The Jaundiced Eye Darkens the Body’s Light 

by Herb Montgomery

An eye with rainbow coloring

Featured Text:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Luke 11:34-35: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Gospel of Thomas 24:3: “Light exists inside a person of light, and he shines on the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.”

To begin, our saying this week uses metaphors that are rooted in ableism.  Fish don’t know they’re wet.  Able-bodied people often don’t realize how ableist they are being. But acknowledge it we must, for this is a first step toward change. Naming injustice is a primary step toward action that reverses injustice. “In ableist societies, able-bodiedness is viewed as the norm; people with disabilities are understood as those that deviate from that norm. Disability is seen as something to overcome or to fix, for example, through medical intervention. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error or a failing rather than a consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism)

With this in mind, let’s look at what this week’s saying was attempting to teach.

Lamp of the Body is the Eye

In 1st Century Jewish culture, people believed that a person possessed either light or darkness within them: “The human spirit is the lamp of YHWH that sheds light on one’s inmost being” (Proverbs 22:27). In our saying this week, Jesus uses the eyes as a symbol for determining whether what is inside his listeners is truly light or really darkness. “Many people believed that light was emitted from the eye, enabling one to see, rather than that light was admitted through the eye. Although here Jesus compares the eye to a lamp, he speaks of ‘diseased’ eyes which fail to admit light.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. 11:34-36)

When one steps back into the cultural context of this week’s saying, the meaning is rather simple: what you see when you look at others determines whether what is inside of you is “light” or “dark.” Two people can look at the same person and see very different things, based on what their eyes are trained to see.

A fun, literary example is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As a private investigator, Sherlock’s eyes and powers of observation are well trained to see much more than others around him see. In our saying this week, Jesus is teaching his listeners about a specific power of observation that he desired his followers to become proficient in: the ability to look at others who share our world with us through the lens of generosity.

Generosity

When you look at others, what do you see? Is it typically positive by default? Do you give people the benefit of a doubt? Do you assume the best about them? Or is your eye judgmental, maybe critical, or even condemnatory?

Jesus spoke positively of having an eye that was “single,” “generous,” or “healthy.”

A healthy eye sees others generously. And it is singular, too, in the sense that one is persistent in generously extending the image of God to everyone that one encounters. A person with a healthy eye remembers the truth in the Jewish story that an angel walks before each of us declaring “Behold the image of God.” Being disrespectful or to humiliate anyone bearing the Divine image is a denial, in that person, of the Divine whose image they bear. These acts were also seen as a defacement of the Divine image. To lie about another person was to deny the very existence of God. The school of Hillel in the first century taught that murder was both a civil violation and a sacrilege of that which was sacred. The Hebrews’ sacred text taught that when we shed human blood, the act is regarded as diminishing the corporate divine image within humanity. In the Hebrew creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, humanity begins with the whole of humanity in one person. This was believed to have taught that the taking of a human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world. The opposite was held to also be true—to save one life was to save the entire world. (Remember the ending scenes of the film Schindler’s List.) This applied to slaves and to non-Jews as well. The Jewish religion of the Rabbis became inseparable from the practice of the golden rule to others and practicing the golden rule became the touchstone of one’s religious worship of the Divine.

This is listening for and seeing God in the Other. According to Genesis, all persons bear the image of God (see Genesis 9:6). In the Christian New Testament we find this passage: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20). If every person bears the image of God, I’m called to see and to listen to God in you, whoever you are. If we generously kept in mind the view that every person we meet bears the image of God, how different our world might be.

