Settling out of Court

Court room scales

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. Q 12:58-59

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:25-26: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Luke 12:58-59: “Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

The Intended Audience

The social location of the first audience of this week’s saying impacts its meaning. As I shared last month, I believe the audience Jesus was speaking to in this discourse was in the more affluent segment of his society. Matthew compiles this saying with the collection of Jesus’ sayings that today we call the Sermon on the Mount. If all we had was Matthew’s compilation, we could wrongly conclude that this week’s saying was intended for a universal audience. Fortunately, Luke is more specific and tells us the social location of the audience Jesus aimed this week’s saying at.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. Jesus did not see himself as called to mediate between competing factions of the affluent. Instead he had emerged among his Jewish poor peers as prophet of the oppressed and liberator of the poor (Luke 4).

“And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.’” (Luke 12:16, emphasis added)

Jesus then tells this affluent audience the parable of a rich man, someone like themselves. To that man he says,

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

Jesus sums up this parable with the call for you, the affluent, to sell your possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus’ audience here is not the poor. He isn’t calling the poor to share their resources as a means to survive. He’s instead  speaking to the affluent and calling for radical wealth redistribution. Just as in God’s world the sun and rain belong to all alike, so too we must abandon the systems we’ve created where some have much more than they could ever use and others’ needs are going without being met.

As we’ve read thorough this cluster of sayings in the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed Jesus call his society’s affluent to wealth redistribution. We’ve described him trying to avert the political and economic crisis he saw on the horizon, and this week’s saying continues that appeal to his affluent listeners:

“While you go along with your opponent [the poor] on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny.” (Q 12:58-59)

It could have been highly offensive to threaten someone from the upper sectors of first century Jewish social class with being thrown into debtors prison. But as is often the case in the gospels, Jesus is not speaking literally but in parable form.

What we know from history now is that the poor did finally revolt. The exploited poor of Jesus’ day did violently rise up against the elites in Jerusalem, and they went on to take up arms and revolt against Rome itself as well. As I stated in The Faithful or Unfaithful Slave, the Roman backlash was merciless and the entire “household” of the nation was laid waste. If Jesus saw this coming, I can understand his trying to warn them. The uprising of the poor would end up implicating even the wealthy elites (“your opponent would hand you over to the judge”). And they did end up losing everything down to “the last penny.” Jerusalem was left a barren waste, everything lost, for everyone.

Social Location Matters

The social location of this week’s intended audience of this week’s saying matters. Let me briefly share three examples.

The message of self-denial is heard very differently by those at the bottom and edges of society than from those whom society is shaped to benefit. While those at the top need to hear a message that involves self-denial, those at the bottom of society are already experiencing oppressors deny them their selves.

The message those at the bottom of society need is one of self-affirmation not self-denial. Their need is imaginative ways to affirm their self in a world where their self is already being denied by those pushing them to the underside or edges of their world. They need a message that affirms their standing up for themselves, not a message that denies their selves. Such would only leave them passive and the systemic injustice unchallenged and thus unchanged. Telling the self-denied to deny their self even further makes for quite a convenient gospel for White oppressors.

The same is equally true of a gospel defined only as self-sacrifice. I believe in restoring people’s true selves, not sacrificing them. Consider for a moment how the Gospel and Jesus have been reduced to a message of self-sacrifice. When we define being like Jesus to be simply self-sacrifice, we do untold damage to victims of abuse. Consider domestic violence for a moment. A survivor of domestic violence has been told at some point that they are worthy, they are valuable, that they are worth standing up for and saying no to their oppressor. Too often well meaning Christians have, through a message of “Christlike” self-sacrifice, left spouses abandoned in violent situations only to endure in the hopes of saving their victimizer. This has often had very lethal results.

Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.”  (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Brown and Parker in their essay, “For God So Loved the World?” write:

“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive . . . The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Ibid., p. 20.)

Social location matters. Listening to how certain theologies impact those on the undersides or edges of our society matters. These are perspectives and concerns that must be heard.

Lastly is the subject of self-care for those whom society either wants to extinguish from existence (Chechnya wants to eliminate gay community by end of May, reports suggest) or for those in society who still deny they even exist (Examples would be those who deny that being transgender exists).

