Justice and the Love of God

Herb Montgomery | November 2, 2018

Pink clover from Horton Hears a Who


“To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.”


“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

All of my children love being involved in our local theater here in town. A few years ago my elder daughter auditioned for the high school musical. She was cast as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical, an adorable retelling of Seuss’ most popular tales. As a result, our son, who was five or six years old at the time, took up reading many Seuss books. Horton Hears a Who became his favorite. 

In this story, Horton the elephant hears a call for help coming from a speck of dust. Though he endures much derision from his neighbors as a result of hearing something they can’t, he chooses to respond. He eventually learns that the call for help he hears is coming from a group of small creatures named Whos that live on this speck of dust. Horton is disbelieved, ridiculed, harassed, thought crazy, and eventually tied up. Horton’s neighbors also take the speck away from him and almost destroy it, but Horton convinces its inhabitants to begin making noise in hopes that they will be heard. The noise isn’t loud enough until one last Who named JoJo is found not participating. JoJo’s voice added at the very end gives the Whos enough volume to be heard by Horton’s fellow jungle animals and convinces them to join Horton in protecting the Who community. The catchphrase that Horton repeats throughout the story is, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who after visiting Japan after World War II. (See Morgan & Morgan, pp. 144–145, and Richard Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War.) Geisel had held deeply racist and anti-Japanese prejudices before and during the war, but his visit to Japan, with other events, caused a dramatic reversal in Geisel. He wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory. The book includes veiled references to the war and the U.S.’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.” Geisel also dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a Japanese friend, Nakamura. He commented in interviews that when one considers Japan’s size as a country the theme becomes obvious, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Shortly after the local performances of this play ended in our town, a dear family friend met with Crystal and me. They shared with us that they were trans and that they would be taking steps in the near future to live into their gender identity. Our friend had seen some of the beginning steps Crystal and I had taken to become affirming allies of the trans community, and she had decided to trust our family with her story and invite us to continue being part of her life. 

As we shared the news with our children, I knew my two eldest kids well enough to know their responses would be affirming and positive. It was my son, the youngest, who I was most curious about. As our friend shared with him as much of her story as was appropriate for his age, I could see him processing this new information. She was the first trans person he would ever know. After a moment, she asked what he thought. He reached up and took her hand. He looked into her face, said the new name she had just told him, and said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

This week I want to talk about two values that are juxtaposed for us in Luke’s gospel: justice and love. In the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, which I watched last year, Dr. Emile M. Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” This statement resonated so deeply for me that it brought tears to my eyes. 

Before I became an ally to trans people, and before all the fallout with our early followers, I had spent years speaking, writing, and teaching on the universal love of God for everyone! (See Finding the Father.) But one response I repeatedly heard during our transition as a ministry was people’s inability to understand what made us shift from God’s love to God’s justice. I spent countless hours trying to help folks understand that love means justice! They aren’t separate! One is the fruit of the other, and you can’t genuinely have one without the other. As Cornel West famously stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

What do we at RHM mean by the term justice?

Justice is distributive. Speaking of how the Hebrew scriptures define justice, John Dominic Crossan writes, “The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 2) 

If we believe in universal love then why wouldn’t that belief lead us toward compassion, action, and ensuring a distributive justice for all?

Distributive justice is the outgrowth of Jesus’ belief in a God that offers universal love.

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)

“[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus’ God universally loved even the ravens and lilies, therefore Jesus envisions God as also concerning Godself with distributive justice for us as well. For Jesus, God’s love was at the root of God’s radical vision for a world in which all had enough.

A God who indiscriminately loves is also a God who indiscriminately and justly sends rain and sunshine on the objects of that love. Jesus is standing firmly in his own Jewish tradition when he connects love and distributive justice. Consider the following passages from the Hebrew prophets where love and distributive justice are intrinsically connected.

“In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5, emphasis added.)

