Jesus and Protest

cartoon of protesters

Herb Montgomery | March 5, 2021

This week’s reading is John 2:13-22. I prefer Mark’s version of this story:

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

Most scholars believe that out of the four canonical gospels we have today, Mark was written the earliest and John the latest. In the passage for this week, Mark’s author conflates and places in the mouth of Jesus two passages from the Hebrew scriptures, one from Isaiah and the other from Jeremiah:

“These I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)

And:

“Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7:11)

In Mark’s gospel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the capital building of the Temple state. The Temple state, centered in Jerusalem, was not a purely religious system as we think of Christian churches today: there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture. The Temple state was a religious, political, social, and economic system that governed all aspects of Jewish society. It’s telling that in the revolt leading up to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E., when the rebels took over the temple, the scene was not like a church or a synagogue, but rather a banking institution. The rebels found the debt records for the poor and burned them. In one sense, it was a religious act for those who considered faithfulness to the Jubilee [debt cancellation] of the Torah to be faithfulness to the God of the Torah. But it was also an economic and political act too.

By the time John’s gospel was written, the story of Jesus and the Temple has evolved. It has become concerned not with a system that exploits the poor but with one that defiles religious space. The writer’s emphasis is not on the Temple as a building at the center of a system that perpetuates poverty, but on the Temple as a symbol for Jesus’ body which would be crucified and then resurrected (John 2:14, 19-20).

I understand why so many people have focused on John’s version of the story recently. Many Christians have begun their stride toward the Easter holiday and its focus on the death and resurrection of the Christ. I find Mark’s political and economic emphasis on the systemic exploitation of the poor much more helpful at this time in the U.S., however.

It’s important to connect the context of Jesus’ temple protest in Mark with his other acts and statements that day:

“As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40)

Jesus’ concern here is the economic exploitation of the most vulnerable: how widows are being forced into poverty. He is not concerned that something is being done incorrectly in the temple’s worship system.

Mark continues:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This statement is not praise for the widow as so many Christians interpret it today. No, Jesus is critiquing a system that leaves widows with nothing left to live on!

This story ends with:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 12:41-13.2)

In Mark, Jesus is not speaking about his own death and resurrection as he is in John. He is speaking about how exploitative systems are not sustainable and will eventually crumble under the weight of their own injustice.
The present economic system of consumption and massive profit at others’ expense is unsustainable ecologically. Jeff Bezos has once again become the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $191.2 billion in the midst of a pandemic with an economic displacement worse than during the Great Depression. I think, too, of President Biden’s reluctance to cancel student debt even though it was one of his campaign pledges. But what stands out to me most is how immigration in the U.S. has been handled over the last four years and I hope that the next four will bring desperately needed change.

The U.S. immigration system has a long racist history. Rather than America becoming a multiracial democracy, its immigration system is designed to keep it as a country where White people are still the majority and where those White lives matter more than the lives of those who are not White. (For a detailed, yet easy to understand recounting of the racial history of immigration in the U.S. see Kelly Brown Douglass’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.)

Over the past four years, for example, we have seen the immoral crime of the U.S. terrorizing families by ripping children away from their parents just because they sought asylum here. Words from Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”—“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—have been eclipsed by White nationalism and White supremacy. If ever there were a setting in which Jesus followers should follow Jesus in flipping the tables of a system that was irreparably harming those who were already vulnerable, family separation was it. Some Christians actually did respond. But not many.

I’m thankful to see the Biden administration moving toward change on this issue. I’m thankful to see it using more inclusive language, such as “noncitizens” and “undocumented noncitizen” instead of “alien” or “illegal alien,” referring to the “integration” of immigrants into society instead of their “assimilation,” and abandoning language that dehumanized immigrants or was racist.

This is undoubtedly a step toward a welcoming America. And while I’m thankful for these beginnings, I want to see more than linguistic changes, too. It’s going to take real policy change, real action to turn around the Trump administration’s hostile stance and inhuman response to immigrants. We have a chance to do something fundamentally different. My hope is that we transition away from the immigration policies of the past that endeavored to protect Whiteness, and instead take genuine steps to affirm the future of America as a multiracial democracy where every voice matters and everyone, regardless of race, religion, net worth, ability, gender, orientation, or gender expression can have a seat at the table. I know these changes don’t ever happen fast enough, and we have the potential at this moment to leap forward.

My favorite part of Mark’s story this week is actually found in Mark 11:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11)

Jesus’ temple protest was supposed happen the first day Jesus entered Jerusalem, but by the time he arrived at the temple courtyard, it was too late in the day and there were not enough people in the temple courtyard for his protest to make much of a difference. So Mark states he goes back to Bethany with his disciples, spends the night, and comes back the following day.

This makes me wonder about the effectiveness of our own protest. When we do protest, how do we make it matter? How do we make it count?

Again, change for those being harmed never happens fast enough. But in each of our circles of influence we have today and all the potential for change today brings. Each day we still can move a more just, safe, compassionate, inclusive future closer.

