The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 2 of 9

 

Part 2 of 9

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

 

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Mark 15.34

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema
sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Matthew 27.46

No saying of Jesus in any of the Gospels has produced more controversy than this one.

Rather than debating whether Jesus truly felt forsaken or not, I believe we need to ask ourselves why Mark (and Matthew) would include this while later gospels would not.

Mark wants us to embrace Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, the son of man of the Jewish restorative hope [1]. Remember that in Mark’s gospel, the title “son of God” did not mean “second member of the Godhead.” Rather, this was the return of a king to Israel. King David was Israel’s original “son of God.” To call Jesus by this title was to make the connection between Jesus and kingship! This is the one that would liberate Israel from her oppressors and put all injustice, oppression, and violence to right. (Rome also referred to some of the Caesars as the “son of God.” Some of the early followers of Jesus in Acts would subversively call Jesus the “son of God” in this context as an act of noncooperation with Rome, but this would come later.)

Early in the telling of the Jesus story, one of the chief objections to the claim that Jesus was the king, the son of God, the Messiah, was that Jesus was actually crucified by the oppressors, the Romans.

Within Judaism in the first century, for would-be messiahs to end up on Roman crosses meant that their claims to messiahship were false. They had failed! We see from the early letters attributed to Paul that being put on a Roman cross in first-century Judaism was also equated with Deuteronomy’s mention of being “put on a tree.” [2] (However, this would have been a contemporary application, as Deuteronomy was referring to a very different practice than crucifixion.) This would have been the argument: Jesus could not have been the Messiah. He could not have been another “David,” another “son of God,” [3] a new “king.” Rome had defeated him, executing him in the fashion in which Rome executed all political threats, and Jesus had died in a fashion that, according to the Hebrew scriptures, clearly reveals this would-be messiah to also be “cursed of God.” Jesus was a false messiah and his crucifixion proves this in these two accounts.

Mark addresses this objection head-on (and Matthew follows him in doing so).

How does Mark do this? He reaches back to an experience in which David, the King of Israel himself, also appeared to be forsaken, but discovered this was very much not the case.

The use of Jesus’ crucifixion as proof that Jesus could not have been the Messiah, the return of Israel’s king, must have been a very common objection. The psalm in which David expressed his own wrestling with what seemed to be his apparent forsaking by God was used over and over by first-century followers of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 27, verses 39 & 43, he clearly alludes to David’s God-forsaken psalm:

Matthew 27.39—Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads

Matthew 27.43—[“]He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”

Psalms 22.7-8—All who see me mock at me; they hurl insults at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

John too, in chapter 19, verse 24 of his Gospel, quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken Psalm:

John 19.24—So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

Psalms 22.18—They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote from this section of David’s God-forsaken psalm, in part:

Matthew 27.35—And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;

Mark 15.24—And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

Luke 23.34—And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Even the author of Hebrews quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken psalm, placing David’s words in the mouth of Jesus:

Hebrews 2.11-12—For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Psalms 22.22—I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.

Lastly, in his Gospel, John correlates David’s God-forsaken psalm with Jesus’ dying words:

John 19.30—When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is accomplished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Psalms 22.31—And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has accomplished it.

All of this shows that it was very common among the early followers of Jesus to use David’s God-forsaken psalm (Psalm 22) to defend the claim that, like David, Jesus was the “son of God,” [4] Israel’s King, the long-awaited Messiah, the return of the anointed one5, the Christ.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Mark would make use of this psalm, too, in his Gospel. It’s rather ingenious, actually. At first, David appears to be forsaken, but by the end of the psalm he discovers that this was a false conclusion and that it only appeared to be so. David sang that God had not forsaken him, that God had not abandoned him:

Psalms 22.1—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

Psalms 22.22-24—I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you . . . For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has NOT hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (Emphasis added.)

If David, King of Israel, could have gone through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, it looked as if he was forsaken and yet in reality he was not, then also Jesus, King of Israel, could go through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, others might judge that he had been God-forsaken, and yet he not be.

Notice in Mark’s Gospel the way Mark aligns King David’s experience with King Jesus’ experience:

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

Mark 15.22-24 (Emphasis added.)

Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.

Psalms 22.16-18 (Emphasis added.)

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two insurgents with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also hurled insults on him.

Mark 15.25-32 (Emphasis added.)

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.He trusts in the LORD,” they say, “let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”

Psalms 22.7 (Emphasis added.)

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Mark 15.33-34 (Emphasis added.)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Psalms 22.1 (Emphasis added.)

Remember that the point is to link Jesus’ experience to David’s. If David could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king, then Jesus too could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but really wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king!

This is why I believe that Psalm 22 was relied upon so heavily by the early Jesus-following community. It was their way of addressing the objection, produced by Jesus’ crucifixion, to their claim that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the return of their king. This is how they could proclaim that although Jesus had been crucified, he was still Lord.

Today, historical and textual critiques argue about whether these words were actually said by Jesus or were supplied apologetically by Mark. Either way, it matters little. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these words are actually original to the historical Jesus. If Jesus had quoted from Psalm 22 on the cross, we must assume that he too would have known the entire psalm, and either used it as a source of comfort, reassuring himself that it only looked as if he was God-forsaken but that he genuinely was not, or he could have been quoting this psalm to answer the derision of those who mocked him, saying that his crucifixion did not disprove his claim to be their King, as David had gone through a similar experience of appearing to be forsaken but not being so. What seems obvious to me is that Jesus could not have genuinely felt forsaken by God while quoting this psalm, because he would have known how it ends:

Psalm 22:24—For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

Mark ends his crucifixion narrative with the proclamation of a Roman centurion:

Mark 15:37-39—With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Emphasis added.)

Mark, who from the beginning of his Gospel had centered the Jesus movement in Galilee as opposed to Jerusalem, described the religious leaders in Jerusalem mocking the claim that Jesus was their “king” while this Roman centurion, a gentile, “gets it.” Remember, to a first- century Jew (and also to a Roman, for that matter), the title “son of God” was not a religious title, but a political one. It meant that this one was the king.

Did Jesus actually say these words? There is no way to prove it conclusively.

