Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“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)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“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)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Replaced by People from East and West

A table with varied people eating

by Herb Montgomery

“When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!”

Featured Text:

“And many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

Companion Text:

Matthew 8:11-12: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 13:28-29: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

The Sayings Gospel Q scholars titled this week’s saying “Replaced by People from East and West.” If I’d organized the sayings, I wouldn’t have used the term “replaced.” As we’ll see this week, it’s not original to the text and it has a long anti-Semitic history rooted in supersessionism.

By contrast, Jesus’ saying is well centered in the Jewish prophetic tradition of Isaiah:

“And the almighty Yahweh will prepare for all the nations on this mountain a banquet of rich foods, a banquet of preserved wines, of spread out rich foods, and preserved refined wines. And on this mountain he will swallow up the covering that is over all peoples, even the covering woven on all the nations. He will swallow up death forever. And the Lord Yahweh will wipe clean the tears from upon all faces. And the shame of his people he will remove from upon all the earth. For Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

In the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, the messianic feast is not prepared exclusively for the Hebrew people but includes “all the nations.” The apocalyptic Essenes of Jesus’ society were looking for this banquet in their “end of the age.” They expected it to mark the transition between the present age and the “age to come” (see The Rule of the Congregation 1QSa or The Community Rule 1QS.) And they understood this banquet both literally and metaphorically as definitive of the quality of the messianic age when all violence, injustice, and oppression was to be put right in the earth.

Matthew’s gospel tellingly tacks this saying on to the end of the story about the centurion and his slave (Matthew 8.5-10). For the Matthew’s community, the centurion story could have been seen as an evidence of how “all the nations” were to be included in Isaiah’s feast. If this is true, this would explain much about the inclusivity that this community hoped for.

Replacement versus Exclusion

The Q community did not understand including Gentiles in their feast as an anti-Jewish move. And they did not see “all the nations” being included only to replace the Jewish festival attendants. In this saying, some are being excluded. Yet, there is a vast difference between a party for everyone that some will be shut out of and a party meant exclusively for some and whose original audience would be replaced by others.

Why does this distinction matter?

The Pharisees included two schools of thought. One, the School of Shammai, drew strict lines between Jews and Gentiles, in a effort to preserve their Jewish identity. They also drew strict lines between those who practiced Torah according to the School’s interpretations and fellow Jewish people they labeled as “sinners.”

I t is understandable that a people removed from their original land and held captive in foreign territories or scattered abroad, would re-gather to seek liberation. It’s important to protect others’ heritage and identity as a people when they’re being erased by their oppressors and their oppressors’ heritage and culture.

Just like the indigenous people here on this continent, or the Africans uprooted, enslaved, and removed to colonial lands, the Jewish people were struggling desperately to preserve their own identities and uniquenesses among a people not like themselves and who dominated them. The Jewish people living in the empires that subjugated them were being dehumanized, and in that context, I can understand and applaud the School of Shammai for focusing on their people’s Jewish peculiarity.

How we preserve our identity and heritage matters, though. Subjugators typically preserve and parade their identity through exceptionalism. In the United States, for example, American exceptionalism and the Doctrine of Discovery was the soil out of which grew the destructive weed of Manifest Destiny. These dehumanizing philosophies made genocide possible for the Native peoples across this continent and those who, through slavery, were violently brought here.

Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism can also be a way for oppressed and subjugated peoples to survive: feeling superior to those dominating you can be a way to resist. This form of survival and resistance can also be unhealthy. Those under Roman domination in Jesus’ society who began to look forward to a feast eventually imagined that feast not for “all the nations” but for their own vindication. In that vision, the messianic feast would be an event where oppressors would be excluded or even punished. In Ezekiel, at the messianic banquet feast, YHWH turns the Hebrew people’s enemies into food for predators of both sky and the land.