Let’s do it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share three characteristics you feel a protest must possess in order to be effective in our social climate, today.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Gaining the World, Losing One’s Humanity

man alone on beach

Herb Montgomery | February 26, 2021

In Mark’s gospel we read,

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

Those controlling an unjust status quo have always used violence to force the silence of those who call for distributively just change and equitable transformation of society. In Jesus’ society, Rome maintained social “peace” by terrorizing inhabitants with the threat of a militarized, heavy handed backlash if any group disrupted the smooth functioning of the Pax Romana.

That is the political or social context in which we must understand the above passage. Jesus was facing two options: remain silent and avoid Rome’s violent response, i.e. crucifixion, or stand in the tradition of past Hebrew prophets and speak his truth to the unjust, exploitative, clients of Rome controlling the temple state. With this context, we can most safely reclaim and understand the “must” language of the passage we read today.

As Jesus saw vulnerable people in his society being harmed, he could not remain silent without losing hold, to some degree, of his own humanity. He must speak out. And speak out he did in the temple courtyard through both rhetoric and flipping the moneychangers’ tables. It is the must that must hold priority in our understanding. The reason Jesus “must suffer” the political consequences of speaking out was that he could not remain silent. I imagine he could not picture any other way. This to me speaks of his courage: he knows the cost of his upcoming temple protest, and he chooses to speak out anyway.

This gives us insight into life-giving ways to interpret the language of “taking up the cross and following” Jesus. Interpreting the cross as self-sacrifice that Jesus modeled and that we must follow too has borne destructive, harmful fruit in multiple vulnerable communities, especially women in Christian circles. In these circles, taking up one’s cross has come to mean remaining silent: Be like Jesus. Take up your cross. Just silently bear the injustice you are suffering. But this is not at all what we see Jesus doing in the story.

In the story, Jesus is refusing to be silent and bear suffering. He is speaking out, despite knowing that a cross may very well be the backlash he receives for doing so. I do not believe that Jesus would have taught the oppressed, whose lives and selves were already being sacrificed by those in power and whose humanity was already being denied, to choose self-sacrifice and denial of their humanity. Jesus instead gave them a way to affirm their humanity, worth, and value; to stand up and speak out, even in the face of the threat of death.

The other phrase in this passage that speaks to me at this moment in American society is “What does it profit a person if they gain the world but lose their self.” At the time of this writing, I was watching the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. Over the last four years, every time I have thought that this is the moment Republican lawmakers will wake from their spell, break from their path, and do what’s right, they have instead sunk to lower depths. But my concern is not partisan politics. My concern is humanity. One party has dug in and placed their own political, re-election aspirations over and against the common good, the good of the country, basic humanity including their own, and even against democracy itself.

Ultimately, Republican Senators voted not to convict the former president, despite how much evidence piled up over. They mis-judged that their own futures would be better if they just buried their heads in the sand . Yet what’s at stake is larger than democracy. As Jesus called his followers, we’re called to find and reclaim our humanity. To Republicans who have kept following Trump down paths that none of them should have followed, this is the moment to turn around. What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and yet, in doing so, lose their souls?

My heart hurts as I watch the resoluteness of so many refusing to do what is right. In the spirt of our passage from Mark on doing what is right even if one is threatened with a cross, I was moved by two significant moments from the impeachment trial. The first moment was Chaplain Barry Black’s reference in his prayer at beginning of the trial to a hymn that was my favorite when I was a teenager, Once to Every Man and Nation. Second was Representative Jamie Raskin’s adaptation of Thomas Paine’s words in The Crisis at the very end of the prosecution’s case. I’ll end this article this week with both quotes:

“Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side.” —James Russell Lowell

“These are the times that try men and women’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will shrink at this moment from the service of their cause and their country; but everyone who stands with us now, will win the love and the favor and affection of every man and every woman for all time. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; but we have this saving consolation: the more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.” —Thomas Paine

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Have you ever had to make a decision between staying silent and speaking out? Share your experience and any possible lessons learned with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Salt, Light, and Cautious Optimism

Herb Montgomery | February 19, 2021

salt in a salt scoop


“But mere diversity is not the goal. A safe and just world for everyone, where everyone can call our world home, is the goal. It will not be enough to see a more diverse neoliberalism in response to the last four years of neo-facism. We will have to see if the inclusion of more diverse voices will allow those included to change the very systems they’re joining. I have hope. But we will see.”


The Salt of the Earth

In Matthew’s sermon on the mount we read,

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)

Audiences matter. Jesus directed these words to people in his society who faced daily oppression under Rome and marginalization in their own community. Many of them would have been farm workers. In the 1st Century, farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his listeners to more fully engage their world, not to try to escape it. They are to re-enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth, to place their focus on “this world,” not on 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 plants that grow in the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, however, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is 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 means integrating 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.

We in the U.S. have just going through more than four years of our society enduring the depletion of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems force to live on the fringes. Today’s passage reminds us that they are the “salt” or fertilizer, and their voices will return to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to our society.

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

But mere diversity is not the goal. A safe and just world for everyone, where everyone can call our world home, is the goal. It will not be enough to see a more diverse neoliberalism in response to the last four years of neo-facism. We will have to see if the inclusion of more diverse voices will allow those included to change the very systems they’re joining. I have hope. But we will see.