Did Jesus actually feel forsaken? Whether these words were original to Jesus or were Mark’s narrative device, it is very unlikely either way, given the entirety of Psalm 22, that Jesus said these words as an expression of truly feeling that he was forsaken.

Did the God of the Jesus narrative actually forsake Jesus in this story while Jesus was on the cross? Absolutely not! The narrative element of the resurrection will show that the God of the Jesus story was standing in solidarity with Jesus every step along the way, over and against those who were executing Jesus (we’ll address this in Part 9).

What does this mean for us?

As a theist, have you ever felt forsaken by your God when the established authority stood against you, claiming God was on their side? Don’t trust appearances. Just as the early followers of Jesus were not to trust the way things appeared on the night Jesus was executed, we are not to trust the way things may look for us when we stand up against the religious, economic, or political domination systems of our day. It may appear that you are presently on a cross, presently forsaken by your God, but your God has not abandoned you. Don’t lose the hope and assurance imparted by the resurrection.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Go back and contemplate the times in your life when you felt as if your God had forsaken you. Allow the Jesus story to rewrite that narrative in your heart. Allow yourself to see yourself as not forsaken, but only appearing to be so. Don’t trust in how things appeared at the time. Choose to believe your God had not abandoned you, but was with you all along the way.
  2. Journal the paradigm shifts you experience as you go through this exercise.
  3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you wrote down.

We need not fear standing up to injustice, oppression, and violence in our time. We need not fear standing up against the religious, economic, political, or social domination systems of our day. As Jesus’ followers, we stand in the light streaming from the tomb! That light tells us that the domination system of Jesus’ day could not stop him, even on the cross. Jesus is still out there, still recruiting, still calling those who will stand up and follow his lead as he shows us a way to a new world, whispering . . . “follow me.”

Until 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. Daniel 7.13-14—In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

2. Galatians 3.13—Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” Deuteronomy 21.22-23—If anyone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. John 19.31—Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

3. Psalms 2.7—I [David] will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.

4. Psalms 2.7—I [David] will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.

5. Psalms 2.2—The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed [David], saying; Psalms 18.50—He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever; Psalms 20.6— Now this I know: The LORD gives victory to his anointed. He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary with the victorious power of his right hand; Psalms 23.5—You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows; Psalms 28.8—The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one; Psalms 45.2—You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever; Psalms 45.7—You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy; Psalms 84.9—Look on our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one; Psalms 89.20—I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him; Psalms 89.38—But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one; Psalms 89.51—the taunts with which your enemies, LORD, have mocked, with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one; Psalms 105.15—“Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”; Psalms 132.10—For the sake of your servant David, do not reject your anointed one; Psalms 132.17—“Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one.

A New Social Order

warisover

by Herb Montgomery

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14–15)

This week we are still, momentarily, in the
first chapter of Mark. I want to focus on a few details that are often overlooked in our featured text.

Jesus Came to Galilee

If the scholarly data concerning the timing of when Mark’s gospel was written is true, this is a time when the future of Jerusalem was not promising. Political tensions with Rome had been high and were continuing to escalate. It is during this time that Mark draws our attention away from a Jerusalem-centered movement of violent insurrection against the Romans, to a Galilean- centered movement following the teachings of the itinerant Jesus. Mark’s gospel also redefines the “kingdom” of Daniel’s “son of man.”[1] In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the long-awaited “messiah.” Jesus is the “son of David” who would restore the “Kingdom.” Jesus is still the “son of God,” the anointed one to whom God is “pleased” to give the Kingdom.[2] But a few things have changed. In the Old Testament, this restoration located “Jerusalem” as the center to which the entire world would flock.[3] In Mark’s gospel, the Kingdom of the son of man would follow, instead, the destruction of Jerusalem, and rise out of Galilee rather than Judea.[4] We do not have the space here to elaborate any further on this point, but it is a study well worth your time to contemplate the differences between Judea and Galilee in the first century ethnically, geographically, politically, economically, culturally, linguistically, and religiously, contemplating what these differences might have meant for the beginnings of the early Jesus movement.

Proclaiming the Good News

This next point is so well known and agreed upon by so many that I will not spend much time on this, but it is worth noting. The term for Good News or “Gospel” in the Greek is euaggelion. This originally was neither a religious nor a Christian term. Instead, this was a political term that announced a new social order. Whenever Rome would conquer a territory, Rome would send out an “evangelist” who would proclaim to the conquered territory the “gospel” or good news that they were now under the rule of the peace of Rome (Pax Romana). The messenger would announce that Caesar was the son of God and Rome was the savior of the world. This messenger would proclaim to this newly conquered territory that Rome’s dominion would give this territory a newfound prosperity and peace just as Rome had accomplished for other places as well.

Here are a few examples of the political nature of Rome’s use of the term “gospel.”

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch; Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch; Demetrius, p. 17, 1st century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον – euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347, 1st century).

The term Gospel originally communicated the arrival of a new social order.

The Arrival of the Kingdom

The Jesus of Mark’s gospel would take this same word, but instead of announcing the Kingdom of Rome, it would announce the Kingdom of God. It is a profound realization when it dawns on a person that the Jesus of Mark never once is found offering people a way to get to heaven. Rather, Mark’s Jesus is traveling the Galilean countryside announcing a new social order, here and now, that is “of God.”

Part of this new social order is not just a recasting of the term “gospel,” but a redefinition of the very term “Kingdom” as well.

In Mark chapter 10, Mark tells us the story of James and John wanting the honorable position of sitting next to Jesus on his left and right when Jesus’ Kingdom becomes established (Messiah’s Rule). Notice the traditional hierarchical nature of James and John’s understanding of the term “Kingdom.” Kingdom refers to a social order wherein humans are exercising dominance over others, and James and John want in on that dominance!

But Jesus is redefining the nature of the “Kingdom” promised by the Old Testament prophets. It’s as if Jesus is saying, yes, the new social order that I’ve come to inaugurate is what the

prophets were pointing to, but it won’t fit your traditional understandings of how “Kingdoms” are ordered.

“Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are exercising authority over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . .” (Mark 10.42–45).

