Social Salvation

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2019

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

“Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’”

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12) 

We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too. 

Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).

So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?

The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana. 

Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way. 

Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society. 

Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.

With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:

“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)

Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14.)

In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.

This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.

Here not Heaven

Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.

However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again. 

“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24) 

Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).

And this leads me to my third contrast this week.

Today Not Later

Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).

Zacchaeus embraces Jesus vision and states, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added).

“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well. 

I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29) 

That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.

Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, I want to take the opportunity this month to reach out to you and ask you to support our work.  

This is a time of the year when the need for your support is keenly felt as well as deeply appreciated.  

You can support our work either by clicking on the donate page on our website or by mailing your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one time gift, or please consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers by selecting the option to make your gift reoccurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support.  

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week. 

The Parable of the Entrusted Money

 Picture of money

by Herb Montgomery | February 1, 2018


“In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.”


Featured Text: 

 “A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas and said to them: Do business until I come. After a long time‚ the master of those slaves comes and settles accounts with them. And the first came‚ saying: Master, your mina has produced ten more minas. And he said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the second‚ came saying: Master, your mina has earned five minas. He said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the other came saying: Master, I knew you, that you are a hard person, reaping where you did not sow and gathering from where you did not winnow; and scared, I went and hid your mina in the ground. Here, you have what belongs to you. He said to him: Wicked slave! You knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather from where I have not winnowed? Then you had to invest my money with the money changers! And at my coming I would have received what belongs to me plus interest. So take from him the mina and give to the one who has the ten minas. For to everyone who has will be given; but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. . . .  After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’”

Luke 19:12-13, 15-24, 26: “He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.” . . . He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.” “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”  His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.” Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?” Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.” . . . He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”’”

Gospel of Thomas 41: “Jesus says, ’Whoever has something in his hand, something more will be given to him. And whoever has nothing, even the little he has will be taken from him.’”

Sometimes I have trouble with the stories Jesus chose to use, and I don’t like the story in this week’s saying. Scholars tell us that Jesus chose the stories that would have been familiar to his audience. Our society today is two millennia removed from that world today and sometimes Jesus’s stories seem problematic to us. Before I explain that, let me share an experience I had recently that relates to this week’s saying.

I was listening to an interview of a college economics professor who was critiquing the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. At the core of capitalism is the drive to produce more capital or profit from a product or service. One of many ways owners can achieve this profit is keeping their expenses as low as possible. “Expenses” include the cost of labor, the wages owners pay their employees. The less workers are paid, the more profit one has left in the end.

But here is the contradiction: The wages being kept low are the same funds that most workers will need to buy the product or service they produce. So if wages are too low, no one can afford to buy and owners won’t make any profit at all.

So this contradiction morphs into a balancing act between too much profit for the 1% and not enough money for the masses to survive or not enough profit to keep the 1% happy and more surplus among the masses than the 1% feel they should have. It’s a tug-o-war between the wealthy’s desire to profit and the masses desire to survive with a good quality of life.

In our system here in the U.S., this balance is achieved through government regulations and taxes. Theoretically, as the masses gain too much surplus, those who have profit to lose call for less business regulation and less taxation of their corporations, or more profit. On the flip side, when corporations and the 1% are gaining too much profit, the masses begin to call for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to redistribute wealth or regulate earnings another way (raising minimum wage for example) so that the masses aren’t crushed by the drive to produce profit.

Wagers are kept low enough to produce profit AND people need higher wages to purchase products and services that also produce this profit. Capitalism never will escape this contradiction and the cycle of struggle between the workers and those who profit from their labor and thus this tug-of-war it produces. In the 1960-70s we saw capitalists feeling like society was moving too far toward favoring workers. And they went to work! They wanted more profit and with it the exclusion of people of color from public services. Since Nixon and Regan we’ve seen a steady move toward benefits for wall street and the 1% in our society and now we are experiencing reawakening toward concern for the working class, again.

And this cycle will repeat over and over and over. Many believe there has to be another alternative that produces a safe, more just, more compassionate society for everyone.

As I was listening, the interviewer asked the professor, “How does capitalism exploit workers or employees?” “It’s quite simple,” he responded. “Let’s say an employer agrees to pay a worker $20 an hour. For that employer to be willing to pay that $20 an hour, they have to believe that that person’s labor will actually be worth more than $20 an hour. Once all business expenses have been paid, there has to be a profit to it. The labor which costs $20 has to produce a value that will cover the expenses of the business plus a profit on top. Unless it is an employee owned business, the worker never receives the value of their labor but only a portion of it. This, by definition, is what those opposed to capitalism have called ‘the exploitation of the laborers.’ Workers never receive the full value of their labor.”

Problematic Stories

Again, Jesus sometimes uses stories familiar to his audience, stories that are horrendous when compared to today’s ethical standards.

One example is the story of the righteous rich man and Lazarus the poor sinner found in Luke’s gospel. Postmortem, the expected roles are reversed. The rich man ends up in eternal, flaming, torment while Lazarus resides in Abraham’s bosom. But let it register. Although the story truth is relevant, using the image of eternal torment in the flames of the afterlife is a horrible choice. Only a few sectors of evangelical Christianity even subscribe to belief in eternal torment today because of the pure inhumanity of it. Torment is not reconcilable with Jesus’ new vision for humanity, and so.many within Christianity today see this story as teaching an economic truth rather than literally explaining what happens in the afterlife.

Luke 16:22-24: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”

Another terrible story is that of the manager who falsified customers’ bills behind the back of the business owner, making customers owe significantly less and hoping to gain favor with these costumers. I don’t see anyone recommending this story today as a way for managers to manage the businesses they work for. The story is problematic, but it was a familiar story to Jesus’ audience and therefore he used it to make a point about “the kingdom.”

Luke 16:3-6: “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’”

Another problem in stories Jesus told is the repeated references to slavery. Before the US Civil War, these references were used by Christians in the South to say that Jesus actually approved of slavery.

I would argue that elsewhere Jesus taught a gospel of debts being forgiven and slaves being set free. But that fact that Jesus used stories that on the surface seem to say that slavery was a part of his vision for human society is deeply problematic. One must look deeper at the story truths of these familiar stories to arrive a different conclusion.

I share all of this to illustrate that Jesus’ stories are at times problematic while the truths they teach can be timeless.  Our saying this week is one of those stories.

What is the horrendous backdrop of this story?

As I shared in the above interview with the professor, it’s the exploitation of labor through slavery. Here a master leaves money with ten slaves for them to labor to earn more profit for the master. I often hear from those who oppose social safety nets in society saying, “Those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” This was a slogan not only in the New Testament, and some hyper capitalists today, but also of Lenin. Lenin saw wealthy capitalists who’d invested their money have others labor to earn the investors profits yet be tagged with those who “aren’t working.” This is the kind of master we find in this week’s story:

“You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?”

Karl Marx critiqued taking out what someone does not put in and reaping where they have not sown:

“The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. I, Ch. 13, pg. 363)

If one uses this story to say that Jesus approved of capitalism’s exploitation of labor it would be almost irreconcilable with Jesus’ other teachings that teach a preferential option for the poor and exploited laborers.

So what was the point Jesus was trying to make?

As we will see in next week’s final saying, Sayings Gospel Q ends with the promise of Jesus’s followers receiving stewardship or governing roles over a liberated and restored “twelve tribes of Israel.” Those who demonstrated they understood and practiced what Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was all about would theoretically receive larger roles in that new humanity.

Is there any application in this saying for us today?

Maybe.