“As for you, son of man, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Tell every kind of bird and every wild beast: ‘Assemble and come! Gather from all around to my slaughter which I am going to make for you, a great slaughter on the mountains of Israel! You will eat flesh and drink blood. You will eat the flesh of warriors and drink the blood of the princes of the earth – the rams, lambs, goats, and bulls, all of them fattened animals of Bashan. You will eat fat until you are full, and drink blood until you are drunk, at my slaughter which I have made for you. You will fill up at my table with horses and charioteers, with warriors and all the soldiers,’ declares the sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)

In our saying this week Jesus seems to be addressing those in his time who were looking for a retributive feast, one more like Ezekiel’s than like Isaiah’s inclusive, distributive, and restorative feast. Those looking forward to a time of retribution, who were so sure they were superior to others around them, would be found not at the places of honor around the festive table, but excluded and shut out from the feast entirely. They would be found “gnashing their teeth.”

This proverbial phrase is key. The gnashing of teeth referred to a level of anger that caused a person to clinch their jaw and grind their teeth (e.g. Acts 7:54).

In other words, Jesus is saying, those of you who are looking for a retributive feast where you are included to the exclusion of those you have deemed unworthy, like this Roman centurion, there will be so many from east to west included in my messianic feast that you’re not going to be able to emotionally cope. When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!

In the new world that is coming, he continues, if any are left in “outer darkness,” it won’t be those you believe don’t measure up to your standards of respectability or virtue. It will be you! You cannot accept the welcome, affirmation, and inclusion of those you feel should be excluded. You will be excluded because you cannot accept those who are being accepted.

This was the same point of Luke’s parable of the older brother (Luke 15:1-2; 25-32) and Matthew’s wedding banquet parable where a guest did not want to be dressed the same as those he felt superior to (Matthew 22:8-11).

Conclusion

I’m happy to be able to say that before the end of the first century, the Rabbis choose the School of Hillel’s earlier and more inclusive interpretations of the Torah (see BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI).

One takeaway from this week’s saying is that there are better ways to protect identities and heritages than exclusion. Our differences should be preserved and celebrated, acknowledged, and mutually valued. As each of us finds our place at the table, as we honor each person’s voice in relationships of egalitarianism rather than domination and subjugation, we can learn to listen to one another. And we then can integrate the many experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: not a new homogenized mass, but a mosaic filled with beauty, diversity, and variations.

Lastly, this week we learn that exclusion is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. To hope for a world where certain ones are no longer there is to create a world where you yourself are no longer welcome. You get the world you always wanted. The only catch is that you’ll be the only one alone, in the “outer darkness,” in a world where exclusion is excluded. Exclusion won’t be included in a world that is characterized by inclusion, distributive justice, and peace.

Does inclusion still provoke anger? You bet. Over the last four years, Renewed Heart Ministries has become a more open, welcoming, affirming, and inclusive ministry, including for those who identify as LGBTQ. And do I have stories to tell. The common thread through all of them is anger from those who are upset that we’ve made this shift.

While I’m saddened by the loss of those who have rejected and now exclude RHM and me, I do take a small portion of comfort in the fact that at least we are in the right story. Solidarity breeds crosses. But the story of Jesus tells me that crosses can also be followed by resurrections.

When you practice inclusion of those whom others have inaccurately deemed as deserving exclusion, will some people get upset and angry with you? Absolutely. But be of courage: this is simply your story becoming more aligned with the Jesus story itself, for:

Many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God [and] there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. Recently I was introduced to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a San Francisco Bay area Jewish Renewal Synagogue for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The Jewish Jesus lived life at the intersection of faith and social justice in the 1st Century. In the spirit of tikkun olam, Rabbi Lerner is working today to develop intersections between Jewish faith and social transformation.

Last week, Rabbi Lerner published a meditative piece of writing he titled Ten Commitments. He states, “Many of us find the notion of ‘commandments’ oppressive and hierarchical. Yet we know that a community cannot be built on the principle of only doing what feels right at the moment–it requires a sense of responsibility to each other. So, we encourage our community to take on the following ten commitments, based roughly on a rereading of the Torah’s ten commandments (and incorporating the framework and many specific ideas articulated by Rami Shapiro in his book Minyan).”

HeartGroups are also communities engaged in the work of healing our world. The Jesus we desire to follow grew up hearing teachings on these same ten commandments.