(In 2012 the APA gave a shot of hope to the transgender community by revising its material stating that being transgender was no long a mental disorder.) Self-care is vitally important for communities of color (for both men and especially women) when these are communities find themselves within larger communities where the “justice system” of the status quo daily threatens their existence.

As Audre Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, its self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

In an organizational way, alongside those who are thankful for Renewed Heart Ministers, there are also those folks who wish Renewed Heart Ministries also did not exist or could be silenced or shut out, as well. Existence matters, both personally and organizationally as we move toward transforming our world into a safe place for all of us.

In his saying, though, Jesus was not telling the oppressed, marginalized, or the subjugated that they need to make peace with their oppressors before it’s too late. He was not preaching reconciliation without concrete changes in an exploitative society. As Jacqueline Grant rightly states, “the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of ‘reconciliation,’ which proves to be empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation.” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191)

Jesus was not preaching passive reconciliation and forgiveness of those at the helm of an unjust system. On the contrary, Jesus invited those at the top, whom the oppressed were calling to change, to stop fighting those changes and instead make reparations.

Paying the Last Penny

As I shared two weeks ago, what loomed on the people’s horizon was not that the poor were finally able to take back what had been taken from them. No, poor and the rich alike were annihilated by Rome in 70 C.E. Threats of impending doom didn’t motivate those who belonged to the dominating sectors of the society to change. And it doesn’t seem to be doing so today either.

What I can attest, is that compassion, seeing my interconnectedness with others, stopping to listen to what the experience of this life is like for those on the undersides and edges of our world today does motivate me to lean into the social teachings of Jesus and actively engage in relationship with others. Just like in 70 C.E. We are all in this together. The choices we are making today will affect us all to varying degrees. We all inescapably share our world with each other. We are each other’s neighbor. And thus we must learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We are not as disconnected from our neighbors as we are taught to believe. What does it mean to come to terms with those who are being oppressed and marginalized in our society before we are placed in a scenario where we all pay the last penny?

It means we have the choice whether or not to share this space in a way that makes sure everyone is taken care of. To make sure there is enough for everyone. Where no one has too much and no one has too little.

The call to distributive justice mimics Jesus’ sunshine and indiscriminate rain, and later invites the decision to ensure each one possesses “their daily bread.”

The choice is stark.

Enough for everyone, or nothing for anyone.

We are in this together. We are each other’s keeper.

“While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. (Q 12:58-59)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to

1. Sit down together and watch a short 2011 Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson.

How Economic Inequality Harms Societies.

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

2. In the book of Acts we find the claim that in the beginning of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem:

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4.34)

“Those who had more than they needed shared with those who had needs not being met.

Discuss together some of the things that impacted you in Wilkinson’s Ted talk.

3. List how you, as a HeartGroup, can work toward supporting one another and closing the inequality gap among even yourselves. In Paul’s letter to his church in Corinth he wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8.13, 14, emphasis added.)

Pick just one thing off that list and put it into practice this week.

Gandhi titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. That’s what we are doing here. We are experimenting with the teachings of Jesus and seeing which applications of his principles work and which only complicate our societal problems. If we don’t seek, we’ll never find. Experimenting with truth starts here.

I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Judging the Time

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“But he said to them, ‘When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to?’” (Q 12:·54-56)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 16:2-3: “He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say,  “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’”

Luke 12:54-56: “He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say,“It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’”

Gospel of Thomas 91:2: “He said to them: ‘You examine the face of sky and earth, but the one who is before you, you have not recognized, and you do not know how to test this opportunity.’”

As we’ve been discussing over the past two weeks, the context of our saying this week is the economic and political stress in Galilee and Judea in the early first century. The poor were being exploited. Movements that used nationalistic sentiments resented the rule of the Roman empire. As in most cases throughout history, those who have less to lose are the ones who are willing to take the greatest risks. These nationalistic movements would have resonated deeply with the exploited poor, and its members would have resonated most deeply with a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” kind of message. What were the results?

