context of this week’s saying is Jesus teachings to his followers to:

This week’s saying repeats the encouragement not to remain silent that we saw three sayings ago. What could Jesus have meant by the phrase, “Speaking out for me?” I grew up believing this was about being proud to be a Christian, about boldly engaging others in a conversation about whether they had accepted Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior” so that they could enjoy assurance about an other-worldly post-mortem life. Nothing could be further from the social context of this saying in Sayings Gospel Q.

Jesus message in Q announced the arrival of the reign of God in the hearts of people. This reign, in Q, made itself manifest in a person’s newly embraced commitment to take responsibility for the care of the people around them—especially those pushed to the underside and margins of society by the status quo. The “kingdom” in its simplest form is people helping people. It critiqued the present system, which privileged elite at the expense of the dominated and subjugated class. It called people to dismantle society’s present arrangements and replace them with the community Jesus modeled in his shared table. 

Why would Jesus need to encourage his followers to speak out and refuse to keep silent? Because whenever you begin speaking truth to power, whenever you begin speaking out against the way things are, those benefited by societal bias will always feel threatened. Equity to those who are disproportionately privileged always feels like a threat to their way of life. And rightly so, because it is! Those who benefit push back against critiques, endeavoring to silence those who speak out against injustice. To those whom others are trying to silence, the Jesus of Sayings Q encourages, “Speak out for me and the societal vision we are casting before the imaginations of any who will listen.” Adolf Deissmann in his classic volume, New Light on the New Testament From The Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, tell us that archaeological evidence indicates that the primitive Jesus community was “ a movement of the proletarian middle class.” (p. 7) Jesus was a community organizer teaching his disinherited and oppressed proletariat followers how to speak up for and work towards the changes they wanted.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Whether Jesus subscribed to an apocalyptic world view or that was the worldview of those who preserved his story, the dualism of apocalypticism is in plain view in this saying. As we covered before, this ancient worldview assumed that there were cosmic forces of good and evil connected to earthy conduits of good and evil.

Jesus accesses the cosmic imaginations of his listeners by referencing “angels” on the Day of Judgment, one of the events where those who subscribed to this worldview believed injustice, violence and oppression in our world would be put right. Jesus’ gospel was an announcement that this long awaited “putting right” had come and it was theirs if they would embrace the reign of God manifested in people choosing to take care of people. It was a deeply held belief that the Day of Judgment was a breaking in of the cosmic world into this world: a day of reckoning, a day of reward and punishment, a day of reversal, when the oppressed would be liberated and oppressors would be removed from their places of domination. The last would be first and the first would be last. In our saying this week, this vision of a future day of judgment is used to motivate the early followers of Jesus. Jesus says that those who speak out would be spoken for on that day, and those who remained silent in the face of injustice would be repudiated.

This may have been a deeply motivating idea for the first audience of the Jesus story. Today, we can use other motives to inspire one another to take care of each other. We are interconnected. We are each other’s fate, and what affects you, affects me. Whether one subscribes to the apocalyptic worldview of the 1st Century, or a more naturalistic 21st Century worldview, the truth of our interconnectedness is universal. We are in this life together. If I do not speak out for those being marginalized and pushed under, it will come back to negatively affect me as well. The world we create for others is the world we are creating also for ourselves.

Son of Humanity

I trace the “Son of man” title for Jesus back to the political imagery of Daniel 7. In this piece of Jewish apocalyptic sacred resistance literature, the Son of Man is seen:

“Coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:27)

This is not imagery where the rulers or destroyed or annihilated, but rather they are gathered into Jesus’s ethical vision for the world, and they follow it.