So this week, as a group:

1. As a group, read through Rabbi Lerner’s “Ten Commitments”:

http://www.beyttikkun.org/article.php/what_we_think_ten_commitments

2. Share which commitments spoke most loudly to you and why.

3. For each person in the group, pick one commitment to spend some time contemplating and meditating on this week. Come back the following week ready to share your experiences practicing it.

I’ll let you in on the one I’m practicing: I love the inclusivity and respect of #3 in Lerner’s list.

Which one speaks most loudly to you?

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living in love. And may the teaching of this 1st Century prophet of the poor continue to inform your work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains, is a world where only love reigns.

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

John’s Inquiry about the One to Come

(Healing versus Destruction)

woman helping homeless man on park benchby Herb Montgomery

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ And in reply he said to them: ‘Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.’” (Q 7:18-23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11.2-6: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Luke 7.18-23: “John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Isaiah 35.5-6: Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

As we discussed briefly last week, the story of the centurion, Jesus as a healer, and the liberation sayings of Jesus in the gospel narratives all led up to embracing Jesus as the “one to come.”

The blind regain their sight.

The lame walk around.

The skin-diseased are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor receive good news. 

Jesus is the proof of these liberatory hopes and expectations. Yet there are two kinds of liberation here. One is physical, and the other is economic. Understanding this is one of the hooks that prevents me from simply throwing out the Jesus story. Yes, the Jesus story includes supernatural healing stories. Yet its primary focus is not Jesus the miracle worker, nor Jesus the magician, but rather the Jesus the liberator of the suffering, the poor, the oppressed, the disinherited, and the marginalized. Liberation is the genus of his ministry, and physical healing and economic healing are two distinct species.

It’s worth noting that the original Jesus followers were not postmodern, modern, or post Enlightenment people as we are. They were a product of their own times, and the Jewish world view they subscribed to most was a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. (I have written on the tenets of Jewish apocalypticism; please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator.) As we’ve shared before, the apocalyptic worldview, influenced by Zoroastrianism, saw this world as the visible expression of a much larger, behind-the-scenes, cosmic conflict between forces of good and evil: earthly political and physical forces were only the extension of that cosmic conflict. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome would all have been viewed by Jewish apocalypticists as simply the puppet-empires of YHWH’s and Israel’s cosmic enemies.

They applied this belief in cosmic war to physical illness and disabilities as well. They had no understanding of germ theory or physiology, or even the insight modern people have into anatomy. If someone was sick, for example, it was the work of unseen cosmic forces from which the person’s need was liberation. Healing, was not supernatural, but rather liberating, about an assumed relationship between a seen effect and its unseen cause.

For Jesus to be a liberator in the way that his original audience would have understood it, Jesus’ liberation had to include economic and political liberation. The fact that it also included physical healing classified Jesus as a complete liberator in an apocalyptic dualist sense as well. This would have been deeply significant in their 1st Century setting.

A Noteworthy Transition

There is a noteworthy difference between the traditional apocalyptic liberator and the Jesus of the Jesus story, however.

Sayings Gospel Q begins with John announcing a coming judgment.

“He said to the crowds coming to be‚ baptized: ‘Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage? So bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to tell yourselves: We have as forefather Abraham! For I tell you: God can produce children for Abraham right out of these rocks! And the ax already lies at the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing healthy fruit is to be chopped down and thrown on the fire. I baptize you in water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. He will baptize you in Spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.’” (Q 3:7-9; 16b-17)

Just as the apocalyptic world view viewed visible agents on earth as conduits of cosmic good or evil forces, John’s statement also looked forward to a dualistic judgment where the earthly oppressed conduits of cosmic good would be vindicated and liberated while their earthly oppressors, viewed as conduits of cosmic evil, would be judged, punished and destroyed. He foresaw liberation for the oppressed but vengeance on oppressors.

Sayings Gosepl Q shows a transition from John’s more punitive liberating judgment to Jesus’s restorative liberation: for Jesus, the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors would be restored. (See last week’s eSight to recall how this story relates to the story of the centurion.)

The liberation represented in the sayings of Jesus was not simply justice for the disinherited and vengeance on their enemies, but also a liberation marked by the healing or restoration of both sides, the subjugated as well as the subjugators. Jesus’s liberation called people away from the dehumanizing way of domination, where we endlessly create more and more effective ways of achieving power and control over others. He instead cast before our imaginations a world of mutual aid and resource sharing, where we together work to survive and then thrive as members of an interconnected human family.

