A Different Kind of Messiah

Herb Montgomery | May 29, 2020

Appalachian mountains


“Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.”


In Luke, Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God was coming. He answers:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [plural].” Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:20-37)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is warning his society about certain paths toward liberation given the violent retribution that Rome responded to uprisings with.

I believe that Jesus taught liberation, but what is clear is that he is balancing that desire with the desire for survival, too. Womanist scholars introduced me to this tension between liberation and survival, and I see it in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.

Jesus provides an alternative to liberation attempts that create devastation in verses 20-21:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Kingdom rhetoric is problematic for us today given both its non-democratic and patriarchal nature. I have struggled over the years to find other language for the gospel’s use of the term “kingdom.” I know it had meaning for the original audience of the gospels. What language might we use today? I like the language I’ve heard Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas use: “God’s just future.” God’s just future is societal justice and distributive justice. It’s a vision for a distributively just society, a way of orienting society after the golden rule.

The proclamation of God’s just future and the seeds for that future being present with us right now: that was Jesus’ gospel! It is the centerpiece of each synoptic Jesus story (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), especially Luke’s gospel.

Pervading each step through Luke’s version is this announcement of the kingdom or God’s just future:

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Luke 8:1)

“And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal.” (Luke 9:2)

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

In our original passage, the disciples are challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision,” to explain what his vision of a liberated society is. In response, Luke’s Jesus contrasts his approach with other liberation theories current at the time Luke’s gospel was written, and he issues a warning.

I’ve written on the problems of privatizing and individualizing Jesus’ response to the disciples before.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” had a social context. The 1st Century historian Josephus gives us a window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Josephus writes around 50 C.E. when revolutionary prophets led large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, viewed this as the first stage of revolt and sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the groups into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, and Smallwood, p. 147).

The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian,” who is also mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberatory uprising: a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These leaders were not lunatics but hopeful messiah figures, action prophets who contemporary scholars now see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants to exert human efforts that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. Their logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present a violent human effort for Yahweh to bless, and God would meet their efforts if they acted.

The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Today, this is called sign propaganda. When a contemporary politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following, they are doing the same. A much darker example is when White supremacists wave the Confederate flag when then they protest or rally. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-1st Century in Jerusalem used this technique of employing symbols from their own past to win over sectors of their populace that wanted liberation from Rome.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children obeying another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This leader had told the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to receive the signs of deliverance in the Temple (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate. This Samaritan prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, Pilate’s troops attacked and overwhelmed the armed crowd at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

So when Jesus says “The Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” Luke is emphatically rejecting these popular methods of leading masses of Jewish poor people to die when Roman soldiers retaliated. He warns specifically, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these would-be messiahs would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters.

Today, there is a breaking point once again. Those most deeply impacted by the injustice inherent in our present system face injustice amplified and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can Jesus’ warnings offer us anything as we work toward building the kind of world we want to live in? We often use the language at RHM of building a world that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for everyone. I also like the language Ashlee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highland Center in Tennessee, used to sign off on a Facebook post: “Sweet dreams of revolutionary change, a world where everyone has what they need, and no harm exists for any of us.”

That’s what we need right now. That’s the kind of world I want to be building. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where everyone has when they need, not just to survive but to thrive, and no systemic harm exists for anyone.

We’ll discuss the last part of Jesus’ warning in our passage next.

Jesus warns, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Following would-be messiah figures might have seemed right to them at the time, but they would lead to death, not liberation (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). The “son of man” reference here, I believe, points to the liberation work in the Hebrew apocalyptic writings of Daniel 7. In Daniel, the beast-like oppressive world empires are contrasted with the work of the humanizing messiah (“son of humanity”) who makes real God’s just future for the people. Luke’s Jesus is here saying that in following common messiah figures you may long for the fulfillment of expectations around Daniel’s “son of man,” but you will not see it and the end will not be as you hope.

Again, it’s easy for Luke’s gospel, which was written after the occurrence of the events in 70 C.E., to connect these dots for its audience. It would have been harder for those caught up in the moment/movement to foresee that outcome at the time.

In our passage, Jesus states that the son of man, or expectations of the liberation described in Daniel 7, would appear in a more obvious manner, as lightning streaming across the sky from east to west. This would not be a conspiracy or a movement where only a select few perceived what is happening. It would be more noticeable, much more.

During our stay home/safer at home executive orders here in WV, I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political & Religious Roots of European Socialism. The part that most recently spoke to me was about how theologian Karl Barth forbade students from bringing politics into his lectures and classroom discussions during the rise of Nazi-ism in Germany. He dangerously believed doctrine could be separated from politics and failed to understand that all theology is political, either in the side it takes outspokenly or the side it takes in its silence.