In addition to this, Matthew’s context builds on this generous view with a focus on economic generosity: Jesus’ vision of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another. “Jesus speaks literally of a ‘single’ eye versus a ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘ one. A ‘single‘ eye normally meant a generous one. A ‘bad‘ eye in that culture could mean either a diseased one or a stingy one. Such eyes become a symbol for the worthlessness of a stingy person.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. Luke 11:34-36)

Luke adds another statement to this emphasis on resources. A few passages later, Jesus states, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)

In both of these gospels, this saying refers to serving other people. Again, Jesus’ new world is defined primarily by people taking care of people. Later New Testament letters include these words: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)

In addition, Jesus’ generosity goes far beyond economic generosity. It also encompasses the whole person. The media plays a part in this for us. When people of color, especially men, are victims of police brutality, the media goes to work to criminalize them so as to bias how the rest of us see them. (See How News Networks Criminalize Black Victims of Police Violence.) Contrast this with how the media characterized Brock Turner, a rapist, and put the highest possible spin on his character to the masses. Just this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the article My President Was Black, was interviewed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In the interview Cotes contrasted the path it took for Obama to become president and the path Trump took to do the same:

“If I have to jump six feet to get to the same place you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works . . . to be president he [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.” (See the interview here.)

What we chose to see when we look at another person should be more than skin deep. What we choose to see and what we choose to believe about a person will directly impact our thoughts, feelings, opinions and attitudes toward them and ultimately our behavior. This is possibly why in this week’s saying, Jesus says that what we see in another determines whether we truly possess light instead of darkness.

The very first thing we should choose to see and believe in each person we encounter is that they are of inestimable worth simply because they are a part of the human web. This applies not to just individuals, but also to the entire planet. As Oscar Romero taught, “We are not three worlds [First World, Second World, and Third World], we are one world.”

In Jesus’ worldview, God indiscriminately causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall:

“ . . . He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“ . . . he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Jesus called his followers to relate to genuine political and economic enemies with love that seeks to transform them from oppressing the lower classes. Yet some White Christians today still discriminate against others based on their skin color, and some Evangelical business owners discriminate in whom they bake cupcakes and pizzas for.

If the sun shines on a person, if the rain falls on a person, we are called to see them as a bearer of the image of the Divine, to look for God in them, regardless of how much we feel tempted to “Other” them as instead. We are all connected.

Yes, we are different, and those differences should be seen and celebrated, but we are all still part of one another and in this together. When we fail to celebrate each other, when we choose to neglect this basic step in how we are seeing others, it does not matter what we claim to be—light bearer or reflector—the light we claim to possess is actually darkness.

With these thoughts in mind, let us contemplate our saying this week:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I wrote over a decade ago now (Finding the Father) I proposed that what a person believes about God determines how they think and feel toward God, especially in the context of the spiritual abuse many theists within Christianity have suffered. I proposed that however we choose to see a God ultimately affects how we choose to behave and what type of a person, as a worshipper of that God, we will become.

This week I want to draw our heads out of the clouds for a moment and place our feet firmly on planet Earth. Apply this week’s principles to how you relate to other people. What we choose to believe about others, what we choose to see when we look at another, will determine our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and our behavior in relation to them.

Jesus taught that one cannot live out indiscriminate justice, faith, and love toward others without it impacting how one begins to perceive others. We start with the behavior of simply listening to the experiences of those who are not like us. A Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this saying, and I believe it teaches the same universal truth that we are seeing in the sayings of Jesus this week:

“Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding. True Dharma leads in exactly the opposite direction. It enables one to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.” Lama Thubten Yeshe, (Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations)

Jesus’ saying invites us to do the same, to “integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.”

If the sun shines on them, if the rain falls on them, we have a mandate from the saying of Jesus to imitate Jesus’ God as we interact with them.

  1.   List ways that you can begin making space in your life to listen to those who are different from yourself, especially those whom the present status quo does not benefit. If the sun and rain are for all, prioritize listening to those whom society prevents the sun and rain from reaching. Try actual conversations (where your posture is one of simply listening), following people on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and reading books by authors from a different walk through life than your own.
  2. With as much honesty as you can achieve, contrast the ways you now choose to negatively see some people and write the positive assumptions that you could choose instead. Pay close attention to how these assumptions would affect how you think, feel, and relate to those people.
  3. As a group, begin making space for voices that are different. One of the ways HeartGroups can do this well is by asking others to simply come and share their experience with the group. I have been invited to go and share at a very warm and welcoming interfaith fellowship in my home town. HeartGroups can do the same. We can look for things we have in common with others, like the universal values of compassion and justice. And we could benefit from comparing and valuing our differences, viewing them in the light of intrinsic fruit.

