Wisdom’s Judgment on This Generation

Memorial candlesby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:34-36: “Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”

Luke 11:49-51: “Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

Context! Context! Context!

As we begin this week, we must not remove this week’s saying from its context. This week’s saying has a long, anti-Semitic history with Christians using it to persecute, marginalize, and even execute Jewish people. But Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew standing firmly in the long line of Jewish prophets who pronounced judgments for societal injustice on their generations. So first we must see the Jewishness of this week’s saying. Only then will we be able to rightly critique how Christianity has co-opted it and sorely abused it.

We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this saying were both written after the catastrophic events that took place in their generation in Jerusalem. These are post-trauma writings designed to explain and understand what has just happened for the Jewish people.

I do not believe that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. I believe that all human civilizations give themselves an expiration date when the elites’ abuses of the proletariat become the policy of the day. Social abuse eventually catches up with us, and all empires that become characterized by exploitation and economic disparity eventually meet their demise. People long abused rise up. Revolutions occur. Power shifts. The path toward this end for Jerusalem (that would later happen with Rome, as well) is what we are witnessing in this week’s saying.

We know from Josephus that ultimately the lower, poorer classes in Judea and Galilee did rise up and violently revolt. First they revolted against oppression from their own people, and took over the elite’s centralized control of the temple. Then they revolted against Rome in the Jewish-Roman war. This overreach led to Rome’s inhumane backlash in the annihilation of Jerusalem.

In this week’s saying, Jesus warns that if the people continue their socio-economic exploitative path, then just as the prophets had warned before him, that generation would see catastrophic results.

This week’s saying connects us with the Hebrew economic prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah), who were rejected and in some cases murdered because of their societal critiques. Here in America, during the 1960s, we saw a similar history of repressing calls for change from those whose voices threatened the status quo and those in positions of power and privilege. Some historians refer to the 60s as the era of assassinations. Among those who were murdered were President John F. Kennedy (1963), el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X; 1965), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).

Our world has a long history of removing those who threaten our societal structures and the exploitation and injustice that those structures enable. Jesus’ societal structure had its own victims, as ours does. His generation was once again rejecting the call to change, and Jesus was about to have his name added to the long list of prophets and poets who weren’t afraid to name the oppressions of their time or stand in solidarity with those being marginalized and subjugated—even if they ended up losing their life for the dream of an world that is a safe, just, compassionate home for us all.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Abel is the first voice in the narratives to be silenced. He represented the nomadic class in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Northern Africa. His social group was a minority: itinerant shepherd wanderers who moved from place to place as herdsmen. Cain, Abel’s brother, belonged to a larger, more established, and more powerful class of tillers of the soil. They represented those who sought to control land ownership because of their need to work the land. They were the ones who chased off vagabond herdsmen like Abel. In a time when civilization transitioned from wandering hunters and gatherers to more centralized, localized cities, the tillers of the ground were the pivotal population. Abel would have represented the people oppressed by the tillers of the ground, and at the end of this story, Cain is made to wander like his brother to learn what the wanderers’ life was like. His banishment gives him firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of those whom the society was pressing down so that others might find a way up. (For more on this, see the article I wrote at the end of 2014 entitled No More Sacrifice.)

Thousands of years later, Zechariah is the last prophetic voice in the Hebrew Masoretic text to be silenced for speaking out against those in positions of power. (The Masoretic collection of Hebrew scriptures ends with 2 Chronicles; see 2 Chronicles 24:20) Zechariah’s history is complex and so is the political agenda of the narratives his name is mentioned in. For our saying this week, it’s enough to recognize that he was one of the bookends of those within Jewish history who had the courage to critique those in power.

As 2016 closed, the book on my nightstand was My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. In the chapter entitled “Womanist Reflections on Jesus as Dust and Spirit,” Karen writes:

“The only way to erase those who have died unjustly is to erase memory, but not even memory can be erased permanently” (p. 90).

It is important to remember and never forget the names of those who have given their lives to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all. Author Susan Jacoby tells us that early 19th Century freethinkers observed the birthdays of freethinkers in the century before them as a ritual that shaped them and inspired them to continue the causes and dreams of those who had travelled that path before them. They remembered them together.

