When Social Justice is Rejected and Spoken of as Evil

Herb Montgomery | February 11, 2022

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.)


But things never remain as they are. Change is the nature of reality. We can choose to bend the arc of the universe toward justice for everyone. That arc is going to bend one way or another. Either we will bend it to benefit a few at the expense of the diverse masses or, in the face of being spoken of as evil, we can continue shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke

He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Looking at his disciples, he said:

  Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,

for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,

when they exclude you and insult you

and reject your name as evil,

because of the Son of Man.

  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

 “But woe to you who are rich,

for you have already received your comfort.

  Woe to you who are well fed now,

for you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now,

for you will mourn and weep.

  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,

for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:17-26)

Even the most liberal Jesus scholars today accept that at least the first three sayings in our reading this week, and possibly some form of the fourth as well, were the words of the historical Jesus. These four blessings can be found in similar forms in both Matthew’s beatitudes and the gospel of Thomas.

They lie at the heart of Luke’s liberation message in Luke 4 (see Liberation for the Oppressed), and they single out four sectors of Jesus’ society: those the present system makes poor, those the present system leaves hungry, those whom the present system causes to weep, and those the present system hates, excludes, insults, rejects, and labels as “evil” because of their calls for change.

Again, as we read that last blessing, just because you’re being criticized doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the right track, and being praised doesn’t necessarily mean you are on the wrong path. It’s important to take note of which parts of society are speaking negatively or speaking well of you. Let me explain.

This week’s reading divides society into two sides: those an unjust system disenfranchises and harms, and those the present system benefits and privileges, enriches, makes well fed, and causes to laugh. So we have to ask which community is speaking well of us and which community is speaking negatively.

If the elite and privileged all speak well of you, then chances are this week’s saying applies most directly to you. And if those the system harms speak well of you, but those the system benefits speak negatively of you because they see you as a threat to the status quo or represent change that threatens their privilege, then you could rejoice. As this week’s saying states, that’s how the prophets who called for justice were treated, too. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re standing in good company.

Again, it’s not enough to be spoken well of or be spoken not so well of. We have to ask ourselves who, or which community, is doing the speaking.

I’ll give a personal example. Many in my faith tradition used to speak extremely well of me. I was a guest speaker in high demand at various events and conferences across the United States. All of that changed when I came out as affirming of the LGBTQ community. When I called for inclusion and justice for LGBTQ people of faith, and began drawing attention to the tradition’s exclusive practices and mischaracterizations of LGBTQ people, I became anathema.

Today, I still have much in common with those in that tradition who call for racial justice or greater inclusion of and justice for women. Yet they do not welcome me in their organizations because I don’t hide the fact that, in addition to those passions for justice, I also affirm LGBTQ folks. I’ve been told I take Jesus’ justice for the excluded “too far,” farther than many progressives in that community are comfortable with.

But in this week’s reading, Jesus predicted a great reversal. Jesus is stating that those the present system harms will experience that harm reversed in the reign of God, God’s just future. And while that is good news for them, those who benefit from the present system would not perceive it as good. For these people, this blessing would be seen as a message of damnation: it would change the system that privileged them.

In our society, some, such as people in Appalachia, are still holding on to the hope that coal will somehow make a comeback in our economy. A Green New Deal is good news for those who recognize the environmental changes that need to take place and the benefit to workers who will be retrained in new fields of labor, but to those who financially benefit from the coal industry, the Green New Deal is the enemy.

Then there are those who are working for a safe, robust, diverse, multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic democracy, all while their efforts are mischaracterized as anti-White and destroying the fabric of America. For those benefiting from a system rooted in White supremacy, those working toward a multiracial democracy are the enemy. Terms like “socialist” or “socialism” are used to scare those harmed in the present and prevent them from voting in their own best interest or for changes that would close the wealth gap and be good for everyone.

These ancient words in our story still have a very contemporary application.

Whenever we find people calling for change now, we will see the same dynamics as we see in our passage. What some perceive as a blessing, others will perceive as a curse. I’m reminded of something the late Peter J. Gomes wrote.

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. This problem of perception is at the heart of a serious hearing of what Jesus has to say, and most people are smart enough to recognize that their immediate self-interest is served not so much by Jesus and his teaching as by the church and its preaching. Thus, it is no accident that although Jesus came preaching a disturbing and redistributive gospel, we do not preach what Jesus preached. Instead, we preach Jesus.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 42).