What does it mean for you to begin listening for and looking for God in the other?

Wherever this finds you this week, I’m glad you’re here. Keep living in love, loving with the equity of the sun and the rain, with a preferential option of those being prevented from accessing what meant for all equally.

This will be our last eSight/podcast for 2016. We’ll be back in two weeks. Have a happy holidays and we here at RHM wish you a very happy new year.

I love each of you dearly.

See you in 2017.

The Light on the Lampstand 

by Herb Montgomery

a man lassoing a light bulb

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Luke 11:33: “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

Gospel of Thomas 33:2-3: “For no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, nor does he put it in a hidden place. Rather, he puts it on a lampstand, so that everyone who comes in and goes out will see its light.”

This week’s saying appears in all three of the gospels we have been using as our companion texts this year. Matthew and Thomas both focus on the followers of Jesus’ teachings being light. Luke, as we will see next week, warns about what we call light really being the spreading of darkness. We’ll discuss the relevance of Luke’s saying to today’s western Christianity in more detail in our next eSight.

Matthew’s Focus

What I want us to notice first this week is an emphasis that some would be uncomfortable with. The focus of the saying is not on Jesus being the light of the world, but rather on Jesus’ followers being a source of light for the world (John 8:12; Matthew 5:14). In Luke, Jesus is warning about those who claim to be light becoming a source of darkness in the world. How often have status quo complicit Christians been found on the wrong side of history!

The statement is just as troubling for those who object, “Jesus is the light of the world, not us.” This objection comes from a desire to uplift Jesus to hero status, a position some people feel is threatened if we focus on being the light rather than pointing to Jesus as light.

Another possible root of discomfort with this saying is the belief that we are incapable of doing anything good and that Jesus has to do it all. This is a destructive belief taught in some sectors of Christianity that, too often, is used to lull Christians back to a position of passivity after they have been convicted or moved to action. I witnessed this recently when speaking on the Sermon on the Mount. After my presentation, the pastor got up and told the congregation that everything I had just spoken of (what Jesus taught in the Sermon the Mount) was impossible for any of us to do and Jesus must do it for us.

But we have the power to think and to do.

We have the power to make choices.

I have wondered why many atheists accomplish more in societal justice than some fundamentalist Christians do. Womanist writers such as Alice Walker have rightly captured the same universal truth that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q also taught: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.”

Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q is not preaching “Sit back and let me do everything.”

Jesus focuses on creating a community rooted in ethics and values that center the experiences of the vulnerable and marginalized in his own society and that call his community to make better choices. He believes that those following him can actually do better. They can be different. He shows them the way, casting before their mind’s eye what a path that is genuinely, holistically better can look like. In her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk, writes:

“It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131, emphasis added)

This way Jesus showed his followers is a way of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation, and restoration. In short, it is salvation. Not a post-mortem non-smoking section salvation, but a present, concrete, life-right-now salvation rooted in the context of community, together.

Luke’s Emphasis

Luke doesn’t focus exclusively on Jesus’ followers being the light of the world. Luke jumps straight to the absurdity of hiding a recently lit lamp when the obvious intent of lighting the lamp in the first place is to share the light with everybody.

At this stage of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, pressure is beginning to mount. The number of those positively resonating with Jesus’ teachings continues to grow, and the elite class in society begins to feel the threat of the momentum among the economically exploited. This saying may also reflect a temptation growing in Jesus himself to hide his own light. When those in places of privilege begin to feel threatened, they can be quite effective at threatening those they deem responsible.