This imagery is picked up in the Christian scriptures in the apocalyptic book of Revelation:

“All nations will come

and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:4)

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:24)

We could reclaim some of this imagery today, but not in the way that the colonial nations or modern Christian Right have used it. We don’t imagine a world where everyone embraces the evangelical Christian religion and its Western White theology—or else. We could reclaim this imagery in a much more compassionate, holistic way: a vision of human societies being transformed as they embrace the universal truth that Jesus taught: we are connected. In the “everlasting dominion that will not pass way,” human society chooses to end racism, to end classism, to end sexism, to end heterosexism, and more. Humans cease their endless efforts to gain power over others in order to preserve a world that’s safe for them, but not safe, compassionate, or just for others. Our differences are not met with fear but embraced as part of the beautiful human kaleidoscope that we all are.

Taking Hold of Life

The saying of Jesus we are considering this week is Jesus’ repeated call to “speak out.” A statement that I have referenced before and will be referencing repeatedly over the next few weeks is Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement on the myth of redemptive suffering. I can’t get this statement out of my head. It deeply challenges the way I have applied the teachings of nonviolence in the past as a person who benefits from the status quo.

“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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

In our saying this week, Jesus calls those being intimidated into remaining silent to speak out anyway. He calls them to take hold of life and keep holding onto life even if they are threatened with a cross for doing so.

This strikes home for me. Recently I was shut out of a network of Christian churches in North Dakota, a region that has been experiencing a gold-rush like financial boon over the last few years. I was told that because of my solidarity with and support of Native people’s NoDAPL movement, they do not want me speaking in their churches at this time and so my meetings in North Dakota for this month have been cancelled.

When I heard this, I had a choice to make. Do I let go of my solidarity with Native people to be able to speak, or do I maintain my hold on life (and my humanity for that matter) in spite of the negative consequences? Many people have written to me over the past few weeks having experienced social media silencing, on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve shared stories of friends telling them they are being “too political” when they have spoken out or acted in defense of people being made vulnerable in the U.S. today.

To those experiencing that silencing, I would say, keep speaking out. People matter, and therefore politics matter. Politics is much more than arguing over individual candidates, too. Don’t misunderstand me: the character and policies of politicians matter. Yet these policies and how they affect the most vulnerable among us also matters.

The subject of politics is the discussion of how power is distributed and who gets access to resources. Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets, spoke of distributive justice and an order where power and resources are distributed in a way that ensures a world that is safe, compassionate and just for all, including the most vulnerable, and the vulnerable are no longer exploited, evicted, or excluded.

While I was in Canada a couple of weekends ago, I heard stories of Canadian citizens being refused entrance to the United States just because they are Muslim. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/another-canadian-citizen-refused-entry-united-states-border-1.3976230) A sports team was allowed past the border to an event being held in Boston, except for their one Muslim team member. This week mothers who were brought to the U.S. as children and are now adults with a husband and children being ripped away from their kids and shipped to a country they have never lived in. People matter, and therefore we should be speaking out.

Jesus’ gospel, as we have defined over and over again, was people taking care of people. This is what it means to speak out for Jesus. When we speak out, it isn’t in defense of Christianity, but in defense of Jesus’ vision of a world where people matter and we choose to take care of each other rather than being afraid of one another.

Over the past three years, I’ve repeatedly experienced backlash for affirming the lives of my LGBTQ and Black siblings. And the small pushback I’ve encountered as an ally isn’t even to be compared with the real and genuine crosses that LGBTQ community members and people of color face themselves for having the courage to “take hold of life,” stand up for themselves and stand up against bigotry and racism. As someone whose starting point in theology is Jesus’s gospel to the poor, I’m reminded too of how the Occupy movement was also demonized by those in power and those benefiting from the present structure. They, too, were threatened, and those who sympathize with their “taking hold of life” were misrepresented and became the focus of misinformed prejudice.

But to every group seeking to affirm their God-given selves and thrive in life, to those who are tired of the sun and rain God sends on all being systemically prevented from reaching them too, speak up and stand up.Whether you realize it or not, you are accessing the same courage that the Jewish Jesus sought to have his first followers find and take hold of as well.