The Light of the World

Next in Matthew’s passage, we read:

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 disinherited Jews under Rome, those who were pressed down and 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!”

Over the last four years, some of you who are reading this article (or listening to it) have been told that your voice is not welcome and you’ve been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this society needs.”

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 in fact called for the exclusion of those unlike them. Whether it be with the banning of Muslims, the silencing of women’s voices, Black voices pushed aside by White supremacy, the poor marginalized by the rich, or those who belong to the LGBTQ community excluded by Christians—yes, there are exceptions, but some Christians have spent the last several years making the loudest calls for certain voices and certain stories to be pushed to the margins.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of those voices will harm us all. The excluded and marginalized in every situation are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light.” It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

The community to which Jesus is speaking is one whose theism, morality, and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Torah and the social elite. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these interpretations. Repeatedly in the sermon on the mount Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings. In verse 17, Jesus says, “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’in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to make more full. 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 for “accomplished” is ginomai and also means “to complete.”

In American civil mythology, we often use the phrase, a “more perfect union.” I was struck during the January 21 inauguration by these words in Amanda Gorman’s poem: “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

We have much to repair, not only from the last four years, but also from the last four hundred years, and reparations is the watch word. From reparations to Earth in the midst of a sixth major extinction event to reparations to the descendants of enslaved people upon whose backs US wealth still grows; reparations to first Americans whose land is still being threatened, and to migrants unjustly treated to preserve a White majority in the U.S.; reparations to poor, rural Americans whose few resources get redistributed, too, to those who already have so much—we have much to repair, and now is the time to begin.

Jesus invites us to step into a way of viewing our own well-being as deeply connected with the well-being of everyone in our society.

If Jesus’ disinherited listeners were to experience liberation, it would be because they overcame injustice together. No more exclusion of those marginalized as other. Jesus’ new social order, God’s just future, or what the text refers to as ‘the kingdom’, is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally, privately and publicly, individually and collectively.

So now is a moment for us to begin again. We can exhale deep relief from the political transition we have just witnessed. And we can take up the work once again, of pushing a new, diverse administration toward policies and systemic change that help make our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

We still have work to do, not only to ensure past harms do not repeat, but also to ensure that the future does not return us to the normality of the past.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How would you like to see society change over the next four years? What can you do in your sphere of influence to help?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Learning to Listen

man plugging his ears

Herb Montgomery | February 12, 2021


Im thankful for a woman who didnt give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need beyond their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was teacher of the teacher. Im also thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen.”


In Matthew’s gospel we read:

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

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers that the Hebrews considered unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog,” but this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for Gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people.

I believe that Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple in the name of the empire. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—as well as outward ones. So in this passage, Jesus may be speaking about ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space inside them to be used by their oppressors.

Another passage in Matthew includes similar language. It reads:

“Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’ Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ ‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said.’“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.” (Matthew 15:21-28, emphasis added.)

In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus had retreated to the two ancient Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon for respite. While there, he was met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician: a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia (Mark 7:26). It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to emphasize. This woman, being from Syria, would have been of Seleucid decent. Syria was the name Rome used for the Seleucid Empire. This matters because these were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome. Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people, and although Seleucids and Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, they had once conquered and occupied the Hebrew people. Jesus’ exchange with this woman happens when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

The encounter is set up to prick readers’ sense of justice. Jesus emerged within Jewish society and taught the liberation of the oppressed. But here was someone outside of Jewish society who was associated with Gentile oppressors who was asking him to liberate her daughter too!

What we are encountering in this story today would be called intersectionality. Intersectionality is a way of describing the relationships between systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes oppression as an interlocking matrix and helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality. The woman in this story lived in multiple social locations that not only intersected in her oppression but also connected to the oppression of Jewish people.

Using the language of Matthew 7, Jesus questions her, “Is it right to give the children’s bread to the dogs?”

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

Yes, this woman belonged to a people group who had oppressed the Jewish people, though there is absolutely no indication she felt this way toward the Jewish people herself. And she was also a woman in a patriarchal context. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request of Jesus as another father does in Mark 5:22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Jesus asks out loud: is it right to help her?

Intersectionality teaches us that every person can live in multiple social locations given the diversity of their identity. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews, the ancient Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews also participated in cultural patriarchy similar to that in Hellenistic Tyre and Sidon, and though by Jesus’ time they suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, Hebrews had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, Jesus’ compassion wins out. But we must not fail to see the depth of his struggle between genuinely questioning what was right, and allowing his questions to give way, not to “rightness,” but to compassion itself. Compassion was ultimately the right choice, and Jesus may have not arrived at that choice if he had not first chosen to allow compassion to govern his reasoning.

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

I’m thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need beyond their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was teacher of the teacher. I’m also thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. Had Jesus sent her away, one could have argued he did the “right” thing, yet a great injustice would have been committed and therefore it would have been wrong no matter how “right.” But he listened to her, and he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic teachings that day, thanks to this woman.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. He faced the same dilemma we we all face when navigating the social realities of each our identities. I’m thankful to see this side of Jesus, and I’m thankful for this woman who helped Jesus answer his own question with compassion and justice.