Jesus was choosing life, and encouraging and showing others how to thrive, survive, and transform the world into a just and compassionate home for all. And his vision of life involved changes for those benefiting by the way life was structured in Jerusalem. Jesus was choosing life, and he was about to be threatened with death if he did not lie down, roll over, and go back into the shadows.

In the volume Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wrote:

“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.” (p. 18)

Jesus was not choosing a path of death. Jesus was choosing life. And when beginning to feel threatened and pressured to hide his light, Jesus made the courageous choice to hold on, to not let go. The cross was not Jesus’ path to life. The cross was what the status quo responded to Jesus with. It was the cross and the fear of death that the elites used to intimidate Jesus into letting go of his hold on life. And Jesus kept holding on. He could see where what he was teaching and the sector of society he was choosing to side with would lead, and he had the courage to keep doing it. He choose not to hide his light, but share light, just like he spoke of power and resources, with everyone.

Your Light 

Luke and Matthew both ask: What does taking hold of life look like to you? Does your taking hold of life cause others around you to feel their own place of privilege in society is threatened? Jesus shared his vision of a world where everyone thrives with equity, with justice, with compassion. The Jewish concept of shalom describes a wholeness that involves everyone. Genuine shalom is not present till we all together have shalom, and not just us, but also every living thing. But in a world where one believes only a limited number of people can thrive, someone else taking hold of life threatens one’s own thriving because resources are limited. Someone in this position does not believe the earth provides enough for every person’s need, as Gandhi taught. They believe that there is not enough to go around, and that if we each let go of our hoarded power and possessions, we will go without. Jesus instead imagined a world where we all have enough together.

Does a fear of loss keep you from shining your light? Is there something that intimidates you into hiding your light under a basket rather than sharing unquantifiable light with everyone?

While recently reading Stephen Greenebaum’s The Interfaith Alternative: Embracing Spiritual Diversity, I was moved by these words and I share them with you this week:

“The truth is that none of us can control what kind of splash we will make in the world, let alone how big or small that splash will be. Perhaps our coming and our passing will cause no splash at all, just the smallest of ripples. To be a human being is to have an opportunity. But as we well know, it is not an ‘equal opportunity.’ Some people are born with great wealth and some in devastating poverty. Some are born with robust health and some must fight just to live from the moment they enter the world. And sometimes we stumble, no matter how hard we try. But life, all life, is an opportunity nonetheless. And it is what we do, or do not do, with that opportunity that defines us. For me, the clouds parted and I could make at least some sense of meaning when I could visualize a great scale with compassion and justice forming one side and self-centeredness and injustice the other. None of us knows how much we’ll be able to add to the scales, for that, to a large extent, is a matter of chance. But we do control, we alone, each of us, every day, to which side of the scale we will make that day’s contribution. It may be a mote of dust, a twig, a pebble or a huge boulder — again, the size of our contribution may be beyond our control — but whatever the size of our contribution, every day we add something to those scales: compassion and justice, or self-centeredness and injustice. I deeply believe that in the end it is not how much we add to the scales, but to which side of the scale we have added it.” (pp. 100-101)

This week, in the name of advancing compassion and justice in our world, may this week’s saying encourage you, even if others threaten you and attempt to silence your voice, to let your light shine.

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

HeartGroup Application

Last week I asked you to brainstorm and to make a list as a group some of the goals you would like to accomplish in the coming year. In our work of compassion and justice, consider Greenebaum’s words above. Whatever the size of your group’s contribution, ensure that you’re contributing on the right side of the scales.

  1. Pick three goals from your list last week.
  2. Begin getting informed regarding each one. This could involve coming alongside those already at work in those areas of justice/compassion work.
  3. Once you feel comfortable with your level of understanding about each goal, to the degree that you feel you can, define what meeting each goal would look like in tangible, concrete ways.

    This last step may lead you to go back and pick another goal as well. That’s okay. However your list takes shape, make sure these are goals you are well informed about and that these are goals that can be defined by your group as a whole once that goal is met.