Jesus’ new social order would not involve humans exercising dominance over one another, but rather, serving one another instead. This would be a social order characterized, not by the privileging of some at the subordination of others, but by love, equality, and justice. Jesus’ new social order would be a complete and total dismantling of the present social order. It would involve egalitarianism in matters of race, gender, and economics specifically. And, for it to become permanent, it would be a slow process where even the new social order’s enemies were won to it, through confrontational, enemy love, rather than being conquered by it. Human hierarchies would be abandoned, for brother- and sisterhood.

Everything about this new social order would be different, not simply compared to Rome, but even when compared to the political and economic social order that existed in Jerusalem at that time, which was centered on the Temple. (It was Jesus’ confrontation with the Temple and the social order centered there that got him lynched.)

Repent and Believe the Good News

The Greek word for Repent is metanoeo. It means to think differently or to reconsider. What Jesus was calling us to was a radical rethinking of how we had structured and ordered our human societies. He was calling us to reassess our values, placing our fellow humans at the top of those values. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order as well as those who were doing the oppressing. Things could not continue the way they had or humanity would cease to exist. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed was escalating. Jesus was first and foremost calling us to rethink everything.

Secondly, he was asking us to believe in the reordering of the human society he was proposing.

The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. Scholars today have discovered this phrase used also in other contexts than simply by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus, in his autobiography, records an event that took place in his life when he endeavored to “to put an end” to various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engages with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and tells this captain that he would forgive “what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was, according to scholars, requiring this brigand, to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations, and trust Josephus for a better way. The phrase Josephus uses is “metanoesein kai pistos emoi.[5]”

This is the same phrase Jesus used in asking those in his day to rethink their present course, and forsake both the violence of oppression (economic oppression of the Temple against the poor) as well as violent forms of revolution (Jewish zealotry against Rome), trusting in and being faithful to Jesus’ alternate way forward to a new social redistribution.

Today

Today, humanity is still struggling with its addiction to establishing social orders of dominance and hierarchies, privilege and subordination. We live in a world where whites are privileged over nonwhites; where men are privileged over women; where the rich are privileged over the poor; where those who are defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who self-identify as LGBTIQ; where the formally educated are privileged over those who, in many cases, have equal intelligence, but have not had the same opportunities offered.

What is the Jesus narrative saying to us today?

In 1971 John Lennon released the single, “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” The billboards read “War is over, if you want it.” Today the Jesus narrative is saying, “A new social order has arrived . . . if you want it.” The Jesus story announces the arrival of a whole new world. It has arrived in subversive relation to the present order of things. It involves a radically new way of thinking about everything. It is a new world centered on love, mercy, forgiveness, equality, and justice . . . for all. It is “near,” if we want it.[6]

HeartGroup Application

1.  Any time one human seeks to subordinate a fellow human, whether on the basis of race, gender, economic status, formal education (or the lack of it), orientation, even if it carries the label of “Christian,” nothing could be less like the Christ. This week, first, I want you to look up the definitions of Metaphysics, Cosmology, and Ontology and then look up the definition of Ethics. Then I want you to go back and read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 57. Many today are “Christians” based on a cultural definition of the first three. But what will change the world is when Christians return to following Christ according to the last meaning. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John spent precious little time teaching about Metaphysical realities, Cosmologies, and Ontology. I’m not saying he never mentioned those. But by comparison, the lion’s share of Jesus’ teachings centered on Ethics. Today we have a Christianity that possesses a strangely opposite emphasis. Many (thank heaven for the exceptions) define themselves and others with a prioritization on the first three (one’s beliefs when it comes to metaphysics, cosmology, and ontology) while revealing a strange ignorance about what the Jesus of the canonical gospels taught concerning our ethical practices in relation to our fellow humankind. When one encounters the ethical teachings of Jesus, one can see why he was a threat to the then present social order of his day, and why he was removed.

2.  Journal what you discover.

3.  Share what you discover with your HeartGroup.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, One New World. I love each and every one of you. Thanks for giving this a read.
I’ll see you next week.

1 Daniel 7.13–14— In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

2 Mark 1.11—And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Daniel 4.17—“The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to the one with whom He is pleased and sets over them the lowliest of people.”

3 Isaiah 2.2—In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.

4 Mark 13.24—“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Daniel 7.13–14—In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

5 The Life Of Flavius Josephus, (Thackery 110); cf. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 251; NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 44

6 Matthew 3.2—And saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4.17—From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 10.7—As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Mark 1.15—“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Luke 10.9—Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10.11—“Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.”

Communities of Origin and Internalized Self-Hatred

by Herb MontgomeryReligious Man

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28)  

Within the holy hours of the Sabbath, and within the holy walls of the Synagogue, we find the story of a demoniac who encounters Jesus. Few stories are scarier to the human psyche than stories of demoniacs. Mark is careful to place this one at the beginning of his Jesus narrative, and he does so for a reason.

This is a story that takes place within the most sacred boundaries (in both time and space) of religious communities, not outside them. The social phenomenon we are going to be discussing is not reserved for only religious communities, though. The unity of religious as well as nonreligious communities alike is maintained by this phenomenon. Mark’s point is that religious communities are not immune to it; in fact, they actually fare just as equally in this regard as their nonreligious counterparts. Unless there is a clear rejection of the phenomenon we are about to discuss, the religiosity of one’s community holds no advantage over nonreligiosity. Both kinds of communities become virtually the same—one simply happens to be religious.

What social phenomenon are we referring to? It’s the social phenomenon that Jesus refers to as the way of “sacrifice.”

What is the way of sacrifice? Communities (including religious ones) rooted in exclusivity depend on a unity that is created around an agreement on whom should be excluded from their society. They need a “sacrifice,” someone to expel from within their borders in order for society to function properly. It is essential to the community’s smooth operation to find unity in being against what they define now as “other.” In fact, finding unity in vilifying someone is the very thing that gives communities of this nature their life. They depend on the existence of a “demoniac” [1].