Last week, Now Toronto reported around 1,300 Torontonians joined MILCK to sing the unofficial protest anthem I Can’t Keep Quiet. You can watch it here. Speaking out has a long tradition, and the Jesus of the gospels belongs to that tradition. These historical moments give us pause and a possible way to reclaim and reframe the sayings of Jesus:

Anyone who may speak out for me [and my egalitarian social vision for society] in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels. (Q 12:8-9)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to engage in a group activity. I’m hoping at least one person in your HeartGroup is a Netflix subscriber. I’d like you to sit down together as a group and watch the documentary The 13th.

  1. Watch the documentary.
  2. Afterward list 2-3 paradigm shifts you experienced during the film. Depending on your social location you could experience more than this, but start with 2-3.
  3. As many as feel comfortable, discuss as a group each person’s reaction to the film.

Lastly, spread the word. Share this film with others and have them watch it as well.

Embracing the courage to speak out, either for oneself, or in solidarity alongside others who are speaking out, is a significant step in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. To each of you who are speaking out, keep at it! You are not alone. Countless millions both now and throughout history are standing with you.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Lord’s Prayer 

Shared Economy Sign

by Herb Montgomery

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:9-12: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Luke 11:2-4: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation. ’ ”

This week, we’re looking at a saying in Q that many now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Last week, we looked at the problematic nature of gendering God and Jesus’ naming God as our Father. This week, we’ll consider the tangible, concrete, economic nature of the rest of this prayer.

Jesus’ “reign of God,” as we have learned this year, can be defined simply as people helping people, taking responsibility for one another, living in centered relationships and community with a focus on quality of life for those whose lives and value as human beings has been denied, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Daily Bread

This prayer purposefully focuses on today: not tomorrow, but today. Gandhi is believed to have said that every day the earth produces enough for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. Greed can be defined as the exploitation of others and the hoarding of more than one needs for today (from fear of what may come tomorrow) while ignoring the basic daily needs of those being exploited.

In this prayer, Jesus doesn’t ask for tomorrow’s needs to be assured. He asks for our needs be met today. As we let go of our fear of the future, relinquish the exploitation of others, and choose instead a community of mutual aid, resource sharing, and mutual responsibility and care, we enter a path of trust. We trust that someone will take care of us if something should befall us tomorrow; we trust enough to be the ones who take care of those trouble has befallen today.

This is a path of abandonment and embrace. We’re abandoning values such as individualism and independence, and embracing our reality as humans who are interdependent. So we choose to balance each individual’s needs and the community where all of those needs can be met.

We take care of each other today, and leave tomorrow to worry about itself. As long as we have each other, we can together face what may come tomorrow. We don’t put our trust or hope in accumulated wealth but rather in each other as we live out the faith that Jesus modeled and the love that God shows us (see Psalms 62:10 cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).

Cancel All Debts

Next, this saying refers to debt cancellation. Some Q scholars believe that the phrase “cancel all debts” was part of the earliest form of this prayer. It’s interesting how the versions of this saying progressed from Jesus’ and the Torah’s concerns about economic liberation to a more “spiritual” language for debt that left the economic plight of the poor unaddressed. That’s convenient!

Let me explain.

It’s believed that the earliest form of the Q source text said “cancel our debts for us as we have cancelled those in debt to us.” In the spirit of the Torah’s sabbatical year (jubilee), this represented a community that had literally cancelled the debts of those who owed them, and now prayed that, like dominoes, their creditors would cancel their debts as well. They were setting something in motion and praying for its end: all debts forgiven!

When Matthew’s gospel adds this saying to Mark’s narrative, it becomes “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This still means essentially the same thing, but notice the word “forgive.” This change sets up the phrasing in Luke.

Luke’s gospel phrases this saying, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” This final step enlarges the prayer and makes it relational rather than economic. Any sin is now included and the Torah/sabbatical year connection is lost. Now the prayer becomes a matter of forgiving wrongs other have committed in hopes that one’s own wrongs will also be forgiven.