Just ten pages earlier in the same volume, Gomes wrote,

“When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed . . . Most people do not go to church to be confronted with the gap between what they believe and practice and what their faith teaches and requires. One of the reasons that religious people are often cultural conservatives, and that cultural conservatives take comfort in religion, is that religion is seen to confirm the status quo.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pg. 31-32)

What would it look like if we as Jesus followers leaned into the difference Gomes speaks about here? What if we spent less energy this year preaching Jesus and more effort speaking about the things Jesus actually taught?

If we did, some would see it as a blessing, as steps in the direction of positive change. I’m quite sure others would feel threatened and want things to remain just the way they are.

But things never remain as they are. Change is the nature of reality. We can choose to bend the arc of the universe toward justice for everyone. That arc is going to bend one way or another. Either we will bend it to benefit a few at the expense of the diverse masses or, in the face of being spoken of as evil, we can continue shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. If the above blessing and cursing were rewritten in our society, today, who would be the recipients of each? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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The Beatitudes for the Poor, Hungry, and Mourning

by Herb Montgomery

A loaf of bread in an old mans hands

And raising his eyes to his disciples he said: Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled. (Q 6:20-21, Robinson)

We begin this series on the sayings of Jesus and Sayings Gospel Q with the passage in Q where the opening narrative ends and Jesus begins to teach. This passage has parallels in Luke, Matthew, and the 1st Century Christian text The Gospel of Thomas:

Luke 6:20-21: “Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’”

Matthew 5:1-4: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’”

Gospel of Thomas 54: “Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the poor. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 69.2: ”Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who desires will be filled.”

The ethic of charity, taking care of the less fortunate, the poor, or the weaker sections of society, long predates the teachings of Jesus. What Jesus is doing here is not admonishing us to take care of the poor but rather announcing that the situations of the poor, the mourning, and the hungry are about to be reversed! I’ll explain.

If we live in a society of limited resources, then for someone to hold on to more than what they need (i.e. wealth) means that someone else is going without what they need. Countless philosophers and sages throughout the centuries have taught this to one degree or another. Gandhi spoke of the earth providing each day enough for every person’s need but not every person’s greed. Karl Marx described our societies as pyramids with the wealthy elite at the top and the masses of working class and the poor at the bottom.

First Century Jerusalem had a similar social structure. The Greek and Roman empires had monetized the region. Historians estimate that over two million Jewish people lived outside of Jerusalem. Each male older than twenty years of age was required to pay an annual half-shekel temple tax, and so the temple amassed an enormous amount of wealth. Josephus recorded Rome forcibly taking money from the temple during its occupation of the region (Sabinus: The Jewish War 2.14; Jewish Antiquities 17.50; Pilate: The Jewish War 2.175-177; Jewish Antiquities 18.60-62; Florus: The Jewish War 2.293). When Judea was placed under a Roman Prefect, the Temple became the primary Jewish political institution. During this time, the Temple took on more of the role of a national treasury and “bank” for the wealthy aristocracy of Jerusalem.

“It is quite possible that, under pressure of this increasingly wealthy elite, the temple began to make loans on their behalf or to hold their capital so they could proffer from such loans to the poor.” – William R. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation.

The wealthy looking for ways to profit from investing their surplus in loans or acquiring land upon debtors’ default created an unbearable debt load for both peasants and craftsmen. The farmers needed these loans to survive, the wealthy sought greater profits, and the temple, with its politically and economically privileged priesthood and Jewish aristocracy living in luxury, was at the very heart of a system of economic exploitation. As Josephus records, the burning of all records of debts held in the temple was the first act of the Jewish Revolt that led to the Jewish Roman war (The Jewish War 2.426-427).

The temple had become more than a site for religious worship. It had become the heart of economic oppression. This system created wealth through making others impoverished. And so in our first passage this week from Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus does not prescribe charity for the poor as a way to maintain an unfortunate but unavoidable state of affairs in a system that should be left unchanged. Jesus is calling for justice toward the poor and change to the system itself for all who choose to participate.

Jesus announces a path toward a great reversal, where the poor are now benefited, the hungry finally and permanently have enough food, and those for whom the present system caused mourning, they will rejoice. The justice of Jesus involves a change for everyone.

As James M. Robinson states in his book The Gospel of Jesus, “It is no coincidence that the oldest collection of Jesus’ sayings, what we call the Sermon (what Matthew expanded into the Sermon on the Mount), begins by pronouncing just such down-and-outers fortunate: it is the poor, the hungry, the mourners who are ‘blessed.’ The kingdom of God is not God’s stamp of approval on the status quo, the powers that be, the ruling class. Rather, it is countercultural, for it gives hope to the hopeless. It is not consoling them with ‘pie in the sky by-and-by,’ but involves concrete intervention in the lives of the needy, mitigating their plight in the here and now” (p. 170).