Much is lost in our rationalistic society today when we throw out the stories of demoniacs and exorcisms within the Jesus narratives simply because we cannot find a naturalist explanation for them. A Girardian [2] interpretation of the demoniac stories offers much in the way of providing an understanding of human societies as well as the stories of demoniacs that should not be dismissed too quickly. Demoniacs, within a Girardian reading, are more than merely those whom the community has chosen to expel. They are not merely innocent victims, scapegoats, or sacrifices. They are expelled victims, scapegoats, or sacrifices who have internalized the hatred of the community as a form of self-hatred. They have embraced and accepted the assessment of the community (legion) that they are deserving of being “stoned.” (To understand more fully how demoniacs have created this self-hatred, see here.) They have come to agree with the community that they are truly evil and should be driven outside the camp.

Let’s look at each piece of the story and then put them all together:

1. The demoniac encounters Jesus.

2. The demoniac refers to Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” This title is specific and included by Mark with purpose, too. Not only was this a title that David, the King, used for himself [3], it was also the title given to Aaron [4] who was the chief priest of a system of sacrifice with a scapegoat at its heart [5].

3. The demoniac assumes Jesus, as this chief holy one, has come to execute the sacrificial destruction.

4. Yet Jesus has come not to destroy lives but to liberate, heal, and restore.

The demoniac encounters Jesus, and within the context of his internalized self-hatred the demoniac has received from his community of origin, he sees Jesus as the head or chief priest of this system of sacrifice who has come to destroy rather than heal him [6].

Jesus rejects the title given to him. Although Jesus had come in the lineage of David, he had come not to sacrifice scapegoats but to do away with the entire system of establishing societies on the sacrificing/scapegoating of those considered to be “other.”

Jesus had come to destroy not demoniacs but the very system that creates them.

We can see this in the fact that there are two “authorities” repeatedly being contrasted here. What does Mark want us to see?

Mark wants us to notice the uniqueness of Jesus’s exorcisms rather than the exorcisms attempted by the priests. First, let’s see what these latter exorcisms looked like:

“The manner of cure was this: He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he adjured him to return unto him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazor would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man” [7].

Priestly exorcisms were full of ritual. They sought to expel the demon from the individual in a way that preserved the very system that produced demoniacs rather than allowing the system itself be called it into question. By contrast, Jesus completely bypassed the entire temple system of sacrificing innocent victims along with all the system’s rituals. Jesus sought to liberate the demoniac with no ritual and no preservation of the way of sacrifice, calling all who were present to reassess the way of sacrifice (both religiously and sociologically) and offering to everyone in the room that there is another way for human societies to form and function. This is what is mean by Jesus’s “New Teaching.” He used NO RITUAL—no preservation of sacrifice. What Jesus did was exactly the opposite.

What does this have to do with us today?

Demoniacs are the narrative markers within the Jesus story who designate not only those whom the community has “cast out” or driven off, but also those who have adopted or internalized the community’s image of them as their own self-image, thereby producing within themselves a self-destructive self-hatred. (See here.)

As we see in this story, internalized self-hatred can cause an outcast to view those who attempt to liberate them from their self-hatred as “the enemy.”   The demoniac, who had internalized his community’s estimation of himself viewed Jesus and Jesus’ liberation from internalized self-hatred, as an antagonist and adversarial.

I believe this story applies to matters of race, economics, gender (male/female, cis or trans), education, or orientation. This does not mean that I consider those who have been labeled as “other” to be possessed. Not at all! But many times they do internalize a self-hatred that was given to them by their community of origin.

I don’t know how many times I have witnessed the following:

  • People of a different race (or from a different geographical location) internalizing and believing that they are “less than” only because they are the minority within a larger group
  • Women internalizing and genuinely believing they are “less than” men
  • Those of lesser economic status believing they really are “less than” those who possess more wealth
  • Those who possess less formal training than others in academia yet are truly amazingly intelligent and brilliantly open minded but still believe they are “less than” others who are more formally educated though also domesticated by the conventional status quo
  • Those who are transgender believing they are “less than” others within a world built for and by cisgender people
  • Those who identify as LGBTQI being afraid to “come out” even to themselves because of an internalized self-hatred bestowed upon them by their community of origin (religious or nonreligious) that says they are “less than,” evil, or—as some have arrogantly and ignorantly put forth—“possessed”

The Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation we have been given from our communities of origin because of who we are. (See here.) This is a Jesus who has come to liberate us from our own helpless captivity of believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of our societal privilege structures.

The Jesus story is whispering to us that:

  • We were all made in the image of God.
  • We are all children of the same Divine Parents.
  • There is room at the Family Table for us all.
  • There is a place in Jesus’s new world for us all.

The demoniac was delivered that day. But the congregation was, too. Maybe the world can operate differently from simply continuing to find people to expel. Instead of driving the demoniac away, Jesus both delivered him from his captivity to self accusation (think accuser) and abhorrence, and restored him to his rightful place within the new world Jesus came to announce and invited the demoniac’s community of origin to embrace this new world as well.

This is the beginning of the Liberation stories of Mark’s Jesus narrative.

 

HeartGroup Application

1. Spend some time this week in contemplation asking Jesus to show you where you, too, have internalized an evaluation of yourself that is different from what is true about you. According to the Jesus story, regardless of what your community of origin may tell you, you are of infinite, estimable, immeasurable worth, and there is room in Jesus’s new world for you.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns, where each voice is valued and every person’s story is heard.

Many voices, one new world.

Keep living in Love.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

[1] For a more detailed treatment of the way of “sacrifice,” please see these three links:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014

https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-23-2014

https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/08-04-2014

[2] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

[3] Psalm 4:3—But know ye that the Lord has done wondrous things for his holy one: the Lord will hear me when I cry to him. Psalm 15:10—Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

[4] Psalm 106.16 LXX—They provoked Moses also in the camp, and Aaron the holy one of the Lord.

[5] See Leviticus 16.

[6] John 3:17—Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healed* through him (*Definition of the Greek word “sozo”).

[7] Josephus, Antiquities VIII, ii, 5.

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

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He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“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.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “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.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “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 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.”

And again,

“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” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.

Liberian Christians, Ebola and the LGBT Community; Advocacy or Accusation? Holy or Demonic? by Herb Montgomery

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“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” — Jesus (John 14.26)

What many miss in John’s gospel is Jesus’ primary characterization of the Holy Spirit’s work as advocacy.