All three versions of the prayer are valid. It’s also important to know their origins as well. We often focus on Jesus’s relational teachings today, and with good reason. Jesus’s economic teachings are challenging, and it can seem preferable to avert one’s gaze. Yet they are there in his teachings nonetheless, along with the teachings of the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” (Deuteronomy 15:1)

Luke’s gospel also affirms the centrality of “all debts cancelled” in a unique way. Luke begins Jesus’ ministry with Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah in a Sabbath synagogue service and reading:

“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,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18)

This “year of the Lord’s favor” is the sabbatical year Deuteronomy 15:1 refers to, a year when the people were to cancel all debts.

That commandment brought hope to indentured farmers, who used to own the farms they now worked on, and the day laborers who worked with them earning day wages. And what fear, objection, and threat it must have brought to Herod’s economy in Galilee and the wealthy aristocracy centered in Jerusalem. The economic elite in Galilee and Jerusalem would no doubt have been anxious to rid their societies of this itinerant teacher stirring up the hopes of the poor. (See The Jesus Story.)

There is a contrast, too, between the way Herod and Jesus approached politics. Politics is the subject of power and resources (wealth). Herod sought to hoard and then wield power and resources as the means whereby his Jewish people would be liberated, with him at the helm as hero, and liberation flowing unilaterally from him to the people.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught that both power and resources should be shared. Rather than the unilateral hero deliverance that we have transformed Jesus’ salvation into, Jesus taught the shared power of community where debts are cancelled, resources are shared, wealth is redistributed, and mutual aid becomes the order of the day. Jesus wanted his followers to be the source of a liberation that not only benefitted the Jewish people but would spread to and change the Roman world as well.

It is a misunderstanding to say that a community informed by Jesus’ teachings today should be relegated to spiritual matters and matters of politics should be left to the state. Jesus had much to say that was political—about power and resources. The community of Jesus followers is just as political as the state; we simply choose to go about politics differently.

Not Being Put To the Test 

Lastly this week I want to discuss the difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross as pushback from the death dealers, and thinking that a cross or suffering is in itself the goal. Choosing a cross doesn’t bring life. Choosing life brings life. And sometimes we have to choose life even when a cross is being threatened against us, but choose life and thus a cross we must.

There is a subtle difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross and choosing a cross for the cross’s sake. If we can avoid suffering without sacrificing justice or our hold on life, then that is the better choice. In Jesus’ time, the cross was state execution. When you’re dead, whatever your reasons, you’re dead. In following Jesus, we should choose life even if threatened with death from the death dealers, and we should also not go around looking to get killed. This is why, I believe, we are taught to pray:

“Do not put us to the test!”

Because Jesus followers seek to emulate Jesus, how we define “being like Jesus” is vital. Jesus chose the way of life even when being threatened with a cross; he did not choose a cross. In cases of domestic violence, many women are counseled to “be like Jesus,” though they have sacrificed their selves by remaining in environments that are destructive to their entire being. We must be careful not to glorify suffering in contexts like these, and careful as we reject redemptive violence not to teach redemptive suffering.

To be like Jesus means to choose life, even with all the risks, threats, and dangers that taking hold of life and not being willing to let go of it entails, all the while praying that we will not be brought to what the gospel writers call the time of testing.

We choose life regardless of risk, knowing there may be a cross as a result, and keeping our focus on the life found in Jesus, not the death found in Jesus. When Jesus calls a person to follow him, he does not call that person to die, he calls that person to live! It is the threats of the powers that be that overshadow our choice of life with the cross. It’s not an intrinsic connection, but an imposed one. We’ll cover this again and in much more detail when we get to Jesus’ sayings about taking up the cross.

Today, my intuition tells me we must allow ourselves to face the economic elements of the Lord’s prayer in its original form. In a dog-eat-dog world, what could be changed if we chose to strike a more radical balance between individualism and what is best for our community?

Debt cancellation is a large task. Some are doing this task well, but not all of us are creditors. I would assume that many more of us are on the “debtor” side of the coin, and so an easier entry point may be a simple choice to follow Jesus’ teachings on mutual aid and sharing.