Just as each slave was left with funds that they were expected to use to create more, so too each of us today is called to take whatever we have and invest it in transforming our world into a safe, just, more compassionate home for everyone. But there are significant differences between the story and the world Jesus’ envisioned.

In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.

We are called to invest our lives (including our money) in the survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation of people’s lives. We invest our own lives in liberating human lives and reclaiming our own humanity by working with those who daily face some form of oppression and suffering. Jesus’ vision is of a world where the hungry are fed, those who weep now laugh, and the poor receive it all (see Luke 6:20-26) It’s a world whose coming into being is good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the exploited, and the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus’ “reign of God” was about people, not money. It was about life for every person, not the exploitation of the masses for the benefit of the few.

We’re called to use what we have been given to create a world of life.

“A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Remember, another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Something More than Solomon and Jonah 

man in a crowd

by Herb Montgomery

“The queen of the South will be raised at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and look, something more than Solomon is here! Ninevite men will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. For they repented at the announcement of Jonah, and look, something more than Jonah is here!” (Q 11:31-32)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:41-42: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Luke 11:31-32: “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.”

This week’s saying is part of an apocalyptic worldview that hopes for a future retributive and transformative “judgment”. On that day in the future, the Jewish people expected all injustice, oppression, and violence would be put right. Many also expected retribution against their oppressors, those at the helm of unjust systems perpetrating violence against the people of Israel. (For a summary of the Jewish apocalyptic worldview held by many in the 1st Century, please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator .)

Those who subscribed to Jewish apocalypticism also looked forward to a resurrection (see Daniel 12:2). Our saying this week references the resurrection of both the Queen of Sheba and the people we considered last week, the people of Nineveh. This statement is powerful because both of these figures were Gentile, and the Pharisaical school of Shammai would have considered them morally inferior to Jews. Jesus placing them in the position to pass moral judgment on that generation of Jews would have provoked no small response in his listeners.

What was happening in Jesus’ society that would have warranted him saying this?

Situation in Jerusalem

During the time of Jesus, the socio-economic and political situation in Galilee and Jerusalem was escalating toward breaking point. The rich were exploiting the poor through a plutocracy centered in Jerusalem and the temple there. Property, power, prosperity, privilege, and profit were valued far above the lives of the people at whose expense they were acquired. In addition, a movement gaining ground among the poor and working class had the potential to literally burn the whole thing down. This movement, led by the Zealots and their charismatic messiahs, sought militaristic revolt to overthrow the oppression of the Roman empire and the Jewish aristocracy that made their lives a commodity.

History now reveals that violent zealotry did win the day in Jerusalem. The Temple was overthrown and the temple record of debts owed the rich by the poor was the first to be burned. The Zealots then took the temple the center of operations in a violent assault against Rome itself. The result was as catastrophic as Jesus had feared: Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Romans banned the Jewish people from taking it back as their home for the rest of the Roman empire’s existence.

Considering these events, Jesus’ warning was not exaggerated. One did not need divine revelation to look at how Rome had treated rebellions in the past and discern the fate of a militaristic rebellion by economically exploited people. Throughout history, the masses have not had the same access to the same kind of power as the elite. The masses’ power, a different kind of power was what Jesus cast before the imaginations of the oppressed in his society.

Whereas those who followed the path of violent revolt in Jerusalem ultimately rejected Jesus’ vision, this week’s saying comes long before that rejection became complete. This is a warning given in the language of Jesus’ own time and place: those characterized as morally inferior would rise up on the Day of Judgment and condemn Jesus’ generation.

According to the Jewish folklore about The Queen of Sheba, she recognized wisdom when she saw it. In the Jewish story about Nineveh, the Ninevites repented when they heard Jonah’s announcement. Whether Jesus would have described himself as wiser than Solomon and greater than Jonah or his followers added that later, the question that emerges from this week’s saying is what would those in our sacred stories think of the decisions we are making today?

We rarely imitate those people from history who we hold up as models, and it is not that we lack the courage or the wisdom they had. Rather we lack the ability to recognize history repeating itself. Spin doctors stay busy keeping the masses from seeing the parallels that prophets call people to see. In our saying this week, Jesus is using figures from Jewish history that represent wisdom and repentance, and calling his audience in their time and circumstances to do as these examples did.

Light from Outside Christianity

The Queen of South (embracing wisdom) and Ninevites (practicing repentance) were considered outsiders in Jesus’ Jewish community. Today I see parallels within Western Christianity and the way some Christians characterize popular culture, science, secularism, and progressive liberalism. If Jesus were addressing sexism, classism, racism, and cis-heterosexism today, I wonder if he would say that secularists, liberals, scientists will arise in the judgment and condemn American Evangelical Christians for their failure to recognize wisdom and repent of their failure to defend minorities and the downtrodden. Evangelicals have most often in American culture (knowingly and unknowingly) opposed eliminating political, social, and economic inequalities.(See It Wasn’t Abortion That Formed the Religious Right. It Was Support for Segregation.)

Today, especially after America’s most recent election season, Evangelical Christianity has lost its witness, and it is no longer credible in matters of compassion. (For a recent account, read the New York Times article The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead.) Many Evangelicals, especially here in West Virginia, have now chosen violent solutions to their desperation about their economic status and they’ve been duped into choosing destructive options for others.

I’ve heard from some people that Christians should not be political. That’s not the case. It’s rather that White Evangelical Christians today, unlike Jesus, have and continue to come down on the side of oppression rather than on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the subjugated and the marginalized (compare Jesus in Luke 4:18-19). In the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg states:

“There is something boundary shattering about the imitatio dei that stood at the center of Jesus’ message and activity. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. (The purity system created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile…) For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (p. 58)

Politics, by definition, is the discussion of who should be in control of both power and resources. Simply put, politics is answering the question “Who gets what?” Jesus’ message was deeply political. He spoke almost exclusively about power and resources in his own society and religious community. He taught that power and resources should be shared by everyone in the community rather than hoarded and wielded by elites. (cf. Matthew 23.8) Jesus demonstrated a politics of compassion. And he offered political and socio-economic solutions rooted in the power of community and mutuality as opposed to options that depended on violence, a new hegemony, and exclusion of the “other.”

There are deep parallels and comparisons to our time, and much to contemplate.

The queen of the South will be raised at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and look, something more than Solomon is here! Ninevite men will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. For they repented at the announcement of Jonah, and look, something more than Jonah is here!” (Q 11:31-32)

Evangelicals today have chosen the wrong Messiah.

HeartGroup Application

In 1963, at Western Michigan University, Dr. King spoke these words:

“There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted to and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.”

To each of you who are refusing to become adjusted to the events transpiring around you, let me affirm you.

As 2016 is drawing to a close, come together as a group:

  1. Make a list of all the societal justice concerns that you became more informed about this past year.
  2. Some of you have come a long way this year. Think about where you began in 2016 and take time to contemplate your own personal progress and increasing awareness over the last twelve months. Take time to let your journey this year sink in.
  3. Read Luke 4:18-19 together and start brainstorming about possible goals you would like to work towards together in the coming year. We aren’t making any decisions at this stage; we are simply brainstorming about what possible directions your group could grow towards.

To each of you reading this, thank you for checking in with us this week. However you choose to celebrate the holidays, or whether you choose to even celebrate at all, we wish you much love, peace, and justice as this year begins to wrap up.

Whatever the future holds, remember, our most valuable commitment is to each other. We can face whatever tomorrow brings much more sustainably if we do so alongside one another. We are in this together.