As this year is drawing to a close and another year is before us, I’m overwhelmed by how many of you are journeying with us. Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful to be on this journey with you, and know that together we can make a difference.

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

I love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Words to the Disinherited: Salt, Light, Justice, and Anger 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Eyes close-up little boy

“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.14)

Last week we talked about the difference it makes when we place the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus belonging to and speaking among the community of the oppressed.

I’ve taken this week’s title from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have not read Thurman’s work, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a short read, and packed with insight.

There are four passages from the Sermon on the Mount that I’d like you to consider this week. Notice how each changes when we name their audience as the disinherited.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5.13)

New studies show how first century farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his audience to more fully engage this world, “the earth,” not to escape it. The metaphor is about re-enriching the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth. Jesus directs the oppressed to place their focus on “this world,” not the next. He directs his audience away from escape and he empowers them to make a difference in the world they live in.

Imagine it this way. Compassion and safety for everyone are just two of the plants that grow out of the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is here telling the marginalized and oppressed that they are the salt of the earth. Their inclusion can give back to the soil of a society the nutrients of a wider consciousness and perspective that enables compassion and safety for all to grow again. Including marginalized voices enables one to integrate the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: inclusion uproots weeds of fear and insecurity, and provides rich soil for a society to produce compassion in the place of those weeds.

Our societies today are depleted of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems also force to live on the fringes. Jesus actually believes they are the “salt,” or the fertilizer, and their voices will give back to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to the societies of our world. Remember, Jesus is looking at the disinherited when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As we have said so often, Jesus’ shared table must not be homogenous. It is at a heterogenous table that we share our unique and different life experiences, form a more beautiful and coherent world view, and make this world a safer more compassionate place for us all. Through this teaching, Jesus is saying that it is the subordinated, the oppressed, and marginalized who restore the nutrients of society’s depleted soil. It is the disinherited who are the “salt of the earth.”

The Light of the World

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine. (Matthew 5:14-15)

When we understand Jesus’ audience to be the disinherited Jews, those who are pressed down, and those who are silenced even among the ones forced to live on Jewish society’s fringes, it becomes empowering to hear Jesus affirm that they are the light of the world. Jesus is investing those around him with value and telling them not to hide their light. They are to “let their light shine!”

Some of you who are reading this have been told that your voice is not welcome. You have been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this darkened society needs.” Remember, darkness is only the absence of light. When we exclude and marginalize voices, their very absence creates darkness in society. And as Dr. King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Jesus is telling you that the inclusion of your voice brings “the light.” Your story is worthy of being shared at Jesus’ table. It is to you that he says, “Let your light shine!”

There is also another truth to what Jesus is saying here. Too often, Christians have taken for granted that they are the light of the world when they have been the ones in society calling for the exclusion of those unlike themselves. Whether it be with Jews and Muslims during the crusades, the silencing of women’s voices by patriarchal Christians, Black voices by White Christians, the voices of the poor by rich Christians, or the voices and stories of those who belong to the LGBTQ community by christians in general.) Yes, there are exceptions, but as a rule, Christians have made some of the loudest calls for certain voices, certain stories, to be pushed to the margins. Certain people are not ordained worthy of being heard.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of that voice creates darkness. It is the excluded and marginalized in every situation who are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back to dispel the darkness that their absence created. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light,” and instead become the creators of darkness itself. “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.23) It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

Surpassing Retributive Justice

Unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20)

The community that Jesus is speaking to here is one whose theism, morality and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Law and the Prophets approved and taught by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These groups were the religious educators of the Jewish working class. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these teachers, and in this saying, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings.

The Pharisees believed in a Messiah who would usher in world peace, and many believed this peace would come through a sword retributively raised against Israel’s enemies and energized and supernaturally empowered by the strictest Torah observance.