Three decades later the poor rose up and forced the political and economic elites from the Temple. They burned the debt ledgers, erasing all debts, forcing a “Jubilee” of cancelled debts. They then took up arms to engage in a liberation movement to free themselves from Roman taxation and rule. This Jewish-Roman war lasted from 66-69 C.E. Then, in the following year, the tense situation between the Jewish people and Rome escalated again, ending in a backlash from Rome that wiped out Jerusalem for everyone, rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods chosen by the excluded and pushed down would profoundly backfire for everyone.

Roughly thirty years earlier, an itinerant, Jewish prophet of the poor endeavored to cast a societal vision of an alternative path. It was a leap for both ends of the socio-economic-political spectrum. He called the wealthy elites to see our interconnectedness with others and he called us to liquidate our vast possessions and redistribute their wealth to “the poor.” This was not a call to an isolated individual as some belief. Rather, this was Jesus message to audience at large in Luke 12:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33; see also https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/03-24-2017)

In the later book of Acts, the first act by all wealthy Jesus followers, to one degree or another, was to share:

“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:40-45, emphasis added.)

In the book of Acts, this was an indispensable act in what it meant to follow Jesus. This would help us make sense of why Jesus was unpopular with the majority of economic elites of his day.

And if you think that’s a naive hope, Jesus’ message to the desperate poor was equally a long shot. It was one of resistance, but of nonviolent resistance. A call to see our interconnectedness with one another. A call to liberation, and justice, yes. Yet this resistance was to be expressed through self-affirming, injustice confronting, militant nonviolence. He called the exploited down a path that would, yes, remove the power to hurt others from those in control of the present society, but would not remove those ones from humanity itself. It was a call for them to also “love” their enemies. This was a tension expressed well by the words of Barbara Demming in Revolution and Equilibrium:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not—but always outstretched. With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities—of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator—in tension. It is like saying to our opponent: On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, ‘Stop!’) ‘I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being’. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other), ‘I am open to you as a human being.’” (p. 16)

Even if those on the undersides and edges of society embraced nonviolent resistance, the Jesus called them to learn to see the humanity of their oppressors, to seek distributive justice rather than revenge. Answering the call to not cast out oppressors from the human race but to leave open the possibility for oppresses to choose to listen, change, and embrace changing along with the changes in the larger society is difficult. Nonetheless, enemy love was also a part of Jesus’ message. To enemies, Jesus said, “Stop being enemies” To the exploited, Jesus said, “Leave open the possibility that exploiters may also change.”

Both sides met Jesus’ vision for society with a level of resistance, depending on their social location.

Today, our society’s economic exploitation and classism is compounded by the interlocking network of the societal sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism, with nationalism and militarism thrown into the mix. Today’s struggle for a society characterized by distributive justice is complex.

But solving the economic exploitation of the poor won’t necessarily reverse our other societal sins. Examples are economic solutions in the past that intentionally left out people of color. A short NPR interview illustrates this well: Historian Says Don’t ‘Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos.

Nevertheless, some movements today address economic disparities between the 1% and the rest of society and acknowledge race. We can work together toward distributive justice for all!

We must engage socio-political and religious-cultural solutions in holistic ways that recognize, name, and address the above interlocking systems of oppression including our racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. This, to me, is what it means to follow the Jesus of Luke 4:18-19 whose life and ministry was spent alongside the poor, alongside women, and in solidarity with outcast people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In our saying this week, Jesus was chiding his listeners’ ability to tell the weather but not see the social, political, and economic catastrophe that lay ahead of them. Today I have to pause and wonder the same.

We are witnessing a political movement that, like in first century Judea, plays on the economic hardships and the nationalism of a certain sector of American society. Tensions are escalating at home and abroad, and have the potential to produce a backlash that could wipe out everything for everyone; rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods we choose matter. Genuine liberation cannot be accomplished on the backs of other marginalized and exploited people. As Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Again, we are witnessing today a number of people who have placed their hope in a solution that is deeply problematic for a majority of others. I cannot help but ask what’s on our horizon. How will things escalate over the next four years?

Racial tensions are escalating. Sexist tensions are escalating. Homophobic and transphobic tensions are escalating. Ecological tensions are escalating. Global nuclear tensions are quickly escalating. Are we heading swiftly toward our own Gehenna which wipes out everything for everyone alike?