We love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

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.

Houses Built on Rock or Sand

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Person standing on dock with red umbrella watching on coming storm“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Luke 6:47-49: “As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke each incorporate this saying into the climax of their accounts of Jesus’s wisdom teachings. Matthew lists it as the last teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke includes it at the end of the Sermon on the Plain. This saying is not part of the Gospel of Thomas, however. And there’s a good reason why not.

A Little Background

Stephen J. Patterson makes a pretty compelling case that the Gospel of Thomas belonged to the region of Edessa (see The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins.) The imagery in this saying referenced the geography of Jerusalem and the literal foundation on which Herod’s Temple was built. That imagery would have had no relevance for people who valued the teachings of Jesus but lived in Edessa rather than Jerusalem.

Bedrock

The temple mount (rock or “foundation stone”) was highly regarded during the time of Jesus. In the Tanchuma (a Roman-Era Midrash), we read this poem:

“As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.”
Tanchuma (Emphasis added.)

So this saying borrows from the safety and security that the culture had invested in the temple even before their exile in Babylon. If we go back to Jeremiah, we find the community using the temple for a sense of security or safety:

Jeremiah 7:3-11: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?” Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the LORD.”

In Jeremiah’s time, people were deeply violating social justice and yet believed themselves to be safe from God’s judgment simply because they possessed his temple. A “den of robbers” is not a place where robbery is committed but where robbers retreat afterwards to safely count their loot. This was how Jeremiah saw the temple: it had become a place that provided the powerful with safety and security while they continued to rob the poor.

The details were different by the time of Jesus, but the principles were very similar. Once again, the temple had become the center of a political, economic, and religious system that was exploiting the poor, and, once again, this temple was the foundation on which many built their trust and sense of security.

Josephus’s writings show just how much people valued Herod’s temple. A perpetual sacrifice kept the fire on the temple altar always burning. Even during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-69 C.E., and the siege and razing of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., priests kept the temple fire burning by maintaining a sacrifice on the altar, thus assuring Jerusalem, obstinate in the face of the city burning down around them, that they would emerge victorious in the face of the Roman siege. They kept the fire burning to honor their interpretation of Leviticus 6:13: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (see also 2 Maccabees 1:19-22). The temple’s ever-burning flame in worship to YHWH symbolized continually maintained Divine favor, even during that last war.

“The darts that were thrown by the engines came with that force, that they went over all the buildings and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests and those that were about the sacred offices; insomuch that many persons who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place, which was esteemed holy by all mankind, fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar which was venerable among all men, both Greeks and barbarians, with their own blood. The dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.” (The Lamentation of Josephus; War 5.1.4 19-20, emphasis added.)

This cultural history sheds light on why Jesus’s attempts to halt the daily sacrifices when he cleared the temple of merchants were so offensive, and it also explains why Emperor Titus didn’t just aim to subjugate Jerusalem when he ordered the city razed, but also sought to destroy the temple itself. The morale, the optimism, the assurance of Divinely affirmed victory among the Jewish people, in their revolt, had to be extinguished.

In the saying we’re considering this week, Jesus is standing in the critical tradition of the prophet Jeremiah. He is being very Jewish! As well as encouraging fidelity to YHWH, Jesus is calling his audience to prioritize practicing social justice [his ethical teachings] over mere possessing religious objects.

Today, some Christians need the same reminder. We may not have a temple, but we might have a pet doctrine that we think sets us apart from other members of the human family, a belief that makes God regard us as exceptional. Yet both Jeremiah and Jesus state that we should rather emphasize justice for the foreigners among us, those who are vulnerable in our socio-economic, political and religious order, and the innocent being exploited by privileged people. In the patriarchy of Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ culture, this focus would have meant serving the “fatherless” and the “widow.”  We must rightly discern who are the vulnerable in our order, today, and, like Jesus, stand with and work along side of them.

Jesus uses this saying to center his teachings rather than the trusted sacred temple. Perhaps Jesus also wanted us to regard his teachings as sacred as the temple and the rock beneath it that his audience revered.

Weathering A Coming Storm

Jesus grew up in the wake of political insurrections by various Jewish factions after Herod’s death, and I believe he knew all too well the result of armed revolt against Rome. Josephus describes how Rome squelched liberation movements in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The most immediate example when Jesus was a child would have been the destruction of Sepphoris, a town a few miles north of Nazareth, in 4 BCE. Josephus writes:

“In Sepphoris also, a city of Galilee, there was one Judas (the son of that arch-robber Hezekias, who formerly overran the country, and had been subdued by king Herod); this man got no small multitude together, and brake open the place where the royal armor was laid up, and armed those about him, and attacked those that were so earnest to gain the dominion. (Jewish War; 2.4.1)

Rome’s action was swift. A portion of the army went to Sepphoris where they “took the city Sepphoris, and burnt it, and made slaves of its inhabitants.” (Ibid., 2.5.1)  The rest of the army moved through Samaria and on to Jerusalem, burning and plundering any town or village that posed a threat. Once at Jerusalem, they attacked those who had “been the authors of this commotion . . . they caught great numbers of them, those that appeared to have been the least concerned in these tumults [Syrian governor Varus] put into custody, but such as were the most guilty he crucified; these were in number about two thousand.” (2.5.2)

Two thousand were crucified. Stop and ponder the magnitude of that number for a moment. Two thousand. Rome’s practice in responding to revolts and insurgencies is reflected in the speech Tacitus attributed to Calgacus decades later:

“…The yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” (Agricola 29-38)

“They make a desert and call it peace.” This description adds a haunting nuance to Jesus’s saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Josephus tells that after Governor Varus put down the uprisings at Sepphoris and Jerusalem, “he returned to Antioch” (2.5.3).

So this was the political environment Jesus grew up in. Jesus wouldn’t have needed supernatural talent to listen to the spirit of Jewish, violent, anti-Roman sentiment and see where it all would lead.

I believe that Jesus was endeavoring to prevent this end by offering those around him a different course, a different “way” (see Matthew 7:12-14). Even if the end he foresaw could not be avoided, even if Jerusalem was too far gone, Jesus contrasted his teachings and alternate way with the “rock” the temple was built upon. The message to his own community was that only his teachings could intrinsically assure them of weathering the political storm ahead.

This leads me to one of the central questions of my own journey. Through everything I have experienced and learned over the years, I cannot shake the question of whether the teachings of Jesus, distilled from their first century Jewish/Roman context and applied to the social storms of our day, could liberate us as they liberated his 1st Century followers. Of course the details and contexts are different. But when I consider his teachings on nonviolence as opposed to violent revolution, his teachings on mutual aid and resource-sharing, his teachings about getting “loose” from an opponent while you are “on the way” (Q 12:58-59), all of these teachings show me a narrow path of survival on the way to the ultimate hope of a new human society, what King called A Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, the human family has learned to relate to one another in a very different fashion than was practiced in the first century or is practiced today.

First, we must understand what Jesus said in his 1st Century, Jewish, socio-political, economic, and religious context. Then comes the hard work of distilling the principles behind his statements. And lastly we must rightly apply and practice those principles today. Rightly applying the principles and teachings of Jesus may be the hardest part in this process.

So again, for all of you who believe the sayings of Jesus have intrinsic value in informing the nonviolent confrontation, liberation, and transformation of our world into a safe,

more just, more compassionate home for us all, and for all of you who are working hard in your own way toward this end, I hope our Saying this week encourages you. We have a societal storm on the horizon as Jesus’s first followers did. In our practice, let’s build on bedrock and not sand.