The justice that Jesus is placing before them in Matthew is of an entirely different nature: it is a restorative, transformative, liberating justice that includes one’s enemies. Jesus is clear in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Fullfil” here in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to perfect. In the very next verse Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The word here for “accomplished” is ginomai which also means “to perfect or complete.” By implication, that which precedes this perfecting is imperfect or incomplete. What Jesus addresses in verse 20 is the retributive, punitive justice that is often found among those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Retributive justice is one of the elements that Jesus is referring to as incomplete, partial, underdeveloped and imperfect. Yes, within the Law and the Prophets one may find a justice defined as an eye for an eye. But one will also find a more complete, restorative, transformative Justice, too. Jesus is calling his audience away from an imperfect retributive justice to a more complete and holistic restorative kind. Jesus’ quality of justice was to “surpass” the eye-for-an-eye justice longed for by his contemporaries. So is the justice of his followers.

Liberation from Internalized Anger

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

This passage, our last for today, is where we see Jesus beginning to describe how his teachings would surpass the teachings his community was used to hearing. As we discovered last week, Jesus invites us to stop viewing well-being as solely external and recognize its internal nature as well. In this passage, Jesus is naming the hatred that those who have been wronged so often feel toward those who have wronged them. He teaches that the external liberation the disinherited so deeply long for is founded on prior internal liberation. An example of this is found in his teachings on nonviolence. These teachings were not simply techniques for more effective protest: they were that and they were also much more than that. Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence was rooted in an internalized love for enemies and forgiveness that enabled the Jesus follower to think and feel radically differently toward their enemies, to transcend revenge and instead work for their enemies’ transformation. Ponder what Jesus is saying in Matthew 15:

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.’ (Matthew 15:10-20, emphasis added)

If Jesus’ disinherited peers were to experience liberation from their enemies, it would be because they were internally liberated from ‘anger’ against one’s enemies. Anger, wrongly placed, too often turns efforts that could have been restorative from transformation to retribution and mere punitive revenge. As King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This teaching highlights two ditches, two places we could stumble. One ditch is the idea that the disinherited need to focus only on external liberation with no thought for their internal relation to their oppressors. The second is the belief that all one needs is internal liberation, and that when this is in place it no longer matters whether a person is externally liberated. This second ditch has been dug over and over throughout history in the path of the oppressed: it pacifies the oppressed and leaves the status quo unchallenged and undisturbed. I see this too often, even today.

But make no mistake: Jesus’ new social order, Jesus’ new world, what he called “the Kingdom,” is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally. The new world subverts the status quo here, now. The whole system is to be dismantled. Jesus’ revolution doesn’t end with internalized liberation from hatred, fear, and anger toward one’s enemies. That is only where Jesus’ revolution begins.

HeartGroup Application

Reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ audience being his own community, a disinherited people. May this small interpretative key turn on some more lights for you as it does for me.

  1. Choose a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week and contemplate its meaning within the context of his audience being his fellow oppressed. How does this audience inform your understanding of his words?
  2. Journal what you discover.
  3. Share your insights with your HeartGroup, your Shared Table, this week.

In the introduction to Jesus and the Disinherited, Vincent Harding eloquently states that Jesus’ teachings are replete with significance for any group being subordinated in modern domination systems: “Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, many women, and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions” and the Black people Thurman originally wrote to. Today, so many make up the community of the disinherited, oppressed, marginalized, or as Thurman would put it, those whose backs are against the wall.” Jesus’ teachings directly empower these community members to live with dignity and creativity as they move toward liberation.

Whatever your place in this world, whether you belong to the community of the poor, the Native Americans, African-Americans, cisgender women, women of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, YOU have the power to enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of our society, YOU are the light of this world, and it is your voice that must be heard at Jesus’ table as we journey together toward a meaningful, more coherent whole, and a safer, more compassionate world for all.

Jesus’ new world is coming. In fact, in those whose hearts the Kingdom’s mustard seed has already sprouted, Jesus’ new world has already begun.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, enriching the soil of the earth around you, and shining bright like cities on hills, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.