Social Justice, Jesus and Hell

flames

Herb Montgomery | September 24, 2021


“I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem ‘hell’ that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other. So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Teacher,” said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:38-50)

There is a lot in this week’s reading to unpack.

First, this week’s passage is connected to the debate among Jesus scholars about whether or not the historical Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah and ways Christians have long used that title for Jesus in damaging and destructive ways toward the Jewish community.

Second, the passage references a curse against those who cause “little ones” to stumble. This title could apply to children, the most subjugated and marginalized population in many of our social systems. And yet limiting this phrase only to children enables those who benefit by oppressive systems to escape the scrutiny of this passage as well. In truth, children in 1st Century Mediterranean societies lived at the bottom of the political, economic, and social hierarchical system. We have to ask whether Jesus simply loved children and thus spoke in their defense, or whether he stood in solidarity with all who were at the bottom of their social structures and all those pushed to the edges or margins of his society, of which children were the foremost. If this second option is right, then this passage warns everyone who structures society to push some people to the bottom or edges, and those who make life even more difficult for those on the bottom or edges after they have been pushed there. Much to ponder here.

Third, the passage uses the deeply ableist language about entering into the kingdom “maimed,” “crippled,” or having “one eye.” This is more than a translation problem, and more than language that was once acceptable falling out of vogue. It has always been damaging to deem people with disabilities as less than abled people. Jesus’ overt argument is that righteous disabled people are better off than unrighteous abled people. Passages that provide a subtext of a hierarchy lead us into territory of interpretations that are ableist. We can do better than this today. We don’t have to repeat ableist language as we tell the Jesus story and we can also find better ways to tell the story than to imply anyone is inferior because of their differences.

Lastly there are the verses about being “thrown into” or “going to hell.”

I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem “hell” that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other.

So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.

First, the language that the gospels used here would not have conjured a vision of post-mortem, eternal torment for the original Jewish audience. The word translated into English as “hell” is the Greek word, gehenna. That word already had a history and association for Mark’s original Jewish audience. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Aramaic valley of Gehinnom, or Ge Ben (son of) Hinnom. It named a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch” (Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. American Book Company, 1889; read stories about Gehenna in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 2 Chronicles 33:1, and Jeremiah 7:31-32).

In the Hebrew scriptures, Gehenna evolves from the location of horrific atrocities to the symbol of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of foreign, Gentile powers. Consider these examples:

Thus said the LORD: Go and buy a potters earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place, I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 19:1-7)

But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17:27)

Edoms streams will be turned into pitch,

her dust into burning sulfur;

her land will become blazing pitch!

It will not be quenched night or day;

its smoke will rise forever.

From generation to generation it will lie desolate;

no one will ever pass through it again.” (Isaiah 34:9-10)

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;

with his rod he will strike them down.

Every stroke the LORD lays on them

with his punishing club

will be to the music of timbrels and harps,

as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.

His Topheth [the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna] has long been prepared;

it has been made ready for the king.

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,

with an abundance of fire and wood;

the breath of the LORD,

like a stream of burning sulfur,

sets it ablaze.” (Isaiah 30:31-33)

“‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,declares the LORD, so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,says the LORD. And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’” (Isaiah 66:22-24)

Jeremiah uses the phrase unquenchable fire” to refer to destruction by an outside empire. In Isaiah, the language of Assyrias Topheth” focuses on events happening in this life. In light of this, both Jeremiah’s language of eternally burning fire and Isaiah’s language of worms not dying (quoted in this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel) are highly metaphorical and to be taken seriously, not literally.

These prophetic warnings about Gehenna pointed to Gentile empires destroying people in this life, not after death. This destruction was consistently threatened as punishment for systemic injustice, oppression and violence done to the vulnerable and marginalized.

No wonder it was to be taken seriously.

It makes sense that Jesus would use this language taken from his Hebrew scriptures to speak to those who cause “little ones” to stumble. It is also quite possible that the author of Mark used this language to be connected to the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Again, Jerusalem was being destroyed by a foreign, Gentile power.

I’ll end this week with some thoughts on Jesus’ command not to forbid people outside of his own disciples and followers from doing things in his name. Just because they were not part of the community of Jesus’ disciples didn’t mean they were to be stopped. I want to go a step further, though.

Within the Jesus story we find universal values that have proven life-giving. These values and ethics are in many more cultures and religions than mere Christianity—including those with no connection to the historical Jesus whatsoever. I encourage Christians to honor those traditions and values because of their intrinsic, life-giving quality. I’m reminded of a statement we at RHM shared as a meme a few weeks ago now:

“There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.” (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Kindle Location 767) (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17)

For me, it’s not about making sure that we attach “Jesus” as a label to things, but that I value those things the Jesus of the Jesus story has taught me in my life. These things are valuable to me, and not merely because Jesus taught them but because I’ve experienced their intrinsic fruit for myself. Again, I don’t believe these things are valuable simply because Jesus taught them. Instead, I believe Jesus taught them because they were intrinsically valuable. We can honor these values when we see them in others without trying to make them somehow “Christian” and so worthy of our approval. We can simply honor the good they do in our world.

Something is good, remember, based on the kind of fruit it produces, whether it is life-giving or death-dealing. And that fruit is either enough of an argument in its favor, or a sign of something it’s time for us to leave behind.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. However one interprets Jesus’ words on Gehenna, how does Jesus’ teachings on social justice impact your own Jesus following? Discuss 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.



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse

rosary with cross

Herb Montgomery | September 10, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 388:Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse]


“Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of ‘taking up one’s cross’ to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist . . . This story is, on the other hand, encouraging Jesus’ followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, Who do people say I am?” They replied, Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan!” he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Fathers glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27-38)

In this week’s reading, we encounter Jesus’ admonition to his followers that they also “take up their cross.” This saying has a long history of religious abuse, so I want to give a word of caution about it.