“But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always. (Hosea 12:6, emphasis added.)
Calling for distributive justice was a way in which the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

“For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people 
and make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8)

“Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:15)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17)

As we mentioned last week, it is this preoccupation with distributive justice that defines whether someone in the Hebrew culture “knew God.”

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD (Jeremiah 22:16)

Jeremiah states that someone’s picture of the Divine will inevitably work its way out in whether they defend the oppressed and vulnerable or whether they drive oppression, marginalization, and/or exploitation. According to Jeremiah, to know the Hebrew God accurately is to defend the vulnerable. Gustavo Gutierrez confirms this interpretation: 

“For the prophets this demand was inseparable from the denunciation of social injustice and from the vigorous assertion that God is known only by doing justice. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 134) 

Gutierrez also writes, “To know God is to work for justice. There is no other path to reach God.” (Ibid., p. 156) 

The Hebrew sacred text is repeatedly concerned with a societal, distributive justice. See Exodus 21:2; Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 22:25; Exodus 23:9; Exodus 23:11, Exodus 23:12; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 19:34; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:2-7; Leviticus 25:10; Leviticus 25:23; Leviticus 25:35-37; Leviticus 26:13; Leviticus 26:34-35; Deuteronomy 5:14; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 10:19; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 26:12; 2 Kings 23:35; Nehemiah 5:1-5; Job 24.2-12, 14; Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:27; Jeremiah 5:28; Jeremiah 6:12; Jeremiah 22:13-17; Ezekiel 22:29; Hosea 12:6-8; Amos 2.6-7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:7; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 8:5-6; Micah 2:1-3; Micah 3:1-2; Micah 3:9-11; Micah 6:10-11; Micah 6.12; Habakkuk 2:5-6 . This tradition is carried on in the more Jewish portions of the New Testament texts, see Luke 6:24-25; Luke 12:13-21 ; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 18:18-26; James 2:5-9.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee who in the first century traversed the region teaching about a God who universally loved ravens, lilies, and all people, too, would live, teach, minister, protest, and be crucified in profound solidarity with those who were suffering from injustice in his society.

If we define politics as we did last week, as the distribution of resources and power, the gospel has real political implications that we must not hide or hide from. The portions of the New Testament believed to have been written by the Johannine community are the portions of the New Testament most preoccupied with defining God as “Love.” They don’t miss this connection between love and justice either:

“How can the love of God be in anyone who has material goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help? . . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18)

I want to close this week with one more statement by Gutierrez that I believe it would be well for us to spend this coming week contemplating:

“This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 135, emphasis added).

Those who believe they genuinely possess an understanding of God’s character should be the loudest in the room opposing the injustices of classism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry toward and erasure of our LGBTQ siblings, and more. To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.

After all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

HeartGroup Application

Main Sanctuary Stained Glass Windows at Tree of Life* Or L'Simcha Congregation

Last weekend, a deadly mass shooting occurred at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburg, PA.  Eleven people were killed. Nine people were injured.  The Anti-Defamation League has stated that the shooting is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. For Renewed Heart Ministries response to this attack, see Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

Renewed Heart Ministries stands in solidarity with our Jewish friends, neighbors and loved ones as we condemn and oppose Anti-Semitism in all its varied forms. Our hearts are with the families of the victims and the survivors.  We at Renewed Heart Ministries choose the resistance of love rather than hate. We will continue to daily take up the work of engaging the intersection of faith, love, compassion and justice. We will continue educating followers of Jesus, especially, in regards to the role Christianity has played in harming the Jewish community as well as other communities who have also been marginalized and harmed by us. We will continue to work together alongside targeted communities to heal our world, reshaping it into a compassionate, just and safe home for all; or, as our Jewish friends say, “the work of Tikkun Olam.”

This week, I want to invite all of our HeartGroups to take a moment and send the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation a message of support or a prayer and to recommit to just action in you daily lives. 