Regardless of where we pick up Jesus’ economic teachings, we can make a choice to subvert our culture’s tendency to value property over people or even treat people as property, and instead place people before both profit and property. The power of this choice should not be underestimated. It is the very stuff that has the potential to change our world.

And so we too pray,

“Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

HeartGroup Application 

Too often, the church has only embraced social change once outside forces have given it no other option. We have taught that the gospel story teaches values that can create change more intrinsically. But this has never been how it has taken place, not yet. Whether we are talking about slavery, equality for the sexes, economic change, or, today, justice for our LGBT siblings, the church has seemed to lag.

For discussion this week:

  1. Discuss examples of where, historically, change did not come for the church from internal causes, but from outside pressures.
  2. Discuss why you feel this is typical, and what your group may be able to do to change that order for you.
  3. Pick one of those things and implement it this coming week.

The Lord’s Prayer could produce radical socioeconomic change for those who have the courage not just to pray it, but also to step out and implement it in the world. Let’s not just pray it. Let’s put it into action.

Thanks again for checking in this week.

Wherever you are and whatever you may find yourself in the midst of, our hope is that your heart has been renewed and inspired to continue following the salvific teachings of Jesus in your life and community.

Keep living in love, daily choosing love above all else, 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.

Sayings Gospel Q: Sheep Among Wolves

by Herb Montgomery

sheepwolves“Be on your way! Look, I send you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Q 10:3) .

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10.16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Luke 10.3: “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

The image of this week’s saying is one of risk. In the last saying, we prayed for laborers. In the saying for this week, we encounter Jesus sending forth fellow laborers and being honest and frank about the risk involved.

I want to point out the participatory nature of this week’s saying. And lastly we’ll look closely at the imagery of sheep versus wolves and consider what this might have meant given Jesus teachings on changing the status quo with self-affirming nonviolent confrontation. Let’s talk about risk first.

An Ethic of Risk Not Sacrifice

When people interpret Jesus’s message for victims and survivors of injustice as requiring them to embrace an ethic of passive self-sacrifice in the face of injustice, there are harmful results..Karen Baker-Fletcher has gone to significant, convincing lengths to show that Jesus’s message was of self-affirmation, the affirmation of living not dying, and that, although his message was nonviolent, it was nonetheless a message that confronted with nonviolent direct action those who perpetuate injustice.

Jesus’s message of choosing life also involved an “ethic of risk.” This “risk” was not intrinsic to choosing life but was the imposed result of the elite who felt threatened by the subjugated people’s life choice. The way of life is only a way that involves a cross when the status quo threatens the work of social justice with a cross.

In other words, when we follow Jesus, we are not primarily choosing a cross: we are choosing the way of life. But because the powers that be threaten those who choose the way of life with a cross, the way of life also becomes the way of the cross. It need not be thus.

The way of the cross is simply the choice to hold onto life (not suffering), even when threatened with pushback from the dominant party that may result in suffering. It’s choosing life and stubbornly refusing to relinquish that life even when the choice confronts the powers of death and the death (cross) they would silence you with. Jesus taught a message of life, survival and liberation. It was the society around him that determined that his message should also involve a cross. For Jesus and for us, the cross is the result of working for justice and transformation within oppressive systems and social orders.

“Persecution and violence suffered by those who resist evil and injustice is the result of an ethic of risk. The assassination of a Martin King or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the risk involved in actively struggling for social justice. But such people daily resist the very power of systemic injustice that may crucify or assassinate them.” —Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk, p. 79

Rosemary Ruether also elaborates:

“Jesus did not ‘come to suffer and die’. Rather Jesus conceived of his mission as one of ‘good news to the poor, the liberation of the captive’, that is, experiences of liberation and abundance of life shared between those who had been on the underside of dominant systems of religion and state of his time . . . He did not seek to be killed by the powers that be, but rather to convert them into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.” (Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, p. 104)

“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 to fully live? The distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, than your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” —Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18

When we talk about the way of the cross, or our being “lambs among wolves,” we must be careful not to understand or communicate these images as an admonishment to be passive “lambs” on the way to sacrificial “slaughter.” The lamb/wolf dichotomy is a reference to methods of seeking social change. Self-affirmation and self-giving are involved, but not self-sacrifice. We are lambs only in the sense that our efforts are nonviolent in the face of wolves that use violent means to establish and maintain their position of control in society. Through nonviolent confronting means, after the example and teachings of Jesus and the early Jewish Jesus-community, we challenge privilege and favor that is enforced by violence.