When one couples this description of what the liberation of Jesus looked like—healing, restoration, liberation, and good news to the poor—with last week’s section of the gospel narrative, the point becomes stark. Jesus emerges not as a liberator wielding mass destruction on enemies, but as a liberator who works through restoration, healing, and even the nonviolent transformation of one’s enemies. It’s a humanizing liberation for all.

Granted, those who benefit from the way of domination (i.e. the dominators or those who participate in some way) don’t see this as good news today and didn’t in Jesus’s time either. As Peter Gomes stated in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Jesus’s statement that “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” “is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions [but] is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (p. 42). What is good news to the people at the bottom of the social pyramid will never be perceived as good news to those at the top.

Jesus’s liberation was also problematic to those among the people who thought violent revolution was their only hope. A nonviolent revolution did not seem very promising in the 1st Century; remember, this was before Gandhi and others demonstrated nonviolence. Though it may seem otherwise, liberation rooted in enemy love and transformation rather than the mass destruction of one’s enemies is good news.

Matthew and Luke both use the narrative of John’s disciples to connect Jesus’ liberation of the poor and oppressed with the liberation Isaiah looked forward to. Matthew includes this theme in his expansion of Mark, and Luke expands this theme even more so in his own gospel. An example of Luke’s greater emphasis on liberation is the story only found in Luke from Luke 4:16-20 where Jesus (who by all cultural expectation should have been illiterate) actually reads from Isaiah itself (cf. Isaiah 61.1-2).

For Q, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the long awaited arrival of the liberation that Israel had been looking forward to since the days of Isaiah. Isaiah 35.5-6 states, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” But the nature or character of Isaiah’s liberation brought its own set of challenges, some of which we have mentioned this week. One element of the liberation found in Isaiah, which would have been and still is very puzzling for many, was the image of the suffering servant.

It’s important to realize that the Jesus of the gospels is not inventing nonviolence. He is simply taking the nonviolence in Isaiah seriously. He is leaning into it, exploring where it could lead if skillfully and intentionally applied to his own day and the dynamics between Rome and the Jewish poor.

Healing Versus Destruction

Today, we must be careful in both religious and secular settings not to describe the liberation we’re working toward as a vision of destroying people who oppose our work. Our goal is not to destroy our enemies but to transform them by winning them. John the Baptist’s “one to come” was a destroyer, separating humanity and bringing fire upon the chaff. But Jesus doesn’t quite line up with that description, and it causes John to question whether the people should be “looking for another.”Jesus teaches John that his liberation was quite different: it was to be a different “recompense.” Jesus’s liberating ministry is characterized by the healing, restoration and a radical change in the lives of those the status quo impoverished, for sure, but it was also to be a radical change in humanizing even the oppressors.

Rome had already made life a desert for the majority of Jewish citizens through violent oppression. Jesus did not come as another destroyer promising peace, but as a teacher showing the path toward liberation, life, and healing. He pointed the way to a world where, as Isaiah and Micah had hoped, there was enough for everyone.

“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the YWHW from Jerusalem. He will govern between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2.3-4)

“Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 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 4.2-4, emphasis added.)

This is a world that can be characterized as a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all where all injustice, oppression and violence has been put right.

The question we’re returning to in this series is whether that vision cast by the Jewish Jesus in the 1st Century has any relevance to our world of corporatism, militarism, bigotry, and fear. Many in Jesus’s Galilean audience desperately longed for a change from Roman imperialist tyranny. And Jesus offered a path rooted in our interconnectedness with each other; a subversive way that called us to take up the work of making our world a safer home for us all.

To each of you on this path of healing and restoration as opposed to the path of destruction: may this week’s section of Q encourage and confirm you in the energy you invest in those around you:

“ . . . the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor . . . ” (Sayings Gospel Q 7:18-23)

Whatever portion of the work you are investing your time in, be of courage. Together we are making a difference in bringing liberation to the lives of those who are suffering.