Years ago now, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on the violence of interpreting the cross event itself as salvific—how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific have borne death dealing fruit to oppressed communities and/or those who belong to marginalized communities. I explained how the atonement theory of penal substitution has historically produced various forms of social abuse, and how abuse has also been the fruit of alternative atonement theories such as moral influence theory and Christus Victor.

Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of taking up ones cross” to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist. This interpretation has proven very convenient for oppressors and those who dont want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo. It also impacts intimate relationships as well. When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to bear their cross,” be like Jesus,” and simply turn the other cheek”? I have written at length on other ways to interpret Jesus’ turning of the other cheek as a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest, and resistance (see A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence Parts 1-10). I interpret the turn-the-other-cheek passages as did the late Walter Wink, who understood them to give those pushed to the undersides and edges of Jesus’ society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized.

This week, alongside the feminist and womanist scholars who have deeply influenced my thinking, I want to suggest that taking up ones cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure the violence of systemic or relational oppression and abuse, but rather is a call to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a threat for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering if you speak out.

The implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. I have often repeated Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement in their essay God So Loved The World?:

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (also in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. 18)

So what did Jesus mean, then, when he said take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesuss Final Days in Jerusalem; Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan about the theme of participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that suffering on a cross was intrinsic to following Jesus, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor to triumph or success. Suffering only enters the story of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make, and threaten his followers with a cross. Being willing to take up ones cross is not a call to be passive in the face of suffering, but a call to protest and resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross.

“Taking up one’s cross” in this context means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross in the Jesus story is a symbol of the state violence that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, as Carlson Brown and Parker wrote, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then and only then it becomes necessary for you to “take up a cross” and stand up against injustice. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway!

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life.

How one interprets taking up one’s cross has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed cross,” this week’s reading calls us to count the cost and refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced! Though it may sound like an oxymoron on the surface, speaking out in the face of a threat is a form of rejecting death.

Let’s take relational violence as an example. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

illustration

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross is interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

illustration

But the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice, and the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

Illustration

Jesus is encouraging his followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.

If a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before oppressors send a cross. At other times, change happens after the cross. In both cases, suffering may come, but it is not redemptive.

Jesus emerged in his Jewish society as someone calling for the just distribution of food and land and the inclusion of those presently marginalized. His way of structuring human community threatened imperial Roman society and those who most benefited from the Roman system. And the early Jesus movement that grew out of an encounter with this Jesus resulted in a way of doing life together that was also seen as a threat to those in positions of power and privilege.

When those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, dont let go. Keep holding on to the hope of change even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life! For, Jesus says, what does it profit if you gain the whole world by your silence and yet lose your humanity?

Whoever wants to save their life through remaining silent in the face of injustice will actually be letting go of life. But whoever is willing to fight for life, for equity and equality, for love and compassion, for inclusion, for a just and safe world that is home for everyone, even if you’re threatened with death and death-dealing for doing so—all who refuse to let go of life and those things that are life-giving are the ones through whom life is saved, life is found, and another world is not only seen as possible but created in those moments of refusal.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What difference does it make for you to define ‘taking up your cross’ as a possible response to your speaking out and resistance, rather than passively bearing abuse and injustice? Discuss 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



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Openness to Change

sunset

Herb Montgomery | September 3, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 387: Openness to Change]


“In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like. We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, for it is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.” Then he told her, For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the mans ears. Then he spit and touched the mans tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, Ephphatha!” (which means Be opened!”). At this, the mans ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. He has done everything well,” they said. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)

This week we read one of my favorite stories in the gospels of Mark—the Syrophoenician woman. I love this story because it paints a very human view of Jesus. This woman is the hero in the story who points out Jesus’ limited way of viewing Gentiles and the scope of his liberation. I believe this story was specifically aimed at early Jesus followers who suffered from the same limitations as Mark’s Jesus did.

The story illustrates what we would call intersectionality today. Intersectionality is a way of describing the relationships between systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes oppression as an interlocking matrix and 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 woman in this story experienced multiple social oppressions that also connected to the oppression of Jewish people under Rome: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.”

Jesus questions her using the worst language: Is it right to give the childrens bread to the dogs?”

No human should be called a dog, especially a woman of another race or ethnicity than one’s own.

Two of the most popular interpretations of this story explain that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach onlooking disciples an important lesson in generosity. I find this interpretation lacking, motivated not by honesty about the narrative but by a desire to protect Jesus from anything that might make him look bad. While I sympathize with this protectiveness, it is unconvincing.

The other more plausible and valuable explanation is that, in real time, Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

This woman belonged to a people group that had once oppressed the Jewish people (i.e. Greeks), yet there is absolutely no indication she felt superior to Jewish people herself. She was also a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal culture. The patriarchal setting of this story begs the question, where is her husband? Why is her husband or the girl’s father not making this request of Jesus as other fathers do in Mark (cf. 5:22)? Is she a single mother? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to speak for herself and her daughter?

The author of Mark has Jesus wrestling out loud: is it right for a Jewish male to help her, a Gentile and a woman?

Intersectionality helps us that every person has a complex identity. Just as the Greeks had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews, the ancient Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews also participated in cultural patriarchy similar to that in Hellenistic Tyre and Sidon, and though they suffered economic poverty under Romes high taxes during Jesus’ time, the Hebrews had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Greek woman belonged to a people who had once oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she needed liberation. Did Jesus have enough mercy for her as well?