We are in this together. We may not all be the same, but we are all connected. We may be different, but we are all part of the same varied human family. When we fail to recognize our interconnectedness to one another, when we try to solve society’s problems for ourselves, while we turn our backs on or even worsen the societal problems of our neighbor, we are headed down a path which historically leaves nothing for all of us.

But he said to them, “When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to? (Q 12:·54-56)

HeartGroup Application

I mentioned a list of tensions that are presently escalating in Western societies. Jesus commissioned us to be sources of healing despite them. Here is that list again:

  • Racial tensions
  • Sexist tensions
  • Homophobic and transphobic tensions
  • Ecological tensions
  • Global nuclear tensions
  1. Which tensions would you add to this list?
  2. Where do you see these tensions escalating in our world today? List examples.
  3. In what ways, in your own sphere of influence, can you work to bring reparation, healing, and justice-rooted peace, to these escalating tensions in your own community? Make another list.

Now pick something from that last list and put it into practice this week. What we choose, what we do, affects those around us. We are bound up with one another. We are each other’s keeper.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of 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.

Renouncing One’s Rights

by Herb Montgomery

Picture of Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, and Dorothy Day

Left to right: Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., Dorothy Day

“The one who slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other as well; and to the person wanting to take you to court and get your shirt, turn over to him the coat as well. And the one who conscripts you for one mile, go with him a second. To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours.” (Q 6:29-30)

The International Q Project has titled this section of Sayings Gospel QRenouncing One’s Rights.” While I agree that rights are central to this passage, I want to emphasize that this teaching was not instruction to renounce those rights nor to become 1st Century door mats. Rather it was a tactical strategy for them to use in the midst of persecution (we discussed this two eSights ago), respond to their persecutors with love (see last week’s eSight), and actively furthering their work toward a safer, more compassionate world for all. That last item is what this week’s eSight is all about.

Let’s begin, as usual, by looking at our companion texts.

Luke 6.29-30: “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.”

Matthew 5.39-42: “But I say to you, Do not [reciprocate evil toward]* an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Thomas 95: “If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.”

There is much to unpack in this week’s passage from Sayings Gospel Q. The list of peace activists from the last two centuries is long. This week’s saying has been influential, both directly and non-directly, in many of the nonviolent movements around the globe toward positive social change. Some of the most well known names in the last century were Gandhi in South Africa and India and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in America. There are lesser known names, as well, such as Dorothy Day and her nonviolent direct action on behalf of the poor in New York City. So let’s dive right in.

As we have shared repeatedly in the past, in this passage, Jesus is teaching a bold and disruptive expression of nonviolence. It’s a nonviolence that seeks to confront one’s opponent and offer an opportunity for transformation. With each of these three examples, the oppressed person is shown potential ways of taking control of the situation, confronting their subjugator, and stripping them of the power to dehumanize. Let me explain.

First, let me say how deeply indebted I am to Walter Wink’s research on the cultural backdrop of the saying of Jesus we are considering this week.  I’ll place a link to his work at the end of this section for further consideration. I consider his volume Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way to continue to be a revolutionary masterpiece.

Matthew’s version of this passage specifies that the cheek being struck is the “right” cheek. As most people are right-handed, the only natural way for a blow to land on the right cheek was if the striker used the back of their hand. This kind of blow in the culture of 1st Century Palestine was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior: one would not strike an equal in this humiliating way because doing so carried an fine of up to 100 times the normal amount. Four zuz was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding one’s peer. To strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap, was perfectly acceptable and no penalty was attached (see Mishnah Bava Kamma 8.6).

Try to picture the scene in your head. Since the left hand was only used for “unclean” tasks in that culture, people would not strike a person’s right cheek with that hand. At Qumran, even gesturing to another person while speaking using one’s left hand carried a penalty of exclusion from the community accompanied by ten days’ penance. (See The Dead Sea Scrolls, I QS 7, “Whoever has drawn out his left hand to gesticulate with it shall do penance for ten days.”) Any blows would have either been from a closed right fist with one’s right hand on someone’s left cheek, or a back-handed slap with one’s right hand on someone’s right cheek. A closed fisted blow from a person’s right hand on one’s left cheek acknowledged that the striker believed the one they were striking was their social equal.  Someone claiming superiority over another would not want to strike them in this way. They would want to use an open-handed slap with the back of their hand on the other person’s right cheek as an attempt at humiliating the one they were striking. It was the equivalent of saying, “Get back in your place.” Also, keep in mind that any retaliatory blows from the person being struck by a “superior” would have only caused the violence to escalate.