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there are no “dogs” or “pigs.” There are only “children.”

We are all siblings of the same Divine Parent. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and as the proverb states, “Before each person there goes an angel announcing, ‘behold the image of God.’” Jesus models listening to those who belong to oppressed communities, and going deeper through that listening. I believe those who follow Jesus today can and must do the same.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How can we follow the example of Jesus’ change in this story when we encounter new information, new perspectives, or different experiences other than our own?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Falling and Rising of Many

Herb Montgomery | January 22, 2021


“This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this.”


In the gospel of Luke, we read these words about the child Jesus:

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.’” (Luke 2:34)

We mentioned this passage briefly in part 9 of our Advent series last month. This small statement offers insights that are worth a closer look.

In physics, we typically speak of things rising first and then falling: what goes up must come down. But this passage isn’t talking about physics. It’s talking about pulling some people downward economically, politically, and socially while raising or lifting up others. It harkens back to the language in Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:

“ . . . he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-55)

These are passages about wealth disparity, not wealth alone.

Last March, Renewed Heart Ministries’ monthly recommended reading was Kate Pickett’s and Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. In page after page of statistics, Pickett and Wilkinson show that once a society reaches a certain level of wealth, the amount quickly becomes irrelevant. What determines the overall health of that society is the degree of equity or disparity that exists there, whether the distance between the haves and have-nots is great or limited. Inequity disproportionally impacts people in regards to education, health care, crime, substance abuse, mental health, and much, much more.

In a different book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky shows that social economic inequity, over time, even damages individuals and the communities they comprise biologically.

This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this, and the jubilee in the Torah is just one practice they developed to demonstrate it.

I think of those like Jeff Bezos, who became the world’s first centi-billionaire during a global pandemic where many have suffered losses of unimaginable magnitude. A dear friend of mine, for example, just lost a brother-in-law to COVID. He just had just become a father 11 months ago, and died on Christmas day. We are now over 19 million cases, with many hospitals overrun, and an unnecessarily 333,000 now dead.

What could the “pulling down and raising up of many” mean for us today?


When Everyone Has Enough

Chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel continues the theme of redistribution or balancing of resources in Jesus’ community. This was a society where an elite few had more than they could possibly ever need while a multitude of others were being bled dry economically. Their thriving was impossible, their very survival was being threatened as well, and many who had once had modest means were pushed into poverty, much like America’s shrinking middle class today.

Consider how these words would have been heard in that context:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)

So much can be said about these words! Notice the parallel to “falling and rising” from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph. Here, the poor, the hungry, those whom the present unjust system had reduced to tears, and those labelled trouble-makers for speaking out against injustice are being lifted up in Jesus’ vision for a just community. And those the present system has left rich at others’ expense; those well-fed because others go hungry; those rejoicing because of their great, disproportionate wealth, and those whom the system praised would now be brought back down. All of these groups would experience a fall from their places of privilege as their community came back into balance: no one would have too much while others didn’t have enough.

I was once troubled by the idea of the well-fed going hungry. I want to be careful not to interpret this passage in a way that body shames anyone, including myself. In that context, “well-fed” had a political-economic meaning—similar to the elites being referred to as “fat cats.” But some experience hunger at the beginning of a healthy weight loss journey. Not all hunger is bad. In the same way, the elite will experience temporary hunger whenever society is brought back into balance. They may even weep and morn as they see billions of their net-worth lost on their balance sheets as society itself is rebalanced. A return to social equity always feels like “loss” for those who are privileged and powerful. This is why Jesus’ vision of a just society was so threatening. It also explains why that group felt his voice must be silenced and he must be removed from among the poor, those who hunger and thirsted for things to be put right.

Yet Jesus’ teachings of economic redistribution was part of his Jewish heritage and sacred text.


Economic Falling and Rising in the Torah

In the book of Leviticus we read:

“Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.” (Leviticus 25:8-13)

This jubilee year, also referred to as the year of the Lord’s favor, was an additional sabbatical year when slaves were released, debts were forgiven, and property/land was restored to the original families of ownership (see Isaiah 61:1-2).

Deuteronomy 15 states, “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”

These economic laws were intended to be protective. They limited both extremes, preventing anyone from amassing too much or losing too much and therefore risking poverty. These offered a type of “falling and rising” that pulled those at the top back down and lifted those at the bottom, all to prevent societal disparities and inequities becoming too great. These laws were not utopian by any means. They assumed disparities and inequities as both inevitable and damaging, damaging to the degree that the growing society’s disparities needed to be limited so that its potential for damage and harm would also be limited. Redistribution of amassed wealth in this context mitigated harm. (See Debt jubilee: will our debts be written off?, written last March to wrestle with the concept of jubilee and the pandemic’s economic challenges.)

It’s telling that out of all the passages the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen from the Hebrew scriptures to summarize Jesus work, they chose Isaiah 62:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

What could limits toward amassing too much wealth look like in our context today?