What I appreciate about this story is that this woman has the courage to push back against Jesus’ harmful language to get him to see her humanity and the ugliness of his language. In the end, Jesus does understand and his compassion for her wins out. But we must not fail to see the depth of his struggle between genuinely questioning what was right, and allowing his questions to give way, not to rightness,” but to compassion itself.

I think of Christians who still need the permission of their own sacred text to tell them that compassion is allowed or “right.” In this story, Jesus doesn’t wait for permission. He allowed compassion to govern his thinking, and ultimately arrived at the right choice.

Im thankful for a woman who didnt give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her shared humanity and immediate need despite their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was the teacher of the teacher.

Im also thankful for a Jesus who was willing to listen to her, a Jesus open to being shown a larger view even of his own world. Had Jesus sent her away, one could have argued, he would have done the right” thing according to some of his peers, yet a great injustice would have been committed and therefore it would have been wrong. Instead he listened to her, and he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethical teachings of love and justice that day, thanks to this woman.

Jesus models for us how we, too, can grow in the way we understand our world by being open to listening to the experiences and stories of those who are unlike ourselves. We are not all the same. We are all of the same worth. Yet there is vast diversity within humanity, and these differences should not only be celebrated, they should also be heard, attended to, and learned from.

In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like.

We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.

As a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class male, I’m reminded of the times those who are different from me have called me to understand the world in much larger ways. I’m thankful for my feminist, womanist, LGBTQ, Black, and Brown friends, and many others who, like the woman in this story, cared about me enough to push back on my limited way of perceiving the world. They expended energy to help me understand how hurtful my behavior was, and they not only called me to be better, but also believed I could be. For each of them, I am deeply grateful. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just left me as ignorant as they found me, but instead, like the Syrophoenician woman, they engaged a labor of love on my behalf. I’m also glad I chose to listen.

This story also calls me to continue this process. It calls me to look out for places I still need to grow in my understanding of others and our work of making our world a safe, just home for everyone.

In a way, the Jesus of this story in Mark faced the same dilemma we each face when navigating social realities, and so Im thankful to see this side of Jesus. Im just as thankful for the woman who helped him grow in compassion and justice.

I wish we had more time to discuss the second story in this week’s reading, but we’ll get to it another time. It’s a story with a long history of ableist interpretations that have done much damage to disabled people.

For now, may we show the same willingness to perceive the world in much larger ways that we see in the Jesus of our story this week. If Christians would follow Jesus in just this one thing alone, what a difference it would make!

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an experience of where you choose in a difficult moment, not to get defensive, but to apologize when your own faults were pointed out, and chose to be humble and willing to embrace change. Discuss 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



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Worshiping in Vain

Herb Montgomery | August 27, 2021

worship service

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 386: Worshiping in Vain)


I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, Why dont your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” For it is from within, out of a persons heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

There is a lot in this week’s reading. Let’s jump right in.

First, the text names the “Pharisees and some teachers of the law.” It is possible that Jesus himself had training in the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Yet those who were in power in Mark’s gospel were the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. I’ve written at length on the distinctions between these two schools of thought and Torah interpretation in The Golden Rule, Woes against the Pharisees, Woes against the Exegetes of the Law, and Renouncing Ones Rights, so I won’t repeat all of that information here. It’s enough to say that this week’s passage could have been attributed to Hillel the Pharisee as much as we attribute it to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The language and emphasis is very Hillelian.

I share this because throughout history Christians have used the label of Pharisee as a disparaging or derogatory title very carelessly and in very antisemitic ways. Some Christians continue to do so today. We can do better. I want to offer an alternative to these common, anti-Jewish interpretations, and shed some light on why the gospel of Mark speaks so disparagingly of “Pharisees,” I believe, particularly those of the school of Shammai. The following interpretation is not my own but found in Ched Myers’ excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.

Myers argues that the gospel of Mark uses the characters of Pharisees and teachers of the law not to pit Christians against Jews, but to help us understand classism within the Jesus stories and the conflict between upper classes (the elites) and the lower classes (the marginalized).

In Mark’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus’ society was shaped like a cone, with the Sadducees at the center and top of the cone. Right below them were the Pharisees, competing for power. This society also used faithfulness to the traditions of ritual purity and “cleanliness” to determine who were insiders and who were outsiders, who would be centered in that society and who would be pushed to the margins, and who was at the top of the pyramid and who was at the bottom.

The Sadducees were much more conservative in interpreting which behaviors enabled someone to be pure or “clean.” The Pharisees, by contrast, used a more liberal, “progressive” interpretation of purity standards. This enabled more people from the masses to claim cleanliness and therefore avoid being socially disenfranchised. If we were to look at this anachronistically, the Pharisees could be called the blue-collar, working person’s religious leaders, whereas the Sadducees were the religious leaders of the elite and the wealthy who could afford to live up to the Sadducees’ strict standards and their interpretations of who was pure and in or impure and out.

Myers uses the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ differing interpretations of Leviticus 11:38 and of eating domesticated, unirrigated grain versus imported grain from Egypt, which was irrigated but also much cheaper and so affordable for those with less means. Follow closely:

According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees had a more inclusive interpretation than the Sadducees, but even their broader understanding still left some excluded and outcast. Most of all, their interpretation used the needs of the working class as leverage in their power competition with the Sadducees. In Mark’s stories, Jesus sees through this. Though the Pharisees were relevatively more inclusive, they still benefitted from a classist system that left others on the margins.

Jesus emerges in the story as the prophet of the outcasts, whether they are outcast by Sadducees or by Pharisees.

This is the dynamic we are bumping into in this week’s passage. Handwashing was another tradition used to determine who was in and who was out, who was centered and who was pushed to the margins, who was closer to the top of their society and who was closer to the bottom.