“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to:

  1. Pick out one of the Sayings of Jesus that you have experimented with over the past few months. (If you don’t have one, stop here, pick one, and begin experimenting.)
  2. Reflect: How has your life changed from this practice? How have others’ lives changed from your practice?
  3. Identify the impact. What have been the positive results of your practice? What have been the negative fall outs? Discuss these outcomes with your HeartGroup in the upcoming week.

To each of you out there who are endeavoring to “put into practice” the teachings of the historical Jesus, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly. Thanks for walking along side of us on this journey.

I’ll see you next week.

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Herb Montgomery

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

Luke 6:39: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?’

Matthew 15:14: “Leave  them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Gospel of Thomas 34: Jesus says: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”

The earliest record of a saying like the one we’re considering today is more than 200 years older than the time of Jesus:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. (Katha Upanishad; The Upanishads written between 800 BCE-200 BCE.) [1]

Two other early references to this metaphor appear in North India and Rome during the first century BCE. In North India, the Buddhist Pali Canon recorded an oral tradition story in 29 BCE:

Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. (Canki Sutta) [2]

In Rome, a similar phrase is found in the writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE:

Caecus caeco dux” [“the blind leader of the blind”]. Epistles 1.17.3-4

The Jewish community that treasured the sayings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q included this metaphor as one Jesus used. We’ll look at Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this saying in just a moment.

First, Jesus wasn’t talking about physical vision.  He was talking about perception, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn, and the danger this becomes when one is in a position of influence. I’ve experienced this personally this year. In my small town of Lewisburg and statewide here in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed ignorant leaders influencing the masses that follow them, inciting them to be afraid of those they are unwilling to genuinely “see” for who they are.

At the end of last year, our local city council began the process of updating the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Lewisburg’s nondiscrimination ordinance already included discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion. The city felt the need to also include gender identification and sexual orientation, to broaden the current nondiscrimination ordinance to include members of the LGBTQ community. This effort came when a coal miner with over a decade of employment was hazed, vehicle vandalized, and fired after getting married when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer. In West Virginia, a person can be evicted from their housing or fired from their job because of their orientation.

During the campaign to change this ordinance, one of the council members asked my wife and me, “Every person is somebody’s child. How would you like your child to be treated?” Regardless of what differences may exist among people, everyone should have a fair chance to qualify for work, to provide for themselves, and have a safe roof over their head at night. My family believes that, and not just for our own children.

Not long after that conversation, a local minister of the largest Baptist church in Lewisburg began to incite his congregation to fear. Choosing not to perceive members of the LGBTQ community for who they are, he began a campaign of dehumanization and mischaracterization. Out-of-town lobbyists we invited, rallies were held, signs were placed all over town. The message, like Seth Brundle’s in the 1986 horror film The Fly was, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.” Some of the most moral, ethically upstanding people I know belong to our local LGBTQ community, so the minister’s campaign was nothing short of slander. But the folks here in small town West Virginia don’t have the exposure or education to be able to “see” people unlike them for themselves. This was a classic example of the blind leading the blind.”

Despite that rampant misinformation, in February of this year, our city council unanimously voted to update our city’s nondiscrimination policy. I’m also happy to say that it has been over a month now in our sleepy little town and the world has not come to an end.

After this decision though, many of the people who were working locally to incite fear and misinformation moved their effort to thestate level to try to undo the local vote. Lobbyists got legislators to introduce a new bill that was a West Virginia version of the “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up all over the U.S. Over and over again, those responsible for this bill denied their bill was connected to the discrimination ordinance but was simply designed to “restore” religious freedom they claimed had been lost (yet they could not show where or how).

This new bill passed in the state House but was voted down in the Senate. What made the difference? The Senate amended the bill to state that its provisions could not be used to undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in the name of religious liberty. Legislators then dropped the bill, proving that it had nothing to do with religious liberty, but was rather designed to give people a legal loop hole for continuing discrimination against others in the name of their  “sincerely held religious belief.”

Yes, each person should be free in matters between themselves and their God, with at least one exception. When one’s sincerely held religious beliefs endanger another human being, one is never free to practice those beliefs. Once, child sacrifice was a sincerely held religious belief. For some people, racism is still a sincerely held religious belief. Subjugation of women is a sincerely held religious belief, and homophobia and heterosexism are also sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religion has done good. And religion has done great harm. We must encourage the good while we limit the harm. The freedom to practice what one believes is a value that must be held subject to the greater value of “do no harm to one’s neighbor.” Anyone our religious beliefs would endanger has the right to be protected from our sincerely held religious beliefs. While we possess freedom of religion, they also possess the right to live in freedom from our religion.

So what does this have to do with the blind leading the blind?

I took a day to go and visit my state capitol and speak directly with my local representatives in both the House and the Senate about our religious freedom bill. What I was overwhelmed with as I left that day, beside disillusionment of the system, was how “blind” two of my three local representatives had been to understanding what was really behind this bill. Only one of the three understood. The truth did eventually come out, but in the meantime, the depth of ignorance and lack of exposure of my local and state leaders left me speechless.

In both secular civil governance and religious faith and worship, the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is, at times, overwhelmingly appropriate.

Now, there are plenty of instances in first-century Palestine where Jesus could have applied this metaphor.

  • The faithful, radical Zealots who felt the only way to liberate Palestine from Roman domination was through violence.
  • The Jerusalem-centered aristocracy who, in order to preserve their own place in society, copted the Temple to add religious legitimacy to Rome’s imperialism.
  • The wealthy elite who failed to share their surplus with the poor and instead used their capital to exploit the poor and make greater wealth.
  • The group of Pharisees and Sanhedrin members who subscribed to the teachings of the school of Shammai, and who not only drew strict lines between Jew and Gentile but also drew lines between themselves and other Jewish people they perceived as not orthodox enough.

How do Matthew and Luke show Jesus using this parable?

Luke includes this as one of Jesus’s sayings in the body of teachings scholars call The Sermon on the Plain.

He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Matthew does something quite different, and his use of the saying begins with Mark’s underlying narrative.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts physical “defilement” with ritual “defilement.” The author of text mistakenly claims that “all the Jews” do not eat without first washing their hands. This is historically untrue, and the later Matthew and Luke, knowing this to be untrue, correct the error by leaving it out. (Compare Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Luke 11:37-41) In fact, among the Pharisees, only Pharisees of the school of Shammai would have washed their hands before eating, and only the priests (according to both Hillel and Shammai) were required to wash their hands before eat their food. That is, the rest of the people who were not priests were not legally required to wash their hands. But the stricter Pharisees chose to conduct themselves like the priests, believing that they also held a scholarly position in Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy. So it was not a requirement for all Jews during Jesus’s time.

By refusing to wash his hands in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus was making a political statement. I believe he was aligning himself with the “common” people of his day as opposed to the religious “elite.” In all three gospels, Jesus turns the discussion from washing hands to the religiously-justified oppression of the poor by the wealthy, religious elite of his day. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the religious elite included the priests and some wealthy Pharisees.

This is where our saying from Matthew comes in this week:

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15.12-14)

The context of this saying in our most Jewish gospel is Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, the common people, and even those judged as unorthodox.

We can pair this week’s metaphor, “blindness,” to the one we discussed last week, “deafness.” The inability or unwillingness to listen to the stories of those whose experience is different than your own is what these metaphors are describing. Could it be that the cure for socio-political “blindness” is using our ears to listen to the stories of those unlike ourselves? By listening, our eyes can be opened and we can begin to “hear with our ears” “see with our eyes” and “understand with our hearts” and our blindness can be “healed.” (Compare Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14-17; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40.)