What could limits on poverty through redistribution of that amassed, superfluous wealth look like?

Could this redistribution, which will be seen as a threat to the elite, be life-giving to the masses?

Do we find support for redistribution in the Jesus story and in the Jewish sacred texts?

These are questions worth wrestling with as we enter this new year.


HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some of the subtle differences between equality and equity? Discuss what social, racial, and economic equity would look like in our society.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Desecrating Sacred Spaces

Herb Montgomery | January 15, 2021

Washington D.C. U.S. Capitol Building


“As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in last week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action. I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.”


In Mark’s gospel we read:

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14, emphasis added.)

Jesus here is describing the desecration of sacred space as a red-alert warning to his followers. And before we write this passage off stating that the temple of which the passage is referring was religious “sacred” space, remember there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture as we know that separation today. The temple was both religious and civic sacred space, the capitol of the Temple state that governed Jesus’ society as well. This speaks volumes to me in the wake of what we recently witnessed at the U.S. Capitol and at state capitols across this country. Within U.S. civic religion, many today consider the U.S. Capitol to be civic “sacred” space. I think of my Christian siblings who have so vocally supported President Trump over the last four years. And I question whether they will succeed or fail to see the events last week as yet another of the long list of red-flag-warnings within our context today. Let’s unpack this a bit.

The passage above is drawing the phrase “abomination that causes desolation” from Daniel and 1 Maccabees. This phrase originally referred to events that took place in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. The historical desecration this language originally referred to was Antiochus IV Epiphanes violating the Temple’s altar of burnt offering with an image of Zeus fashioned in Antiochus’ likeness.

Mark picks up this language to describe the events that led to the desecration and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 C.E. The language is apocalyptic and would have been familiar to Mark’s intended Jewish and Christian audience.

Disparity of Values

In this section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is warning of false Messiahs and their deception of the people:

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 12:21-23)

Here in the U.S., poor White people have a long history of being duped by false messianic political figures who stoke their worst fears, play to their own bigotry, and appeal to a base set of desires that ultimately prove to be death-dealing for them and often society at large.

This history goes all the way back to Bacon’s rebellion in 1675, when the elite hoped to protect their superior status and economic position by driving a wedge between Black enslaved people and poor whites. Having prevented these groups from forming an alliance, the elites then offered poor whites a “racial bribe:” special privileges that Black people would never receive.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites.” (p. 24) Poor whites now had a personal stake in a racialized system of injustice. Their plight did not improve much, but at least they were higher up than the Black slaves. Alexander adds: “Once the elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position” (pp. 24-25).

Today, elites in the U.S. are still driving wedges between the poor and working classes, and these wedges are along racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic lines. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” White Jesus followers today, rich or poor, must reclaim his warning against false messiahs as a call to examine our own pain. It can be for us a spring board to evaluating our own actions, determining whether they are rooted in truth and are holy and life-giving, or are profane and based in deception, bribery, and death-dealing.

What we saw at the Capitol building last week was a matter of people acting out their values. People who had been deceived into thinking they were fighting for “freedom” and against “tyranny” were actually fighting for four more years of bigotry, lies, autocracy, and a downward spiral into a cult of personality. Too few of us have developed the ability to think critically about what others tell us, and the people at the Capitol have been manipulated by political powers, wealthy elites, powerful corporations, and a president who doesn’t know how to emotionally deal with losing. These were not protestors calling for justice. They were an out-of-control mob deceived about the character of their actions, and deceived about the character of the man they choose to follow. If you trust and follow people who lie, cheat, show themselves to be bragging bullies, your end will be harm to yourself and others.

Disparity of Treatment

I watched the news the day after the mob stormed the Capitol and wondered why greater precautions weren’t taken. The crowd’s intentions were well known in advance. If Black Lives Matters groups had planned a protest at the Capitol building (as they have in the past) the National Guard would have been lining the steps of the Capitol building. Yet this White crowd of thousands of followers of the President overran the complex. Those who don’t believe White privilege exists in the U.S. need to take a step back and consider the stark disparity between security preparations in D.C. on January 6 and policing at any justice rally or protest.

I remember peacefully protesting with my 8th grade daughter in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray years ago. Military sniper riffles were pointed at the crowd my daughter and I stood in at the rally on the lawn in front of Baltimore’s city hall. But on January 6 , police were pictured removing barriers blocking the mob and they took selfies with those who broke into the Capitol. Black people, people like those I stood with in Baltimore, would have all been shot. Law enforcement officers kill Black people in this country for nothing.

It was painful for me to watch the disparity in responses on January 6. I can’t imagine how painful it was for my non-White friends. It’s not that I want those involved in last week’s mob to meet the same level of lethal force, but that I want those crying out for racial justice to meet with the same level of self-restraint.

Last July, the President of the United States declared that anyone defacing or destroying federal property would be punished to the highest extent of the law. On January 6, that same president told those who desecrated and destroyed federal property that he loved them and they were “very special” people. It was never about protecting property but about the skin-color of those calling for change.