Barth, at a time when his voice could have done valuable good, instead believed that Nazi ideology “was too absurd to take seriously, and he respected Germans too much to believe they would fall for it” (Dorrien, p. 259). Barth did not take into account how desperate things had become for the German people in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. And desperate communities are far more dangerous than desperate individuals.

That struck me deeply and reminded me of my own feelings during the last U.S. election. I thought Trump was too absurd to take seriously. I mistakenly believed too much in many of my own Appalachian friends and neighbors, thinking they would not fall for Trump. Many in these hills who voted for Trump in 2016 now find that his failures to respond adequately to this pandemic has finally pushed them over the line. They, too, now say he is dangerous. I also know far too many whose opinion has not changed and who are planning to vote for him again.

In Times Square in New York City, a 56-foot billboard called the Trump Death Clock now hangs. The brain-child of Eugene Jarecki, it shows a very conservative estimate of the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths that have resulted from the president and his team’s failed response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Fauci and leading epidemiologists, if mitigation guidelines had been put into effect just one week earlier, on March 9 instead of March 16, 60% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented. During that time, Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh were still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Jarecki has received criticism of his billboard from both the left and the right: criticism from the right for obvious reasons, and from those on the left who believe his numbers are much lower than they should be. Jarecki has erected the Trump Death Clock on behalf of all those who’ve died because of failed leadership in a pandemic. It stands as a symbol, not only for accountability but also for more responsible and responsive stewardship going forward.

Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.

“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (Luke 17:20-37)

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. How is all theology political? Please discuss this with your group. What is our political responsibility presently as followers of Jesus?
  3. What is currently taking place in your own life right now? What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to do this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well. Stay safe.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Share something from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode that spoke to you with your HeartGroup.

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

New Wine in Old Wineskins (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | April 17, 2020

vineyard grapes


“Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems, but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.”


In all three of the synoptic gospels, we read:

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)

Jesus called his audience to accept new wine and new wineskins to hold the new wine: he wanted us to participate in the distributively just vision he was offering human society. New wine simply won’t work in the old wineskins. New wine and old skins are incompatible, and you can’t incorporate Jesus’ new wine into our present system. They are too different from each other. We must be open to new wine, new paradigms, and new systems or skins to live out a set of ethical values that is life-giving, inclusive, safe, just, and compassionate for everyone, not just the privileged and the elite.

New skins/new wine was not the only metaphor that the gospel authors used. They also used the metaphor of a path that most people do not choose to travel:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

I’ve often been struck by how in U.S. society, a system that strives for distributive justice for all simply does not resonate with most people. Even poor people have absorbed the false hope that they are tomorrow’s next millionaire capitalist. The term socialism is used to incite fear, and most people fall for it. This past political season, what we saw competing on the Democratic debate stage was more akin to social democracy than socialism, either democratic socialism or authoritarian socialism. Yet even a social democracy that leaned toward more distributive justice proved too much for most American voters. We’ll see how this November plays out, but for now, the old skins proved they couldn’t tolerate even a hint of new wine.

Our context could help us to understand the social context of the gospel stories: the Jesus in these stories was calling for a more compassionate, just and inclusive society in his own culture and time.

Is it time today for a reformation where we try to infuse old skins with new wine or is it time for the life-giving, healthy transformation of the systems we’re trying to make a more distributively just society fit? Change can be scary if you feel you have too much to lose. But in a distributively just society, the goal is not to have someone lose so you can win. The goal is a world where we all win together.

I believe it’s time to dream up new skins that are capable of expanding with new wine.

As we often say at RHM, another world is possible, if we collectively choose it.

One Example of New Wine

The gospel author critiques the legal concept of lex talionis. Lex talionis is Latin for the “law of retaliation” and encompasses the formulaic severe penalties for specific crimes found in many ancient cultures. Some propose that these penalties were intended, at least in part, to prevent excessive punishment from either an avenging party or unjust ruling elites. The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye,” however, lex talionis does not refer to exclusively literal eye-for- eye codes of justice but to an entire penal, punitive legal system.

The Jesus story’s new wine pushes us beyond the skins of a system that only punishes to systems that restore and transform.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not use retaliation, even if it has been authorized by your law, against an evil person. Instead, if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your Chiton, hand over your Himation as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you [even if you are on the verge of the Jubilee] You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your fellow Israelite and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies too! And pray for those who even persecute you, that you may be children of your Parent in heaven. God causes God’s sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 5:38-45)

Jesus sought to lead us away from doing life through lex talionis and towards the “Golden Rule” that many traditions evolved into teaching.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you [The Golden Rule]; for this was the intended goal of where the law and the prophets were always headed. Enter then through the narrow gate of the golden rule; for the gate of lex talionis is wide and the road of lex talionis is easy, but it leads to the whole world being blind, toothless and annihilated, and there are many who are presently on that path. For the gate of the Golden Rule is narrow and this road is hard but it leads to life, and there are so few presently who have discovered it and are traveling on it.” (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 7:12-14)

Other great people have made similar statements:

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” (Mohandas Gandhi)

“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

“And then the whole world would be blind and toothless.” (Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof)

There are other examples in the gospel stories. For today, how can you see our present system bursting through a new embrace of more life-giving values?