But it was classist and elitist. To put it in terms used by Karl Marx, handwashing was bourgeois. Remember this was way before the discovery of germ theory: it was not about cleanliness as we now understand it. Handwashing in this week’s passage was about one’s dedication to Torah observance or rather their interpretations of and adherence to society’s definition of purity.

And Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is not unwashed hands that are harmful in a society, he says, but “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Today, in certain sectors of Christianity, we could apply these same principles. It’s not church attendance, offering size, worship music tastes, watching Fox News as your news media of choice, wearing the political label of “pro-life” or the claim of being a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” that makes you an insider. Jesus could just as accurately say to us: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

What truly threatens a person’s, a community’s, or a society’s wellbeing are greed, classism, scapegoating immigrants, a distrust of science, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacist ways of thinking and viewing the world. These are all things that come from within and are intrinsically harmful and destructive of our human communities—our life together. Jesus’ teaching could be broadened here to parallel contemporary analysis of systemic-isms or kyriarchy. Racism isn’t only internal to individuals, for example; it’s embedded in social policy and custom and culture as well as internal bias and socialization. I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.

Lastly, I don’t interpret Jesus here as simply giving his followers a new list of rules that allowed them to go on practicing the ways of marginalizing others, just with a more internalized standard. I see him doing something much different. By naming the things his new list, I see him calling the very ones who are marginalizing others based on something as silly as washing their hands to do a little introspection and see if there were things within themselves, practices that they themselves engaged in that harmed others or themselves.

What are the things that matter? Why do they matter? What are the things that are genuinely, intrinsically harmful?

And how are we as Christians today worshipping Jesus in vain, holding up elements of Christian culture as the test of who is in and who is out in the midst of our political culture-war, all the while engaging in practices that quite literally in this time of pandemic harm people around us.

What would the Jesus of our story this week say to us today?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. At RHM, we’ve often said that activism is a spiritual discipline. It can also be an act of worship. In what other ways can our justice work, informed by the Jesus story, also be an act of worship? Discuss 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


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


Universal Love Means Universal Thriving

sunrise in field of green

Herb Montgomery | August 20, 2021


“Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:56-69)

There is a lot to unpack this in this week’s reading. This passage starts Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The original audience would have immediately recognized this as a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. Nonetheless, as we discussed last week, it is very hard to imagine a 1st Century Jewish male, deeply cultured in the teachings of Torah, using this kind language even metaphorically. And even the text itself recognizes this language is problematic on the lips of a Jewish teacher:

“On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

The author recognizes the problem that this language creates for its Jewish audience and seems to be trying to get out in front of it by highlighting the tension in the story itself: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

This passage also includes the early Gnostic and Pauline view of the world as divided between the spirit and the flesh. Christianity has a long history of harmfully categorizing things of “the flesh” as evil and things of the “spirit” as good. (For an excellent telling of this history I would recommend reading, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Brock and Parker.)

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) does not draw the deep distinction between the spirit and the flesh that’s described in the gospel of John or in Paul’s works. In the synoptic gospels, we see a very fleshly Jesus who is deeply concerned with what negatively impacts people’s material, concrete well-being. His response to suffering is not to focus on the spirit but to liberate humanity from whatever oppresses people in their “flesh.” The Jesus of these gospels is very enfleshed.

What I do appreciate about this week’s passage in John is that its author keeps defining “spirit” for Jesus followers in terms of the “words” of Jesus. Jesus’ words “are spirit and life.” Simon Peter also affirms that Jesus has the words of life in the story when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (emphasis added).

He’s pointing to he words of Jesus—his teachings, his message. In our context today, it’s difficult to understand the distinction between “flesh” and “spirit, even if John’s original audience understood it. But defining whatever is meant by “spirit” as focused on the words or teachings of Jesus—this I can begin to get my head around. Perhaps it’s easier for you to understand as well.

The teachings of Jesus bring to my mind Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which the author of the gospel of John does not mention, and the economic justice found throughout the entire gospel of Luke. In Mark, the teachings of Jesus repeatedly challenge the political status quo through stories full of political symbols and meaning. And even in John, the teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of love more than any of the synoptics.

Consider the following passages:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 cf. Luke 6:31)

And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.(Matthew 22:39)

To love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)

He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied, ‘Do this and you will live.’ (Luke 10:27-28)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

These are the words/teachings that are life, two thousand years ago and today. Love is not only named in the gospels as an ethic of life, but it is also defined in the gospels. John emphases love more than the other canonical gospels and yet the synoptic gospels are still needed to define what that love looks like publicly: as Cornel West often says, justice is what love looks like in public. Matthew and Luke can be interpreted to teach this:

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations. (Matthew 12:18, emphasis added.)

You neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too. That is social justice. We at RHM sometimes call it making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. Yet whether you call it social justice, or politics, or economics, or whatever, in the end what we are talking about is love and treating others the way oneself would like to be treated.

Anything less isn’t love, no matter how “Christian” the language for it. As Jesus followers, our words of love must be accompanied by actions of justice. We say something about this every week: Choose compassion. Take action. Work toward justice. This is how we define living in the way of love repeated in each version of the Jesus story we hold sacred.

Love and justice.

These are spirit.