Disparity of Analysis

Lastly, the disparities in analysis by certain news outlets in our country is also heavy on my heart. I have listened to people I know personally referred to as “thugs,” “terrorists,” “rioters,” and “looters” over the past year. But these same news outlets called those involved in last week’s riots “patriots” and “freedom fighters.”

One of those involved was one of West Virginia’s very own: newly elected state official Delegate Derrick Evans (see Newly Elected Del. Derrick Evans Live-Streams Storming Of U.S. Capitol, A Newly Elected West Virginia Delegate Was Part Of The Pro-Trump Mob That Stormed The Capitol, and West Virginia lawmaker among rioters in Capitol). Another state legislator, W.V. State Senator Mike Azinger, a Republican from Wood county was also at the rally on January 6. Senator Azinger has since stated, “It was inspiring to be there and I hope he [Trump] calls us back.” (W.Va. senator who went to D.C. rally that turned into mob scene hopes Trump ‘calls us back’)

Our local state Senator, Sen. Stephan Baldwin (D), pastor of the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church released the following statement on behalf of West Virginia’s Senate Minority Caucus:

“Today, our children must know that this is not how democracy works. Democracy is determined by ballots, not bullets. Democracy rests on the peaceful transfer of power because of free and fair elections. We do not inflict violence on those with whom we disagree. We condemn today’s attack on democracy because this is a nation of laws, order, and decency.

All of those who participated in today’s attack on the capitol, especially those who unlawfully entered the building and perpetrated acts of violence, should be prosecuted fully by the law that undergirds our democracy.

We understand that an incoming delegate, Derrick Evans, videoed himself participating in such acts. There is no place for him in the WV Legislature.

When our state was born, it took tremendous strength to carve West Virginia out of a divided nation. We are divided again today. It will take all our better angels to heal us. We pledge to do our part in the halls of the West Virginia Capitol, and we call on all citizens to do their part. Check on your neighbors, help someone in need, engage with those who are different from you. That is how we will summon the strength needed to right this country again. By loving our neighbors throughout these majestic and grand hills of West Virginia.”

At the time that I write this, we here in WV are still waiting to see how Del. Derrick Evan’s actions will be evaluated and responded to. Some here who so strongly condemned the peaceful racial justice protests of last summer are calling him a hero.

As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in this week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action.

I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.

HeartGroup Application

*****

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

*****

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What do the disparities mentioned above speak of to you? Discuss with your HeartGroup.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Reimagining Our World in 2021

city scape in black and white

by Herb Montgomery | January 8, 2021

Mark’s stories about Jesus begin:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14–15)

If the scholars have rightly determined when Mark’s gospel was written, it was written at a time when many Jewish followers of Jesus were trying to find purpose after the devastation of Jerusalem, the temple, and the temple-state that functioned from there. Political tensions with Rome had escalated to an uprising, war, and ruin. With Jerusalem devastated, Mark draws our attention away from a Jerusalem-centered movement and to a Galilean-centered movement rooted in the teachings of the itinerant Jesus.

Mark’s gospel also redefines the “kingdom” of the apocalyptic book of Daniel’s “son of man” (see Daniel 7). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the “messiah” (Mark 1:1). This label had yet not become Christianized or anti-Semitic and was still associated with many Jewish liberation movements whose anointed ones (“messiahs”) promised liberation from Rome. Rome’s most recent response to these messiahs had razed Jerusalem to the ground.

The Hebrew prophets called for social justice and liberation of the oppressed, and located restoration on earth, with “Jerusalem” being the center to which the entire world would flock. And now Jerusalem is no more.

Now in 2021, in wake of the present Covid-19 pandemic, so many here in the U.S. have experienced losses of unimaginable magnitude. Does Mark’s version of the Jesus story still offer us today any concrete hope and encouragement toward our hopes for a just, safe, compassionate world? How does the gospel of Mark call us to reimagine a just society in 2021? We’ll consider this and more in this short series.

If Mark could offer good news or “gospel” in the midst of such loss for its intended audience, maybe we can find some here, too.

Mark’s Gospel

In this climate, Mark’s gospel reimagines the kingdom of this son of man. Could an end of violence, injustice, and oppression rise out of Galilee rather than Judea? If we compared Judea and Galilee in the first century, we’d find ethnic, geographic, political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences between them. Matthew and Mark emphasize the Galilean context, while Luke’s gospel and Acts centers their stories of Jesus in Jerusalem and, from there, grows (through Paul) to the rest of the Gentile world.

Mark’s gospel, believed to be the earliest written in our Christian scriptures, uses the Greek term for Good News or “Gospel,” euaggelion. This originally was neither a religious nor a Christian term but was instead a political term that announced a new status quo. Whenever Rome would conquer a territory, it would send out an “evangelist” who would proclaim to the conquered territory the “gospel” or good news that they were now under the rule of the peace of Rome (Pax Romana). The messenger would announce that Caesar was the son of God and Rome was the savior of the world. They would proclaim that Rome’s dominion would give the conquered territory a newfound prosperity and peace (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33; Plutarch Demetrius, p. 17; Plutarch, Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347)

The challenge for Mark’s audience would have been that Rome, the supposed savior, and Ceasar, this son of God, had just obliterated Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. The Roman term gospel communicated the arrival of a new social order, but, for the Jewish people Rome’s order had failed in the most harmful way possible.