I believe that those who desire to follow the teachings of the 1st century Jewish Jesus of Nazareth must learn to listen to each other. Especially, we must learn to listen to those who, as in Jesus’s time, are presently being marginalized and subjugated by social structures of privilege.

We must learn to stop debating about people who are being oppressed by the status quo, and begin listening to them instead. Those interested in leaning into this exercise of listening, consider beginning with listening to the experience of people of color. There are other demographics that you could start with, but this would be an excellent first step. Three books that I can recommend to get you started on your journey of listening are:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone

A Black Liberation Theology (Fortieth Anniversary Edition) by James H. Cone

As we use our ears, our eyes become opened. The cure for healing our eyes is in letting others have our ears and thereby access our hearts.

In the words of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q:

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

HeartGroup Application

One of the purposes of HeartGroups is to facilitate a space where we can begin to learn how to listen to each other. Yet even this is not enough. Too often the groups we listen to are the ones we most identify with. In other words, we listen to people who are most like ourselves. This can create a ideological feedback loop that becomes precious little more than philosophical inbreeding. The type of listening that cures our blindness is when we listen to those who are unlike us, especially those harmed by the way things are.

This week, I invite your HeartGroups to:

  1. Together, watch the recently released film Enough Room at the Table. You can access the film here. It will only cost your group $0.99 to watch together. That’s unbelievably affordable.
  2. Discuss with your group, after watching the film, how your group could begin taking steps to become more diverse. List the steps you discuss.
  3. Pick one item on your list to practice.

Thank you for joining us this week. We’ll continue with Sayings Gospel Q next week.

Until then, 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.

  1. Juan Mascaró. The Upanishads (Penguin Classics, 1965) p. 58
  2. Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

No Such Thing As “Dogs and Pigs” . . . Only “Children.”

How “Listening” is the Cure for our Blindspots

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Happy kids embracing and smiling in the elementary schoolyard. Interracial  friendship.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

This week, I want to place some puzzle pieces on the table for you that may not seem to fit together at first. Once we get them all on the table, though, I hope that we’ll see something fresh and relevant in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Let’s begin by defining three terms.

The first term is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. It describes oppression as an interlocking matrix. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

The second term is kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other dominating hierarchies that encourage people to internalize and institutionalize the subordination of one person or group to another.

The third term is colonialism, the establishment, exploitation, acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of colonies in one territory by a political power from another territory. Colonialism depends on a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between colonists and the territory’s indigenous population.

Let’s use intersectionality, kyriarchy, and colonialism to look at the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem during the life of the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Ponder the status of Jerusalem in the world during that time. Consider the Hebrew people and their own history. Jesus emerged from a people who had participated in forms of kyriarchy and colonialism but, under Rome, was now disinherited.

Jesus presents some images in his teachings that are directly related to this oppressive context.

Dogs and Pigs 

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6) 

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers, and the Hebrews considered them to be unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog.” But this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for those gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people, such as the Romans. Today, some use the term “pig” to refer to police constables who have become oppressive.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple for Imperial purposes. That’s the most direct interpretation of the passage. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—and not merely outward ones. So I have a hunch that in this passage, Jesus is speaking about the ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space within them to be co-opted and used for hatred toward their oppressors. Howard Thurman writes about this in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.

Tyre and Sidon

As well as teaching about dogs and pigs, Jesus also taught about Tyre and Sidon. (See Luke 4:25-26; Luke 10.13-14; Matthew 11.21-22)  In our story this week, Jesus had retreated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities, for a respite.  Yet what many miss is that while Jesus is there, he is met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician.  “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mark 7.26)  It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to turn our attention. This woman, being from Syria, was of Seleucid decent. (Syria was the short-hand name used by Rome to refer to the Seleucid Empire.) Why does this matter? These were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome! Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanies, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. And although the Seleucids and the Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, there was a time when the Seleucids conquered and occupied the Hebrew nation. Jesus’ exchange with this woman, a descendant of those how had sought to wipe out the Hebrew people under Antiochus, takes place in a time when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

Before I talk about the Syrophoenician woman, I want to turn to Howard Thurman’s insightful comments on Jesus’ exchange with her.

“Opposition to the interpretation which Jesus was giving to the gospel of God had increased, and Jesus and his disciples withdrew from active work into temporary semi-retirement around Tyre and Sidon. The woman broke into his retreat with an urgent request in behalf of her child . . . ‘What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind? And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due.’” (Thurman, Howard; Jesus and the Disinherited [pp. 90-91] Kindle ed.)

The issue here is not that this woman was a Gentile. Though the most prominent Phoenician woman in the Old Testament was Jezebel, Elijah also helped a Phoenician woman (1 Kings 17:17) So her non-Jewishness is not the point. In addition to being Phoenician, the woman was also of Syrian descent: she was Syro-phoenician. As Mark writes, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). Syria was the term Rome used to refer to the historical Seleucid Empire.

The issue in this story is that Jesus understood that his announcement of “the favor of God” was to apply to Gentiles too (see Luke 4:25-29; Matthew 8:5-13). But this Gentile begging him for a blessing was of Seleucid descent. This would be the equivalent of descendants of a Holocaust survivor being asked to share survivor reparations with a descendent of the Nazis who had fallen on hard times. It would be comparable to a White American asking to receive reparations intended for the Native American community here in the United States. It would be as if, two hundred years from now, a same-sex married couple were asked to help the descendent of a fundamentalist-evangelical business-owner from Indiana.

The encounter between Jesus and this women is set up to prick our sense of justice. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. But now one of the oppressors was asking him to liberate her daughter too! Jesus question is valid:

Is it right to give the childrens (the Hebrew people) bread to the dogs (the Seleucids)?

According to the Torah, there were foods that were not to be eaten by the Hebrews but that could be thrown out as dog food (see Exodus 22:31). Jesus is here asking: is it just to give that which was intended to liberate my people to a person belonging to those who violently oppressed us in the past?

There are two ways I have heard this explained. One explanation is that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach the on-looking disciples an important lesson in generosity. The other explanation, which I think is more plausible, is that Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

Yes, this woman belonged to a people who had endeavored to wipe his people off the face of the earth. But she was also a woman. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request as the father does in Mark 5.22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Whatever her circumstances, Jesus asks, is it right to help her? Is this how the liberation and reparations for Israel are to be used: not only to benefit those who have been oppressed but also to benefit the suffering oppressors too?

This is where intersectionality comes in. A person can be both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. After all, the Hebrews were not innocent. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews from existence, the Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews participated in the cultural patriarchy that those in Hellenistic Tyre and Sydon lived by as well. And although the Jews in Jesus’ time suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, the Hebrew had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, the compassion of Jesus wins out. It’s worth asking ourselves just how Jesus made even a small space in that room to listen.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

There is theoretical knowledge and then there is experiential knowledge. Jesus understood a love of enemies in theory and gained a deeper understanding of it that day through experience.

I’m thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. I’m also thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need and their blind spots. Had Jesus sent her away, a great injustice would have been committed. But he listened. And he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic that day instead. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ”Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. Jesus, after all, emerged from the community of the disinherited poor. Jesus faced the same dilemma we face:.how does one embrace enemy love without betraying one’s own people?. How does one stay faithful to both justice for the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressors?

