Vultures Around a Corpse

An eagle sitting on a post in winter

by Herb Montgomery | January 5, 2018


“Jesus was not a Roman citizen, and so when he taught nonviolence, he was not teaching from the social location of the Roman oppressor, but from the perspective of an oppressed Jew. Jesus’ nonviolence sprang from the tension that exists for all who face oppression: the tension between liberation and survival.”


Featured Text:

“Wherever the corpse, there the vultures will gather.” Q 17:37

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:28: “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”

Luke 17:37: “‘Where, Lord?’ they asked. He replied, ‘Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.’

Happy new year!

As we begin this new year, we have only four more sayings from Q in our series on the sayings of Jesus. We have been engaging this collection of Jesus’ sayings (what scholars refer to as sayings gospel Q) now for two years. It’s been quite a journey we’ve been on and I’m deeply thankful to each of you who have been tracking with us each week all along the way.  I’m also really excited about where we are headed from here. Each week we’ll continue to publish podcasts and articles that give fresh perspectives on how we can apply Jesus’s sayings and teachings in our world today, working together to continue being a sources of healing, light, love, compassion and justice in our world.  If you’d like to go back and read this series from the very beginning you can do so by going to the first installment of this weekly series— The Sayings of Jesus

Let’s jump right in this week! Our saying this week is about gathering vultures.

Eagles and Vultures

Scholars have pointed out that the word translated in this week’s text as “vultures” can just as accurately be translated as “eagles.” “Eagles” would have been a locally appropriate term and Jesus’ audience would have recognized it: the banner of the oppressive empire subjugating them Rome’s bronze eagle.

Whether a vulture or an eagle, Rome’s symbol, like America’s today, was a bird of prey—a bronze eagle.

And before we get too far into this week, I want to say that I believe all oppressed communities have the right to choose for themselves what manner of resistance or means of liberation will best serve their aims. It is not the violent oppressors’ place to impose on the oppressed the restriction of nonviolent resistance. At the same time, as I shared last week, I teach and believe in nonviolence. That means I believe oppressed communities have the right to self-determination and I believe nonviolence is a force more powerful than violence. I hold this tension as someone who often benefits from others’ oppression and as someone who realizes nonviolence can be used to oppress too. Oppressors can use nonviolence to force the oppressed to stay passive and so use it as a conduit of more violence upon the vulnerable. This is why, as a teacher of nonviolence, I also believe strongly that oppressed communities have the right to determine their responses for themselves.

Jesus was not a Roman citizen, and so when he taught nonviolence, he was not teaching from the social location of the Roman oppressor, but from the perspective of an oppressed Jew. Jesus’ nonviolence sprang from the tension that exists for all who face oppression: the tension between liberation and survival. For Jesus, nonviolent resistance gave those who were oppressed and working toward liberation the best odds for surviving and experiencing liberation once they achieved it. To use violent forms of liberation was suicidal when one was subjugated by Rome.

Liberation and Survival

Last month in our reading course for 2017, we were reading Delores Williams’ book, Sisters in the Wilderness. In this classic volume of womanist theology, Williams captures this tension when she writes, “How do I shape a theology that is at once committed to black women’s issues and life struggles and simultaneously address the black community’s historic struggle to survive and develop a positive, productive quality of life in the face of death? … Womanist theology challenges all oppressive forces impeding black women’s struggle for survival and for the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women’s and the family’s freedom and well-being” (Kindle location 195, 235).

She states unequivocally that, like Black liberation theology, womanist theology is also concerned with liberation. Yet there is a tension between liberation and survival. “Like black male liberation theology, womanist theology assumes the necessity of responsible freedom for all human beings. But womanist theology especially concerns itself with the faith, survival and freedom-struggle of African-American women” (Ibid., 239).

What good is liberation if to accomplish it, you cease to exist? This is a vital question for all communities that face various types of oppression. Some answer by pointing to future generations that will benefit from our sacrifice today. Other womanist theologians answer by retelling the Hebrew story of the slave woman Hagar. Hagar wrested herself free from the oppression of God’s chosen people, Abraham and Sarah, and she was liberated. Yet, as a runaway slave, she almost died in the wilderness. She had no resources for survival.

What does the God of the story tell Hagar?

“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’” (Genesis 16:9)

Williams rightly critiques liberation theologies that do not hold a people’s survival in tension with their liberation. These theologies portray God as only liberator. In contrast, Williams writes, “God’s response to Hagar’s story in the Hebrew testament is not liberation. Rather, God participates in Hagar’s and her child’s survival on two occasions.”

