Setting in Motion a Safe, Compassionate, Just Society

pendulum in motion

Herb Montgomery | February 18, 2021

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.)


“The passage describes the reciprocal nature of judgment, of condemnation, of forgiveness, and of giving. Our choices show not only what kind of people we want to be; they also indicate what kind of community or society we are setting in motion with our choices.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:27-38)

No other section of Luke’s version of the Jesus story has a denser concentration of the rich teachings that Jesus’ early followers attributed to him than this passage. There is so much for us to unpack this week in these eleven verses, so let’s dive right in.

Enemy Love

Right away, I want to unequivocally reject any interpretation that demands we feel some kind of love or positive emotion toward our abusers or oppressors. That interpretation only furthers the harm that abusers and oppressors have committed against survivors.

So how are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies?

One possibility that deeply resonates with me is Barbara Deming’s two hands metaphor for nonviolence:

With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand, I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand, we say, I wont let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and Ill be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (in Pam McAllister, You Can’t Kill the Spirit, p. 6-7)

Enemy love means we can still hold those who harm us accountable, and in so doing, we need not lose hold of their humanity or our own. It leaves room for those who have harmed us to choose to change, too. Enemy love doesn’t mean we feel something warm and fuzzy for those who have harmed us. It means we view them as still humans, still part of our human family, and because of that do not allow them to continue committing acts of harm while we wait for them to change.

Turning the Other Cheek

I’ve written so much over the past few decade about what these passages could have meant in the social political context of their day. In a ten-part series I wrote back in 2019 on self-affirming nonviolence, I address this section of Luke with more depth, context, and nuance. You can find the beginning of that series at A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1).

I do not interpret these words of Jesus as encouraging oppressed or abused people to remain passive in suffering with those who are doing them harm. But to arrive at a life-giving interpretation we must read the passage in its cultural context.

Jesus’ culture strictly forbade the use of the left hand in interpersonal interactions. Since most people are right-handed, they only used their left hand for “unclean” tasks and even gesturing at another person with the left hand carried the penalty of exclusion and ten days penance (see Martínez, Florentino García, and Watson in The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: the Qumran Texts in English [2007], p. 11). Therefore, one would not hit someones right cheek with the left hand.

One would also never strike an equal on the right cheek. A blow between equals would always be delivered with a closed right fist to the left cheek of the other. The only natural way to land a blow with the right hand on someones right cheek was with a backhanded slap. This kind of blow was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior—master to slave, man to woman, adult to child, Roman to Jew—and it carried no penalty. But anyone who struck a social equal this way risked an exorbitant fine of up to 100 times the fine for common violence. Four zuz (a Jewish silver coin) was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding them. Again, to strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap was perfectly acceptable (see Goodman in Jews in a Graeco-Roman World [2004], p. 189). A backhanded blow to the right cheek had the specific purpose of humiliating and dehumanizing the other.

What did Jesus command dehumanized people do? A retaliatory blow would only invite retribution and escalating violence. Instead, Jesus taught us to turn the other, left cheek so the supposed superior could strike correctly—as an equal. This would demonstrate that the supposed inferior refused to be humiliated, and the striker would have only two options: either a left-handed blow with the back of the hand, and its penalty, or a blow to the left cheek with a right fist, signifying equality. Since the first option was out of bounds culturally, and the second option would challenge the strikers supposed superiority, the aggressor lost the power to dehumanize.

Naked Protest

Jesus issued this teaching in the context of the Hebrew law. Many of the very poor had only two articles of clothing to their name, and the law allowed a creditor to take a poor person’s inner garment (chiton) or outer garment (himation) as a promise of future payment if they lacked means to pay a debt. However, the wealthy creditor had to return the garment each evening for the owner to sleep in:

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbors cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25–27)

When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10–13)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

In that society, before the invention of modern underwear, it was more shameful to see someones nakedness than to be naked. Remember Noahs son Ham?

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their fathers naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” (Genesis 9:22-23)

Because of this context, a debtor stripping off one cloak or the other in public court would turn the moral tables on their creditor and put the poor person in control of the moment. Compare Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29: If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt [chiton], hand over your coat [himation] as well” (Matthew 5:40). If someone takes your coat [himation], do not withhold your shirt [chiton] from them” (Luke 6:29).

A debtor exposing their body would also expose the exploitative system and shame the wealthy and powerful person who took their last valuable object from them. Jesus was endorsing public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest or resistance: Jesus recommended nakedness in protest over returning violence with more violence.

Giving Based on Need Rather than Worthiness

A more accurate translation for the next section of this week’s passage is “give to everyone who begs from you.” Consider the spirit of this injunction.