HeartGroup Application

This week, go back and review John’s description of what he thought Jesus would be and the gospel writers’ description of what Jesus actually was.

  1. Try listing at least five contrasts between the two.
  2. Do you see these contrasting visions in contemporary religious groups of people who value the Jesus story? Which some communities do you see continuing John the Baptist’s work, warning of a coming destruction, living an ascetic life, and crying out repent? Which communities do you sense are focused on healing and liberation from suffering today? Which communities, like the one I grew up, are a hybrid of both?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how you can lean into being a community centered in healing and restoration, and pick at least one action step from your discussion to begin implementing.

We are in this together, and there’s still so much work to do. Thank you for being on this journey of transformation and restoration, too. Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Words to the Disinherited: Salt, Light, Justice, and Anger 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Eyes close-up little boy

“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.14)

Last week we talked about the difference it makes when we place the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus belonging to and speaking among the community of the oppressed.

I’ve taken this week’s title from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have not read Thurman’s work, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a short read, and packed with insight.

There are four passages from the Sermon on the Mount that I’d like you to consider this week. Notice how each changes when we name their audience as the disinherited.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5.13)

New studies show how first century farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his audience to more fully engage this world, “the earth,” not to escape it. The metaphor is about re-enriching the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth. Jesus directs the oppressed to place their focus on “this world,” not the next. He directs his audience away from escape and he empowers them to make a difference in the world they live in.

Imagine it this way. Compassion and safety for everyone are just two of the plants that grow out of the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is here telling the marginalized and oppressed that they are the salt of the earth. Their inclusion can give back to the soil of a society the nutrients of a wider consciousness and perspective that enables compassion and safety for all to grow again. Including marginalized voices enables one to integrate the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: inclusion uproots weeds of fear and insecurity, and provides rich soil for a society to produce compassion in the place of those weeds.

Our societies today are depleted of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems also force to live on the fringes. Jesus actually believes they are the “salt,” or the fertilizer, and their voices will give back to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to the societies of our world. Remember, Jesus is looking at the disinherited when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As we have said so often, Jesus’ shared table must not be homogenous. It is at a heterogenous table that we share our unique and different life experiences, form a more beautiful and coherent world view, and make this world a safer more compassionate place for us all. Through this teaching, Jesus is saying that it is the subordinated, the oppressed, and marginalized who restore the nutrients of society’s depleted soil. It is the disinherited who are the “salt of the earth.”

The Light of the World

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine. (Matthew 5:14-15)

When we understand Jesus’ audience to be the disinherited Jews, those who are pressed down, and those who are silenced even among the ones forced to live on Jewish society’s fringes, it becomes empowering to hear Jesus affirm that they are the light of the world. Jesus is investing those around him with value and telling them not to hide their light. They are to “let their light shine!”

Some of you who are reading this have been told that your voice is not welcome. You have been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this darkened society needs.” Remember, darkness is only the absence of light. When we exclude and marginalize voices, their very absence creates darkness in society. And as Dr. King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Jesus is telling you that the inclusion of your voice brings “the light.” Your story is worthy of being shared at Jesus’ table. It is to you that he says, “Let your light shine!”

There is also another truth to what Jesus is saying here. Too often, Christians have taken for granted that they are the light of the world when they have been the ones in society calling for the exclusion of those unlike themselves. Whether it be with Jews and Muslims during the crusades, the silencing of women’s voices by patriarchal Christians, Black voices by White Christians, the voices of the poor by rich Christians, or the voices and stories of those who belong to the LGBTQ community by christians in general.) Yes, there are exceptions, but as a rule, Christians have made some of the loudest calls for certain voices, certain stories, to be pushed to the margins. Certain people are not ordained worthy of being heard.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of that voice creates darkness. It is the excluded and marginalized in every situation who are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back to dispel the darkness that their absence created. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light,” and instead become the creators of darkness itself. “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.23) It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

Surpassing Retributive Justice

Unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20)

The community that Jesus is speaking to here is one whose theism, morality and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Law and the Prophets approved and taught by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These groups were the religious educators of the Jewish working class. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these teachers, and in this saying, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings.