Last Saturday’s attack was connected to more than a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism as well as to White supremacist murders of Black people and Sikh people and breaches of sacred space in Birmingham, in Charleston, at Pulse, and more. (See Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s thread as well as Charleston to Tree of Life: White nationalism is a threat to us all ) My wife Crystal commented, “The truth is this country was built on the premise that some lives matter more than others. Racism has been woven into the very fabric of our existence. Othering is in our very foundation. We stole this country from it’s native people and claimed it for our own, based on the idea that we were more worthy than they, calling them savages when we murdered and stripped them of everything. We brutally enslaved races of people and claimed we somehow deserved to own and abuse them based on nothing more than the pigment of our skin and the fact that we could overpower them. Now we are shocked when a racist leader barely scratches the surface and all of this vile evil rises to the surface. It has always existed. We have to be honest with our past if we are going to do better in the future.”

Take a moment this weekend, and, as a HeartGroup, send this congregation a message of love and solidarity through this link: 

In Solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue, We Pray and We Pledge! 

This project was created by Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows. A friend of mine who works at Auburn Seminary along with her colleagues will be collecting and delivering these prayers and notes of support.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 8 of 9

Part 8 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

 

Wooden RosaryIt Is Finished

“When Jesus had drank the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30)

The parallels between John’s telling of the Jesus story and the Hebrew creation narrative of the first few chapters of Genesis are unmistakable. As I shared last week, John is reframing the Jewish creation story, using Jesus, now, as the Christian’s origin story of a brand new world.[1]

When all of the parallels between Genesis 1 and John’s Jesus story are lined up, Jesus’ dying words, “It is finished,” become revolutionarily radical. What John is whispering to us is, “new creation.” In Jesus’ teachings, a new world has begun! (See last week’s eSight here.)

As we have often said in this series, Jesus’ death is the result of his nonviolent confrontation with the current domination system of his day, and his announcement that a new social order had arrived. This is a new world where those who are poor as a result of the way the present world is arraigned will be the first to be blessed. Where those who mourn as a result of the present order will laugh, those who are hungry will be fed. Yet, if we stop to pay attention to John, economic changes are not the entirety of the liberating work of Jesus’ teachings. In other words, certainly liberation for the economically oppressed of this world’s present social order is where the Jesus narratives begin. Jesus’ story is about no less than economic liberation. What John is telling us next, though, in his resurrection narrative, is that economic liberation is simply the starting point. Jesus liberation for the poor [2] is the launching pad. Following Jesus is about no less than “good news to the poor,” and it is so much more about liberating all who are oppressed, whether in matters of gender, race, and even today, orientation. Follow John’s logic.

John moves next to the desire of the religious aristocracy for Jesus’ body to be taken down from the tree. Then two very wealthy men, who would have belonged to this aristocracy, abandon their place to privilege to come out in solidarity, now even more so after his execution, with this Jesus.  It is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who are caring for Jesus’ corpse. Do not miss the importance of these details. This is John’s demonstration of social movement among two of the economically rich away from their wealth to embracing Jesus’ new world, which begins with a bias for the poor. Then John immediately moves from economic liberation to gender liberation.

In John’s telling, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on the first day of the week. Where the first story of the old Hebrew creation narrative is a story where women become blamed for the entrance of “sin” into this world, forever labelling women as the first to be deceived, John begins the new world with the woman being the first to be enlightened, the first to believe, the first to proclaim the message of a risen Jesus. The first work of John’s resurrection narrative is to liberate women from subservience to men. It is not by accident that women play the superior role in John’s resurrection story. The women believe and are bold, while the men are scared and doubtful. (If any of us men are offended by this, welcome to what women have endured from the telling of the Genesis story for two millennia now.)

This means becoming the first to see Jesus, the first to embrace the reality of his resurrection, is now given a duty by Jesus himself. Jesus sends her forth as an Apostle (“one who is sent”) to the other apostles, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

Have you ever wondered why the resurrection story features women as those who “get it,” while the men are deeply struggling? It’s not by accident and John knows exactly what he is doing.

It would not be long before those of the Jesus movement would have to wrestle also with matters of race, ethnicity, and nationality, at least within their own social context.

