Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams in her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk writes:

It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131)

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.

Looting a Strong Person 

Picture of picking a lockby Herb Montgomery

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:21-22)

Matthew 12:29: “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

Luke 11:21-22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.”

Gospel of Thomas 35:1-2: “Jesus says: It is not possible for someone to enter the house of a strong person, and take it by force unless he binds his hands. Then he will loot his house.”

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents himself as the one looting another’s house rather than as a well armed home owner protecting what is theirs. Adolf Deissmann wrote in his groundbreaking volume Light from the Ancient East:

“By its social structure Primitive Christianity points unequivocally to the lower and middle class. Its [connections] with the upper class are very scanty at the outset. Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter, Paul of Tarsus a weaver of tent-cloth, and St. Paul’s words about the origin of his churches in the lower classes of the great towns form one of the most important testimonies, historically speaking, that Primitive Christianity gives of itself. Primitive Christianity is another instance of the truth taught us with each return of springtime, that the sap rises upward from below. Primitive Christianity stood to the upper class in natural opposition, not so much because it was Christianity, but because it was a movement of the lower classes.” (Kindle Locations 360-365).

 In Deissman’s volume New Light on the New Testament from the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, he states even more pointedly that Primitive Christianity was not “Christianity” as we know it today, but “a movement of the proletarian lower class.” (p. 7)

Jesus’ listeners would have been more inclined to identify with those scratching out a desperate existence in an exploitative economic system that produced haves and have nots. Few would have listened to him from the societal location of homeowners protecting their possessions from others. This saying uses imagery that the lower and possibly lowest social classes would have been familiar with because of their economic vulnerability.

This saying is also in the context of last week’s saying. The writers of Sayings Gospel Q claim that even though the people’s oppressors are strong, they can be overcome by “one stronger.” In the context of a Jewish apocalyptic worldview, this saying would have been heard as, “Yes, your earthly and cosmic oppressors are, indeed, strong. Yet the mission and activity of Jesus and our community informed is stronger. Our Messianic hope for liberation can overcome our oppressors.”

A Force More Powerful

The documentary A Force More Powerful explores popular 20th Century nonviolent movements. These movements stood up against entrenched regimes and military forces with unconventional weapons like boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and acts of civil resistance. They helped to subvert the operations of government through direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage, and blockades, and they frustrated the efforts of those in power to suppress people.

Last February, in Renouncing One’s Rights, we saw how Jesus taught these very principles of non-violent resistance. We found in the gospels a Jesus who warned oppressed people not to retaliate with the same type of force used against them. Jesus’ first audience did not have access to militaristic power in any way comparable to Rome. To try to use violence against these oppressors would only invite the Roman annihilation, and the history of 66-70 C.E. bears out that it did.

Nevertheless, Jesus cast a vision for his oppressed listeners of a way in which the “strong man” in their lives, their oppressors, could be “over powered.” The people were actually stronger than those who dominated them, and Jesus offered three examples of how: a) nonviolent resistance, b) nonviolent direct action, and c) nonviolent noncooperation. (See Matthew 5:38-41 cf. with the above article.)

To be clear: dominated and subjected people typically do not have access to the material power of their subjugators. But, as history witnesses, those same people are very much more powerful than their oppressors in another way: when they choose to change the rules of the game. In the spirit of these imaginative means, Jesus sought to inspire nonviolent resistance, disruption, noncooperation, and action in his followers, those who despite appearances also had the power to promote societal change.

Just a Little Further South

In my region of the U.S. (Appalachia) and just a little south of me, white, male, heterosexual Jesus followers today find themselves in a very different social location than the people Jesus spoke to. Rather than being the ones within a society who would have been more prone to be breaking into homes, we, today, are the ones protecting our homes and possessions at any cost. This is the demographic that always, without fail, comes up to me at the end of a presentation on Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and says, “If someone’s breaking into my home, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

These conversations often remind me of the story of the pastor of a church I visited about five years ago in Rochester, Minnesota. The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is typically listed as a peace-church because of their traditional teachings on violence, combat, and force. But four years ago, the pastor of the local Seventh-day Adventist church in Rochester mistook his granddaughter for an intruder trying to break into his home and shot her. You can read the story in this article by Star Tribune where the pastor agreed to be interviewed, as he himself said, “as a caution to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.”