It was not until the second liberation scene of the Genesis narratives that we see God helping Hagar to “make a way out of no way,” and so accomplishing both her survival and her liberation (see Genesis 21:9-21). “Thus it seemed to me that God’s response to Hagar’s (and her child’s) situation was survival and involvement in their development of an appropriate quality of life, that is, appropriate to their situation and their heritage.”

Jesus, Liberation, and Survival

As we have said repeatedly throughout this series (see Renouncing One’s Rights), Jesus’ teachings about nonviolent resistance was informed by the fact that for his followers to use violent resistance against Rome was to court certain failure, and not just failure, but also suicide. Over and over, Rome leveled to the ground any movement that even hinted at taking up arms against it. Some scholars believe that it was the combination of Jesus being linked to armed transgressors and his Temple protest that resulted in his crucifixion at the hands of Rome (see Luke 22:36-37).

Using violence against Rome was, according to the Jesus of the story, to place a higher priority on pursuing liberation without any regard for the survival and quality of life of those who were engaging that work. He saw using violence against his Jewish community’s oppressors as an all-or-nothing, consequences-be-damned approach. Jesus’s social vision for the human community was to be rooted in the nonviolent transformation of society. Yes, his way might end on a cross, a cross that his followers would also have to bear if they were threatened. But in his Romans/Jewish context, to use violence as the means of liberation under Rome meant committing to the certainty of being placed on a cross, the certainty of a violent death as the definite and inevitable outcome.

Both nonviolence and violence have a failure rate. And most often, when violent liberation efforts fail, their failure is exponentially more catastrophic than when nonviolent liberation efforts fail. Communities that face oppression must weigh the success and failure rates of both kinds of efforts and choose for themselves which they believe has the best odds. Those who teach nonviolence, like me, often believe that nonviolence is more powerful and produces a better outcome if it should also fail. Nonetheless, it is up to oppressed people to determine whether they believe that to be the case or not.

History is strewn with the stories of violent and nonviolent liberation movements. I believe that people power is always more powerful than tyranny and oppression by a few. It is also true that the people do not always have access to the same kinds of power that those at the top of the status quo do. Military power is just one example.The Jesus of the gospels, in his own societal context, believed in and taught nonviolent resistance as the best possible means of channeling people power. I believe there is much that we can learn from the Jesus story as we engage in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Again, it is up to the communities that face oppression to determine what methods they will use to liberate themselves. It must not be determined for them by their oppressors. Jesus stood within his own oppressed community and taught that nonviolence was the better way.

Ultimately, history tells us his Jewish society did not ultimately embrace nonviolence as the path toward liberation. The Jewish Roman War ended in devastation for Jerusalem, and the Barchokba Revolt, which followed a generation later, was even worse: a Roman genocide of the Jewish people.

To recap: Oppressed communities possess the right to self-determination. And nonviolence can be a path toward both liberation and survival.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order . . . The issue, however, is not just which works better [violence or nonviolence], but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way; Facets; Kindle Locations 316-495)

These words were a warning to all who chose, specifically under Roman oppression, to use violence as means of changing the world:

“Wherever the corpse, there the vultures will gather.” Q 17:37

HeartGroup

  1. This week I’d like you to take some time together as a group and watch Erica Chenoweth’s twelve-minute TED talk.

2. How did this TED talk both challenge and inspire you? What questions did it raise for you? What is the top take-away you are walking away from this presentation with?

3. What are some ways you too can find balance between survival, quality of life, and liberation as we together engage the work found in Luke 4.18-19?

Lastly, as we kick off this new year, if you are blessed through our resources, please consider taking a moment and making a contribution to support our work. It takes hundreds of hours each month from the entire team here at RHM to develop our podcasts, articles, and presentations. If you find blessing, encouragement, and renewal here, partner with us in making sure our work can continue and grow in this coming new year.

Thank you! All of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries wish you a happy, joyous, and peaceful new year, as we together work toward making our world safer, more just, and more compassionate home for us all.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

Happy new year!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Son of Humanity Like Lightning

by Herb Montgomery

“Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.”

 

Featured Text:

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; look, he is indoors, do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:26-27: “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Luke 17:23-24: “People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-2: “Jesus says: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ Then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you.”

