Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

The Violence Inherent in the System

by Herb Montgomery | August 24, 2018

Mosaic of Jesus carrying a cross


“Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same ‘class’ today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized.”


“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Mark 10:32-33)

In our last eSight/podcast (Jesus From The Edges), we focused on the importance of listening to the theologies that arise from the experiences of communities of people who daily bump up against oppression, marginalized, and/or subjugation. These sources are contrasted with theologies that come out of a more privileged social location in our society. 

As womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant writes, “Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 1, 10). 

James Cone also writes, ““Few, if any, of the early Church Fathers grounded their christological arguments in the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, little is said about the significance of his ministry to the poor as a definition of his person. The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State” (God of the Oppressed, p. 107). 

From my own experience I know that those on the margins of society see things in the Jesus story that those more centered in society simply miss. This doesn’t mean that some people have no blind spots. We all have blind spots. But in learning to listen to one another, especially the voices of those rarely given the mic, we discover our own blind spots and can move toward a path of compassion and justice for everyone. 

Given this reality, I would like to spend the next few eSights/podcasts contemplating the closing events of the Jesus story through the lens of the experiences of oppressed communities and the life actions these insights call us to engage. 

One of these insights has impacted my own theology for the better, has been life giving, and borne healthy fruit for me. That insight is the interpretation of Jesus death that holds that the crucifixion was not for the purpose of satisfying divine wrath, honor, or justice, but instead was an act of injustice, an expression of the violence inherent in unjust political, social, economic, and religious systems.

To the best of our knowledge, the earliest version of the Jesus story is the gospel of Mark. Three times in  that gospel, Jesus reveals that he understands that his actions in Jerusalem will lead to his arrest and crucifixion by the Romans (see Mark 8:31-34; Mark 9:30-32; and Mark 10:32-34). 

Mark’s point is that  the crucifixion was a direct response to the political, social, economic, and religious actions Jesus took in the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of the Temple State.

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way [and] this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order.’” (Kelly Brown Douglas. Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

When one interprets what we call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” as climaxing in his temple protest, it makes a lot of sense to understand the cross as the response of the powers in control at that time. “Crucifixion was and remains a political and military punishment . . . Among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state ” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 87, emphasis added).

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t die so that people can go to heaven when they die. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus dies because he stood up to the status quo. One’s social location enables one to either see the relevance of this story detail or miss the point entirely. James Cone makes the same point in his classic book A Black Theology of Liberation: 

“What is most ironic is that the white lynchers of blacks in America were not regarded as criminals; like Jesus, blacks were the criminals and insurrectionists. The lynchers were the ‘good citizens’ who often did not even bother to hide their identities. They claimed to be acting as citizens and Christians as they crucified blacks in the same manner as the Romans lynched Jesus . . . White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.” (James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 158-159)  

Yet for Cone, his own experience as a Black man in America enabled him to see the cross as a violent act of injustice by an oppressive system. Seeing Jesus’ crucifixion in this light helped him to make sense of his own experience and to stand up to the injustice he faced. “The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross . . . I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Introduction)

In Mark’s gospel, we read: 

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:1-11)

This was a planned demonstration by Jesus. Echoing Zechariah 9:9, Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem that day was to culminate in a dramatic Temple protest. Yet according to Mark, there was one flaw in his plan. When he finally arrived at the Temple, it was already “late in the day” and the majority of people had returned home. For a demonstration or protest to have effect, it must have witnesses. So what does Jesus do? He returns with the twelve and spends the night in Bethany, most likely at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and delays the final act of his demonstration for the following day.

“On the following day . . . they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” (Mark 11.12 -16) 

Notice that these two events were supposed to be connected. They were not to happen separately but together. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and then overturning the tables in protest against how the poor were being exploited by the Temple state was intended to be one  action, not two.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ action on that second day was enough to threaten the powers, and before the end of the week, he was arrested by the “police” (Luke 22:52, CSB) and  hanging on a Roman cross. 

What does the cross say first to those facing marginalization within their larger society? 

Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same “class” today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized:

 “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day. (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 26)

What, then, is our first takeaway from looking at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of those who belong to oppressed communities? That Jesus ended up on a Roman cross tells us that Jesus and Jesus’ God stood with those being marginalized over against the violence inherent in the system. Today, when we stand alongside those who are being marginalized, who face the violence inherent in our system, we are standing with that same Jesus and his God. We’ll consider another insight next week. For this week, contemplating this much is enough. 

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10.32-33)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What does standing up to injustice look like for you? Share with your group.
  2. As a group, choose and read about an injustice that doesn’t apply to you. Make sure that what you read is by a member of the affected community and directly impacted by the injustice.
  3. How does what you’ve read impact you? What would it look like to stand up to this injustice alongside those impacted? Consider, as a follower of Jesus, doing so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice, and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Solidarity with the Crucified Community

by Herb Montgomery | June 1, 2018

Pictures of an x on a tree among a forest of trees

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash

 


“When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, you will no longer be needed.”


“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In recent articles on pyramids, circles, and social structure, I mentioned that the term “sinner” was used in Jesus’ society to push people to the edges and lower sections of their community.