In John’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus actually contrasts two spirits within this narrative: the spirit of advocacy versus the spirit of accusation.

In chapter 8 of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires” (Vs 44). The Greek word here for “devil” is diabolou and it simply means “slanderer” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary). Another title that is used in the Jesus stories is “the satan.” (And it’s a title, not a name.) The Greek word for “the satan” is satanas which means “accuser.”

There are two spirits in John’s story — the spirit of accusation (or scapegoating) and the spirit of advocacy. One is holy, the other is demonic.

Advocacy is defined as publically pleading for the rights or cause of those who are being oppressed. Accusation is defined as the act of making a charge or claim that someone has done something illegal or wrong.

A Modern Example of Scapegoating:  Liberian Christians Blame LGBT Community for Ebola.

A perfect example of the contrast between advocacy and accusation is found in what is transpiring presently in Liberia.

The Christian leaders of Liberia last week unanimously endorsed the following resolution:

That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexuality, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society. As Christians, we must repent and seek God’s forgiveness. 

Archbishop Lewis Zigler of Monrovia publically declared:

One of the major transgressions against God for which He may be punishing Liberia is the act of homosexuality. 

Leroy Ponpon, an LGBT activist, stated:

Since church ministers declared Ebola was a plague sent by God to punish sodomy in Liberia, the violence toward gays has escalated. They’re even asking for the death penalty. We’re living in fear.

The fact that people who claim the name of Jesus would imbibe this spirit is astounding. This is the exact treatment of others (not to mention the picture of God) Jesus worked so tirelessly and subversively to reverse. What about the prophets you may ask? Go back and read them. The prophets NEVER state that God was going to punish Israel for any actions of the oppressed. God’s punishments were always because of the unjust actions of those at the top of Israel’s privilege/disadvantaged social pyramid. In other words, plagues never came in the Hebrew narratives because of the actions of the oppressed minority at the bottom of society, but because of the exploitation and oppression against the oppressed minority by the privileged and normative majority. Even in the Hebrew stories, Yahweh’s plagues were always aimed at those at the top, the privileged, because Yahweh was standing in solidarity with the minority, defending those at the bottom.

Failure to understand this is what led the religious leaders in Jesus’ day to marginalize people as “sinners.” Failing to see which end of the social pyramid (top or bottom) brought the punishment of Yahweh, led the religious leaders to begin marginalizing and oppressing anyone they deemed was living contrary to the Torah. Living in constant fear of another punishment of Yahweh, the religious leaders became the moral police constantly governing the moral behavior of others, and sacrificing those they judged as “sinners.” Failing to understand which end of the social pyramid brought Yahweh’s plagues in the narratives, in their treatment of others whom they labeled as “sinners,” they became the oppressors. The very thing that brought the plagues of old, the reality they were so afraid of, they ended up recreating.

The God we see in Jesus, within the Jesus story, stands in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized minority. In Jesus’ day (pre-Paul), “sinner” was a term used by Jews to refer to other Jews who were living contrary to the teachings of Moses. To label those who belonged to the oppressed minority as “sinners” only served to perpetuate their oppression. After all, they were viewed as sinners, under the condemnation of God. They deserved this ill treatment. They were ruining society. They were the enemy!

This entire social mechanism, rooted in very dangerous ways of seeing God, ourselves, and others, is what Jesus continually challenged. His embrace of the marginalized and outcast so deeply threatened the religious culture of his day that they believed he must be removed in order to prevent, in their minds, Yahweh from sending another punishment (John 11.48–50). This is where the wrong picture of God, as well as the marginalized, leads. We will ultimately kill even God. In fact we already have, both historically and in our treatment of those who are made in the image of God. What Liberia (and Christians here in America, too, I might add) must remember is that it wasn’t the gays who crucified Jesus. It was the religious people.

Last week, many around the globe celebrated Halloween. This is a time when all the monster stories are dragged out and retold. What I noticed this year is that all the stories of angry mobs, chasing down monsters with pitch-forks and raised torches, belong to a long tradition of celebrating the social mechanism of scapegoating and sacrificing innocent victims. And, as a good friend of mine, Keisha McKenzie, shared with me last week, “By contrast, the Death Dances of the Black Plague era and the costuming traditions that became Halloween put a face to the fearsome ‘Other’ and in so doing humanize it. Humanizing the monster is really re-humanizing ourselves, because the ‘monster’ was always human. Dehumanizing others, downgrading them from human to monster, is a highly effective way to dehumanize self.” (For more from Keisha on this check out her thoughts here: http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2014/10/31/halloween-and-facing-our-shadow )

A Deeper Look At How Scapegoating/Accusation Works

Jesus said it most clearly, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12.7).

“A scapegoat effect that can be acknowledged as such by the scapegoaters is no longer effective, it is no longer a scapegoat effect. The victim must be perceived as truly responsible for the troubles that come to an end when it is collectively put to death. The community could not be at peace with itself once more if it doubted the victim’s enormous capacity for evil.” — Rene Girard, The Girard Reader (p. 14)

“The victim cannot be perceived as innocent and impotent; he (or she, as the case may be) must be perceived if not necessarily as a culprit in our sense, at least as a creature truly responsible for all the disorders and ailments of the community . . . He is viewed as subversive of the communal order and as a threat to the well-being of the society. His continued presence is therefore undesirable and it must be destroyed or driven away by other gods, perhaps, or by the community itself.” — Rene Girard, The Girard Reader (p. 15)

“[Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.] Here, as with all the sayings of Jesus, it is crucial to avoid emptying what he says of its basic sense . . . He expresses the powerlessness of those caught up in the mimetic snowballing process [scapegoating] to see what moves and compels them. Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” — Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (p. 126, Kindle Edition)

Today, people, especially Christians, are afraid. Many Christians (praise God for the exceptions) are much like the fearful religious leaders of Jesus’ day. From their conversions rooted in imaginings of hell, to the constant bombardment they receive from the pulpits of the apocalyptic, catastrophically nightmarish images tied to current cultural events — fear is the rule. But fear leads us to abandon the spirit of Advocacy and embrace the spirit of Accusation. And just as perfect love drives out all fear, perfect fear also drives out all love.