A friend of mine, Charlie Kraybill, curates the Marginal Mennonite Society (MMS) in New York. One thing I appreciate about MMS is their continual work to keep alive the memory of Anabaptists and other historical figures who have worked toward societal transformation. They continually commemorate the dates on which Anabaptists were executed in the 1600s and the dates on which relevant historical figures were either born or died. This is a way of keeping both their memory and our common work alive.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, as a Christian womanist, reflects on Toni Morrison’s text Beloved and its characters’ belief that Jesus is the greatest “ancestor”:

“Whoever Beloved is, Stamp Paid observes that she is a reminder that people ‘who die bad won’t stay in the ground’ — not ‘Jesus Christ Himself.’ Reflecting African pre-Christian and African American Christian worldviews, he suggests Jesus is one of many who will not stay buried because they have died violently. Jesus is one of millions of persecuted ancestors who live in the margins of everyday consciousness. Moving beyond Morrison’s text, one might consider that the ground itself will not hold the blood of murder. Just as the earth cried out at Cain’s slaying of Abel, so it continues to cry out across the centuries against injustice.

Christian womanists might argue that in the ancestral community of Moses, Zipporah, Jethro, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, Christ perfectly embodies the power of the God of Moses, ‘I Am,’ Being-Itself. Jesus Christ as the greatest of the ancestors sustains community.” (p. 91)

Keeping alive the memories of those who have died violently at the hands of unjust systems throughout scriptures and history, and remembering not just the Hebrew Prophets but also more contemporary figures and Jesus as the greatest of them can impact how we engage the ritual of communion.

Communion is a shared meal around an egalitarian table, not a hierarchical structure as is the case in too many churches today. It is not a social pyramid or exclusive circle, but a shared table where we keep alive the memory of those who have been broken and spilled out by unjust systems. This ritual motivates and shapes us today. The very elements of the broken bread and spilled wine, the food we share with one another, could be reclaimed into a very powerful transforming ritual of memory.

Co-opting Memory

Lastly this week, I want to talk about co-opting memory. We spoke last week of unjust systems that make memorials to those they have killed: making memorials is much easier than doing the hard work of actually transforming our world. There is a difference between us keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us and the systems we seek to change co-opting the memory of those it has executed.

Vincent Harding’s book Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero is a great read on how the United States has done this with the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King Day is complicated. On one side, we see the work of those such as Coretta Scott King to preserve Martin’s memory. On the other hand, we see the system King critiqued co-opting him while keeping the changes he called for at arms’ length.

During his life, King called for an abandonment of capitalism and a move toward democratic socialism. He called for the rejection of militarism and violence as the weapons of a global economic capitalist agenda. He fought tirelessly against systemic racism in its many forms. The FBI deemed him to be the greatest domestic threat to America. And yet today he is one of America’s heroes. Not much has changed economically since the days of King’s critiques, and precious little has changed racially. Yet King is memorialized by a government that would still be voicing the loudest criticism of him if he were still alive.

I do believe King should be kept alive in our memory as one of our great transformative ancestors. I also believe that his memory has been co-opted by the very system he sought and failed to change. The next time social protest erupts, watch how quickly critics pull Dr. King off the shelf to try and silence those speaking out.

Martin Luther King Day has just been celebrated by the most violent, militaristic, and capitalist power on the globe and the wealth disparity between the rich and poor and between White people and people of color continues to grow steadily. Last week’s and this week’s saying give us much to consider today.

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like your group to read this article first published in 2013:

Now That He Is Safely Dead: Silencing the Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Discuss the article with your group.
  2. Discuss how the article relates to last week’s saying and this week’s saying, and possible applications to events transpiring in our world today.
  3. What new ways of perceiving has this awakened for you and what actions do you feel called to engage in? Pick one of those actions and do it this week.

Wherever this week finds you, press close to your community. We are in this together. As we preserve the memories of those who have gone before us and these memories spur us onto action in our lives today, together we can sustain the work needed to make those changes happen.

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living love, justice, faithfulness, and mercy, transforming our world in both small and large ways into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “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. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “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.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

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: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make 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.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.