Ched Myers uses the debate between Pharisees and Saducees over whether grain was clean or impure to illustrate how this worked.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

I’ve covered this in The Lost Coin and in the presentation Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized. People used the pejorative label of “sinner” to other another human being and to limit their voice in the community. The writers of the Jesus story go to great length to communicate that the ones the religious and political leaders of that time had labelled as “sinners” were the ones Jesus included and also centered as he called for a new social order that favored them. Here are just a few examples:

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

[Remember that Jesus is using the labels of “righteous” and “sinner” as they were used in his society, not as many Christians use them today. Those labelled “righteous” by those in power threatened their political and economic structures the least and benefitted from them. The label “sinner” was used to silence the voices of those who would have protested either their own exploitation or another’s.]

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”

The people Jesus ate with weren’t sinners ontologically; they were sinners politically, economically, and socially. In this context, therefore, it’s not accurate to respond, “Well, we are all sinners.” We must recognize how the label of sinner was used against some people. When particular human beings are being targeted and marginalized, it’s not enough to call for universal grace. Instead we ought to call for justice. A breach in relationship happens when one person marginalizes another and labels them sinner. A person may be a sinner, but they are labelled that way to religiously legitimate injustice committed against them. Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “All injustice is a breach with God” (in A Theology of Liberation, p.139). It’s a breach with God because it is a breach with our fellow human beings.

In last month’s recommended reading book for RHM, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Douglas reminds us:

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.
 . . . That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day. (p. 171)

Jesus did not stand in solidarity with the marginalized “crucified class” in secret. He did not do so diplomatically or with an eye toward political expediency. He did so openly, publicly, and transparently. We see this in the following story in Mark’s gospel:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-5)

Consider that phrase, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Jesus knew that what he was teaching and whom he was standing with was going to cost him. He could have met the man at the back of the synagogue, or pulled him into a private room where he could “behind the scenes” engage the work of this liberation. But no, Jesus met and healed him right there, in front of everyone, with intention. 

I read this story often when I’m tempted to value protecting my own privilege over the people who today need others to speak alongside them. When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, I will no longer be needed. To quote the 1980s synth-pop classic “Take On Me” by A-ha, “It’s not better to be safe than sorry.”

Does open solidarity with those being marginalized come with a cost? You bet it does. According to the story in Mark, the immediate push back for Jesus’ public witness to this man’s liberation was that the religious and political leaders “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” And this is only in Mark’s third chapter. The leaders are threatened by Jesus’ public and transparent inclusion of those they excluded from the very beginning of Mark’s story.

All of this raises the question: who are we known to stand in solidarity with? The status quo? Or those beloved people who daily face oppression, exploitation, or marginalization within our status quo? 

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

HeartGroup Application

This past month, on the same day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, over 60 nonviolent Palestinian protestors including children in Gaza were murdered by Israeli snipers. (Gaza begins to bury its dead after deadliest day in years)

Here are some things you and your HeartGroup can do:

1. Participate in protests in your area in response to what is taking place in Gaza. Voice your objection publicly. 

2. Use your social media platform to bring awareness to what is happening.

3. Contact your federal, state and local representatives. Write a letter, an email, or better yet, call their office.

4. Donate to charities.

You will need to do your own due diligence and research finding the right charity. Find a charity that has people with feet on the ground who can evidence that your gift will reach the people who need it. One charity that does meet these criteria is UNWRA.

6. Talk to your family and friends.

Talk to your family and friends to raise awareness and have them join you in the above actions.

7. Support peace-building initiatives.

Support Muslim and Jewish organizations that are working to bring peace while practicing a preferential option for the vulnerable. Standing against the violence in Gaza is about standing up against oppression, colonization, discrimination, and inequity.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love.

Keep living in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

It’s Easier to Build a Religion than to Build a Better World.

by Herb Montgomery | April 20, 2018

Picture of Cathedral

Photo by Alexander Watts on Unsplash


“Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.” 


“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)

On April 4, many people around the world observed the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One poem that I return to each year on both April 4 and January 21 (MLK Day) is Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem “A dead man’s dream.” It’s quoted in full by Vincent Harding in Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero:

“A dead man’s dream”

by Carl Wendell Hines Jr.

“Now that he is safely dead, 
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images 
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments 
Than to build a better world.
So now that he is safely dead, 
We, with eased consciences will 
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he 
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.”

(Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., “Now That He Is Safely Dead,” in Drum Major for a Dream, p. 23.; quoted by Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero , rev. ed., Kindle Edition Locations 2430-2431)

Why do we turn those who threatened their social order into revered or even worshipped heroes after they’ve died? Why do so many of us praise these controversial figures from our history rather than following them? Today those in power ignore King’s radicalness, especially from 1965 to 1968, and his ideas during those years are still not taught to new generations. Yet King is lifted up by those in power as an American hero. If the King of 1968 were still alive today, he would be one of the loudest critiques of America’s capitalism, continued racism, and militarism (both domestic and foreign). The line in Hines’ poem that jumps out at me each time I read it is “it is easier to build monuments than to build a better world.”

The pattern of turning into heroes those who once spoke unpopular truth to power is part of the Jesus story as well. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the story, those in power who were threatened by Jesus’ gospel to the poor and marginalized, built monuments to the prophets of old even though their actions repeated the very history that killed the prophets who critiqued those in power within their own society to an early death.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.” (Luke 11:47-48)

In this week’s featured text above, the question is asked, “Why do you call me Lord (worship or revere me) and not do what I say?” This could be said about those who have revered the Hebrew prophets, Dr. King, Jesus, and many more in history, but not followed their teaching.