“God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” – Peter (Acts 10:28, emphasis added.)

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” – Paul (Colossians 3:11)

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” – Peter (Acts 10:47)

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Paul (Galatians 3:28)

What we see, therefore, is that although the Jesus story is not about less than economic liberation for the poor, it is certainly about more than that also. It’s about liberation from all that oppresses. Remember, the great Hebrew hope was not of one day becoming some disembodied soul in some far-distant heaven. It was of a time when Messiah would come and set right all injustice, oppression, and violence here on this earth. It was of a time when the Hebrews’ “Eden” would be restored. And just as the Hebrew “Eden” began with Elohim announcing, “It is finished,”[3] John’s new world, rooted in and centered around the teachings of Jesus, begins with Jesus crying out, “It is finished” as well.

The Jesus narratives dismantle a world arranged by pyramids of privilege where some are subordinated for the opulence of others. The Jesus narrative breaks down circles of exclusion where hard lines divide “them” from “us,” marginalizing those we deem as “other” and even in certain cases going beyond marginalization to extirpation. It’s a new world, not characterized by pyramids and circles, but by a shared table, where, regardless of economic status, gender, race, or sexual orientation, all are welcome to share their stories as we all, in our endeavors to follow this Jesus of the early Jesus community, learn to integrate all the varied forms of the Divine’s creation, as well as diverse experience of life into a meaningful and coherent whole. (Maybe I should do a future eSight series titled Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table.)

Where does this leave us now though?

This new world does not come without a price.

Peter Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, states, “When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact 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 . . . Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the ends 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.”

This is why Jesus emphasized loving one’s enemies, seeking to win one’s enemies rather than simply overcoming them. Those benefited by the present social order (think people like me, white, male, cisgender, straight) will find the embrace of Jesus’ new world problematic at best.

Jesus is careful to add to the list of changes he is going to make, a blessing on the “hated.” “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Luke 6: 22–23). Who is it that would hate those promoting this new social order? Those who have everything to lose by its arrival. It must be remembered, when one is hated for turning the present world upside down [4], we are standing in the lineage of prophets who did not call these changes charity, they called it justice.[5]

Jesus would pay the price of losing his life for confronting the present social order of things. And the servant is not greater than the master. Jesus virtually said, “If you belonged to the present social order, then they would love you as their own. But because you do not belong to the present arraignment, but I have chosen you out of it for a new social arraignment—therefore the present social order hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”[6]

And this is where the purpose of this series comes in.

Yes, Jesus was lynched for the changes he had come to make. This new world was his pearl of great price for which he would give up everything. He was the seed that must go into the earth and die in order to produce much fruit. His life, teachings, death, and resurrection would be the mustard seed planted in the soil that would subversively replace the present order of things. This was his passion, that the “earth” would be like “heaven.”[7] His teachings were the leaven that would permeate the entire dough. And although he would lose his life for these teachings, the resurrection would vindicate his life and teachings, showing for all time that the Divine stands in solidarity, not only with Jesus, but with all who have been the oppressed by the injustice and violence of the “present age.” The resurrection is the first morning of the new world. It is the undoing and reversing of the execution of Jesus by the domination systems of the present order. It is the vindication of the world whose arrival Jesus had come to announce. And we need not fear the consequences of our embracing this new world too. At the center of our lives is a narrative, not of old creation, but of a new. We are not people of a Hebraic “fall” in the old stories of Genesis. We are children of the resurrection, which is not Jesus’ alone, but ours as well.

But we will get to all of that next week as we conclude this series.

For now, let’s remember,

Acts 13:32–33 – “We bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.”

Acts 17:18 – “He was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”

1 Corinthians 15:14 – “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain.”

2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

HeartGroup Application

This isn’t theory. It’s not spiritualizing the lessons. It’s intensely practical.

This week I want you to take the progression of Liberation (from the poor, to gender, to race) of the early Jesus community and go further in our day. Each generation is called to follow Jesus, further up and further in. There are two passage I want you to contemplate this week:

“God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” – Peter (Acts 10:28, emphasis added.)