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there is really no such thing as dogs or pigs.  There are only children. We are all siblings of the same Divine Parents. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and we all wear on our faces the very image of God.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Here are just a few of the categories of intersectional privilege and disadvantage in our society here in the West:

White            Wealthy        Certified Educated       Male        Straight            Cisgender

Non-White     Poor            Uncertified Education   Female     Non-straight     Transgender

 

These categories combine to create intersectional experiences of domination and oppression.

Consider how each of the following experiences simultaneously includes some level of privilege in our society and some level of disadvantage. Name where they are privileged first. Then look for where they are disadvantaged.

a. A White lower-class, cisgender, straight, blue-collar male

b. An African-American male president of the United States

c. A White cisgender gay female living in inner-city America

d. A bisexual cisgender woman of color living in rural poverty

e. A single White father of three living in suburban America

f. A middle-class White fundamentalist-evangelical, transgender female

d. Wealthy highly educated White, cisgender straight female

2.  We need each other. What does it mean for us to trade our dominations systems for Jesus’ heterogeneous shared table? How can we learn to listen to those who are not like us? How can we learn to incorporate each person’s varied life experience into a beautiful and coherent whole that leads to a safer and more compassionate world for all? How can we allow others to show us where our own blind spots are and also share our stories that can help others see their blind spots?

3. Discuss your thoughts with your upcoming HeartGroup this week.

I’ll close this week with Howard Thurman’s Three Hounds of Hell that dog the soul of the disinherited—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. The ethical teachings found in the values of the Jesus story as it has come down to us today, I believe, offer the disinherited in any area of society a way to escape those three hounds nipping at our heels. This week, if nothing more, may we all learn to sit around Jesus shared table and simply listen.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each one of you,

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 7 of 9

 Part 7 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

I Am Thirsty

Wooden Rosary

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19.28)

As we continue in John’s telling of the Jesus story, I want to remind you that what makes his telling unique is that he is writing in conversation with early Gnostics.  A dialectic relationship exists between John’s gospel and the dualism of Gnosticism.  An oversimplified explanation of the Gnostics’ dualism is that they first believed that all matter was evil.  Secondly, they believed that humans possessed an immortal soul which was good.  Thus humanity had a dualistic nature of being simultaneously good and evil.  It is this element of “matter being evil” that John is meeting head on.

Because the Gnostics believed all matter was evil, they taught that the Divine could never become entangled with embodiment (having a body, i.e. “matter”).  Divinity was not dualistic in the fashion that humanity is.  (Their dualism ran deep, dividing humanity and Divinity as well, as contrasted with humanity being fashioned in the image of Divinity and being the very offspring of Divinity.  But we’ll have to save that conversation for later.)  The Gnostics would have taken issue with John’s “incarnation” that the Logos (the Divine) was “made flesh” (matter).  The Divine could not be identified with the flesh. [1]  Gnosticism, as some scholars have pointed out, would have taught that “Jesus walked on the beach but left no footprints.”  The Gnostics’ version of the Jesus story taught that Jesus’ Spirit (the holy part) departed from him prior to him being crucified, because the Divine could not participate with the material human flesh on that level of physical suffering.  This is why John’s Jesus, on the Cross, is not a human victim, but Divinity embodied, as the revelation of the Divine suffering in solidarity with all who have ever been oppressed, or who have suffered injustice at the hands of dominant systems in every age.  John’s telling of the crucifixion is his way of saying “no” to early Gnosticism.  Jesus in John’s Gospel is fully Divine while fully embodied; he is fully human and his physical suffering at the hands of the injustice of his day is not to be dismissed or devalued.

Yet the question that we must ask is why is John pushing back so hard against Gnosticism?

Simply put, because the belief in the dualistic nature of humanity, specifically that all matter was evil, was causing a shift among the early Christians.  Toward the close of the first century, they were focusing more on liberating their souls from their physical bodies in some far distant “heaven.”  They were abandoning the core principle of what John felt it meant to follow Jesus—which was the “healing of the world” here and now.  John’s Jesus states unequivocally that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world [matter is evil] but that the world through Him might be healed*.” (John 3.17, emphasis added.  *Sozo can be translated as heal as well as save.  Jesus was the great healer.)  The goal of the ancient Hebrews was not to one day become some disembodied soul on some far distant cloud, but to see a time when the Messiah would come and end all the injustice, oppression, and violence here on earth.  A Hebrew telling of the Jesus story did not have at the end, as its goal, “getting to heaven”; on the contrary, the goal of Jesus’ coming would have been “the healing of the world” (“tikkun olam”).

I cannot pass up this opportunity to point out that most Christians today (although certainly not all) are more concerned with escaping this world, for which they believe there is no hope, and making it to heaven, than in healing this world and bringing an end to the present order of domination, oppression, injustice, and violence.  Jesus’ “Kingdom” was a new social order here and now!  It was the subversive “mustard seed” planted in the “soil” of this world that was to grow (like leaven in dough) until the old order was choked out and Jesus’ new social order of restorative justice, transformative mercy, and redeeming LOVE was all that remained.

Gnosticism, at the turn of the first century, was transforming Jesus’ followers into “escapists” rather than the subversive force for dismantling privileged pyramids and exclusive circles in the here and now.  Today it matters not whether those pyramids and circles are economic, religious, political, or social.  Wherever we find domination (pyramids) and exclusion (circles), whether in matters of race, gender, wealth or orientation, as a Jesus follower, we are to be more concerned with bringing a healing revolution than reaching some far distant “heaven.”

This may come as a shock to some, but Christianity today is more Gnostic than Christian, if we allow the historical Jesus to be that which defines Christianity.

John foresaw this result in the beginning of what he was witnessing around him in his day.  John’s entire telling of the Jesus story is a retelling of Genesis chapter 1, which was the Hebrews’ origin story.  Genesis chapter one (as contrasted with Genesis 2 [2]) reminded the Hebrews that this earth is good, very good.  That we are all (male, female and any combination of those two book ends that nature may produce) made in the image of God and that none are to be the subject of domination or exclusion by another.  We are all children of the same Divine Parents.  And we are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.  I’m not saying that the Hebrew people always rightly perceived these insights within the narrative of their origin story in Genesis 1.  What I’m putting forth is that this was Jesus’ subversive interpretation and application of the Hebrew origin story of Genesis 1.  I hope to write on this more at length in a future eSight.

John takes Genesis chapter 1 and frames the entire Jesus story, using Jesus as the Christian origin story.  Genesis 1 begins with the phrase, “in the beginning . . .”  So does John: “In the beginning . . .” (John 1.1)  In Genesis 1 there are seven days of creation.  In John’s version Jesus’ life is divided up and told with seven “signs.”  Genesis 1’s narrative of the physical creation of the world climaxes with Elohim saying, “It is Finished.”  So John’s telling of the Jesus story climaxes as Jesus cries out over his restored (new) creation with the words, “It is Finished.” (We’ll cover this at more depth next week.)  As Genesis 1 has Elohim resting on the Sabbath day, so Jesus rests from his work of restoration in the tomb on the seventh day.[3]  As the narrative of Genesis then moves quickly into a garden with a woman being the first to be deceived, John’s gospel moves quickly into another garden [4] with a woman being the first to be enlightened, becoming an apostle to the apostles.  (I’ll say more about this next week as well.)

In John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is no accident that John focuses our attention on three things:

1.  The very human, physical relationship between Jesus and his mother. (Last week’s eSight.)

2.  The very human, physical sensation of having “thirst.” (This week’s eSight.)

3.  The deep connection between the Hebrews’ human origin story and Elohim’s creation of the physical world by Jesus’ dying cry of restoration, “It is Finished!” (Next week’s eSight.)