Consider just three areas of Dr. King’s teachings that are not ignored but profoundly contradicted by those in power today who publicly revere his memory.

King’s Anti Capitalism

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” (Speech to the Negro American Labor Council, 1961)

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (Report to SCLC staff, May 1967)

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” (Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967)

When King was saying these things he wasn’t labelled as an American hero to be celebrated with an American federal holiday. King was labelled as the greatest threat to America. One of many reasons being King’s critique of the U.S. economic order that makes a few in our society inconceivably wealthy while forcing others into poverty. The head of the F.BI.’s domestic intelligence division, J. Edgar Hoover, labelled King “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” (Aug. 30, 1963, post-speech memo: “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”)

King’s Anti Militarism

Again In the book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding writes about how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day originally included the pomp of the very military King decried and was instituted by the very government whose global policies he denounced. 

“Now that King seems safely dead, now that he has been properly installed in the national pantheon—to the accompaniment of military bands, with the U.S. Marine Corps chorus singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and the cadenced marching of the armed forces color guards— we think we know the man’s impact and influence. Didn’t President Reagan sign a bill authorizing a national holiday honoring this teacher of nonviolence (shortly after the president had sent the comrades of the singers and musicians to carry out an armed attack on Grenada, one of the smallest countries in the world)? And didn’t Vice-President Bush go to Atlanta to help inaugurate the King national holiday in January 1986 (presumably taking time off from his general oversight of the murderous Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary forces who were being brutally manipulated in this government’s cynical attempt to destroy what was one of the most hopeful revolutions for the poor in the Americas)? [Harding, Vincent. Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, rev. ed. (Kindle Edition Locations 1271-1278).

King’s Anti-Racism

The actions of the current US administration have given rise to hate speech and the expression of a myriad of violent phobias. Dog whistles have caused those like David Duke to see in the administration a champion for making America White again, and those in the administration have repeated and publicly condemned those who walk in the path of King’s legacy (Colin Kaepernick is just one example) and protest modern expressions of the very same injustices King protested. 

Yet on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, both the American President and the Vice President tweeted:

“Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. #MLK50 Proclamation: 45.wh.gov/DrKing50th” —President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2018

“50 years ago today, Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short – but that did not stop his immortal words, his courageous example and his faith from inspiring generations of Americans. Today we honor the man and the Dream. #MLK50” — Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 4, 2018

(An article worth reading on this is Dave Zirin’s article, “Donald Trump and Mike Pence Have No Business Speaking About Martin Luther King Jr.”)

In this context, read again Jesus’ words in Matthew:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

Jesus

This brings me to another thought this year that weighs heavily on me: We have done a very similar thing to the historical Jesus that we have done with Dr. King. Today we could, in Hines’ fashion, say about Jesus and the religion that has been created around him, “It is easier to build a world religion than to build a better world.”

Recently I sat in my local town hall and listened to a panel of young people including my daughter representing our local March For Our Lives campaign. These young people posed questions to those who are currently running for political election in our May 8 primary. 

One of the candidates had me on the floor. In a pious yet uninformed spirit, this candidate said that the problem in our societies is not that we need more laws but that we need a “return to God.” They said they were a “Christian” and that they felt the way to solve’ our social challenges was for “our society to return to the path” of Jesus—by implication the way or teachings of Jesus.

While I agree that Jesus’ teachings of liberation from systemic oppression, and survival, resistance, reparation, and transformation can still speak to society’s challenges, I was concerned about the contradiction between the candidate’s statement and everything else they stated. If I had to choose between someone who religiously worshiped Jesus as they passed through this world on their way to “heaven” and a secular candidate, atheist or agnostic like Kurt Vonnegut, for example, who was genuinely aligned with Jesus’ actual ethics and teachings and wrestling with how to apply them to our life with the marginalized and oppressed, I’d have to pick the latter. There are many sectors of the Christian religion that deeply contradict Jesus’ actual teachings. Consider just the following passages from the early church.

Anti Capitalism

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)

“The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29, emphasis added)

“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45, emphasis added)

“And put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:35, emphasis added)

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:34)

Nonviolence, Mutual Aid and Enemy Love

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Solidarity with the Societally Marginalized

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30)

 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Conclusion

Some who called Jesus “Lord” did also embrace his teachings. And there are some today who embrace him, too. The story of Zacchaeus represents them:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:8)

Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.

Both King and Jesus were radicals and both have been moderated or muted since their deaths.

Both leave us with the call to engage, apply, and live out their teachings—to “follow” them—not simply build monuments to them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

HeartGroups Application 

1. Which teachings of Jesus’ do you find challenging, if any?

2. Which teachings of Jesus do you think challenge the pursut of justice today, and which teachings do you see as supporting our justice work today?

3. Discuss your answers with your HeartGroup this upcoming week. How can your group more deeply engage the teachings found in the Jesus story as we make our world a safer, just, more compassionate world for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate”!

The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “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. For 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.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice is we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so at by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the world of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children

Picture of a child's Teddy Bearby Herb Montgomery

Learning to listen to the most vulnerable within our societies.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do.” (Q 10:21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:25-26: “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’”

Luke 10:21: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’”

Children in 1st Century Palestine

The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.