Hero Liberator or Participatory Mutualism

Another element we encounter in this week’s saying is Jesus being more than an isolated hero liberator and forming a community. He not only went out himself, but also empowered a community to go out as well. This community was influenced by him, and also influenced him in a mutual give and take relationship. One example of this is found in Mark’s story, which Matthew includes in his narrative, of the Syrophoenician woman. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her fantastic work Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, contrasts the difference between viewing Jesus as a individual, isolated, hero-liberator and viewing him rather as a pioneer or center of a participator community where each member is participating in envisioning and creating a new social order:

“Jesus is the hero and liberator… The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model.” (p. 65)

What we see in this week’s saying is very different than that unilateral, heroic model. Brock would refer to it as a community participating in the work of liberation with Jesus rather than an individual Jesus doing the work of liberation alone on the community’s behalf.

“I believe the above views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p.67)

We should not underestimate that the power of the early Jewish Jesus-community was that it was a community. It was not a group rooted in the unilateral dominance of a lone, hierarchical leader, but rather in the power of community centered on the values, teachings, and ethics taught by Jesus and resonant with community members.

Even the collections of the community’s sayings, which we now recognize as our scriptures, bears witness itself to this. These writings are a manifestation of a mutually participatory group, not just a lone prophet of social change. Jesus never wrote anything down himself. The community that formed around his teachings did, and it’s because of that community that we have accounts of his ministry. We cannot simply gloss over this. We are not waiting for a heroic savior: We are the community he anticipated.

I had the privilege of witnessing two contemporary, practical examples of participatory mutualism this week in the form of two podcasts.

Both of these are community responses to the massacre of LGBTQ people in Orlando on June 12. The first is from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults Live Webcast. You can find it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZetBq0vJEWE

The second is The Adventist Podcast: Pulse Massacre Orlando which you can download and listen to at:

http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/06/20/adventist-podcast-pulse-massacre-orlando

In each of these examples, those affected, the brokenhearted, are speaking to the dominant society. Rather than waiting for unilateral heroism, the community members are working themselves for survival, liberation, and thriving.

The examples are exactly what what I envision happening among those in whom Jesus’s sayings first began to resonate in the 1st Century.

Sheep Among Wolves

As we covered in Renouncing One’s Rights, Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were not that victims should embrace passive self-sacrifice or self-denial in a world where oppressors already denied the selves of the oppressed. Jesus gave his listeners a vision of nonviolence that confronted and discomforted those in positions of dominance and gave those being subjugated a way to affirm themselves in a social order where they were being dehumanized.

Yet to choose to only use nonviolently confronting means of challenging injustice when those you are standing up to have not made those same choices is risky. It’s a choice to be a lamb among wolves. Yet it cannot be forgotten: the goal of Jesus’ new social vision is not to replace an old hegemony with a new one. His goal was not peace through victory, the victory of slaughtering our enemies, but peace through restored justice. He was not teaching a new social pyramid to replace the old, but a shared table where victims were not passively complicit in their oppression and their oppressors were not continuing oppression in more subtle ways. Victims were confronting injustice, not in order to become oppressors themselves, but, in the words of Ruether, to “convert” oppressors “into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.”