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” – Peter (Acts 10:47)

  1. I want you to hold these two passages in your heart and sit down sometime this week and watch the documentary Seventh Gay Adventist. This is a documentary produced by some dear friends of mine. What I can attest to personally in my own experience over the last two years, is that I too, like Peter of old, have witnessed the Holy Spirit being received by dear Christians who also self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Just sit down and watch the documentary, for me. My friends have offered you, as a follower of RHM, something special. You can download a FREE Deluxe HD Digital version (the one that is normally $9.99) using the coupon code: watchfreeRHM. You can access it here, select Deluxe Version, $9.99 and enter the code. You can also read all about the film and what others are saying about it here.

2. After you have finished watching it, journal any insights, questions, thoughts, or feelings you may have. Then go back and reread this eSight with these glasses on and see what new insights Jesus gives you in regard to carry forward his work of liberation into Jesus’ new world in our lives today.

3. Share what you experience this week with your HeartGroup.

Easter is coming up for Western Christianity. (For Eastern Christianity, it is a week later.) What marks the greatest contradiction within Christianity today, for me, is celebrating the Divine act of resurrection, vindicating the liberating work of Jesus for this world, while we still leave a marginalized and oppressed group still outside in the cold. Regardless of how one interprets the teachings of the Torah, Jesus’ new world, as we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, trumped Torah in matters of economics, gender, and race, too. A new world is coming, characterized by a shared table where we all discover what it means to sit together and share side by side. And in fact, for those who have eyes to see it, this new world has already, subversively, begun.

I’m still praying for your hearts. Praying that as we lead up to the narrative element of Jesus’ resurrection, we all may be able, together, to move through the portals of the tomb to Jesus’ restored, transformed, healed, and liberated new world.

Keep living in Love, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

Next week we finally arrive at what all of the Jesus narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) speak of as Jesus’ resurrection and the good news it announces.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1.  Genesis 1 begins with the phrase, “in the beginning . . .” So does John: “In the beginning . . .” (John 1:1). In Genesis 1 there are seven days of creation. In John’s version Jesus’ life is divided up and told with seven “signs.” Genesis 1’s narrative of the physical creation of the world climaxes with Elohim, meaning “It is finished.” So John’s telling of the Jesus story climaxes as Jesus cries out over his restored (new) creation with the words, “It is finished.” As Genesis 1 has Elohim resting on the Sabbath day, so Jesus rests from his work of restoration in the tomb on the seventh day. As the narrative of Genesis then moves quickly into a garden with a woman being the first to be deceived, John’s gospel moves quickly into another garden with a woman being the first to be enlightened, becoming an apostle to the apostles.

2.  Luke 4:18 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

3.  Genesis 2:1–3 – “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”

 4.  Acts 17:6–7 – “When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’”

5.  Amos 5:24 – “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Matthew 5:6  – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 6:33 – “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 5:10 – “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Justice in these passages, remember, is restorative and transformative justice, not punitive or retributive.)

6.  John 15:19–20 – “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”

7.  Mathew 6:10 – “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.

Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.

The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.

You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)

Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.

For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”

However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies. [1] The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect. [2] The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated. [3] What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.

The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. [4]

What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love. [5] And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”

This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here! [6] And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!

There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.” [7] In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Where does this leave us right now?

Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.

HeartGroup Application

  • Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
  • Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
  • Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.

Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things [8] was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began. [9] It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:

Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world. I love each of you; I’ll see you next week.


 

1 Luke 6:27–36—But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

2 Luke 22:24–27—But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

3 Luke 4.25–29—“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

4 For an excellent, and more detailed discussion on this topic, please see Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker.

5 See last week’s eSight here.

6 Luke 10:9—Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:11—Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in

protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. Luke 11:20—But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

7 The Curetonian Gospels read “Today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” By

contrast, the Sinaitic Palimpsest reads “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

8 Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

9 Luke 4.18–21—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”