Those on the underside and fringes of our societies often see things that are hidden to the much more educated or those labeled as “sages.” It’s not the magic of being a child that’s being highlighted in our saying this week. It’s that children were at the bottom of the social pyramid and among the most vulnerable in Jesus’ society.

Children were included in the vulnerable group repeatedly referred to throughout the synoptic Jesus stories as “little ones”:

Mark 9:37: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:42: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Matthew 10:42: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Matthew 18:6: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Matthew 18:10: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Luke 9:48: “Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’”

Luke 17:2: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

The concern for children in Sayings Gospel Q is quite astounding for the 1st Century, and we should not just gloss over it. In any society where there is a top and a bottom, a subjugator and an oppressed, an insider and an outsider, the sayings of Jesus in Q are for the bottom, the oppressed, and the outsider. Reading the Jesus story from within or alongside the perspectives and experiences of those on the fringes and underside of our societies opens to us interpretations of the Jesus story that point toward survival, resistance, liberation, and restoration. We can encounter a radically different Jesus from the Jesus shared by those in positions of power, an idea Gustavo Gutierrez hints at in the following observation:

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation)

The societal position from which one reads the Jesus story makes all the difference in the world! And in our saying this week, Jesus is thanking God for things that have been revealed to even the “lowest” sectors of the society he lived in.

Today, it’s not much different. If a child belongs to an affluent home, they might be protected from what other children face. But an inner city child has a much different experience. If that child is a child of color, their experience deteriorates even more. If that inner city child is also female, it deteriorates even further. And if a child happens to identify as LGBTQ, the underage homeless statistics for LGBT youth are disproportionally higher than for any other demographic. For many, the cause is having parents who are Christian fundamentalists and rejecting. There is something wrong with any ethic or morality that causes one to reject one’s own children in the name of faithfulness to a god. Christians especially should note that Jesus said the “kingdom” belonged to children.

Consider this passage from Matthew:

“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowest position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matthew 18:2, emphasis added.)

Ultimate, it does not matter how people justify discrimination. My eldest daughter is left-handed, and left-handedness still carries moral stigma in some cultures. Imagine for a moment that it still did in the United States, and let’s say that Christians had a list of Bible verses to ground their prejudice in. To the degree that left-handed members of the human family were treated in any way as less than fully human, even with religious support, they would be included with those that Jesus said the kingdom belongs to.

Catch this: It doesn’t matter the reason for subjugation or marginalization in domination systems. It’s not the reason for the exclusion that Jesus rejects, but the exclusion itself! Treating someone as less than a child of God, as somehow not fully made in the image of God, as less than human compared to others, subjugates them, and  the Jesus of Q is opposed to that exclusion and marginalization. Jesus always states that the changes he was calling for were good news, or the “gospel,” for this group.  Whoever was othered, regardless of why, was the group Jesus said would now be called “blessed!”

Two years ago I attended a gathering of LGBTQ Christians, and then wrote the following words on my website:

“Blessed are those who are gay, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn as a result of how they are treated for identifying as lesbian, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the “erased” bisexuals, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who identify as transgender, who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who identify as intersex, yet show mercy to their oppressors, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, regardless of whether they are mostly straight or mostly queer, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, wherever they land on the spectrum, for they will be called children of God. And lastly, blessed are those, regardless of their sex/gender/orientation, who are persecuted because of their call for justice, equality and mercy, for theirs is the Kingdom.” (2014 Kinship Kampmeeting by Herb Montgomery)

The pushback was astounding. So many of those who were then following us, so many we lost count, questioned how we could possibly have the audacity to say such a thing. I hope that this week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q offers some explanation.

Look at our society. Who does our society push to the edges or place on the underside? Whom does society try to pretend doesn’t exist. Who are the victims of the lies we tell ourselves to help us rest better at night? It doesn’t matter why we choose to place those people there. The fact that they are there qualifies them for Jesus’ specific blessing. They are the ones that Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Beatitudes or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain were for. They are the ones for whom Jesus’s teachings point to a path of survival, liberation, resistance, and hope for social transformation and restoration. Jesus did come announcing “salvation.” And it was a salvation that spoke of radical change for those placed in the position of being “last,” today, here, now.

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:28-30)

This week, let’s take a moment to listen to the voices and experiences of those least privileged by our socio-economic and political structures. Consider what it means that the Jesus whose feet we sit at and learn from looked at the lowest sector of his own society and said:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do.” (Q 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

In the book My Sister, My Brother, Karen Baker-Fletcher describes womanists’ understanding of God and what it means to know God. She acknowledges our interdependent, communal reality as humans:

“Knowing the Sprit is more than a passive, emotive experience. It involves head and heart, reason and feeling. Moreover, it involves struggle and living out the experiencing of being wrapped in God’s peace. This is not an individualistic activity but a communal one that requires sharing to be authentic.” (p. 35)

It’s not sustainable for anyone to struggle daily for “justice, love, peace, and respect for others” alone. We need each other. We can only experience these realities alongside each other.

  1. This week, discuss as a group how your understanding of the values of justice, love, peace and respect have grown from the experiences you’ve had in your HeartGroup. Take note if your consciousness has been enlarged by listening to those who are most vulnerable in your group.
  2. Discuss together some practical ways you can lean even further into the communal experience of “knowing” that Baker-Fletcher speaks of in the above statement. How does being “together” enable this knowing where doing life alone does not?
  3. Take one of the things you discussed in number 2 and put it into practice this week, together.