In Luke’s gospel we come in contact with wealthy Pharisees who reject Jesus’ new plan and wealthy tax collectors who embrace it. Luke’s gospel uniquely includes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, originally a story that the Pharisees told about a rich tax collector and a poor scholar of the Torah (see J. Jeremias, Parables, p. 183). Luke’s Jesus expands the story from being about a tax collector and a Torah scholar to being about all who are wealthy (including wealthy Pharisees) and all who are poor (Luke 16:19-31). We encounter in characters like Zacchaeus tax collectors who respond positively to Jesus’ new economics and choose to give their wealth back to the poor (Luke 19:1-10). And we encounter Pharisees who “loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14).

In Sayings Gospel Q we find:

“For John came to you, the tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Q 7:29–30

Luke and Matthew also make this point:

“(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)” (Luke 7:29-30)

“For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:32)

This rejection was much more than simple disagreement about Jesus’s theology. The religious authorities rejected Jesus’ new economics.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we read one of the proofs that Jesus sent back to the imprisoned John: the poor having good news proclaimed to them:

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else? And in reply he said to them: Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are evangelized [hear good news]. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.” (Q 7:18–19, 22–23)

“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’” (Luke 7:18–23)

“When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

Sayings Gospel Q tells us what that good news was, a great reversal of affairs:

“The last will be first, and the first last.” (Q 13:30)

“Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30)

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

“For many who are first will become last.” (Gospel of Thomas 4:2)

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

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

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

“Nobody can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Q 16:13)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

“And it is impossible for a servant to serve two masters. Else he will honor the one and insult the other.” (Gospel of Thomas 47:2)

Again from James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus, “Jesus must have believed that, in spite of appearances, the givens of life were basically changed: as the ideal becomes real and God rules, there are to be no poor or hungry, no handicapped or sick, no exploiter or enemy, no mentally disturbed or force of evil. Jesus believed that this ideal was the basic reality and acted accordingly.” (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2495-2504).

As we close this week, I want to address a common misunderstanding of a statement Jesus makes in Mark and Matthew.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 26:11)

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. (Mark 14:7)

Some have taken these words to indicate that Jesus is proclaiming that poverty is an unavoidable reality that will always exist no matter what we do. Yet when we understand this statement from a Jewish perspective, we see this is not the case at all.

In Jewish history, Yahweh had proclaimed that if they would follow his instruction to them, they would be poverty-free: “There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God by carefully keeping these commandments which I lay upon you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15.4, REB, emphasis added)

Jesus is reversing this statement from Deuteronomy when he states, “You will always have the poor among you.” Poverty is a human creation, and thus, humans could reverse it if they chose to. Jesus is showing a way for his generation to do so through voluntary wealth redistribution rooted in love for our fellow human beings. Yet the wealthy elite of his day, including Judas, rejected his teachings in favor of greed. And as long as they held on to their present system, rather than eliminating poverty they would immortalize it. The choice was theirs.

The poverty of Jesus’ day was the result of an unjust system. And just as following Yahweh’s laws would have eliminated poverty in ancient Judaism, following the way of Jesus could have eliminated poverty in the 1st Century. Luke’s narrative in Acts explains the results for those who chose to give his economic teachings a try:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 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 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4.32-35, emphasis added.)

What were Jesus’s economic teachings? We’ll learn more as we continue our study of Sayings Gospel Q, but for now, it’s important to remember that Jesus’s teachings were rooted in what he called the reign of God (the kingdom). For the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q, a world where God “reigns” is a world where I trust God to take care of me by sending people who will care for me while I take care of you and listen to God when God calls me to take care of you!

“[Jesus’] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society . . . I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”).”

– James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus 

HeartGroup Application

In the 1st Century, Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn. In our society, whom do you think Jesus would proclaim good news to today? Most definitely it would still be the poor, hungry, and mourning. But whom else would it include? Which other members of your human family would Jesus call you to trust God to send people to take care of you while calling you to take time today to take care of them?

  1. Discuss this question with your HeartGroup and see which people or communities you come up with.
  2. Dedicate time during your HeartGroup each week to share experiences you have when you reach out to take care of someone in need.
  3. At the end of this special sharing time each week, share who you might have come in contact with the previous week that may need your group’s help. Combine your group’s resources to see how you can care for them in the upcoming week.

For Jesus, the reign of God looked like people taking care of people while trusting God that if we would chose a world of “care,” this would actually bring about a new human reality for us all. It’s a world that we like to describe as a world where only love reigns.

We’ll take a look at the next passage in Sayings Gospel Q next week, but for today, here are the words of Jesus:

“Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled.” (Q 6:20-21, Robinson)

Thanks for taking the time to journey with me in this series.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.