These are life.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Many of us are feeling deeply concerned with the events in Afghanistan this week. Here are a few organizations that are providing ways for those who are moved to take action to do so:

No One Left Behind

https://nooneleft.org/

International Refugee Assistance Project

https://refugeerights.org/

Women For Afghan Women

https://womenforafghanwomen.org/afghanistan/

Lutheran Immigration And Refugee Service

https://www.lirs.org/

International Rescue Committee

https://www.rescue.org/

Global Giving

https://www.globalgiving.org/

WorldHelp

https://worldhelp.net/

Child Foundation

https://www.childfoundation.org/

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



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Choosing an Ethic of Love

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


heart drawn on foggy window

Herb Montgomery | August 13, 2021

Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)

This section of John’s gospel includes some problems. First, it’s difficult to imagine a Jewish Jesus using the language of “eating flesh and drinking blood.” Second, this version of the Jesus story comes to the canon very late, written while the latest gospels were being composed. Third, the analogy of flesh-eating and blood-drinking is only found here in this late gospel. It’s absent from all of the earlier, older synoptic versions of the Jesus story, and that becomes even more confusing because though bread and wine are found in each of the other stories of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, they are absent from John.

John’s gospel is where we would expect bread and wine to be, given John’s references to eating flesh and drinking blood, and yet they are nowhere to be found in this version of the last supper. Further, John’s Jesus does not command his followers to continue the Eucharistic sacrament in this gospel as the synoptics do. In fact, if this were the only gospel we had, we would never even know that the last supper included bread and wine.

For all of these reasons and more, most progressive Christian scholars ascribe our opening passage to the Johannine community—the community that emerged around this gospel—and not to the original, Jewish Jesus.

Yet there’s a way for us today, with our focus on establishing justice on Earth and making our present world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone as objects of a Divine, universal love, to reclaim these words in a life-giving way. Let’s talk about it.

Many Christians today focus on what they believe was the focus of the Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That Jesus did not focus on himself or his own person, but rather focused on inspiring others to follow his teachings or what early Christians called the Way (see Acts 9:2). Christians on this path focus on following Jesus’ teachings as found in the stories, rather than on worshiping Jesus or believing in Jesus. In fact, they feel that they may be more accurately worshiping or honoring the Jesus of the stories by endeavoring to follow his teachings in our society rather than merely mentally assenting to Christianity’s high claims about his person.

As I shared last week, we could substitute the language here in John of “flesh” and “blood” with language about following the teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor and the marginalized communities of Galilee.

For example:

My teachings are the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats these teachings like we partake of bread will experience those things that are not temporary but eternal. This bread is my teachings, by which I reveal the path of life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you internalize and follow my teachings and drink deep of their wisdom you have no life in you. Whoever eats my teachings and drinks my teachings has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my teachings are real food and real drink. Whoever internalizes my teachings, allowing my teachings to become part of themselves like we do with food and drink, remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on my teachings will live because of them. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58, personal paraphrase)

I realize this kind of substitution won’t work for everyone. For some, the analogy is still unreclaimable for now, and that’s okay. For others, it’s not clear why this language from a deeply Jewish Jesus might be challenging. We are all on a journey, and for me today, where I am on my own journey, the substitution works. It places my focus where I believe it should be.

Christian history is littered with those who honored Jesus with titles and high claims, yet committed harmful atrocities in his name. I want and choose to place greater value on endeavoring to follow the ethical values in the Jesus story than on promoting the higher claims about Jesus found in the Christian religion. Though those options are not mutually exclusive, I want to be clear that many find Christianity’s high claims about Jesus unbelievable while they see value in the Jesus story because of its ethic of love in human community.

While we don’t have to choose between these options, certain sectors of Christianity seem to choose high claims about Jesus over practicing his ethics. Sometimes they are ignorant of them, but sometimes they practice harmful ethics and hold destructive values while using Jesus’ name.

I’m also in relationship with people who no longer believe in Christianity’s high claims, but who still engage the work of living the golden rule, practicing the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and modeling an ethic of personal and social love above all else. Again, I don’t believe this has to be an either/or, but if I did have to choose, I’d prefer the latter. I would much rather that a person have questions and doubts about the person of Jesus while endeavoring to practice the way of love Jesus taught than that they claim to believe all of Christianity’s high claims yet promote a bigoted, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, classist, nationalistic, or supremacist kind of Christianity.

At the end of the day, someone may believe all the approved, orthodox teaching of the Christian religion about Jesus but not actually be following the Jesus of the story.

If you can do both, I affirm and honor you. If you can’t do both, I want to honor and affirm you too. Whatever you choose, choose the way of love, the way of life, even if you can’t wake every morning absolutely sure that the way of love will eventually and ultimately win. Choose the way of love because you believe it is the better way. We may not be able to change our world by those actions, but we do get to decide what kind of people we will be.

We may not influence the harmful, destructive means we encounter in our world. But by our choices we get to decide whether they will influence us and the kinds of people we want to be. Personal choice today, given enough time and influence, can become social choices tomorrow.

So this is my hope:

That the kind of people we choose to be today will impact the kind of world we compose tomorrow. Even if we never get to see those choices work their way into social change in our lifetime, I rest in the thought that what we choose does matter. It matters to me, and it impacts the kind of person I am choosing to be today.

My hope is that it will matter to our world, too; that it will impact the kind of world we and future generations get to live in tomorrow.

Whoever internalizes my teachings has come in contact with those things which are eternal.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does practicing an ethic of love look like for you in your daily life and as part of your larger society? Discuss 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


The Bread of Life

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue to be a voice for change because of you.


Herb Montgomery | August 6, 2021

Our reading this week comes from the gospel of John,

Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty . . . At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:35, 41-51)

Our passage this week starts a chain of “I am” statements that are unique to the gospel of John. There are six more in this version of the Jesus story, seven in total. In John 8:12, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world.” In John 8:58, he says, “I existed before there was an Abraham.” In John 10:11, he says, “I am the good shepherd,” and in John 11:25, he says “I am the resurrection and the life.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am life,” and lastly, in John 15:1, he says, “I am the authentic vine.”