Take a moment and list them.

Present Crisis

There have always been voices calling for new wine and new wineskins here in the United States. The present system is in crisis and amplifying these voices. Two weeks ago, states competed with each other and even with FEMA, driving up the price of life-saving equipment and PPE for medical personal across the country. This is not simply inefficient as some have described it. It is immoral.

The crisis has shown that our system is a well-oiled machine that profits a global few at the expense of the rest of the masses. But there must be higher values than profit, capital, and production. If not, then people become disposable. Lives lost become collateral damage and our economy becomes our highest concern.

This is not to say that our economy cannot be one of many competing concerns. What we are discussing here is our innermost, prioritized values. What do we value most: people’s lives? Or something else?

This is a call for those within a system that has steadily valued profit over people, over the last forty years especially. It’s a call to reclaim our humanity. Even as Congress provided some aid, there was also talk of ensuring whatever aid was provided didn’t prevent people from wanting to return to the endless cycle of production so that others may profit from their labor. Even our elders have been on the chopping block. Our entire system, from groceries and mortgages to rent and health insurance, is built to keep large swathes of people in our society desperate and motivated to be the cogs in the machine producing capital for the richest 1% of the world. Crises like our present one bring that low-level desperation to the surface and amplify it.

Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.

While you are at home during this time, if you can be at home, take a moment to pull away from endless production and dream. What would a society whose members take care of each another look like?

Pick up the Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew or the sermon on the plain in Luke, and with pen and paper, brainstorm what a society that prioritized equity, justice, love, compassion, and people, especially the presently marginalized ones, would look like.

Life is cyclical. It’s time not just for new wine, but for new wineskins with it.

HeartGroup Application

It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.

  1. List examples of how our society would be different if we structured our systems after the Golden Rule? Discuss with your group.
  2. Taking the example of lex talionis, how would the U.S.’s criminal justice system be different if its purpose was not mere punishment, but restoration and transformation. Discuss with your group.
  3. Can you dream of any other life-giving differences our present systems need, whether in our education systems, or medical systems, or any of our other industries/systems that our present crisis has made apparent? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And if possible stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

New Wine in Old Wineskins (Part 1 of 2)

Herb Montgomery | April 10, 2020

wine stains


“Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.”


The loss of human life, our friends, family or even those we don’t know but are also connected to us a part of our humanity, is painfully tragic. At RHM, our hearts are with those who are suffering and those who have lost someone they love. A pandemic provides a unique moment for us to critique our present order or system and to begin both dreaming up and working toward a better way of organizing human communities shaped by justice, equity, inclusion and compassion for everyone.

In the gospels, we find a relevant metaphor for this process. The synoptic gospel authors used the metaphor of new wine being placed in old wineskins.

In Luke’s gospel, we read.

“He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’”—Luke 5:36-39

Over the next two weeks, I want to explore this process. We’ll begin with Jesus’ social vision and cooperative ethical teachings. There are two ways that I often see folks responding to Jesus and his ethical teachings today when something he taught challenges their paradigm.

The first way is continuity. In other words, they say that Jesus is not really bringing anything new to the table. If his teachings seem new to us, that must mean that he is correcting a present-day application of old ethics. This view gives the Biblical narrative an unchanging quality. Jesus’ ethics then belong to a consistent whole or seamless narrative. On the surface, this view gives some privileged folks a sense of security.

But this approach becomes problematic with scriptural passages that have been used to justify oppression. Those who have had the Bible used to marginalize or exclude them (women and the LGBTQ community) or enslave or eliminate them (Indigenous populations, Black people, and other people of color) find this approach simply does not work.

Bible-believing Christians in the Southern region of the United States in the late 19th century believed there was nothing wrong with owning other human beings as property. If we use the continuity lens, the best we can ever get from Jesus is a pat on the back that we now have it all right or a “tune-up” of our already smoothly running theological systems. Never do we become fundamentally different. The Bible or God simply justifies our already present dysfunctions.

Please note three things about the passage we read in Luke.

First, the piece torn from the new garment is incompatible with the old garment.

Second, new wine doesn’t work in an old wineskin. It bursts the old skin and you lose the new wine.

Third, Jesus was lamenting that when faced with an alternative faithful Jewish interpretation of the God of the Torah, the elites preferred interpretations, or “old wine,” that justified their privilege and position of power and their marginalization and exploitation of others less centered in their society. “No one who is accustomed to aged wine says the new is better,” he says.