The Jesus of Mark’s gospel took this term and announced the “Kingdom of God” rather than the kingdom of Rome (Mark 1:15). I prefer Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ term “God’s just future” rather than “kingdom,” given the patriarchal and politically problematic nature of kingdoms for us today.

Never once does the Jesus of Mark offer people a way to “get to heaven.” Rather, he travels the Galilean countryside announcing a new social order, here and now, in opposition to Rome’s failed order. The political and economic social order among the elite families of the temple-state of Jerusalem had proven incapable of stemming social unrest and uprising.

Though Jerusalem is no more by the time Mark is written, Jesus teaches in the justice traditions of the Hebrew prophets. Is the just world envisioned by the prophets and Jesus still possible without Jerusalem? Mark’s gospel answers, yes: God’s just future is still possible if we’ll choose it. Old geographical expectations about the new social order would have to change, but Mark could still envision the hope of a just, safe, compassionate world with a place for us all through his Jesus and his teachings.

Today, we must hold on to the hope that a different iteration of our world is possible, too.

Repent and Believe

Mark’s gospel calls its audience to “repent and believe the good news.” It almost sounds tone-deaf in the face of Rome. Yet this language of repentance and belief was not purely religious. For Mark’s audience, the call to “repent and believe” a “gospel” different than Rome’s would have been deeply political.

The Greek word for repent is metanoeo. It means to rethink something, to think differently about things, or to reconsider. Mark’s Jesus proclaims a gospel that invited a radical rethinking of how to order society. Jesus was calling his followers to reassess their values and placing the vulnerable at the center of those values, not just the wealthy and elite. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order and to those oppressing them.

Today, too, we can predict that exploitative systems and economic structures must change or humanity will cease to exist. Mark’s audience had seen exploitation’s destructive end. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed had escalated till Jerusalem stood smoldering.

The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. This phrase is used in other contexts than in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus’ autobiography, for example, records an event that took place when he tried to end various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engaged with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and told him that he would forgive “what he had done already if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was requiring this brigand to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations and trust Josephus for a better way. Josephus uses the same phrase Jesus does: “metanoesein kai pistos emoi (Thackery, The Life of Flavius Josephus, p. 10)

Whereas Josephus blamed brigands and Jewish rebels for the destruction Rome wreaked on Jerusalem, today we’d call that victim-blaming. Rome chose to economically exploit the people in Galilee and Judea through client kings and the temple-state’s high priests. And when the people finally had been bled dry and could not take any more, Rome chose to respond by leveling Jerusalem to the ground.

Mark’s gospel lifts this phrase, metanoesein kai pistos emoi, (repent and believe in what I’m telling you) to call its audience, not to the passive acceptance Josephus offered, but to reimagine what a just world could look like, even in the wake of such devastation and setback.

2020 has been devastating for so many. In 2021, our social orders will still prioritize and privilege some while marginalizing and subjugating others. In our world, White people are privileged over people of color; men are privileged over women; the rich are privileged over the poor; those defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who identify as LGBTQ, and the formally educated are privileged over those who are equally intelligent but have not had the same opportunities.

What is Mark’s Jesus saying to us today?

A different iteration of our present world is possible even now if we would collectively choose it, and it will take us choosing it together. Mark’s Jesus story subverts present structures and offers a way of imagining our world where people matter over power, privilege, property, and profit. Just as it did for Mark’s original audience, this reimagining of our present world involves a radically new way of thinking about redistributing resources with values of compassion, justice, equity, and concern for the safety, well-being, and thriving of those the present system leaves vulnerable to harm.

This vision is of a world of social structures rooted in love for all. As Dr. Emilie Townes states, and as we at RHM are fond of often quoting, “If we begin with the belief that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” In the words of Mark’s gospel, when we start with love, a just future “has come near” (Mark 1:15).

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Justice is what love looks like in public. Take a moment to reimagine how you’d like to see our world reshaped this week. Discuss some of your reimagining with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2020

nativity


“So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today. This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system.”


“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

This Christmas, many are enduring hardship because the political elite have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery some have touted is a “K” shaped recovery: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier whereas both the working class and those who live below the poverty line have seen their lives get worse.

In this context, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s birth narratives gives me much to ponder: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

As we said in part 2, these narratives in Matthew and Luke are not filled with the theme of another world or an afterlife. Instead, they present another iteration of this world. They are concerned with the concrete experience of those being exploited and fighting for their economic survival in this life, here and now. They are not about salvation as individual or spiritual but as concrete liberation from the social, political, and economic realities that seek to crush the people.

Luke’s entire gospel repeatedly contrasts the common people or peasantry with the ruling elite in the society of Luke’s intended audience (cf. Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:18-19). Our communities today are divided along social, political, and economic lines too. During this pandemic, many of the haves have gained even more while the little bit that those without had, has either been taken away or been barely enough. What do these stories say for our lives, today? Can they still speak to us of another kind of world, possible here and now?