Robert Funk explains that John’s Greco-Roman audience would have recognized this series as an “established formula in speech attributed to one of the gods” (p. 419, The Five Gospels). For John’s Jewish audience, these sayings could have echoed Yahweh’s words to Moses: “ I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Both associations would have highly honored the Jewish Jesus by whom many who encountered him had their lives changed forever.

But also note two things. John’s language about “the Jews” has proven deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. We must be careful in how we read, understand, and use this passage, and we must not use it to harm Jewish people.

Another problematic phrase is, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” This seems to contradict the synoptic Jesus who accused those in control of the status quo of having established a monopoly on knowing God: “Damn you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have blocked those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52) There is much to ponder here.

Can we reclaim this passage in our lectionary reading for this week?

I think the synoptic gospels can help us.

The synoptic gospels don’t emphasize Jesus as a person (as John does) but emphasize Jesus’ teachings, specifically his teachings on nonviolent resistance, mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, debt forgiveness, and more. Jesus’ teaching in these gospels has very concrete political and economic implications for communities. No wonder many of those with much political and economic power, then and now, have chosen to interpret Jesus as providing a path to heaven rather than an affront to unjust social structures in the here and now.

But ponder for a moment how our understanding changes if we interpret these teachings as “the bread of life.” Coupling John’s Jesus who is the bread of life with the synoptics’ definition of Jesus in terms of his teachings would lead us to state:

Nonviolent resistance is the bread of life.

Mutual aid is the bread of life.

Resource sharing is the bread of life.

Wealth redistribution is the bread of life.

Debt forgiveness is the bread of life.

And in a time of massive wealth inequality, when the richest are competing on getting to the edge of earth and space while most of the world still does not have even their daily needs of food, shelter, and care met, we wonder if these statements could be true.

Consider the political and economic forces obstructing the changes we need to make right now to effectively address climate change alone. What does it mean to have the bread of life today?

If eating this kind of “bread” would lead to life and refusing these things would lead to death, that would make much more sense to me if we defined the bread of life as the ethical, social and political teachings of the Jesus story.

It is much larger than this, too. As a Jesus follower, I have encountered these teachings in my own journey with Jesus. Others exposed to Jesus through harmful expressions of Christianity have encountered these values from other sources. I can say that they, too, are partaking in the bread of life, even if they aren’t associated with “Jesus.”

What is bread that is only temporary and what is bread that leads to life everlasting? What are sustainable, renewable, long-term ways of supporting life? Could these practices from Jesus be a way for us to interpret Jesus’ words in John’s gospel?

Lastly, we once again bump into the myth of redemptive self-sacrifice in this week’s passage:

“This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

It’s good to deny greed for power and resources from the powerful and privileged. I see those kinds of denials as a way for the powerful to reclaim their humanity or “self” rather than sacrifice it. Likewise, I do not interpret Jesus as prescribing self-sacrifice for those who are marginalized, victimized, or disenfranchised. In a system where so many people’s full humanity or “self’ is already being sacrificed, I do not believe the message for them is one of greater, voluntary sacrifice of themselves, but rather, as we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings a call for them to reclaim their full humanity in their struggle for justice. (See Imagery of a Good Shepherd and A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Parts 1-10))

Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker correctly warn of the damage that unhealthy interpretations of John’s gospel can produce:

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world.” (God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

If you would like understand this analysis more deeply, I recommend reading their critique in its entirety.

So what does the bread of life look like for us today?

Rightly understanding our history including our society’s racism is the bread of life.

A living wage is the bread of life.

Open, free, and fair elections where voting rights and voting access is protected is the bread of life.

Affordable and accessible health care for all is the bread of life.

Getting vaccinated when we can be is the bread of life.

Common sense preliminary background check on all gun purchases is the bread of life.

Funding those trained in mental health to respond to crisis situations in our communities, ending police militarization, and investing in non-policing forms of public safety and community support is the bread of life.

Clean, renewable energy is the bread of life, especially for those monetarily profiting from the fossil fuel industry now. What does it profit you if you gain all the money in the world but have no planet to live on?

What is the bread of life that results in concrete, life everlasting for humanity rather than temporary gain? What does that mean to you?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What do you interpret to be the bread of life in our context today? Discuss 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


Those Things Which Are Eternal


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


hands held in community

Herb Montgomery | July 30, 2021


“The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right. In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

‘Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Sir,” they said, always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:24-35)

I grew up understanding this passage as encouraging focus on getting to heaven in the afterlife, and not focusing on earthly realities that impact our lives in the here and now. An earthward focus was considered a waste of time, “arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.” This school of interpretive thought has born deeply destructive fruit and has always been coopted by oppressive powers to create a kind of Christianity that leaves the oppressive systems of the powerful untouched by Christian followers. This kind of Christianity led those such as Karl Marx to label religion an opiate of the masses.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation of Jesus’s words in John. Jesus said to those wanting to use him to gain political power, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.” (See last week’s eSight.)

Most Biblical Greek scholars recognize that the word translated “eternal”, aionios, described a future time when God would establish justice on Earth. That vision contrasted this present age of violence, injustice, and oppression with a future age of justice, restoration, and peace. The eternal age contrasted with a present temporary age. The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right.

In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.

Let me offer some examples.

Those in control of and benefiting from the US fossil fuel industries have a decision to make: continue making enormous profits today and make our planet uninhabitable through the climate change that results from burning industry products, or abandon those profits (“food that spoils”) to ensure our planet remains a safe, habitable home for everyone (“food that endures to eternal life”).