Learning from the most vulnerable among us and their experience of life, the “sages” and the “learned” among us can enter into the wisdom of what a safer, more compassionate, more just world can look like. This week, let’s choose to listen too.

Thank you again for joining us this week.

Whatever you may be experiencing this week, thank you for checking in with this community.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 7 of 9

 Part 7 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

I Am Thirsty

Wooden Rosary

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19.28)

As we continue in John’s telling of the Jesus story, I want to remind you that what makes his telling unique is that he is writing in conversation with early Gnostics.  A dialectic relationship exists between John’s gospel and the dualism of Gnosticism.  An oversimplified explanation of the Gnostics’ dualism is that they first believed that all matter was evil.  Secondly, they believed that humans possessed an immortal soul which was good.  Thus humanity had a dualistic nature of being simultaneously good and evil.  It is this element of “matter being evil” that John is meeting head on.

Because the Gnostics believed all matter was evil, they taught that the Divine could never become entangled with embodiment (having a body, i.e. “matter”).  Divinity was not dualistic in the fashion that humanity is.  (Their dualism ran deep, dividing humanity and Divinity as well, as contrasted with humanity being fashioned in the image of Divinity and being the very offspring of Divinity.  But we’ll have to save that conversation for later.)  The Gnostics would have taken issue with John’s “incarnation” that the Logos (the Divine) was “made flesh” (matter).  The Divine could not be identified with the flesh. [1]  Gnosticism, as some scholars have pointed out, would have taught that “Jesus walked on the beach but left no footprints.”  The Gnostics’ version of the Jesus story taught that Jesus’ Spirit (the holy part) departed from him prior to him being crucified, because the Divine could not participate with the material human flesh on that level of physical suffering.  This is why John’s Jesus, on the Cross, is not a human victim, but Divinity embodied, as the revelation of the Divine suffering in solidarity with all who have ever been oppressed, or who have suffered injustice at the hands of dominant systems in every age.  John’s telling of the crucifixion is his way of saying “no” to early Gnosticism.  Jesus in John’s Gospel is fully Divine while fully embodied; he is fully human and his physical suffering at the hands of the injustice of his day is not to be dismissed or devalued.

Yet the question that we must ask is why is John pushing back so hard against Gnosticism?

Simply put, because the belief in the dualistic nature of humanity, specifically that all matter was evil, was causing a shift among the early Christians.  Toward the close of the first century, they were focusing more on liberating their souls from their physical bodies in some far distant “heaven.”  They were abandoning the core principle of what John felt it meant to follow Jesus—which was the “healing of the world” here and now.  John’s Jesus states unequivocally that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world [matter is evil] but that the world through Him might be healed*.” (John 3.17, emphasis added.  *Sozo can be translated as heal as well as save.  Jesus was the great healer.)  The goal of the ancient Hebrews was not to one day become some disembodied soul on some far distant cloud, but to see a time when the Messiah would come and end all the injustice, oppression, and violence here on earth.  A Hebrew telling of the Jesus story did not have at the end, as its goal, “getting to heaven”; on the contrary, the goal of Jesus’ coming would have been “the healing of the world” (“tikkun olam”).

I cannot pass up this opportunity to point out that most Christians today (although certainly not all) are more concerned with escaping this world, for which they believe there is no hope, and making it to heaven, than in healing this world and bringing an end to the present order of domination, oppression, injustice, and violence.  Jesus’ “Kingdom” was a new social order here and now!  It was the subversive “mustard seed” planted in the “soil” of this world that was to grow (like leaven in dough) until the old order was choked out and Jesus’ new social order of restorative justice, transformative mercy, and redeeming LOVE was all that remained.

Gnosticism, at the turn of the first century, was transforming Jesus’ followers into “escapists” rather than the subversive force for dismantling privileged pyramids and exclusive circles in the here and now.  Today it matters not whether those pyramids and circles are economic, religious, political, or social.  Wherever we find domination (pyramids) and exclusion (circles), whether in matters of race, gender, wealth or orientation, as a Jesus follower, we are to be more concerned with bringing a healing revolution than reaching some far distant “heaven.”

This may come as a shock to some, but Christianity today is more Gnostic than Christian, if we allow the historical Jesus to be that which defines Christianity.

John foresaw this result in the beginning of what he was witnessing around him in his day.  John’s entire telling of the Jesus story is a retelling of Genesis chapter 1, which was the Hebrews’ origin story.  Genesis chapter one (as contrasted with Genesis 2 [2]) reminded the Hebrews that this earth is good, very good.  That we are all (male, female and any combination of those two book ends that nature may produce) made in the image of God and that none are to be the subject of domination or exclusion by another.  We are all children of the same Divine Parents.  And we are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.  I’m not saying that the Hebrew people always rightly perceived these insights within the narrative of their origin story in Genesis 1.  What I’m putting forth is that this was Jesus’ subversive interpretation and application of the Hebrew origin story of Genesis 1.  I hope to write on this more at length in a future eSight.