In Matthew, the Magi are key characters. Luke gives us the shepherds (see Luke 2:8). Interpreting these shepherds in Luke’s story, Horsley writes in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context: “The shepherds of Luke 2 should not be over-interpreted, whether in the older fashion as symbols of some idyllic pastoral life or in the more recent mode as representatives of the despised and ostracized in Jewish society. Shepherds were simply part of the peasantry in ancient Palestinian society. Peasants, almost by definition, were poor, and dwellers were lowly in status. Shepherds while not despised by the people, were apparently some of the lowliest of the lowly.” (p.106)

Luke’s birth narratives are centered in the social location of the common people rather than that of the elite of the day. Even John the Baptist’s parents are common priests living in Judea and associated with the common people, not high-priests connected to other rulers in Jerusalem. Luke’s birth narrative places Jesus among and in solidarity with the hopes of the common peasantry of that time.

This association of Jesus with the hopes of those scratching and clawing for their survival helps us better understand the focus of three poems included in Luke: The Magnificat (Mary, Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon, Luke 2:29-32).

Let’s take a very brief look at each.

The Magnificat

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

This is not the pious prayer of a saint, but a revolutionary song of concrete liberation. It stands in the tradition of sociopolitical, Hebrew victory songs. Songs like Mary’s were sung by Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), and Judith (Judges 6), and their form is very close to other Jewish hymns from the late-second-Temple era, like the psalms in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran Hodayoth and War Scroll (The Liberation of Christmas, p. 108).

The themes of Mary’s song are also not solely spiritual: they are deeply and subversively social, economic, and political. The Magnificat is about God’s revolutionary overthrow of the established governing authorities on behalf of the peasantry of Israel.

Consider these examples of concrete, political usage of Mary’s same language:

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.” (Psalm 89:13)

“You crushed Rahab like one of the slain, with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.” (Psalm 89:10)

“He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 10:21, cf. Psalm 105)

See also the entire 111th psalm.

Mary’s song evokes the ancient memory of God’s great acts of liberation, the exodus from Egypt, and the Hebrew prophets’ promises of liberation, renewal, and restoration. “The humble state of his servant” does not refer solely to Mary but to the entire community of peasants in Israel. This language is used in Deuteronomy and the Psalms to describe a condition of being dominated, oppressed, and afflicted. It does not refer to an individual’s spiritual humility but to the concrete social, economic, and political conditions of all the people:

“Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)

“He remembered us in our low estate, His love endures forever.” (Psalms 136:23)

The proud, who God scatters, could have referred to the oppressive domestic rulers (Herod/High Priestly class) or to foreign oppressors (Romans). (See Psalm of Solomon 2:1-2, 25, 28-31; 17:8, 15, 26).

This is a song about the political liberation of a people with actual political enemies, just as the same kinds of liberation songs in previous generations referred to bondage in Egypt, rescue from Canaanite kings, and deliverance from the Philistines. The lowly in each instance means those who have suffered exploitation, oppression, and subjugation from the wealthy and powerful ruling groups and the systems of injustice they were responsible for.

Luke’s songs of social, political, and economic deliverance for the poor, marginalized, peasants announce that a new social order of justice and abundance as well as surviving and thriving is possible.

Read through the other two songs used in Luke’s birth narratives. I’ll share references showing examples of how the political language used in Luke had been politically used in other passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as well.

The Benedictus

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and redeemed them.

[See Exodus 4:31; Ruth 1:6; Psalms 80:14; 106:4; 111:5-6,9]

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David

[See Psalms 18:2; Ezekiel 29:21; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 132:17; Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9,15]

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,

[Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8]

because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,

[Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 107:9-10]

to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

The Nunc Dimittis

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

[Isaiah 52:13-53:12]

and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Right after this last poem, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, saying that their child is for the “falling and rising of many in Israel.” This statement harks back to Mary’s song of some being lifted up and others pulled down, and it looks forward to the economic teachings of Jesus where the poor will be blessed, but the well-fed will go hungry (see Luke 6).

So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today.

This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system. And this pandemic continues to reveal how disproportionately unjust our systems are for so many.

The songs of liberation speak of political, economic, social, and even religious conflict, and of deliverance—God’s just future—breaking into our suffering today. That just future is rooted in the teachings of this “baby” found by shepherds “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Will we choose it?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share something from Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives that speak to you of concrete liberation, today.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 18, 2020

wisemen


“Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing . . . These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.”


Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).

One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.

That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.

What are the implications including the Magi here?

Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome.

Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)

Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.

  1. Herod
  2. The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
  3. The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”

As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.

The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.

Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.

This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus Messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.

Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?

Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.

That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.

When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.

What does this have to do with us today?

Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.

How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?

These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.

This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.

We’ll take a look at those next week.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. This year’s Christmas holiday is filled with harsh realities for many in the U.S.  Discuss with your HeartGroup what you can do, together, to mitigate some portion of that harm for someone this holiday season. Pick something from the discussion for your group to do together in this final week leading up to Christmas.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week