Take a moment to dream what a world that operated in harmony with the values of cooperation, love, compassion, inclusion, and justice might look like compared, both positively and negatively, with our current system.

I want to add a word of caution here. It is not life-giving to interpret this passage as if Christianity is the new wine and Judaism is the old. That interpretation has led to Christians committing incalculable damage to our Jewish friends and neighbors. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His teachings were not anti-Semitic and weren’t pitting Christianity against Judaism, but rather offered alternative ways to interpret the Torah within Judaism. The voice of Jesus that we discern in the synoptic gospels was one of many in Judaism describing what it meant to be faithful to the Jewish God of the Torah.

This leads me to the second way we can understand Jesus and his ethical teachings when they challenge our favorite paradigms rooted in other Biblical texts.

Consider these passages, for example:

“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD . . . No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation . . . Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:1-6)

Then:

“Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I’m only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigner who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

There is no way to harmonize these two passages using the continuity lens. Notice, too, that neither of these passages pits Jesus against Judaism. These are two Hebrew passages that seem to contradict before we even get to Jesus and the gospels. How can we read these sacred texts and others in the gospels when we run into a discontinuity like this?

We don’t have to ignore problematic texts. We can be honest about their existence. Some texts can be reclaimed through new reinterpretations. But a few others, I have found, cannot. There are texts that support injustice, misogyny, slavery, war, capital punishment, the conquest of Indigenous peoples’ lands, persecution of Jewish people, and dehumanizing of LGBTQ people. We must begin to be honest about these passages.

We must also hold in tension our goal to interpret all sacred texts in life-giving ways. Some passages are easier to interpret that way, and in the gospels, Jesus modeled using these passages to combat destructive passages and destructive interpretations (see Mark 12:24-16). He did not ignore destructive passages or interpretations but met the elites’ use of these passages and interpretations with others that contradicted them and turned them to life-giving ends.

When we can see our sacred text not as a flat book with all passages being equal, but as a narrative, a story over millennia with the end goal of liberation, survival, reparation, restoration, and healing, we can hold problematic texts in tension with the overall arc. We can be honest about problem texts and how they relate or are out of place with the text as a whole. Texts that oppress and exclude should be contrasted with texts that teach the themes of love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice.

In this approach, we push texts that teach oppression and exclusion to the margins, and texts that teach love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice become normative—central to the life of a person following Jesus.

When we take this approach, we open ourselves to a Jewish practice of embracing the reality that within our text, the voice of Love and Justice mixes with the voice of the writers’ own pain and own brokenness, and the writers’ voices can be mistaken as the voice of the Divine. The writers, though inspired, were also human. Sacred texts are a mixture of love and brokenness, love and high ideals incarnated in the writer’s own brokenness. Sometimes the writer cannot distinguish between their own brokenness and need for healing and their own perception of “the voice of God.”

We have to ask what caused texts to be written the way they were. We also must be honest about the distance between our own culture and the cultures of the Biblical authors, as well as the distance between the various cultures of the Bible. Even some more problematic texts can be more life-giving when we see them in their own cultural context.

How do we discern where a passage is the outgrowth of the author’s brokenness or rooted in life-giving love, justice, and healing?

This, in my opinion, is the most important guideline in reading our sacred texts. We must interpret texts in community, but not in just any community: a varied, diverse community where our differences are celebrated. When we do this we realize that we are all equal and our experiences are very different. People who live in different social locations experience life in society differently. These experiences determine the questions we ask of our sacred texts and the answers we can find in them.

Texts must be interpreted in life-giving ways within communities that prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable in our society. These communities practice a preferential option for the marginalized and see every human as bearing the image of the Divine and welcome, affirm, and include each of us in God’s vision of love and justice for society.

When interpretations cause harm, we can make those interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. Again, some problematic texts can be reclaimed, while others may be unreclaimable now even if they may be reclaimed in the future.

I’ll close with two examples for you to contemplate that I consider being examples of the gospel authors’ contrasting old wine and new wine in their own Jewish contexts:

New wine:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

New wine:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44)

In the gospels, Jesus challenged his listeners to bend their sacred texts and interpretations along an arc that leads to love, justice, equity, inclusion, compassion—life!

I believe we can do the same. Then, and only then, can we allow those interpretations and sacred texts to speak into our work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, today.

HeartGroup Application

It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.

1. What are some problem passages in or interpretations of your sacred text that you have had to reclaim or find new interpretations for? Share with your Group.

2. From your time imagining what our world could look like, share with the group one way you wish our present system in the U.S. was different.

3. What are some ways that you as a HeartGroup can work toward making our world a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone this week? Pick something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And if possible stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.