Jesus was trying to foster the kind of human community where we place people’s needs above our attachment to our own material possessions. In that community, when someone is in need, we don’t stop to ask if they are deserving. We simply give as we are able. Our actions aren’t to be about what kind of people others are but about what kind of people we want to be. If we have more than we need today, we should share with those whose needs are not met. We should do this, trusting that if at some point in the future our needs are not being met, the kind of reciprocal world we’ve created would be populated with people who can share with us from their surplus as we have shared from ours.

Demanding Return of Property

Some interpretations of this passage would forbid people who are disenfranchised or live in marginalized social locations from demanding justice, restitution, accountability, and reparations for harms committed against them.

But what could Luke’s Jesus have been referring to?

In our time, those who richly benefit from our predatory, exploitative, capitalist system often demand that their privilege, power and property be protected when others organize and call for justice. They’re the opposite of the priest in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables who, when Jean Val Jean stole his silver and was caught by the police, gave Jean his candlestick, too. In the book A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone wrote that those who were enslaved did not consider taking from the slave master’s possessions as theft or stealing as the slavocracy stole so much from them every day.

Our teaching says to those whose property and privilege have come at the expense of and harm of someone else: don’t demand it back when it’s ultimately taken from you.

Reciprocal Nature of Our World

This week’s passage also includes the universal golden rule found in most of the world’s religious traditions. It includes an unconditionally and universally compassionate description of the divine’s orientation to the ungrateful and wicked that harmonizes more with Christian universalism than with the Christian teaching of eternal torment. And Jesus calls on those who subscribe to unconditional, compassionate images of the divine to be those kinds of people in response: people of mercy and kindness without regard for the worth of recipients.

Lastly, the passage describes the reciprocal nature of judgment, of condemnation, of forgiveness, and of giving. Our choices show not only what kind of people we want to be; they also indicate what kind of community or society we are setting in motion with our choices.

“For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

A dear friend of mine, Dr. Keisha McKenzie, often says, “Society is a group project.”

In school, I never much cared for group projects. I often felt that the weight of success was disproportionately pulled by those of us who cared about our work. That’s true in our society as well. But given the past two years, it especially behooves those of us who care to be more intentional. Group projects fall on the shoulders of those who care most, and what we choose to do, the kind of people we choose to collectively be, will contribute to the kind of world we bring into existence during our short time here.

I’m choosing the path of love: a path of distributive justice, of sharing, of caring. How about you?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share something from our passage that you believe is especially applicable still in our social context, today. Discuss that with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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3 Reasons Why White Christians Should Be Standing In Solidarity With Black People

Herb Montgomery | June 3, 2020

police brutality


“It’s not enough to not be racist ourselves. We must also stand intentionally against racial inequality. The current train is racing down the tracks and it’s not enough to remain neutral or individually focused. It’s not enough to make people on the train non-racist personally or privately. The whole social train must be stopped.”


Here are a few reasons why I am convinced that White Christians should be standing with and working alongside movements for Black lives right now.

1. Jesus was Liberator of the Oppressed

Out of all the ways that the author of the Gospel of Luke could have chosen to sum up Jesus’ gospel and life work, Luke’s gospel begins by characterizing Jesus as Liberator, Advocate, Abolitionist, and Activist:

“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 prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18, emphasis added.)

In the gospel stories, the central figure of the Christian faith chooses to stand in his deeply Jewish, oppression-confronting, prophetic, justice heritage:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“God judges in favor of the oppressed.” (Psalms 146:6-7)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people.” (Isaiah 10:1)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

Each of the prophets made the privileged class of their time uncomfortable by calling for systemic change. Each stood in solidarity with the oppressed in their communities.

In his book God of the Oppressed, Dr. James H. Cone wrote, “Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical” (p. 35).

This has grave implications presently for all White, American Jesus followers.

2. Jesus’ Gospel Confronted Both Private and Systemic Sin

One of the deepest disconnects for many of my White friends is that they see these events of police officers killing Black people as isolated and individual occurrences. They don’t connect the dots and want to debate the intricacies of each case without stepping back and looking at the big picture.

But if we stop to listen first, we will discover that these cases are not disconnected or about a few bad apples, but rather one example after another of an entire systemic problem. They are daily experiences for all too many Black people.

Jesus challenged both systemic sin/injustice and personal or private, individual sins. Gustavo Gutierrez, in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, contrasts individual sins with the social sin that the gospels challenge:

“But in the liberation approach, sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality—asserted just enough to necessitate ‘spiritual’ redemption which does not challenge the order in which we live. Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of fellowship and love in relationships among persons, the breach of friendship with God and with other persons, and, therefore, an interior, personal fracture. When it is considered in this way, the collective dimensions of sin are rediscovered . . . Nor is this a matter of escape into a fleshless spiritualism. Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, pp. 102-103)

When we focus on liberating individuals from personal sin but ignore systemic sin, we create a reality that is deeply problematic. An old example I first heard from the late Howard Zinn is helpful. Imagine systemic injustice in society as an automated locomotive train racing down the tracks. We are all on this train together. We as individuals may not participate personally in the operation of the train, yet we are still on the train with everyone else as it moves along.