Our saying this week is connected to the last two statements about Jesus’ vision for a Jewish future without an exploitative Temple State. In Jesus’s day, the Temple State exploited the vulnerable and messiah movements promoted Temple reform. These movements that grew in Galilee and Judea depended on violent liberation efforts that Jesus believed were suicidal and, because of Rome’s violence, were ultimately catastrophic for those who engaged them.

As we read last week, the messiah figures of these movements implored the people to act first in faith and then YHWH would reveal a sign of confirmation. Josephus gives us examples of followers who did “go out” to the “wilderness” with these charismatic leaders expecting a sign but instead found annihilation at the hands of the Roman empire. We discussed some of these examples last week.

Before we launch into examples of these movements Jesus was warning his followers of following, I want to share a brief word about Jesus’s vision for a Jewish future without a Temple State. Long before Jesus there was a Jewish thread of “no sacrifice” in the tradition.

Hosea 6:6—“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Isaiah 1:11-12—“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?’”

Psalms 40:6—“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.”

Jeremiah 7:22—“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Jesus embraced this strand of the tradition in his own teachings:

Matthew 9:13—“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Matthew 12:7—“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

After the devastating experience of the Jewish people in the 1st Century, some rabbis did embrace a future without sacrifice, the Temple, and violence. Karen Armstrong shares a beautiful passage about this in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions:

“The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, “I desire love and not sacrifice.”’ Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself‘ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (pp. 454-455, emphasis added.)

Three examples of the kind of liberation efforts Jesus warned his followers about going into the wilderness to meet, and which ended in the most severe failures in the first century, were the Judas Rebellion, the Jewish-Roman War, and the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The Judas Rebellion took place during the reign of Augustus while Varus was the Roman Governor in Syria. You can read Josephus’s account in his Jewish Antiquities 17.288-295. As a result of it, 2,000 Jewish people were crucified in Jerusalem alone. In Galilee, Varus “turned over part of his army to his son and to one of his friends, and sent them out to fight against the Galileans who inhabit the region adjoining Ptolemais. His son attacked all who opposed him and routed them, and after capturing Sepphoris, he reduced its inhabitants to slavery and burnt the city” (17:288–89). Archeology tells a slightly different version of this event (no evidence of burning, for example) but confirms the devastation that resulted for the people nonetheless.

The next war was even worse: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after the Roman-Jewish War under Nero (66-69 CE). The Roman legate in Syria at this time was Cestius Gallus. Not only was Jerusalem razed by Titus, one of Cestius’ columns also killed some 2,000 rebels in Galilee as well.

And lastly, the Bar Kochba revolt (the “Third Jewish Revolt”) was met with such violence by Rome that it marks the last attempt at liberation by the Jewish people. According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in this war and many more died of hunger and disease. In addition, many Judean war captives were sold into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to an extent which some scholars describe as genocidal.

Jesus’ nonviolent liberation movement belonged to a different family of 1st Century resistance movements. Two examples of this resistance were the Standards (Ensigns) incident in 26 CE and the Temple episode over the statue of Gaius Caligula in 40 CE.

Josephus writes about both cases of nonviolent noncooperation. First is the Standards incident:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.

The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.” (War 2:175-203, emphasis added.)

Now let’s consider the incident with the statue of Caligula:

“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, ‘If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us…

Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. ‘Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?’ he asked. ‘On no account would we fight,’ they said, ‘but we will die sooner than violate our laws.’ And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners. (Antiquities 18:261-309, emphasis added.)

Philo also writes of the statue incident in his Legatio ad Gaium, “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.”

It was in nonviolent resistance movements such as these that Jesus saw the best chances at resistance and surviving such attempts. And this is the context of this week’s saying about not following after other more violent messiah movements.

Jesus again embraced a vision for human society without the Temple. Early Jesus followers associated Jesus’ movement with the image of the son of humanity in an earlier Jewish liberation text, Daniel 7. In that vision, violent predator beasts that symbolize Gentile world empires subjugating the Hebrew people are removed and replaced by the Hebrew hope in liberation. All violence, injustice, and oppression in the world would be put right. Over 80 times, the gospels refer to Jesus as Daniel’s “son of humanity”.

Mark 14:62—“‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (emphasis added)

What Jesus did was turn this image on its head: change came through nonviolence instead of the violent imagery in Daniel 7. Jesus’ vision for humanity was not like the other movements that went to the wilderness, wanting to be a source of light for the world but only adding more darkness to the darkness. Jesus’ vision for humanity was of a movement that would light up the darkness of oppression in our world as lightning lights up the night sky from the east to the west. His vision was that we would be a source of light in the darkness of domination, oppression, marginalization, and exploitation, not add more darkness to the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (Loving Your Enemies, 1957; in Strength to Love, 1963).