But Jesus is not admonishing the oppressed in this scene to become a doormat or simply do nothing. Turning their left cheek would not be retaliation but defiance, a sign that the one being struck is refusing to be humiliated. The oppressor would now only have two options presented to them: a right-handed punch acknowledging the one being struck was their equal or a left-handed slap with the unclean hand.  Both options would be unthinkable, and so they would lose their power in the situation.  Something I would like to add to Wink’s research is that this would not be an act of self-denial on the part of the person being struck.  The person being struck’s “self” is already being denied by their oppressor.  This is self-affirmation in the face of an attempt by another to dehumanize them.

The next example in the passage involves a serious social problem in 1st Century Palestine: indebtedness. A little background first. The Torah allowed a creditor to take the himation (or outer garment) or chiton (inner garment) as security for loans from the wealthy to impoverished laborers (see Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17). In this era, poor people had few clothes, and wealthy creditors had to return it daily so the owners could have their cloak to sleep in.

In that culture, debt was not the result of economic incompetence, but of an unjust economic system where the wealthy elite took advantage of rural peasant farmers and poor Jewish craftsmen. In our scenario, a poor laborer has defaulted on their loan and has come under the penalty of losing their next-to-last article of clothing.

Jesus’s saying teaches this laborer to “turn over” not just their next-to-last article of clothing but also their last one as well. This would leave them stark naked in the town square. Wink explains that in that society the shame of nakedness fell not on those whose nakedness was exposed, but on those who looked upon or were the cause of their nakedness.  The honorable response would have been to respectfully help them (see Genesis 9.20-27). In a society where only the wealthy wore something similar to underwear, stripping off the undergarment along with the required outer garment would redirect the shame onto “the entire system by which the debtors are oppressed” as if to say, “Shame on you!” The teaching placed the poor laborer in control of the moment, exposing the system’s exploitation of Jesus’ fellow Jewish craftsmen and rural peasant farmers and shaming the powerful who take the last object of value from a sector of society which should be receiving their help. Here in Sayings Gospel Q, we have a 1st Century endorsement of public nudity as a valid form of radical, nonviolent protest, and the protest is designed by Jesus himself!

In our next example, Jesus teaches the oppressed to refuse to play by the rules of the game dictated by those controlling the society’s domination system.

Roman law allowed soldiers to command people in the occupied territories to carry their burdens for one mile—but only one mile. This limitation provided some protection for the people as one could otherwise find oneself having carried a soldier’s burden for an entire day only to end up now a day’s journey away from one’s home as the sun was going down.

Yet even this limitation was not good enough. We cannot be satisfied with merely accommodating the domination system; we must also refuse to cooperate with it. Remember King’s words from last week: “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.” So, Jesus says, when you reach the end of your first, forced mile and the soldier asks for their burden, don’t give it back! Place the soldier in the position of breaking their own system’s rules and perhaps being disciplined for it.

In each of these examples, the subjugated must make hard choices. They must decide whether they are willing to use possible further personal suffering to change society rather than resort to mere retaliation. Are they willing to accept the consequences for breaking unjust laws or policies? Are they willing to cease cooperating with the present order and its rules? And as we asked last week, do they hope for their oppressors’ transformation, or are they satisfied with the failing practice of tit-for-tat?

If you would like to further understand what may have been involved in this Saying, again, consider reading the late Walter Wink’s book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. In this volume, Wink shows how Jesus’s teaching offered the oppressed ways to:

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert [their] own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycle of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand [their] ground
  • Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize [their] own power
  • Force the oppressor to see [them] in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective (pp. 186-187)

The last section of this week’s saying reminds us, once again, to trust that God will send people to take care of us when we are in need enough to let go of our self-concerned hoarding, and that we will be the people God may send today to someone else who is in need. People taking care of people, remember, is what Jesus referred to as “the reign of God” (Sayings Gospel Q) or “The Kingdom” (canonical gospels).