John takes Genesis chapter 1 and frames the entire Jesus story, using Jesus as the Christian origin story.  Genesis 1 begins with the phrase, “in the beginning . . .”  So does John: “In the beginning . . .” (John 1.1)  In Genesis 1 there are seven days of creation.  In John’s version Jesus’ life is divided up and told with seven “signs.”  Genesis 1’s narrative of the physical creation of the world climaxes with Elohim saying, “It is Finished.”  So John’s telling of the Jesus story climaxes as Jesus cries out over his restored (new) creation with the words, “It is Finished.” (We’ll cover this at more depth next week.)  As Genesis 1 has Elohim resting on the Sabbath day, so Jesus rests from his work of restoration in the tomb on the seventh day.[3]  As the narrative of Genesis then moves quickly into a garden with a woman being the first to be deceived, John’s gospel moves quickly into another garden [4] with a woman being the first to be enlightened, becoming an apostle to the apostles.  (I’ll say more about this next week as well.)

In John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is no accident that John focuses our attention on three things:

1.  The very human, physical relationship between Jesus and his mother. (Last week’s eSight.)

2.  The very human, physical sensation of having “thirst.” (This week’s eSight.)

3.  The deep connection between the Hebrews’ human origin story and Elohim’s creation of the physical world by Jesus’ dying cry of restoration, “It is Finished!” (Next week’s eSight.)

What is John saying by all of this focus on the humanity and physicality of Jesus?

John is saying to Jesus’ followers of his day (as well as Jesus’ followers today), “STOP FOCUSSING ON ESCAPING THIS WORLD AND GETTING TO HEAVEN!  GET BACK TO WORK RESTORING, HEALING, TRANSFORMING, AND REDEEMING THE WORLD AROUND YOU!”

The Jesus of John is not an itinerant teacher traveling the countryside offering people an easy way to get to heaven!  John’s Jesus is proclaiming a frequently dangerous, and difficult at times, of healing the world!

The Jesus in John’s gospel isn’t trying to get people to heaven.  He is bringing heaven to the people who live here today!

Current statistics show that 70% of all theists (including Christians), when confronted with injustice, will do nothing.  If this offends you, then this merely shows that you happen to belong to the 30% who actually do something about it.  But that is still a horrible percentage.  Don’t you agree?

As a Jesus follower, I must confess that I have wasted too many years trying to sell a post-mortem insurance policy and arguing with other Christians over what the premium should be.

I’m done.  If John were alive today, I’d tell him, “I hear you!”  I want to follow Jesus.  I, too, want to be a conduit for dismantling systems of dominance and exclusivity.  I, too, want to turn pyramids of privilege upside down. [5]  I, too, want to be an agent of healing change, tearing down walls of marginalization that confine fellow humans to being “others” or “outsiders.”

I know I will do poorly.  I’m not claiming that I ever have, or ever will follow Jesus well.  Yet my heart is captivated by the values of the Jesus story, the ethics of that itinerant Rabbi, the non-homogenous, shared table where all (regardless of race, gender, wealth, or orientation) are invited to take a seat, alongside each other, and share their stories.  This is a table where we are all welcome, and where we, by virtue of valuing each other as fellow Divine image bearers, learn to integrate the many and diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole.

I’m done being a Christian Houdini.  I’m done being a feel-good escape artist.  I’m choosing to be a mustard seed, a WEED, nurtured in the soil of this good earth, subversively growing, little by little, toward a safe and compassionate world for all.  I’m choosing a life of restorative justice, transformative mercy, here and now, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

And I’d absolutely love it if you will go on this journey with me.

HeartGroup Application

The time is fast approaching when many in Western Christianity will celebrate the resurrection.  Next week we will be addressing the seventh of the last sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  After that we will look at the vindication of Jesus and his teachings through the resurrection.

But before we get into all of that, this week I’m asking you to do the following three things in preparation for this series end.

 

1.  Spend some time in contemplation (“sitting with Jesus” is what I call it), reading through John’s gospel with the goal of noticing where John is focusing on Jesus’ body, Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ physicality, and Jesus’ message of healing this world rather than abandoning it.  Start in John 1 and just read.  I’ll give a few examples to start with.  The first example you’ll encounter is where logos (a gnostic term) becomes “flesh.”  In John 2 you’ll find Jesus making water into wine!  A scandal for those who believed we should deny any pleasure to our physical bodies as a means of liberating our sacred, immortal souls.  And then you’ll encounter Jesus speaking of the temple, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, but referring specifically to his body.  In John 3, you’ll read of how Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son’s purpose is not to condemn this world but rather to save or heal it.

That should get you started.

2.  Journal what you discover.  Don’t get distracted.  There are many rabbit holes in John you could go down.  Step back and keep your focus on the forest, not the individual trees.  Remember, you are looking for where John gave us subtle hints that matter is not evil, but the good creation of the Divine, worthy of our efforts in shaping it to be a safer, more compassionate home. [6]

3.  Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you discover.

As I shared last week, our narrative is one of hope.  A new day has dawned.  A light is shining from an “empty tomb.”  If any are in Christ, “New Creation has come!” [7]

Remember, this week you’re a mustard seed!

Therefore, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m still praying for your heart.  I’m praying for it to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of the great healer and liberator, Jesus of Nazareth.

I love each of you deeply.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. 1 John 4.2—This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
2 John 7—Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2. Jesus contrasts the ethics of Genesis 1 with the ethics of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19.4 and Mark 10.6. I plan to say more on this in an upcoming eSight.

3. This is actually in Genesis 2 but the chapter division is misplaced. The first three verses of Genesis 2 actually belong to the narrative of Genesis 1.