I do want to say a word of caution about nonviolence before we wrap up.

I subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. Yet nonviolence is also used by the status quo to keep people subjugated. To be of value to the oppressed, nonviolence must be liberatory. If nonviolence is held as the highest value and liberation is secondary, then nonviolence can then be co-opted and used to keep oppressed peoples from ever achieving their liberation. Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.

Jesus’ nonviolence was also rooted not only in liberation, but also in survival. Jesus’s opposition to the use of violence in the liberation movements of his day was deeply informed by Rome’s heavy response making such movements not only futile but lethal. When deciding whether violence or nonviolence will be the means whereby we strive for liberation, we must consider both their success and failure rates. Both violence and nonviolence, at times, succeed. And both violence and nonviolence, at times, fail. But when violent liberation efforts fail, the results can be catastrophic, so much more than when nonviolent efforts fail. I will address this much further in next week’s saying about the circling vultures, but for now, whether we choose violent resistance or nonviolent resistance, we must consider nonviolence from the viewpoint of the oppressed rather than from the vantage point of the privileged and ask how nonviolence will affect the oppressed’s liberation work. Again, we’ll dive into this much more deeply next week.

I’ll close this week with a word from James Douglass on how this imagery of lightning lighting up the sky from east to west can be used today. In Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, James warns of another type of lightning that threatens to end our world as we know it—the threat of nuclear war.

“Lightning east to west can be adopted as the image of our end-time. We live in the final time [that] offers human the clearest choice in history: the kingdom or holocaust. Either end is lightning east to west: the nuclear holocaust of lightning fire or the kingdom of Reality, a lightning spirit . . . Whoever believes in Jesus’ way deeply enough, a way of life and death which is a way of seeking an objective love-force in history, will perform the same works as he did, and even greater works—which are absolutely necessary today for the continuation of human history . . . Every living person is capable, through a particular process, of creating the conditions for the expression of an objective love-force in history, a power of Reality beyond any of us which can raise humankind from the global death of our end-time.” (James Douglas, Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, p. 17-23)

The choice is ours: which type of lighting up the darkness will we choose?

Will we be a source of genuine light in our world’s darkness of oppression and exploitation, or will we choose a blinding light that actually results in greater darkness for us all? James Douglass offers hope: “How does one live at the [potential] end of the world? By beginning a new one.”

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘look, he is indoors,’ do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

HeartGroup Application

The holiday season is upon us. Whichever holidays you choose to celebrate at this time of year, this is a time where we can choose to replace the values of individualism, consumerism, and capitalism with community, mutual care, and sharing your extra with those who have less.

  1. As a group, take inventory of some things or services you have the ability to share with those who have less during this holiday season.
  1. Make a list of who you’d like your HeartGroup to share with during this holiday season.
  1. Now combine the two lists and put this season of caring and sharing in motion in the coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. . It matters right now more than ever which values we choose to embrace and live out. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns

Happy Holidays to each of you.

I love you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Looting a Strong Person 

Picture of picking a lockby Herb Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Force More Powerful

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

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

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

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

Just a Little Further South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is our take home this week?

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep living in love. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 3 of 9

Part 3 of 9

Forgive Them; For They Do Not Know What They Are Doing

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 32:34

Last week we looked at what many consider to be the most problematic statement of Jesus on the cross within the gospels for readers of the Jesus story today. This week we are looking at a statement that was the most problematic for early Jesus followers.

Why?

Simply put, as early as the late first century, anti-Jewish sentiments were present among Christians. Not one of the early Christians (or even the later Church Fathers) interpreted this passage as being toward the Romans who crucified Jesus but rather as toward the Jews instead. This produced two problems for early Christians. First, this was a prayer for the forgiveness of unrepentant Jews on the basis of actions being done in ignorance. This was contradictory to anti-Jewish sentiments, which were growing at this time. And second, Jesus’ prayer seemed to have been in vain, to have failed, because Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 C.E. What we begin to see then as early as the late second century and the early third century are copies of Luke in which Jesus’ prayer for his enemies is missing and some in which Jesus’ prayer is present. Two theories exist today. One is that it was removed by early copyists because of the above problems, or that it was simply added in later manuscripts and therefore did not originally belong to Luke. Thus in some more recent translations you will find Jesus’ prayer placed in brackets in Luke 23:34.