The Pharisees believed in a Messiah who would usher in world peace, and many believed this peace would come through a sword retributively raised against Israel’s enemies and energized and supernaturally empowered by the strictest Torah observance.

The justice that Jesus is placing before them in Matthew is of an entirely different nature: it is a restorative, transformative, liberating justice that includes one’s enemies. Jesus is clear in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Fullfil” here in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to perfect. In the very next verse Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The word here for “accomplished” is ginomai which also means “to perfect or complete.” By implication, that which precedes this perfecting is imperfect or incomplete. What Jesus addresses in verse 20 is the retributive, punitive justice that is often found among those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Retributive justice is one of the elements that Jesus is referring to as incomplete, partial, underdeveloped and imperfect. Yes, within the Law and the Prophets one may find a justice defined as an eye for an eye. But one will also find a more complete, restorative, transformative Justice, too. Jesus is calling his audience away from an imperfect retributive justice to a more complete and holistic restorative kind. Jesus’ quality of justice was to “surpass” the eye-for-an-eye justice longed for by his contemporaries. So is the justice of his followers.

Liberation from Internalized Anger

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

This passage, our last for today, is where we see Jesus beginning to describe how his teachings would surpass the teachings his community was used to hearing. As we discovered last week, Jesus invites us to stop viewing well-being as solely external and recognize its internal nature as well. In this passage, Jesus is naming the hatred that those who have been wronged so often feel toward those who have wronged them. He teaches that the external liberation the disinherited so deeply long for is founded on prior internal liberation. An example of this is found in his teachings on nonviolence. These teachings were not simply techniques for more effective protest: they were that and they were also much more than that. Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence was rooted in an internalized love for enemies and forgiveness that enabled the Jesus follower to think and feel radically differently toward their enemies, to transcend revenge and instead work for their enemies’ transformation. Ponder what Jesus is saying in Matthew 15:

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.’ (Matthew 15:10-20, emphasis added)

If Jesus’ disinherited peers were to experience liberation from their enemies, it would be because they were internally liberated from ‘anger’ against one’s enemies. Anger, wrongly placed, too often turns efforts that could have been restorative from transformation to retribution and mere punitive revenge. As King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This teaching highlights two ditches, two places we could stumble. One ditch is the idea that the disinherited need to focus only on external liberation with no thought for their internal relation to their oppressors. The second is the belief that all one needs is internal liberation, and that when this is in place it no longer matters whether a person is externally liberated. This second ditch has been dug over and over throughout history in the path of the oppressed: it pacifies the oppressed and leaves the status quo unchallenged and undisturbed. I see this too often, even today.

But make no mistake: Jesus’ new social order, Jesus’ new world, what he called “the Kingdom,” is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally. The new world subverts the status quo here, now. The whole system is to be dismantled. Jesus’ revolution doesn’t end with internalized liberation from hatred, fear, and anger toward one’s enemies. That is only where Jesus’ revolution begins.

HeartGroup Application

Reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ audience being his own community, a disinherited people. May this small interpretative key turn on some more lights for you as it does for me.

  1. Choose a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week and contemplate its meaning within the context of his audience being his fellow oppressed. How does this audience inform your understanding of his words?
  2. Journal what you discover.
  3. Share your insights with your HeartGroup, your Shared Table, this week.

In the introduction to Jesus and the Disinherited, Vincent Harding eloquently states that Jesus’ teachings are replete with significance for any group being subordinated in modern domination systems: “Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, many women, and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions” and the Black people Thurman originally wrote to. Today, so many make up the community of the disinherited, oppressed, marginalized, or as Thurman would put it, those whose backs are against the wall.” Jesus’ teachings directly empower these community members to live with dignity and creativity as they move toward liberation.

Whatever your place in this world, whether you belong to the community of the poor, the Native Americans, African-Americans, cisgender women, women of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, YOU have the power to enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of our society, YOU are the light of this world, and it is your voice that must be heard at Jesus’ table as we journey together toward a meaningful, more coherent whole, and a safer, more compassionate world for all.

Jesus’ new world is coming. In fact, in those whose hearts the Kingdom’s mustard seed has already sprouted, Jesus’ new world has already begun.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, enriching the soil of the earth around you, and shining bright like cities on hills, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.