JESUS FROM THE EDGES

hand holding circle of light

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 10, 2018


“These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more . . . What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society?”


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

In previous series, we have discussed how people in Jesus’ society used the labels of “righteous” or “sinner”  to politically, socially, economically, and religiously gain power and privilege for themselves or to marginalize and exploit those who were vulnerable. (You can review this in The Lost Coin and Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This week I want to build on this idea.

In that society, how well a person conformed to popular interpretations of the Torah determined where they fell on al spectrum between righteous/sinner or clean/unclean. The more righteous or “pure” one was deemed to be, the more their society centered them. They were more privileged. They had power. They were the elite. 

Two groups in the Sanhedrin that competed for power were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Torah more conservatively than the Pharisees. This made conforming to their interpretation much more difficult. In many cases, their definition of “righteous” was only viable for those who had the economic means to conform, i.e. those with money who could afford to live the way the Sadducees deemed pure. This ensured that the Sadducees remained in power under the guise of fidelity to the Torah. 

The second group, the Pharisees , was much more liberal in interpreting the Torah. This made them much more popular with the masses. Under the Pharisees’ teaching, it was easier to be righteous and avoid being labeled a sinner and thus marginalized. The Pharisees were the popular interpreters of the “teachings of Moses.” Being favored by the majority of the people gave them social power, yet they also preserved their position as the ones who set the standard of “clean” and “unclean.” 

This was a social, political, economic and religious system that produced winners and losers. In this context, an itinerant Jewish teacher from Galilee named Jesus emerged. He stood apart from both schools of interpretation and came preaching a gospel where the “kingdom” belonged to those left out of both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ determination of who was righteous. With this in mind, read carefully the following passages. 

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?’”

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.”

Luke 14:13—“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”

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

Today in the U.S., our system creates winners and losers, too. Politically, we also have two parties that compete for popular approval while gaining power in a system that still privileges the elites. Economically, our system produces enormous wealth disparity, with those who “have not” being the natural result of creating those who “have.” Socially and religiously, we have complex systems that create an us versus them worldview and label those who are in and those who are out. 

These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more. Our interconnectedness, our part-of-one-another is continually ignored. Rather than seeing every person’s differences as a testament to the rich variety we possess as a human family, we use these differences to “other” in ways that label some as “righteous” and others as “sinner.” Those of us whose differences place them in a minority category are still members of the human race, and still part of us.

What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society? How can we live out that kind of solidarity in our context today? What does it mean to stand and work alongside those who are pushed to the edges of our society?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians developed a keen awareness of Jesus’ solidarity with those labeled as outsiders, oppressed, marginalized and/or exploited. This emergence was global. In South America, Latin Liberation theology was born. In North America, other liberation theologies, such as Black Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Amerindian theology, womanist theology, and queer theology arose. In the east, Asian theologies of liberation were born. Gustavo Gutierrez comments on the importance of this rising consciousness.

“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.  We are thus in the presence of a complex phenomenon developing on every side and representing a great treasure for the Christian churches and for their dialogue with other religions. The clarification I mentioned earlier is thus not limited to the Latin American context but affects a process and a search that are being conducted on a very broad front today. These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities. (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [15th Anniversary Edition])

Womanist scholar and theologian Jacquelyn Grant comments, “Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited when it approaches the majority of human beings…  nns 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.” (in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, pp. 1, 10)

Making space for these voices and attending to their insights is so very important. Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we believe that the teachings of Jesus —a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee—can still speak into and inform our work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation today. For that to be life giving, we must consider those teachings through the lens of the experiences of the people Jesus would have been addressing if he were walking among us today. As Ched Myers states in Binding the Strong Man, “The fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those at the center do not.” 

From the experiences of those now in a social location similar to the social location of those Jesus taught  we can see how those teachings help us in our work of making our world a safe, just, compassionate home for everyone. As someone who has been engaged in ministry for over twenty years, these perspectives, voices, stories of people fighting to reclaim their humanity in the context of their faith traditions have been the key to helping me rediscover and reclaim my own humanity as well. I resonate deeply with the words of Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together.”  I don’t work alongside communities working for survival and liberation out of charity. It is beside them that I rediscover my own humanity, too.

If one is new to these perspectives, where does one start? One place to begin is by exposing yourself to the writings and works of those who belong to these communities. An easy way to do this is to follow our yearly reading course at RHM. We announce each month’s book at the beginning of each month. You can sign up to be notified of each month’s book by signing up for our weekly news and eSights emails here. The point is not so much where one begins as it is to simply begin. One resource will lead you to another, and over time, you’ll see the difference these voices make to you.

Jesus did not call those who the status quo places “first.” He instead stood alongside those his culture relegated to “last” place (see Matthew 20:8-16). He came not calling the insiders, but the people those in power had labeled as “sinners.” 

What does it look like for us to do the same in our time?

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

HeartGroup Application 

  1. Pick a book from our book list at RHM that you as a group can read and discus together. 
  2. Read a chapter a week and determine a time each week you can meeting to discuss together what you have read.
  3. Discuss how you can put what you’ve read each week into practice and do 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 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.”

The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] 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 Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “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).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “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?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.