This call to trust had its own history with Jesus’s Jewish culture.

Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish history, lived somewhere between 110 BCE to 30CE. He was the first within Judaism to teach what today is referred to as the Golden Rule. Karen Armstrong in her excellent work The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions writes this about Hillel:

Perhaps the greatest of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (c. 80 BCE–30 CE), who migrated to Palestine from Babylonia. In his view, the essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit, which he summed up in the Golden Rule. In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that one day a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” (Kindle Locations 7509-7515)

The most famous of the enactments attributed to Hillel is the Prozbul.

The Torah included a rule of protection for the poor against ever-increasing debt. At the end of every seventh (Sabbatical) year, all debts among the Jewish people were to be cancelled. By the 1st Century, even though it was forbidden to withhold a loan before a Sabbatical year (see Deuteronomy 15.9-11), some members of the wealthy elite were unwilling to lend to poor craftsman and rural peasant farmers who needed loans to survive.

In this context, Hillel created a loophole in the Jewish law. A declaration could be made in court before a loan was executed to the effect that the law requiring the release of debts upon the entrance of the Sabbatical year would not apply to the loan to be transacted. This declaration was called the Prozbul, and it benefitted both the rich and the poor in that the poor could more easily obtain the loans they so desperately needed whenever they needed them, and the rich would more freely lend with the assurance that the capital loaned was exempted from the law’s Sabbatical debt relief. (For more, read the Jewish Encyclopedia’s entry: Prozbul.)

Where Jesus’s teaching on the Golden Rule placed him squarely in the teaching stream of Hillel, Jesus parts ways with Hillel on the Prozbul. (I’ll talk about Jesus’s relationship with the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai next week.)

Jesus taught that his followers should recklessly abandon their capital to aid those who need our help. We will study this in detail in upcoming weeks, but for now, know that to Jesus, a world under the reign of God looked like people trusting in God enough to believe that God would send others to take care of them tomorrow, so they could let go of what they were hoarding for future emergencies and take care of those whose emergencies were transpiring today.

Anxiety about the future can lead us down paths of accumulation, hoarding, greed, covetousness, jealousy, competition, and violence. It can cause us to look the other way and ignore those around us today who may be in need. But Jesus is calling us to let go of that anxiety about the future and all that it brings in its train. Let’s imagine, instead, a world where, rather than individualistically accumulating in order to take care of oneself in the future, everyone trusts that if we all begin taking care of one another today, we will have a future where others take care of us. In other words, if you will take care of someone else today, you will set in motion a world where, tomorrow, someone else will take care of you.

In the words of the sayings of Jesus held dear by those first-century Jewish followers:

“To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours” (Q 6:29-30).

HeartGroup Application

There are two parallel narratives we can chose to live by:

Scarcity                     Abundance
Anxiety                      Trust
Accumulation            Sharing
Greed                       Generosity
Monopoly                  Mutual Aid
Violence                    Peace

  1. Ponder the words in the parallel narratives above. Look up the definitions of each word. Consider how each concept leads to the next. We can live in a world where we subscribe to scarcity, believing there is not enough to go around for everyone so we’d better look out for ourselves, or we can live in a world where as Gandhi is thought to have said, there is “enough for every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.”
  2. Discuss with your HeartGroup how the worlds created by these different narratives look. How do they differ? What are their costs? What are their benefits? Which world would you rather be a part of?
  3. Make a choice. This week, make a choice to do something small or large in your life that moves you into the narrative you would rather live in.

Thanks for taking time to journey with us this week as we continue our consideration of Sayings Gospel Q. I’m so glad you are with us.

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.


* In these cases, Jesus’ instructions are NOT commands of passive nonresistance. The phrase “resist not an evildoer” could be problematic if Jesus did not then demonstrate in these stories exactly what He meant. The underlying Greek word here is anthistemi. It indicates resistance by returning violence for violence, overcoming evil with evil, rather than overcoming evil with good.