A friend connected to various Evangelical and fundamentalist ministries shares another example. My friend has witnessed those who have successful ministries pressured to embrace or align with the current surge in Christian nationalism and that movement’s politics. If they do, they’re choosing to support or at least go along with things they never would have imagined themselves supporting just to keep money flowing into their ministries. Their choice is between standing against what they see happening, trying to rightly inform their supporters, losing financial support, and downsizing their “successful” ministries, and staying silent, going along with troubling things, and trying to maintain supporters who understand what they are doing and supporters who are sincere but misled or misinformed. This is a textbook example of working for “food that spoils” rather than “food that endures to eternal life.”

US politicians now have a very similar choice: go along with Trumpism, anti-vaccination, and/or other troubling party platforms to get re-elected next year (working for “food that spoils”) or stand against what they feel is harmful and face political ruin over the right thing to do long-term (working for “food that endures to eternal life”).

This is another variant of the choice laid before Luke’s gospel’s audience:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)

I know something of having to make this kind of choice.

When I had these decisions to make, I was naïve and did not fully understand what doing the right thing would cost. My line in the sand was for Renewed Heart Ministries to choose between inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ folk and exclusion. My choice to embrace affirming Christian theology has cost this ministry everything to this day, and my journey has included consequences that have not always been easy to bear. I don’t regret my decision. I also want to be honest that the decision almost tanked Renewed Heart Ministries. One year we were one of the most successful ministries of our denomination, and the next we were on the brink of having to close—and more than eight years later, we’re still coming back from that.

For me, not “working for food that spoils” meant refusing to stay silent (and conventionally employable) when I saw my LGBTQ friends being harmed by our denomination. Working for food that endures to eternal life meant doing the right thing, the just thing, the compassionate thing, the nonviolent thing, even if that meant I had to give up some things on that journey.

And what has been the result? Today I belong to a community that’s very different than the one I used to belong to. Some folks from the old days have kept on journeying with me. Some have yet to make that journey, and still others never will; I’ve had to accept that.

But my community today includes people who feel as passionate as I do about justice and making our present world a better and safer place for those marginalized in the present system. Have we seen sacrifices? Absolutely. But have we seen gains as well? Yes! Our ministry is still recovering materially, but those I have met and am in relationship with today I might never have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing if I had not chosen this path. They make it worth it for me. If there is an age to come, as Jesus taught, what we will be able to take with us is not our money, political power, or our property, but rather the relationships we’ve made here, in our present age, with the people we hold most dear. Working with them is working for food that endures to eternal life for me.

What does that mean for you?

What decisions have you made in your own journey?

What have they cost you?

What have you gained instead as a result of making those difficult choices?

And, for all of us, what decisions still lie ahead?

Whatever they are, I have confidence today that the food that endures is the better choice. It may not always be the easiest choice, but it is ultimately the better choice, and together, in community, we can face the fallout of our better choices, come what may.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does eternal versus temporary mean to you? Discuss 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


Enough for Everyone

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


steeple

Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021


This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth. But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, It would take more than half a years wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peters brother, spoke up, Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, It is I; dont be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (John 6:1-20)

Among the canonical gospels, there are six versions of this story. Five are in the synoptics, originating in Mark’s version (Mark 6, Mark 8, Matthew 14, Matthew 15, and Luke 9). The sixth version is found here in John.

Most Jesus scholars see evidence that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions were copied from Mark’s telling of this story. John’s version is quite different than Mark’s, leading some scholars to believe that both versions may have had a common ancestor, a version that existed in the early oral tradition. We still don’t know today for sure, but it is clear that each version of the Jesus story contains the story of Jesus’ community sharing resources.

This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth.

But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.

Rooted in the economics of the Hebrew manna story, where those who gathered much shared with those who didn’t have as much (see Exodus 16), the ethic of resource-sharing was recorded as the first act Jesus followers took after Pentecost.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)

We read of this ethic a second time in the book of Acts in chapter 4:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostlesfeet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4.32-35, emphasis added.)

This social consciousness appears to be part of the fabric of what it meant to follow Jesus early on.

We find a different spin on this story in the gospel of John.

John takes this story with its emphasis on a young person who chose to share what he had and whose resources Jesus blessed to become enough for everyone in the community, and then transforms it into a story of Jesus doing miracle work. Rather than the story staying a story about people sharing what they have with one another, the author of John evolves it into a story about the supernatural power of Jesus.

Consider this phrase in John’s version of the story:

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

John’s version becomes a prophetic warning against what we, looking back after the fact, see has become of the Jesus community and the imperial powers of the state that has sought to co-opt the Christian religion in repeated generations and repeated expressions. I think of how Christianity has been used by the Christian Right here in the U.S. to gain power to push racist, classist, sexist, and cis-heterosexist political policies in our era. I’m disgusted each time I think of how flags were carried by White Christians alongside their Trump flags as they violently stormed the U.S. capitol building on January 6, all because of a lie that somehow an election process that also installed Republicans in various elected positions on the same ballots was mysteriously “stollen.” As Miguel A. De La Torre wrote in his recent book Decolonizing Christianity, “We focus on the Trump presidency because probably no other president has wrapped himself so fervently in both the flag and the cross, merging the two with himself and the Republican Party.” (p. 15)

Since his life and death, Jesus has repeatedly been “taken” and used to by those who wished to have the power of a “king”. Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass writes, “Unjust social relationality is not effectively sustained solely, if at all, through the use of brutal force.” She stresses that power, “particularly inequitable power, is not coercive or even repressive. Rather, it is productive. Power’s productive character begins with a ‘will to knowledge.’ That is, power itself generates the kind of knowledge it needs to be sustained. It enlists various communities of authority, such as the scientific and religious communities, to provide the knowledge base to legitimize the social, political, and institutional constructs of power itself.” (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 72-73, emphasis added)

Various expressions of Christianity have likewise been complicit in seizing power. Powerful Christians have cooperated with harmful social and political structures that are rooted in distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and more.