Too often the sheep among wolves imagery of nonviolence is used to keep victims passive in the face of injustice. Making sure those being oppressed remain passive co-opts the nonviolence that Jesus and others have taught. Martin Luther Kings’ nonviolence was trouble making. Gandhi’s nonviolence became feared and avoided. Those who use violence themselves will always desire their opposition to “remain nonviolent” if one defines that nonviolence as simply rolling over. Yet true nonviolence is a force more powerful. It is not passive. It confronts, awakens, at times even shames those it is seeking, but not to defeat them, to win and convert to a new paradigm of seeing and a new set of behaviors. To use Jesus, MLK, or Gandhi to induce the subjugated to remain passive and calm is a gross way to use their teachings.

We are sheep in the midst of wolves because our methods of action and the goals we hope to achieve by those actions are radically different from the wolves we seek to transform or change. The Jewish community that cherished Jesus’s imagery was a community that held the Jewish vision of a new social order described by the words:

Isaiah 11:1-9: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit . . . Justice will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 65.25: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 58.6, TEV: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”

In this week’s saying, those who believe Jesus’s teachings have intrinsic value and inform the work of nonviolently confronting, liberating, and transforming our world into a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all, are reminded that this vision involves embracing an ethic of risk. As I have said before, Jesus was not giving us a hard way to get to heaven, but a risky way to heal the earth. We are also reminded that our hope is not in following heroic, unilateral liberators but in discovering and applying the power of mutual, participatory, nonviolent communities.  And lastly, we are reminded that we are up against “wolves.” But we also hold the hope that wolves can be converted, and destruction and harm can be become, by our continued choice, a thing of the past.

A new world is coming, if we choose it. And today, while we make those choices, we find ourselves often in this story . . .

“. . . like sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Q 10:3)

 

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss three sets of contrasts with your HeartGroup as you work together toward clarity.

  1. What are the significant differences you feel need to be communicated clearly between nonviolence direct action and merely being passive?
  2. What are the differences between a hero model of liberation and a community model rooted in mutual participation?
  3. What difference does it make for you to define the way of the cross we choose as Jesus followers as a refusal to let go of life rather than a way of merely sacrificing yourself with no change to the status quo around you?

Thank you for joining us this week. Keep living in love, working toward Justice, 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.

The Tree Is Known by its Fruit

Grape VinesBY HERB MONTGOMERY

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:43-45)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6.43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 12.33-35: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Gospel of Thomas 45: “Jesus says: Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs picked from thistles, for they do not produce fruit. A good person brings forth good from his treasure. A bad person brings forth evil from the bad treasure that is in his heart, and in fact he speaks evil. For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil.”

The saying we’re considering this week answers a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized. People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”

The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.

I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.

I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.

Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared last week, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.

The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” Jesus teaches us how in the saying we’re looking at this week:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?

European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.

From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”

Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind eyes opened through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.

Wisdom Teachings

This week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q is included in Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel Thomas. It is classified as part of Jesus’s “wisdom” teachings (as opposed to apocalyptic teachings). We’ll discuss the differences between Wisdom sayings, Apocalypticism, and Platonism in much more detail as we continue along in the teachings of Sayings Gospel Q. For now, though, what you need to know is that the early Jesus communities saw this saying as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.

It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41).  A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed (p. 36).

When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.

As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, not initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.

Let me give three concrete examples.  There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming.  Here are the facts.

  1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
  2. LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
  3. Last year, more than 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. alone. The number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate.  (Learn more here and here.)

When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”

We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.  Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty.  And that is only a few.

With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Palestine that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.

“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)

Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”

Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is not surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there.

So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and behavior, Sayings Gospel Q states:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

 HeartGroup Application

This week, contemplate what it means for you to begin evaluating Biblical interpretations and their effects not just on yourself but also on the most vulnerable communities in our society. One good way to do this is to continue what you started with last week’s HeartGroup application.

  1. Keep reading the book your group chose! Keep listening!
  2. Begin journaling the insights, questions, and feelings that you experience as you work through the material.
  3. Circle in your journal entries what you want to share with your group when you review together next month. Review week is now only three weeks away.

To you who are joining us on this journey through Sayings Gospel Q, thank you! I’m so glad you are tracking with us.

Keep contemplating the “fruits” of your interpretations. Keep listening. And keep living in love, 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.