What is John saying by all of this focus on the humanity and physicality of Jesus?

John is saying to Jesus’ followers of his day (as well as Jesus’ followers today), “STOP FOCUSSING ON ESCAPING THIS WORLD AND GETTING TO HEAVEN!  GET BACK TO WORK RESTORING, HEALING, TRANSFORMING, AND REDEEMING THE WORLD AROUND YOU!”

The Jesus of John is not an itinerant teacher traveling the countryside offering people an easy way to get to heaven!  John’s Jesus is proclaiming a frequently dangerous, and difficult at times, of healing the world!

The Jesus in John’s gospel isn’t trying to get people to heaven.  He is bringing heaven to the people who live here today!

Current statistics show that 70% of all theists (including Christians), when confronted with injustice, will do nothing.  If this offends you, then this merely shows that you happen to belong to the 30% who actually do something about it.  But that is still a horrible percentage.  Don’t you agree?

As a Jesus follower, I must confess that I have wasted too many years trying to sell a post-mortem insurance policy and arguing with other Christians over what the premium should be.

I’m done.  If John were alive today, I’d tell him, “I hear you!”  I want to follow Jesus.  I, too, want to be a conduit for dismantling systems of dominance and exclusivity.  I, too, want to turn pyramids of privilege upside down. [5]  I, too, want to be an agent of healing change, tearing down walls of marginalization that confine fellow humans to being “others” or “outsiders.”

I know I will do poorly.  I’m not claiming that I ever have, or ever will follow Jesus well.  Yet my heart is captivated by the values of the Jesus story, the ethics of that itinerant Rabbi, the non-homogenous, shared table where all (regardless of race, gender, wealth, or orientation) are invited to take a seat, alongside each other, and share their stories.  This is a table where we are all welcome, and where we, by virtue of valuing each other as fellow Divine image bearers, learn to integrate the many and diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole.

I’m done being a Christian Houdini.  I’m done being a feel-good escape artist.  I’m choosing to be a mustard seed, a WEED, nurtured in the soil of this good earth, subversively growing, little by little, toward a safe and compassionate world for all.  I’m choosing a life of restorative justice, transformative mercy, here and now, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

And I’d absolutely love it if you will go on this journey with me.

HeartGroup Application

The time is fast approaching when many in Western Christianity will celebrate the resurrection.  Next week we will be addressing the seventh of the last sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  After that we will look at the vindication of Jesus and his teachings through the resurrection.

But before we get into all of that, this week I’m asking you to do the following three things in preparation for this series end.

 

1.  Spend some time in contemplation (“sitting with Jesus” is what I call it), reading through John’s gospel with the goal of noticing where John is focusing on Jesus’ body, Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ physicality, and Jesus’ message of healing this world rather than abandoning it.  Start in John 1 and just read.  I’ll give a few examples to start with.  The first example you’ll encounter is where logos (a gnostic term) becomes “flesh.”  In John 2 you’ll find Jesus making water into wine!  A scandal for those who believed we should deny any pleasure to our physical bodies as a means of liberating our sacred, immortal souls.  And then you’ll encounter Jesus speaking of the temple, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, but referring specifically to his body.  In John 3, you’ll read of how Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son’s purpose is not to condemn this world but rather to save or heal it.

That should get you started.

2.  Journal what you discover.  Don’t get distracted.  There are many rabbit holes in John you could go down.  Step back and keep your focus on the forest, not the individual trees.  Remember, you are looking for where John gave us subtle hints that matter is not evil, but the good creation of the Divine, worthy of our efforts in shaping it to be a safer, more compassionate home. [6]

3.  Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you discover.

As I shared last week, our narrative is one of hope.  A new day has dawned.  A light is shining from an “empty tomb.”  If any are in Christ, “New Creation has come!” [7]

Remember, this week you’re a mustard seed!

Therefore, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m still praying for your heart.  I’m praying for it to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of the great healer and liberator, Jesus of Nazareth.

I love each of you deeply.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. 1 John 4.2—This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
2 John 7—Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2. Jesus contrasts the ethics of Genesis 1 with the ethics of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19.4 and Mark 10.6. I plan to say more on this in an upcoming eSight.

3. This is actually in Genesis 2 but the chapter division is misplaced. The first three verses of Genesis 2 actually belong to the narrative of Genesis 1.

4. John 20.15—Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

5. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.

6. Remember the form of the New Testament we have today ends with our home being here, a new heaven and new earth, reunited. The Greek word for new, used by the New Testament when referencing the New Earth, is not neos, meaning a second earth, but kainos, meaning a restored, healed, and redeemed first.

7. 2 Corinthians 5.17 (NIV)—Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 

 

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 5 of 9

Part 5 of 9

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

by Herb Montgomery

Wooden Rosary

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23.46).

Out of all the last sayings of Jesus in the four versions of the Jesus story, this one, this week, has come to be my favorite.

When Constantine elevated Christianity from disadvantaged to privileged in the fourth century, the apparent failure of Jesus’ revolution on the cross became a source of embarrassment.  Then, coupled with the guilt-ridden consciences of the crusaders in the 11th century, the cross took on a wholly different meaning than it had for early Jesus followers.  It is no coincidence that just as Christian soldiers of the crusades returned from the violence of war with bloodstained hands, Christianity, for the first time, began to interpret the cross as God’s doing, God’s violent punishment of humanity’s sins in Jesus, and as Jesus paying for those sins, freeing humans from their deep sense of guilt.  An interpretation of Jesus death that today is labelled as a “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” arises for the first time in Christian history just when Christian military soldiers need some way of dealing with the post-traumatic stress of the merciless slaughter of Jews, Muslims, and heretics.  These soldiers, just like all soldiers exposed to the ugliness of war, were wrestling with the weight of what they had done.  Therefore, the message that Jesus had mercifully paid for their sins came as a great relief.

This interpretation of Jesus’ death, in addition to doing untold damage to Christian theists’ understanding of the character of their God, simply did not exist in the early church.

To the early followers of Jesus, the cross was the failure of Jesus’ revolution.  It was seen as the triumph of the dominating system, both political and religious, of Rome and the Temple aristocracy, over the prophetic ministry of Jesus. [1]

The victory of Jesus was not on the cross, but in his resurrection, which triumphed over and undid his unjust execution.

We will look at this more historically, and more deeply, in the ninth and final installment of this series, but for now, we must hold in mind that the good news to the early followers of Jesus was not that Jesus died, nor was it that someone had come back to life, but that this specific Jesus, who was executed by the dominating system, had been resurrected by God and that this resurrection marked the beginning of a new age when God was not in solidarity with those on the top of the pyramid’s social structures, but in solidarity with those subordinated, marginalized, and oppressed by those social structures.

In order to see and appreciate the resurrection of Jesus as a triumph, we must first see the execution of Jesus for the temporary failure that it was.  We must understand that Jesus’ death is not the victory of God, but the victory of those who opposed Jesus and his radical revolution.

This is why Jesus’ final saying in Luke holds such meaning for me.

When someone chooses to align their story with the Jesus story, when one chooses to stand up for the marginalized, those on the social fringes, and to embrace those whose society has rejected them, a “cross” of some sort will always loom in their near future.

Whether their community is political, economic, social, or religious, when one chooses to stand in solidarity with those whose community has labeled as “sinners,” the threatening nature of that solidarity to the community itself cannot be ignored.

If I could be transparent for a moment, I know something of what I’m writing about here.