Similarly, someone can choose privately or personally to be a Jesus follower, but that person is still part of a much larger society that is racing down a track. Just because an individual is not racist, that doesn’t change the course of their society’s train. As a White Christian in society, I may be completely unaware of how society is structured for communities I have no contact or association with. And whether I know or not, the train we are on is still moving us all together down the tracks. White Christians are not only called to be free from racism themselves as individuals, but we are also called to be anti-racist, standing and working in solidarity with people who are targeted by racist social systems or working to dismantle those systems.

Some will ask, “If we just focus just on healing hearts, won’t we heal the systems as well?” It’s a beautiful thought. It’s simply not automatic. Social justice has never taken place from the inside-out or the top down. It happens from the margins inward, from the bottom up. Also, if one is privately a follower of Jesus, one should also be publicly involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege. It’s not enough to not be racist ourselves. We must also stand intentionally against racial inequality. The current train is racing down the tracks and it’s not enough to remain neutral or individually focused. It’s not enough to make people on the train non-racist personally or privately. The whole social train must be stopped.

3. Jesus Valued Human Lives Over Privileged Property

Where do we see Jesus confronting systems of injustice in the gospels? All throughout the gospels! But the most infamous incident for the early Jesus community was Jesus’ protest in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem was the heart of the Temple-State. Remember that in Jesus’ society there was no such thing as a separation of civil and religious, or church and state. The temple was not solely a religious symbol as Christians think of a church today. Yes, there were religious activities taking place there, but it was also a political symbol, much like the symbol of a state capital building, today. Jesus’ demonstration in the temple wasn’t a challenge to the religion of Judaism; Jesus was a Jew. Rather he was staging an economic protest against the systemic injustice of the Temple-State’s exploitation of the poor:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely . . . But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.’” (Mark 12:40,42-34)

Mark’s gospel includes a story detail that is often overlooked.

“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:11, emphasis added.)

When Jesus arrived at the Temple at the climax of what Christians refer to today as Palm Sunday, it was already too late in the day for his Temple protest to accomplish his desired result. So he went back to Bethany with his disciples, spent the night, and then came back the next day when there would be enough people to make shutting down the Temple services an effective demonstration.

Mark’s gospel adds that as a result of Jesus’ demonstration and the growing number of followers among the people, those in positions of power and privilege began “looking for a way to put Jesus to death” (Mark 11:18). A gospel that is only about saving individuals from personal sins would not evoke this kind of response from those in charge.

Luke’s gospel story reads that within days “temple police” came at night with swords and clubs to “arrest” Jesus. They came at night to avoid a riot by the people: a gospel example of police brutality against a protestor and an attempted cover-up. John’s gospel has Jesus subjected to even more temple police brutality over the day that follows his arrest.

We must not sanitize Jesus’ protest in the Temple courtyard: that day also involved property damage. When a system values property over human lives, it makes sense for some to feel the only way to move a system to listen is to impact whatever those benefiting from the system value most. Our present pandemic has proven time and again how much our present system values property, production, and profit over human life.

White Christians who claim that they would have been on Jesus’ side in the story two millennia ago, need to reassess the verity of their claim today when they find themselves speaking out more loudly against property damage than against the police’s murder of yet another Black person. A riot is “the language of the unheard,” a demand for their lives to “matter” in a system, to be valued in a system, to be respected in a system.

If you want peace, don’t simply call for peace. Add your voice to the voices that are calling for justice.

“Until the white body writhes with red rage, until the white heart heaves with black tremors, until the white head bows before yellow dreams and tan schemes and olive screams for a different world, any communion claimed will be contrivance of denial. A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!” (James Perkinson, White Theology, p. 216)

Lastly, my Black friends will be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with seeing their color, race, or culture. These things are part of who they are, as my color, race, and culture are part of who I am. There is nothing wrong with them, and no reason we shouldn’t see their skin color along with the colors of their eyes or hair. We are not all the same, and we are all of equal worth. The human family is richly diverse and this diversity is not the problem. The problem is when we have a system that treats people as “less than” because they are Black.

So this week, with angry tears in my eyes, I lift up my own voice to the chorus raging around me:

Black.

Lives.

Matter.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. Contrast examples of systemic racial inequities and injustice versus personal, private, or individual racism. Share examples of where you see White energy being used to confront both. Which area have you found your own experience with Christianity to be more focused on, systemic, or social salvation? Or personal, private, and individual salvation?
  3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of systemically shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

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.