4. John 20.15—Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

5. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.

6. Remember the form of the New Testament we have today ends with our home being here, a new heaven and new earth, reunited. The Greek word for new, used by the New Testament when referencing the New Earth, is not neos, meaning a second earth, but kainos, meaning a restored, healed, and redeemed first.

7. 2 Corinthians 5.17 (NIV)—Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 

 

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 5 of 9

Part 5 of 9

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

by Herb Montgomery

Wooden Rosary

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23.46).

Out of all the last sayings of Jesus in the four versions of the Jesus story, this one, this week, has come to be my favorite.

When Constantine elevated Christianity from disadvantaged to privileged in the fourth century, the apparent failure of Jesus’ revolution on the cross became a source of embarrassment.  Then, coupled with the guilt-ridden consciences of the crusaders in the 11th century, the cross took on a wholly different meaning than it had for early Jesus followers.  It is no coincidence that just as Christian soldiers of the crusades returned from the violence of war with bloodstained hands, Christianity, for the first time, began to interpret the cross as God’s doing, God’s violent punishment of humanity’s sins in Jesus, and as Jesus paying for those sins, freeing humans from their deep sense of guilt.  An interpretation of Jesus death that today is labelled as a “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” arises for the first time in Christian history just when Christian military soldiers need some way of dealing with the post-traumatic stress of the merciless slaughter of Jews, Muslims, and heretics.  These soldiers, just like all soldiers exposed to the ugliness of war, were wrestling with the weight of what they had done.  Therefore, the message that Jesus had mercifully paid for their sins came as a great relief.

This interpretation of Jesus’ death, in addition to doing untold damage to Christian theists’ understanding of the character of their God, simply did not exist in the early church.

To the early followers of Jesus, the cross was the failure of Jesus’ revolution.  It was seen as the triumph of the dominating system, both political and religious, of Rome and the Temple aristocracy, over the prophetic ministry of Jesus. [1]

The victory of Jesus was not on the cross, but in his resurrection, which triumphed over and undid his unjust execution.

We will look at this more historically, and more deeply, in the ninth and final installment of this series, but for now, we must hold in mind that the good news to the early followers of Jesus was not that Jesus died, nor was it that someone had come back to life, but that this specific Jesus, who was executed by the dominating system, had been resurrected by God and that this resurrection marked the beginning of a new age when God was not in solidarity with those on the top of the pyramid’s social structures, but in solidarity with those subordinated, marginalized, and oppressed by those social structures.

In order to see and appreciate the resurrection of Jesus as a triumph, we must first see the execution of Jesus for the temporary failure that it was.  We must understand that Jesus’ death is not the victory of God, but the victory of those who opposed Jesus and his radical revolution.

This is why Jesus’ final saying in Luke holds such meaning for me.

When someone chooses to align their story with the Jesus story, when one chooses to stand up for the marginalized, those on the social fringes, and to embrace those whose society has rejected them, a “cross” of some sort will always loom in their near future.

Whether their community is political, economic, social, or religious, when one chooses to stand in solidarity with those whose community has labeled as “sinners,” the threatening nature of that solidarity to the community itself cannot be ignored.

If I could be transparent for a moment, I know something of what I’m writing about here.

This past year (2014), I chose to make some significant shifts in who I was going to stand in solidarity with.  Believing that the Jesus of Luke’s Jesus story was seeking to change the world by, one “table” after another, modeling a “shared meal” (with all its cultural implications in the first century) with those his religious, political, economic, and social community had defined as “other,” as “outsider, as the “marginalized,” I chose to position myself in a way that was intentionally standing in solidarity those whom, today, I perceive my communities treats, at times, as “other.” As a white Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-white. As a male Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-male. As someone who identifies as cisgender, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-cisgender.  As someone who identifies as straight, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-straight.  There is a Jewish blessing that states that before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, “behold the image of God.”  A Jewish blessing that a friend of mine is very fond of and recently shared with me is, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who varies Your creation.”

I have chosen to embrace every person I meet as the “image of God” [2] and thus deserving of compassion.

This has had consequences for me.

To make a very long story short, as the director of a nonprofit ministry, the words Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount have become intensely meaningful to me, now more than ever:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God [Jesus’ new way of arranging the world; Jesus’ new social order] and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25–32, emphasis added)

I have begun to see how it was that Jesus’ ministry, by its nonviolent yet confrontational nature, ended on a Roman cross.  This was a death reserved for the enemies of the dominating system of his day.  This was how Rome, which maintained control of Judaism through its Temple, treated those whom they viewed as a threat.  Jesus’ revolution was a threat to both the Temple as well as the Empire’s control:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. (John 11:48)

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. (John 11:50)

In Luke’s version of the gospel, as a result of Jesus’ teachings and demonstration (overturning the tables) in the Temple, Jesus’ ministry had finally reached a climax and had to be addressed: “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (Luke 19:47).

They found their way.

Very quickly, before the next Sabbath even, Jesus was suspended on a Roman cross by their doing.

To all appearances, they had triumphed over this Jesus.  He was getting what every person receives when they color outside of their community’s defined lines.