This past year (2014), I chose to make some significant shifts in who I was going to stand in solidarity with.  Believing that the Jesus of Luke’s Jesus story was seeking to change the world by, one “table” after another, modeling a “shared meal” (with all its cultural implications in the first century) with those his religious, political, economic, and social community had defined as “other,” as “outsider, as the “marginalized,” I chose to position myself in a way that was intentionally standing in solidarity those whom, today, I perceive my communities treats, at times, as “other.” As a white Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-white. As a male Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-male. As someone who identifies as cisgender, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-cisgender.  As someone who identifies as straight, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-straight.  There is a Jewish blessing that states that before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, “behold the image of God.”  A Jewish blessing that a friend of mine is very fond of and recently shared with me is, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who varies Your creation.”

I have chosen to embrace every person I meet as the “image of God” [2] and thus deserving of compassion.

This has had consequences for me.

To make a very long story short, as the director of a nonprofit ministry, the words Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount have become intensely meaningful to me, now more than ever:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God [Jesus’ new way of arranging the world; Jesus’ new social order] and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25–32, emphasis added)

I have begun to see how it was that Jesus’ ministry, by its nonviolent yet confrontational nature, ended on a Roman cross.  This was a death reserved for the enemies of the dominating system of his day.  This was how Rome, which maintained control of Judaism through its Temple, treated those whom they viewed as a threat.  Jesus’ revolution was a threat to both the Temple as well as the Empire’s control:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. (John 11:48)

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. (John 11:50)

In Luke’s version of the gospel, as a result of Jesus’ teachings and demonstration (overturning the tables) in the Temple, Jesus’ ministry had finally reached a climax and had to be addressed: “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (Luke 19:47).

They found their way.

Very quickly, before the next Sabbath even, Jesus was suspended on a Roman cross by their doing.

To all appearances, they had triumphed over this Jesus.  He was getting what every person receives when they color outside of their community’s defined lines.

And yet, Jesus was not dying at their hands without hope.  Jesus was incredibly courageous in the very moment when I am tempted to despair.  This week, Fr. Shay Kerns sent this quotation from Richelle E. Goodrich out via email:

Courage to me is doing something daring, no matter how afraid, insecure, intimidated, alone, unworthy, incapable, ridiculed or whatever other paralyzing emotion you might feel.  Courage is taking action … no matter what.  So you’re afraid?  Be afraid.  Be scared silly to the point you’re trembling and nauseous, but do it anyway.

Although Jesus stood alone, he had a courageous confidence that he had done the right thing.  The cross did not rob Jesus of his assurance that his life and teachings had not been in vain.  He died believing that even his death would be ultimately triumphed over.  In his most “defeated” moment, he committed to his Father the bringing of his revolution to triumphant fruition.  Jesus’ last words in Luke were, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

There are multiple things that could be said about this dying statement. One is that it shows the confidence that Jesus had that his cause was on the side of what is right. Next, we should discuss  the title Jesus chose to use: “Father.” We are not to derive from this that the God of the Jesus story has male genitalia.  No no!  Calling God “Father” was deeply political within first century Judaism.  “Father” is not a title for the Hebrew God in the Old Testament that could be used by just anyone.  This is directly from Psalms 89.  Calling God “Father” was a right reserved only for Israel’s King [3]:

The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.   I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.  My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.  I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.  He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation! I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (verses 22–27, emphasis added)

This psalm harkens back to Psalm 2 where David retells the decree of this same God:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalms 2.7–8, emphasis added)

Of King David’s royal offspring, the Hebrew God had declared, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7.13–14).

Lastly, to a Hebrew, death was the moment when the body returned to the earth from which it came and one’s spirit returned to God. [4]  For those Hebrews who believed in a resurrection at the end of the age, one’s spirit rests in God’s safe keeping, awaiting the resurrection when it will be reunited with a restored body.

Jesus had stated earlier to his disciples in Luke, “The Son of Man [5] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Luke 9.22, emphasis added).  What Jesus is saying to his disciples here in Luke is that the way to the new world he was inaugurating would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. This was Jesus’ confidence:  resurrection! Yet resurrection required crucifixion, and crucifixion required rejection.

Do you feel rejected, at times, by your community because you have chosen to follow Jesus in confronting the dominating system of your day?

Jesus, in his final moment, still believed in the intrinsic value of what he had taught and demonstrated throughout his life.  “Seek first God’s new social order and its justice and all these things (and more) will be given back to you.” [6]  This is Jesus, dying in full confidence that, although it looked like the dominating system was winning, this was not going to be the end of the story.  His revolution would not end this way.

What does this mean for us today?

In Luke chapter 9, just after Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the Temple aristocracy, be executed on a Roman cross, and then be resurrected, he turns to his disciples and says, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23, emphasis added).

Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by society’s dominant power structure.  And yet our Jesus died in full confidence, committing the keeping of his mission, in his dying moment, to the promise of his Father: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” (Psalms 89.27) [7]

The cross would not be the end for Jesus, and a cross will not be the end for us as well.

When we, too, embrace the way of the cross, we are at our bleakest moment; when we, too, are rejected as a result of practicing Jesus’ radical inclusivity of those our community deems as “other”; when our sky is “brass over our head and iron under our feet,” we can have that same assurance, knowing that, although this moment looks dark, the heart of the dominating system is being “torn in two” [8] and it is not the end.  We too can, in full assurance of faith, whisper: Father God, Mother God [9], into your safe keeping, “I commit my spirit.”

We need not fear our confrontation of the dominating systems of our day for we stand in the victory of Jesus over all injustice, oppression, violence, subordination, “other-ing,” privileging some while excluding and marginalizing others who are also made in “the image of God” to the fringes of our societies.  This is a victory that has already been won.  Though Jesus’ shared table and Temple confrontation lead him to being put on a cross, that was not the end of the story.

“You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead.  He is still with us.  

The powers killed him—but they couldn’t stop him.  They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb.   But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him. 

He’s still loose in the world.  He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God—a transformed world here and now.  It’s not over.”

—Marcus Borg

HeartGroup Application

  1. What is it that holds you back from standing in solidarity with those who are being excluded from a “shared table” in our world today?  This week, I would ask that you simply spend some time in contemplation, allowing this last statement by Jesus, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” to challenge whatever fears you may be entertaining.
  2. Journal what you discover.  Write down your fears, your concerns, and any breakthroughs you experience through this contemplation.
  3. Share what you experience through this exercise with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Whenever I became discouraged as a child, my mother, when she was alive, would always remind me, “You can gauge the size of the victory by the size of the battle.  It is always darkest just before the dawn.”

A new world is coming.  In fact, for those who have eyes to see it, it is already here, growing subversively like a mustard seed in a garden.

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

Many voices, one new world.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

 


1. See Part 1 on the prophetic lineage of Jesus.

2.  Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in God’s own image God made humankind. (Genesis 9.6)

3.  “He [David’s offspring] shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings” (2 Samuel 7.13-14).

4.  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave
it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7; NRSV). “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12.2; NRSV).

5.  “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7.13-14, emphasis added). What Jesus is saying to his disciples in Luke is that the way in which this promise in Daniel would come to fruition would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection.

6.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.33)

7. Remember that Jesus would redefine Kingdom away from hierarchical authority structures to egalitarian mutuality ones in their place. “But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.25-27)

8.  “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45).

9.  “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added).

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does this leave us right now?

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

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

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

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

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


 

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

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

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

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

5 See last week’s eSight here.

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

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

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

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

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

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