If you enjoy textual criticism, I want to recommend the following article to you. I want to give you a brief overview of its content and then share why, although far from conclusive, I, and even non-Christian textual critics too, feel the evidence leans toward this statement actually being original to Luke and not some later addition. Then lastly, if this is original to the early Jesus narratives, we must ask what it means for us today, who like the early Jesus followers, long for a radically new social order.

The following is from an article published in The Journal of Biblical Literature, 129 in 2010 entitled “A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a” by Nathan Eubank; Duke University, Durham, NC 27708. (I’ll put a link to the article in the endnotes.)[1]

The article puts forth that “external evidence” for the inclusion or exclusion of Jesus’ prayer for his enemies “is far from conclusive.” Evidence for both early versions of Luke (with Jesus’ prayer and without) “are found in every text type, including important Alexandrian witnesses.” An “important late second or early third century papyrus” gives us a version of Luke without this statement, “but a good number of second and third century church fathers” use of Luke reveal this statement actually does belong to early versions of Luke’s gospel. The research goes on to say that “intrinsic probability suggests that the prayer belongs in the text of Luke: the prayer matches Luke’s preferred way of addressing God; its structure resembles that of the Lukan Lord’s Prayer; it resembles Stephen’s prayer for his killers without having a single word in common; and the link between ignorance and mitigated culpability matches a motif running throughout Luke–Acts.”

As far as the likelihood of copyists actually adding this statement or removing it, the evidence leans in the direction of the probability that early copyists removed the statement from some early copies of Luke rather than later copyists adding it to older copies. What is conclusive, however, is that this statement by Jesus in Luke was deeply problematic for early Christians.

This research shows that conclusions that suggest that the prayer was omitted for anti-Jewish reasons are “on the right track,” yet adding that the “early Christian consternation with Luke 23:34a stemmed not from anti-Judaism alone but also from the fact that Jesus’ prayer seemed to have gone unanswered, and from a sense that the Jews had been punished unjustly” (i.e., Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E.). The early Christians “discomfort with the prayer explains why the external evidence for both readings is early and widespread; in all likelihood, Luke 23:34a was omitted fairly early, possibly by multiple scribes, while other scribes corrupted the text.” Lastly, this research shows that the “confidence” that some feel that if this statement were original to Luke “that no scribe would have omitted something as sublime” as Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his enemies, instead reflects contemporary interpretations of the passage in question rather than in the context of “actual early Christian interpretations” of the passage in question. The theory that suggests “that early Christians inserted this prayer into Luke” as toward the Romans to “increase the guilt of the Jews by exonerating the Romans” rightly perceives the anti-Judaism during the time of the copying of these manuscripts, but it ignores a whole class of evidence that suggests that no early Christians understood the prayer to be on behalf of the soldiers, but rather as being for the Jews themselves. “If the goal of transcriptional probability is to determine what a scribe is most likely to have written, it would seem prudent to examine what the scribe’s near contemporaries wrote about the passage in question.”

The entire article is well worth your read. And as the research indicates, evidence is far from conclusive regarding one way or the other, yet given the contemporary interpretation of the passage during the era under question, the probability leans toward the validity of Jesus’ prayer actually belonging to Luke’s gospel. I want to be quick to add that the above article is not alone in this. Bart Ehrman, who is a self-professed agnostic atheist and textual critic, who has nothing to lose or to gain in either direction with this, also leans in the direction of concluding that early copyists would more likely have removed Jesus’ prayer from Luke for anti-Jewish motives rather than, as some have put forth, that later copyists added the passage to excuse the Roman soldiers but increase the guilt of the Jews.

For those who are visually oriented, here are both views side by side.

Early Removal

Later Addition

1. Prayer believed to be for Jews

1. Prayer assumed to be for Roman Soldiers

2. Prayer matches theme of ignorance and mitigated culpability found throughout Luke and Acts

2. Addition would have increased the guilt of the Jews and fed anti-Jewish sentiments

3. Resemblance to Stephen’s Prayer in Acts

3. Always isolated as problematic in early harmonies of the last sayings of Jesus

4. Similarity to Luke’s “Lord’s Prayer”

5. Matches Luke’s favored way of addressing “God”

6. Contradictory to Early Anti-Jewish Sentiment

7. Problematic as Jerusalem was eventually destroyed

As I said at the beginning, last week we looked at the most intellectually problematic statement of Jesus on the cross within the gospels for readers of the story today. This week we are looking at a passage that was the most problematic for Jesus’ followers at the close of the first century.