With the nightmarish events of the destruction of Jerusalem approaching on the horizon, remember Jesus had the courage to say, “And because of the increase of lawlessness [social chaos was coming], the love of many will grow cold [fear and the desire to have someone to blame]. But the one [whose love] endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24.12–13).

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, spend some time sitting with Jesus asking Him to show you where and with whom you may be practicing the social mechanism of sacrificing others out of fear (see Matthew 12.7). Remember, we are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus rose again for us all. We are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.
  1. Journal what Jesus shows you.
  1. Share what you learn with your upcoming HeartGroup.

Advocacy or Accusation? There are two Spirits: one is holy, the other demonic. Which one will you embrace this week?

Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns, keep living in love.

I love each of you, and remember, God does, too.

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

Orphan-Maker or Advocate by Herb Montgomery

Advocacy

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate. — Jesus (John 14.16)

I find it interesting that within John’s version of the Jesus story, the word here used for the One who will be given is parakletos. A parakletos in the first century was what we would call today an advocate. It was someone who would plead another’s cause, someone who would defend the rights of another.

From the Sermon on the Mount all the way to Jesus’ use of parakletos here in John, Jesus meets our human systemic evil of sacrifice and oppression head on. Sacrifice (or as some refer to it, scapegoating) and oppression are rooted in the accusation of an innocent victim, either an individual or a group, that those in positions of privilege within society unite their community against. This can be done for a multitude of sociological reasons, yet the benefit is always stability and cohesiveness for communities threatened by their own internal rivalries (for more on the way of sacrifice or scapegoating, see https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-23-2014 and https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014).

The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was to be “good news to the poor,” “release for the captives,” “sight to the blind,” and that which would let the “oppressed go free” (see Luke 4.18; Matthew 5.3-11; Luke 6.20-26). Notice that word “oppressed.” Jesus’ kingdom is, in every generation, about advocacy for the “oppressed” within our societies. This is made evident in Jesus’ next statement in John. Just a few verses later, Jesus states, “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14.18).

Jesus was not referring to his followers being orphaned by their families. Many of Jesus’ followers had parents still living, and though I’m quite sure that some parents had become distant to a few of Jesus’ followers because of their following Jesus, this can’t be assumed to be the same narrative for every disciple. Jesus’ words have a much broader societal meaning than that which could be derived by privatizing the definition of “orphan” within one’s personal family units.  Nor are they referring to becoming orphaned by God or by Jesus.  What Jesus is referring to here is a practice called “societal orphaning.”

Within our communities, a societal “orphan” can be anyone who has been deserted by the larger group, anyone without the protective affiliation of those in positions of privilege, or anyone who has become alone. These are people whose stories become “not authorized.” They are not supported by or part of the larger community that everyone else seems to belong to. They have become isolated, abandoned—“orphaned.” (Jeremiah 5.28)

These are the very ones Jesus became the advocate for. These are the ones that we find Jesus speaking up for. Over and over, through parable and argument, Jesus urges his exclusive religious community to embrace a much more inclusive way of seeing “God,” as well as a much more inclusive way of founding human societies. Jesus was the ultimate advocate, pleading on behalf of those who had been excluded by the community he found himself in.

He was the incarnation of Proverbs 31.8: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.”

Jesus, being a mirror image of God (John 14.9; John 5.19), was the original advocate. Jesus reveals God to be an advocate for the oppressed in every society. The resurrection proves it! God is not at the heart of religious, political, economic, or social systems that sacrifice the most vulnerable. The resurrection proclaims that God is in the One (and ones) being suspended shamefully on crosses by those systems.

What I find beautiful in Jesus’ departing discourses in John’s story, is that, before he leaves, he assures his disciples that another advocate will come to take his place (John 14.26; John 15.26; John 16.7).

Within today’s systemically evil way of orchestrating our societies, which is rooted in the way of the accuser, there are many who have been orphaned. Yet what concerns me the most are communities that claim to carry the name of Jesus; they claim to be “following Jesus,” the original advocate, yet they too, too many times, are guilty of “orphaning” others on the basis of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic class, marital status, or physical/mental abilities.

Today, we are also seeing an ever-growing number of Jesus followers who are waking up to this contradiction, waking up to this disconnect and choosing to walk away from the practice of societal-orphan-making into the beautiful world of advocacy. Advocacy means to make room for the voices and stories of those who have been orphaned by their communities. Advocacy is the way of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And, through Jesus, we come to embrace that advocacy too is a core element of the character of the God we see revealed through Jesus.

Paul, who turned from religious-orphan-maker to an advocate of gentile believers in the early church wrote, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any accusation against those whom God has embraced? It is God who acquits. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed advocates for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.31-39).

Whatever it is, dear reader, that has made you feel orphaned, the advocate God in Jesus has embraced you, and nothing, NOTHING, can separate you from that God’s love. Not race, not gender, not age, not sexual orientation, not ethnicity, not economic class, not your marital status, and certainly not your physical or mental abilities. NOTHING, can separate you from the love of God we see revealed in the advocate Jesus.

The best part is that Jesus has begun re-founding this world. Jesus is Lord, and although this Kingdom is open to all who will embrace it, it has started by giving a place to belong, a place to call home, to a group of orphans.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I’d like you to spend some time in contemplation, sitting with Jesus, considering the difference between being the kind of “Christian” that makes orphans versus being a “Jesus follower” who follows Jesus’ example of being an advocate.
  1. Prayerfully meditate on this passage: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute” (Proverbs 31.8). Ask Jesus whom he would have you speak out for and whose rights you should defend.
  1. Share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

On November 5,, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA and preached these words:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, or some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.

You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety.

And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right.

You died when you refused to stand up for truth.

You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

In the words of David Hayward, who last week posted on his blog at nakedpastor.com, “There is a line that separates discrimination from affirmation. We can talk and progress while on the discrimination side until the cows come home. We can nudge up as close as possible to that line, but we will still be on the side of injustice. Justice doesn’t begin until that line is crossed. Period.”