He told the paper, “”I had a plan but I didn’t follow the plan, I thought somebody was breaking into my house and it just scared us to death.” Fear took over him, and so instead of viewing the “intruder” as a child of God, he shot his own granddaughter. It’s a horrific story. The Tribune’s article closes with the pastor’s statement that he “would not want anybody to ever have this horrible, horrible experience.”

Remarkably, this happens more often than you’d imagine. Statistically, adding another lethal weapon to a violent situation doesn’t mean you become safer. Studies show that “the notion that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun is a romanticized vision of the nature of violent crime.” Jesus’ words in Matthew that those who live by a sword will die by a sword don’t just apply to individuals. They also apply to societies as well.

In societies with an economic structure that produces “haves” and “have-nots,” Jesus calls those who have more then they need to a plan not of hoard and protect but of sharing and choosing to take care of those who aren’t having their needs being met and being faced with desperation due to their lack.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a “rich man” who, rather than share his surplus, chose to build a bigger, more efficient means of hoarding it. After teaching that this man was a “fool,” because his life ended that same night, Jesus goes on to define being “rich toward God” as selling one’s possessions and giving the surplus to those whose daily needs are not being met.

We who live in America today live in a society shaped by independence, individualism, and self-reliance. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels taught that the solution to the challenges of his own day were to be found in the opposite of these norms. In short, Jesus’ solution to these problems was community. Much of what he taught doesn’t even make sense outside of community!

Trying to follow Jesus’ teachings on one’s own, without a community in which to apply those teachings, is like trying to build a house without building materials or trying to follow a recipe in a cookbook without having the necessary ingredients to combine. In the story in Luke that I reference above, Jesus calls the wealthy who trust in their wealth to insulate them from what the future might bring to let go of their “worry” and instead use their resources to create strong community.

Jesus’ solution is not necessarily for us to have wealth but it’s definitely for us to have each other. And as long as we have each other, we can survive whatever the future may bring, because we are in this together. Jesus finishes up his story with the statement, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He isn’t contrasting heaven and earth here. Rather, Jesus is contrasting people investing in community with isolated people individualistically investing in themselves solving the problem of the future for themselves at the expense of others around them. Jesus seems to be clear: either we are all taken care of, or none of us will be. The man in the story who sought to take care of only himself still lost all he had because he couldn’t keep it when he died.

When we add the Luke 12 story to our saying this week, two things come to the surface despite our societal conditioning. First, those who seek to “protect” their own possessions with strength of arms can still be overpowered. From Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, we see that Jesus did not encourage meeting violence with violence or physical force with physical force. Jesus instead taught that the way to overpower one’s enemy was through another form of direct action: what Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others have referred to as “soul force.” It’s a force more powerful. Second, those who take the path of hoarding and protecting assume a future that looks very different from the reality of what will happen. They imagine themselves leaning back enjoying the benefits of what they have amassed and protected, but instead, they end up losing their lives.

So what is our take home this week?

Jesus challenges those on the underside of society to believe in the power of nonviolent resistance, disturbance, protest, direct-action, and non-cooperation. And he calls on people like those who come up to me defensively after my presentations on nonviolence to place people above property, possessions and profit.

Depending on your location in our current classist societal structure, this week’s saying might be a promise that offers hope, or a warning that your efforts to protect things are ultimately futile and possibly even lethal:

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:·21-22)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you as a group to sit down and watch Richard Wilkinson’s 2011 TED Talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

Notice the relation of crime to wealth inequality. There is a connection between the two. The more wealth is shared (e.g. Jesus story above in Luke 12) the less crime (e.g. home invasions) occurs. Could it be that the solution to violent crime is not bigger guns, but the embrace of our natural communal interdependence? Jesus’ teachings do call us to stop individualistically resisting interdependence.

There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.

2. After watching the TED talk, discuss with your HeartGroup what implications you see for your group, and brainstorm ways to lean into Jesus teachings, even if your first steps are small.

3. Pick one of those ways you just discussed and begin putting it into practice.

In this week’s saying, Jesus comes offering a way that is more holistic, that has the potential to “overpower” how we in the West typically operate. Wherever this saying finds you this week, may it bring you hope or challenge, or both!

Keep living in love. 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.