I would suggest that, on an ethical level, this statement is actually no less problematic for us today.

This is the case whether it’s in the context of racial privilege between whites and non-whites, whether it’s in the context of the extirpation of non-normative sexualities by those who are labeled as “straight,” or whether it’s in the context of wealthy (by global standards) capitalists in the West discussing what to do about groups such as ISIS; any time “enemy love” is brought into the discussion it becomes problematic for those who would seek to solve societies’ struggles through “eye-for-an-eye,” justifiably retributive means, rather than transforming the world through methods of transformation, restoration, and rehabilitation.

I want to be clear. Do I believe Jesus taught us to forgive our enemies? Absolutely. Forgiving one’s enemies, though, is not a “do-nothing” approach. Forgiving one’s enemies does not mean we ignore what our enemies are doing. Forgiving one’s enemies doesn’t mean we don’t try and stop what they are doing. Forgiveness means we rise above what our enemies are doing to us; we see them not as evil, not as beyond redemption themselves, but as captives too, just like us, and as we strive to dismantle the system that is hurting us and others we see even those, at whose hands we suffer, as needing to be saved from the system too. In other words, we see our “enemies” as being captives, too, of a much larger, overarching problem from which both we and they need redemption.

Whether we have “enemies” within the context of race, gender, economics, or sexuality, Jesus offered nonviolent ways of confronting, discomforting (even shaming at times), and de-centering oppressors where even those at the helm of such systems of injustice are offered a better way. “Jesus did not advocate non-violence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in such a way as to hold open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just as well.”[2] It’s a means of liberating the world from oppression by liberating both the oppressed as well as oppressors from both of their enslavements to a much larger system of domination.

The following is from a more recent champion of social change rooted in confrontative, enemy love.

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South 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 before 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. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non- cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll 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 so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”[3]

Where does it begin? It’s rooted in the beginning and difficult task of first forgiving those who have hurt us and learning to see them differently. It doesn’t mean what they did was okay. It doesn’t mean you are simply going to ignore what they have done or are presently doing. It simply means that we begin seeing that they need to be saved from what they are doing just as much as we do.

Is this approach problematic? Of course it is. Enemy love is always problematic for both sides. But I contend that enemy love as it was taught by Jesus, and Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as others, is the only way to lasting change and a healed, restored world where only justice dwells.[4]

A new world is coming . . . a world of mutual love, mutual care, mutual inter-dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling where all our differences are valued and every person is recognized as “the image of God.” The first step for many toward that new world is enemy love.

HeartGroup Application

1. Stephen’s dying prayer in the book of Acts[5] is also a Lukan illustration of the kind of enemy love we are discussing this week. Step one in the wrong direction is to dehumanize our enemies as being beyond redemption. Step two is then to make us afraid of them as if they are monsters. Jesus’ prayer, as well as Stephen’s, counteracts these steps and helps us begin moving back in the direction of restoration, transformation, and hope. Evil, yes, should be confronted. And that confrontation must come in a form that holds out the hope of transformation for the evildoers themselves if we are not to simply become like them. There are two ways to fight monsters. One transforms them into our likeness. The other transforms us into theirs. This week I want you to take someone in your life that has hurt you. I do not want you to ignore what they have done. What I want you to do for the next seven days is to pray for their restoration, transformation, and rehabilitation. Don’t pray for some divine being to get them. This is not a prayer for retribution. Some people can forgive because they believe that one day a divine being in the sky will strike their enemies for them.[6] That is not what this is. This is a prayer, like the one we find in Luke’s gospel on the lips of Jesus, for the healing of those who have hurt us.7 Not vengeance, but rehabilitation.

2. Journal your thoughts and feelings as you do this exercise.
3. Share something you experience while doing this with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

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


1 You can read the article in its entirety at http://www.nathaneubank.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/A-Disconcerting-Prayer.pdf

2 Walter Wink.
3 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Ebenezer Baptist Church; Christmas Eve, 1967.

4 2 Peter 3:13—But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where only justice dwells.

5 Acts 7:60—Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

6 I would submit that this type of “forgiveness” is not genuine forgiveness at all but only reserved vengeance being administered by a much more severe third party.

7 The word translated “forgive” is much more than simply being let off the hook. It’s aphiemi. It

intimates “healing” as well. Luke 4:39—Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left [apheimi] her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.