Let’s follow Jesus together, making room for the orphaned voices of those whose stories have been brushed aside simply because they challenge the positions of the privilege. Let’s become advocates like Jesus till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

Keep living in love—Loving like Jesus.

I love each of you, and remember, the advocate God does too.

See you next week,

Herb

Rejected Rejection by Herb Montgomery

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Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21.42)

First, I want to say a big thank you to all who have been praying for my recovery over the last three weeks. I’m back on my feet now after a pretty tough bout of pneumonia. Thanks for your love, support, prayers, and patience. I really appreciate your concern.

This week, I want to talk about Jesus, social rejection, and the divine rejection of the social rejection that we see in God, revealed through Jesus. This last type of rejection will make more sense as we continue.

Matthew 21 presents a series of parables that Jesus was sharing with the chief priests and Pharisees on the subject of their religious rejection of others to whom they felt morally superior.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21.28–32, emphasis added)

There are three points to keep in mind as we read these parables that will enable us to step into their context and receive their full impact.

  1. Jesus stood in solidarity with, and defended those whom the chief priests and Pharisees had judged as morally inferior and had socially rejected.
  1. Jesus’ choice to stand in solidarity with those the chief priests and Pharisees had discarded as “sinners” (Jews living in disobedience to the Torah) also caused the chief priests and Pharisees to reject Jesus as one of them.
  1. God was rejecting the rejection of the chief priests and Pharisees, not only of Jesus, but also of the people who were responding to Jesus, whom He was defending. According to Jesus, God was embracing Jesus and all of these religious rejects and founding a new world beginning with them. In other words, Jesus’ Kingdom was being founded on religious “rejects.”

Follow closely. Jesus said next:

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who stumbles over this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Matthew 21.33–46, emphasis added)

I want to draw your attention to the phrase, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This is nothing unique, and certainly nothing new. From the founding of human society, societies have always been built on the rejection of, or scapegoating of, a single victim. Human societies find unity and cohesiveness in joining together against a common “enemy.” This enemy is accused of being responsible for societies stresses and conflicts. It’s the age old, “Us versus Them!” The rejection of a “stone” has always been the “cornerstone” of forming societies. Yet in a very real sense, there is something different about this time. In all the stories of history, legends, and myths, deities are always on the side of those who are doing the rejecting—the rejectors. In fact, the gods are the ones demanding that the victim be sacrificed/rejected! Yet in the Jesus story, the scapegoating mechanism is turned on its head. God, for the first time in all the stories, is in the One being rejected, showing the victims to innocent, over and against those who are endeavoring to found (or in this case preserve) a society on sacrificing, rejecting, a victim. (See Caiaphas’ statement in John 11.50)

In short, according to Jesus, the rejectors were about to be rejected. And this is a first! God, in Jesus, for the first time, is revealed as rejecting their rejection of the rejectors. Those who had been rejected were being taken up by God, shown to be being victimized and objectified, and then used by this same God to pioneer a new way of living life on planet Earth. This new way of doing life will be rooted in equality, justice, restoration, reconciliation, mercy and love. Jesus referred to this new way of orchestrating the world as the Kingdom. For those who were offended by this divine rejection of their rejection, those who endeavored to go against this “amazing,” unique, and original “doing of God,” would find themselves “broken to pieces and crushed.” As some have said, the grain of the universe is love and those who go against this grain receive within themselves the splinters of such a course.

The vineyard was in the process of being taken away from those who had abused and oppressed others through it—those who had chosen to go against the grain of love. Ironically, as those who had been abused and oppressed were actually responding to Jesus and aligning themselves “with the grain” (in a way unrecognizable to the chief priests and Pharisees), the vineyard was now being given to them because they could be entrusted with producing the right kind of fruit.

What does this mean for us today?

Maybe you have also been rejected for a number of reasons. Perhaps you don’t have the proper education. Maybe you don’t have the “privileged” skin color. Possibly you don’t belong to the right “income bracket.” Perhaps you’re not “from here.” Maybe you don’t have the “correct” gender or don’t even find yourself easily fitting within the accepted binary gender categories that society has constructed. Or maybe you have been rejected for possessing what has been labeled as a “non-normative” orientation.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter to God why you have been rejected. You are precious to the God we see in Jesus. To this God, the rejection you have experienced has been divinely discarded itself. It doesn’t matter whether your rejection has been social, political, economic, or religious. You’re the last people on the planet to turn others away because you know how it feels to be abandoned. If you would like to follow Jesus into this new world, remember, He was the original “reject!” This rejected Jesus, “scapegoated” by the religious of His own day, has founded a new world, one that operates very differently, yes, but also founded with “rejects.”

You—come to Him, a living stone, though REJECTED by mortals yet CHOSEN and PRECIOUS in God’s sight, and like living stones [also rejected by others but chosen by God and precious in His sight], let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, be a holy priesthood, and offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.4–5)

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”—Jesus

“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the rejectors] and given to the people [the rejected] who produce the fruits of the kingdom.”—Jesus

If you have been rejected, in Jesus, God has rejected your rejection. You are precious to the God we find in Jesus and by this God, you are chosen.

To all the rejects, myself included, Jesus is saying the same thing that we find Him saying over and over again in the four gospels—“Follow Me.”

 

HeartGroup Application

Matthew ends this series of parables with the statement:

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21.45–46)

This was the ultimate rejection of Jesus that would lead to His unjust crucifixion by them.

  1. This week, I want you to spend some time sitting with Jesus, contemplating the ways you have been rejected in your life. Write them down. Then I want you to imagine God taking each of one of these “rejections” and personally rejecting each one of them.
  1. Next, I want you to spend time sitting with Jesus, contemplating the ways you have rejected others at certain times in your life. Write them down. Then I want you to imagine God taking each of one of these “rejections” and personally rejecting each one of them as well.
  1. Then this coming week, share with your HeartGroup what Jesus showed you through this exercise.

I receive so many emails with such sad stories of how precious people, made in the image of God, have been rejected, especially by their religious communities. There are many ways in which individuals can be disregarded, not just religiously, but these seem to be the ones I hear from the most. To each of you, remember, Jesus was the original reject. You’re in good company. As a matter of fact, if you have ever felt unwanted by others for whatever reason, you are part of a precious group that Jesus called His tribe.