And yet, Jesus was not dying at their hands without hope.  Jesus was incredibly courageous in the very moment when I am tempted to despair.  This week, Fr. Shay Kerns sent this quotation from Richelle E. Goodrich out via email:

Courage to me is doing something daring, no matter how afraid, insecure, intimidated, alone, unworthy, incapable, ridiculed or whatever other paralyzing emotion you might feel.  Courage is taking action … no matter what.  So you’re afraid?  Be afraid.  Be scared silly to the point you’re trembling and nauseous, but do it anyway.

Although Jesus stood alone, he had a courageous confidence that he had done the right thing.  The cross did not rob Jesus of his assurance that his life and teachings had not been in vain.  He died believing that even his death would be ultimately triumphed over.  In his most “defeated” moment, he committed to his Father the bringing of his revolution to triumphant fruition.  Jesus’ last words in Luke were, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

There are multiple things that could be said about this dying statement. One is that it shows the confidence that Jesus had that his cause was on the side of what is right. Next, we should discuss  the title Jesus chose to use: “Father.” We are not to derive from this that the God of the Jesus story has male genitalia.  No no!  Calling God “Father” was deeply political within first century Judaism.  “Father” is not a title for the Hebrew God in the Old Testament that could be used by just anyone.  This is directly from Psalms 89.  Calling God “Father” was a right reserved only for Israel’s King [3]:

The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.   I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.  My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.  I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.  He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation! I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (verses 22–27, emphasis added)

This psalm harkens back to Psalm 2 where David retells the decree of this same God:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalms 2.7–8, emphasis added)

Of King David’s royal offspring, the Hebrew God had declared, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7.13–14).

Lastly, to a Hebrew, death was the moment when the body returned to the earth from which it came and one’s spirit returned to God. [4]  For those Hebrews who believed in a resurrection at the end of the age, one’s spirit rests in God’s safe keeping, awaiting the resurrection when it will be reunited with a restored body.

Jesus had stated earlier to his disciples in Luke, “The Son of Man [5] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Luke 9.22, emphasis added).  What Jesus is saying to his disciples here in Luke is that the way to the new world he was inaugurating would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. This was Jesus’ confidence:  resurrection! Yet resurrection required crucifixion, and crucifixion required rejection.

Do you feel rejected, at times, by your community because you have chosen to follow Jesus in confronting the dominating system of your day?

Jesus, in his final moment, still believed in the intrinsic value of what he had taught and demonstrated throughout his life.  “Seek first God’s new social order and its justice and all these things (and more) will be given back to you.” [6]  This is Jesus, dying in full confidence that, although it looked like the dominating system was winning, this was not going to be the end of the story.  His revolution would not end this way.

What does this mean for us today?

In Luke chapter 9, just after Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the Temple aristocracy, be executed on a Roman cross, and then be resurrected, he turns to his disciples and says, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23, emphasis added).

Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by society’s dominant power structure.  And yet our Jesus died in full confidence, committing the keeping of his mission, in his dying moment, to the promise of his Father: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” (Psalms 89.27) [7]

The cross would not be the end for Jesus, and a cross will not be the end for us as well.

When we, too, embrace the way of the cross, we are at our bleakest moment; when we, too, are rejected as a result of practicing Jesus’ radical inclusivity of those our community deems as “other”; when our sky is “brass over our head and iron under our feet,” we can have that same assurance, knowing that, although this moment looks dark, the heart of the dominating system is being “torn in two” [8] and it is not the end.  We too can, in full assurance of faith, whisper: Father God, Mother God [9], into your safe keeping, “I commit my spirit.”

We need not fear our confrontation of the dominating systems of our day for we stand in the victory of Jesus over all injustice, oppression, violence, subordination, “other-ing,” privileging some while excluding and marginalizing others who are also made in “the image of God” to the fringes of our societies.  This is a victory that has already been won.  Though Jesus’ shared table and Temple confrontation lead him to being put on a cross, that was not the end of the story.

“You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead.  He is still with us.  

The powers killed him—but they couldn’t stop him.  They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb.   But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him. 

He’s still loose in the world.  He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God—a transformed world here and now.  It’s not over.”

—Marcus Borg

HeartGroup Application

  1. What is it that holds you back from standing in solidarity with those who are being excluded from a “shared table” in our world today?  This week, I would ask that you simply spend some time in contemplation, allowing this last statement by Jesus, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” to challenge whatever fears you may be entertaining.
  2. Journal what you discover.  Write down your fears, your concerns, and any breakthroughs you experience through this contemplation.
  3. Share what you experience through this exercise with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Whenever I became discouraged as a child, my mother, when she was alive, would always remind me, “You can gauge the size of the victory by the size of the battle.  It is always darkest just before the dawn.”

A new world is coming.  In fact, for those who have eyes to see it, it is already here, growing subversively like a mustard seed in a garden.

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

Many voices, one new world.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

 


1. See Part 1 on the prophetic lineage of Jesus.

2.  Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in God’s own image God made humankind. (Genesis 9.6)

3.  “He [David’s offspring] shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings” (2 Samuel 7.13-14).

4.  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave
it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7; NRSV). “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12.2; NRSV).

5.  “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7.13-14, emphasis added). What Jesus is saying to his disciples in Luke is that the way in which this promise in Daniel would come to fruition would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection.

6.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.33)

7. Remember that Jesus would redefine Kingdom away from hierarchical authority structures to egalitarian mutuality ones in their place. “But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.25-27)

8.  “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45).

9.  “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added).