In using Jesus to gain political power, both Christians and non-Christians reject the Jesus of this story who himself rejected attempts to seize power and isolated himself so he could not be found and used. Ched Myers rightly perceives, “The truth is, the ‘battle for the Bible’ [the battle over how one interprets the Bible] today has increasingly less to do with theological divisions and allegiances and more to do with political and economic allegiances.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 10.) Senator and Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock stated similarly; speaking last year at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, Warnock said, “You are not following God when you allow your profit motive to silence your prophet motive.” That ‘profit motive” can be about money, but can also be about both money and political power.

As Jesus followers, we have to allow ourselves to be confronted by how we could be allowing or even participating in people taking the Jesus of these stories and using him today, instead of using the stories to support, or and bring liberation to those within our society deemed as “the least of these.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What would a Christianity whose emphasis is about resource-sharing in our world look like for you? What harmful fruit have you witnessed from Christianity’s political power grab in our society? Discuss 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


Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


sunrise through grass

Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

Herb Montgomery | July 16, 2021


Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories.”


Our reading this week is again from the gospel of Mark:

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things . . . When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

This passage takes place in Mark’s narrative after John’s arrest and execution. It transports us all the way back to the words the gospel of Mark began with:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. The time has come,” he said. The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

In Chapter 6, the author of Mark takes that first passage and enlarges it so that readers can understand what Jesus’ gospel looked like in practice. In short, Jesus is characterized as a miracle-working, folk healer announcing liberation for those who are oppressed, whether they’re oppressed by sickness or a sick system of injustice. Ched Myers reminds us that even the stories of individual healings were “symbolic action” of systemic confrontation. In his book Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, Myers correctly states, “[The acts of Jesus’] ‘divine power’ lay not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities.” (p.146)

The itinerant liberator image of Jesus that we encounter in Mark raises a question of contrast between many preachers today and the Jesus they claim to be worshiping. As I’ve often said in the past, the gospels don’t show Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special “sinners’ prayer” so they can have the assurance of going to some post mortem heaven when they die. Not at all. What we see instead is a Jesus who announces that the reign of heaven has come to earth, here, now, and it manifests not in future, afterlife assurance, but in concrete, material liberation from that which diminishes and oppresses human thriving in our lives today, right now, on earth. This is the picture we get from each of the synoptic gospels.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

As you go, proclaim this message: The reign of heaven has come near.Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:7-8)

But he said, I must proclaim the good news of the reign of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The reign of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:6)

The section of Mark we read this week includes the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and having twelve basketfuls left over. This story draws our attention to Jesus’ concern for people’s concrete, material needs. Many scholars also believe that this story may point to an early form of eucharist among early Jesus followers: a shared meal, a shared resource, of bread and fish that was later subsumed by what today’s eucharist of bread and wine.

Regardless, the scene is not about heaven or later, but about what people are experiencing here on earth right now. It speaks to the earthly, liberation-centered gospel taught by Jesus, not the heaven-centered gospel about Jesus that many within Christianity teach today. There is a difference between the two gospels and these differences are well worth our time to explore and understand. (See James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, p. 1-2)

Two statements that have kept me centered in Jesus’ gospel of making a difference here on earth rather than in a gospel about Jesus focused primarily on getting to heaven come from the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in his classic work, God of the Oppressed.

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

“There can be no Christian theology that is not social and political. If theology is to speak about the God of Jesus who is revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom, then theology must also become political, speaking for the God of the poor and the oppressed.” (p. 75)

For Cone, following Jesus was political, not in the partisan sense but in the sense that politics is about how power and property are distributed among the people. When we define politics like this, Jesus’ teachings were deeply political and all about a social peace that comes from justly distributing what humans need in their daily lives to thrive. This was God’s will as taught within Jesus’ gospel: humanity’s collective thriving.

In this focus, Jesus is standing squarely in his own Hebrew prophetic tradition:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine

and under their own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

What might it mean for us today, with our post-enlightenment, naturalistic, material worldview, to follow Jesus, proclaim “the reign of God,” and “heal the sick”?

As we consider our social context, there is much sickness that we Jesus followers can address. With so many U.S. churches having hosted July 4 celebrations recently, we can address the sickness of Christian nationalism. What about the sicknesses of White supremacy and its offspring, American exceptionalism? What about the sicknesses of racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and cisgender-heterosexism? What about the sickness of ableism? Even if we hold a worldview where “healing the sick” or “casting out demons” no longer resonates, we can focus on the substance of our work and whether or not that substance looks like the Jesus of the story or like a 2,000-year-old religion about Jesus that has evolved in his name.

Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories. Our work may have a different focus than the work we see Jesus doing in the stories, and still be considered Christian by certain sectors within Christianity. Nonetheless, the contradiction between our stories and the Jesus story remains.

Can the themes of our work be found in Jesus’ work in the gospels? Is that Jesus passionate about the things we’re passionate about? In my journey, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that the Christian elements I was most passionate about were elements that the Jesus of the story never spoke about, and the things the Jesus of the story was passionate about were things I didn’t care about. It’s not been easy to admit, and making corrections and aligning my story with the Jesus story isn’t always easy either. That work for me is still ongoing today. But, even with the hard times, I can look back and say the journey has so far been worth it.

That the journey is worth it is my prayer for you too. I pray that as we allow our stories to look more like the Jesus story, and as we work together on making our world here and now a better place, we will look back one day, even at the hard times, and say, “It was a journey worth taking.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does a focus on “concrete, earthly liberation” mean to you? Share 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