Wherever this message finds you this week, remember, I love you and God does, too. Keep living in love and loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is the one where Christ’s love reigns. Now go and enlarge the Kingdom.

I’ll see you next week,
Herb

The Footsteps of the Prophets by Herb Montgomery

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“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”—Jesus (Matthew 5.11)

Luke’s version is even more pointed:

“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; emphasis added).

The first question I’d like to ask is why were the prophets also treated this way?

The Prophets

Take a moment and look at what the prophets actually said and the reasons they were reviled becomes disturbingly clear.

In his judgment of Israel, Amos said:

Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way . . .
in the house of their God [the temple] they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed (Amos 2.6–8; emphasis added).

 

Isaiah spoke these words about Judah and Jerusalem:

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. . . .
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. . . .
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (Isaiah 1.10–17; emphasis added).
And Jeremiah spoke thus against evil kings:

Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. . . . But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence (Jeremiah 22.3, 17; emphasis added).

 

For Jerusalem, Ezekiel and Micah had these words:

As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16.48–49; emphasis added).

 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice,
and to love mercy [rather than sacrifice],
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8)
What were the prophets known for?

Defending those who were oppressed from those who were in a position of privilege.

The prophets spoke against New Moon festivals, Sabbaths, the Temple, and sacrifice, and they spoke up for those who were oppressed by the religiously pious. This vocal opposition would be enough to get anyone in trouble.

In short, the prophets abandoned their own positions of privilege within Israel and Judah and made room for the voices of the oppressed to be heard. The prophets called those who practiced “holy” or “sacred” oppression, injustice, and violence to listen to the stories of those who were trodden upon. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus calls his followers to do the same.

The question we have to ask next is who was it, do you think, who reviled, persecuted, uttered all kinds of evil against, hated, excluded, and defamed the prophets?

 

The Privileged Who Feel Threatened

The answer is the same in every era. When men and women speak up for those who are oppressed, those in positions of privilege, practicing their “sacred” oppression, will treat these prophets who give a voice to the oppressed this same way.

The cross and resurrection prove throughout eternity that God stands not in solidarity with those religious systems that crucify others religiously, politically, or economically, but rather with those who are suspended shamefully upon crosses.

This is God. This is the God revealed through Jesus.

Persecution

And as Paul so eloquently wrote, “all who want to live a godly [god-like] life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3.12).

Make no mistake. If others persecute you, it does not always mean you are doing the right thing. You may just be obnoxious. Persecution does not equal being on the right path. But being on the right path does equal persecution.

The world we live in is comprised of those on the top and those on the bottom, the underdogs. And when you choose to stand in solidarity with the underdogs, you will be targeted by those on top. Again, experiencing persecution doesn’t mean you are doing everything right, but if you are not persecuted, you may need to ask yourself why. Are you fitting in too neatly with those at the top of this world’s pyramids of oppression?

Do not think that you are to go and seek out or try and produce persecution. No, no. But we should abandon our own positions of privilege and call out for the voices and stories of those who are oppressed to be heard. This act alone will ensure that persecution ensues.

This week, when you witness someone being oppressed, whether it’s someone who is poor, or someone who happens not to have the right color of skin, or someone who does not have the “correct” anatomical appendage, or someone whom society has deemed as possessing a non-normative orientation, stand up for them. Call for their stories to be heard, and then get out of the way and let those stories be told.

What will be the result? Ultimately, the result will be a world changed by Jesus. But along the way, you will be, according to Jesus, reviled, persecuted, hated, excluded, and defamed and have all kinds of evil spoken about you by those who have not yet abandoned their own positions of privilege, those who have not yet heard for themselves the stories of those who have been so grossly mischaracterized and wrongly depicted.

It will be scary at first, but have courage. You will quickly find you are not alone. You stand in a long line of those who have gone before—a line filled with martyrs, apostles, and prophets, at the beginning of which stands Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Peter Gomes

The following paragraph is from Peter Gomes, an American preacher and theologian, about whom it was said that he was, “one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.” (Harvard Gazette. 1 March 2011) Peter understood what it meant to walk in the shoes of those who are oppressed for he belonged to at least two communities that experience oppression in our societies—one because of his race, the other because he was gay. Pay close attention to his profound recapturing of Jesus’ Kingdom.

“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.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus)

 

Enemy Love 

Lastly, I would be amiss if I did not close with this reminder.

Right after Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will create many enemies because they follow Him, Jesus says:

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 (Luke 6.23–36, #mercyratherthansacrifice).

Remember, we are not called to defeat those who benefit at the expense of others. We are called not to defeat them, but to win them. We are called to put on display the beauty of a world changed by Jesus. We are called to recognize where Jesus’ Kingdom is already at work, whether in principle or by name as well, and honor it. We are also called to inspire those who have not yet encountered and embraced Jesus’ revolution of justice, mercy, and love to rethink everything. We are to call for a reevaluation of the scripts we have been given and by which we currently play the game of life. And, lastly, we are called to challenge oppressive, unjust, and violent ways of seeing God, ourselves, and everyone else around us.

It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called winning the “double victory”:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory (Martin Luther King Jr., A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967).

THIS is what it means to follow in the footsteps of apostles, prophets, and Jesus himself, according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Certainly there is more at the heart of following Jesus, but there is most definitely not less than standing up for the oppressed.

The time is now. Don’t wait for there to be an easier time, for that time will only come when you are no longer needed. Won’t you take a stand, too?

“If you’re neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu

 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Spend some time this week contemplating the following words of Jesus:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9.22–25)

  1. As you sit with Jesus this week with this passage, write down what insights, thoughts, questions, challenges, fears, or hopes Jesus may share with you.
  1. Share what you discover this week with your HeartGroup.

Wherever this finds you this week, may you—and may we all—stop striving to ascend to our own positions of privilege and begin, rather, speaking up for those for whose stories have yet to be heard. Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love each and every one of you. And, remember, God does, too.

See you next week.

 

The Non-normative Jesus

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His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative, and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!)

Notice what Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society — taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring — to embrace a life of celibacy instead. Who had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.