Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“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. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

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

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

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

Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Sayings Gospel Q: Workers for the Harvest 

A picture of harvest, and reaping tools, but no laborersWhat do you want the next revolution to look like?

by Herb Montgomery

“He said to his disciples: The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. So ask the Lord of the harvest to dispatch workers into his harvest.” (Q 10:2)

Companion Texts

Luke 10:1-2: “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Matthew 9:35-38: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Gospel of Thomas 73: “Jesus says: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but there are few workers. But beg the Lord that he may send workers into the harvest.’”

A Ripe Harvest; No Laborers

The image of a plentiful harvest and few laborers to reap it would have spoken volumes to the audience that Jesus’ teachings resonated with. In that audience would have been indentured farmers who now found themselves being little more than indentured slaves. They had used to own land, but now labored hard to survive from day to day on land that now belonged to their wealthy creditors.

It has been said that you can’t force a revolution, and all one can do is be ready and prepared for one.

The Jewish societies of 1st Century Galilee and Judea were brimming, boiling with the spirit of sometimes violent revolution, and things were about to boil over. The poor were becoming more and more exploited. The indentured farmers were becoming more and more enslaved. The laboring class was becoming more and more oppressed by a wealthy aristocracy. And political oppression from the Romans combined with economic oppression from the Jewish aristocracy and temple class was about to reach its limit.

The Jewish Roman war of 66-69 CE is evidence of this. This war didn’t just happen out of thin air. There was a long and slow build up that finally erupted, and the horrific outcome was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jesus’s saying this week is best understood with this historical backdrop. His efforts in Sayings Gospel Q are designed to avert failed revolution and the Roman backlash that was sure to come. Just like Hillel before him, Jesus was endeavoring to present a nonviolent revolution of restorative and transformative justice in the place of the divisive and violent revolution and the spirit of retribution that was growing in popularity at that time.

Revolution was brewing. The harvest was ripe. But finding those who understood the larger picture of what would result and how to avert catastrophe was a challenge. The numbers of those who sought out and taught the kind of revolution Jesus taught were few, according to this week’s saying. This different revolution was centered in voluntary wealth-redistribution, in resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, restitution as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed. It was rooted in the wealthy forgiving and cancelling debts, and the poor laboring class taking care of the sick and sharing of food with each other. In short, if embraced, it was a way of ordering society that would have revolutionized Jewish society as well as threatened the Roman way of life to its core.

The societal elements were ripe for this kind of harvest, but the workers, those who would labor a revolution characterized by these elements, were few.

Various Gospels

The fact that this saying survived to be included in the more platonic, introspective Gospel of Thomas is significant. This statement has an urgency even when removed from its Jerusalem context.

The gospel of Matthew, the first we know to have included this saying, situates it in a more sympathetic, compassionate context. Jesus is traversing the countryside, teaching and healing, and, on seeing the crowds, views the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” More violent “shepherds” would surface in the coming years, and I can’t help but believe that Jesus understood the social dynamics in play and longed to save the “sheep” from being slaughtered.

Luke takes this saying and places a context of Jesus actually appointing and sending out seventy-two promoters, campaigners if you will, that would engage communities ahead of his arrival as he continued to travel and teach. These seventy-two campaigners would have been those who had already bought into the kind of society envisioned in Jesus’ “stump-speeches” later written in Sayings Gospel Q. As we’ve shared in previous weeks, the sayings in Sayings Gospel Q later became Matthew’s sermon on the mount and Luke’s sermon on the plain.

Second American Revolution

In our time, there are those who believe that a second American Revolution is coming. From those like George Orwell to those in more contemporary counter-cultural movements, some point to ever-worsening polls and people’s growing contempt for their governments as signs. The rumblings of our society suggest that a growing number of people are ripening for another American revolution. It’s not so far-fetched.

As with all revolutions, we have choices. We have an opportunity to shape what our revolution will look like. Could our society benefit in any way from a revolution characterized by some of the values and elements that the Jesus of sayings gospel Q offered? Voluntary wealth-redistribution, resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, restitution as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed: could this be a revolution we could live with? We could have a revolution where the wealthy choose to forgive or cancel of the debts of poor debtors, and a society where we take care of the sick together and ensure there is enough for everyone. We could have a safer, more compassionate, just world for us all.

This kind of revolution could begin in the hearts of humanity, allowing us to perceive one another and embrace our interconnectedness, our interdependence. It would transform our society. The reality is that it would also threaten our social elite classes. It could not be accomplished simply by replacing one hegemony with another.

John Lennon wrote, “You can say I’m just a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” There have been others, in every generation, especially from the marginalized and subjugated classes, that have envisioned this kind of society and worked to garnish support to experiment with what a society like this could look like.

Even theologians, who too often have benefitted in societies of oppression, are also opening up to a different lens. Christians specifically are waking up to a whole new and more historically accurate way of reading the Jesus story itself.

Gustavo Gutierrez, in the 15th anniversary edition of his A Theology of Liberation, states quite correctly:

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.”

Where might this revolution begin for us, today, right now? Perhaps with a simple choice from each of us. We can embrace a way of life where people take responsibility for taking care of each other as people taking care of people. This seems to me to be the root that, if really perceived and embraced, could threaten the whole domination structure.

Today, a harvest is ripening.

And, unlike in Jesus’s saying, there are many “laborers” teaching values that parallel and sometimes even center the values and ethics found in the sayings of Jesus in Q. Some of these laborers are within Christianity, but quite a few of them are not. It is this universal set of values that we must begin to recognize.

May it not be said of those who long for more holistic changes and have learned to recognize this universal set of values:

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. (Q 10.2)

HeartGroup Application

Often our texts this week are used to refer to evangelistic efforts within a Christian religious context where people labor to win as many converts as possible to one’s own religious beliefs. What does it begin to look like for you to take these texts out of that context and place them back within the revolutionary world of the 1st Century?

    1. What changes? (Make a list)
    2. Share with your HeartGroup which changes you feel are the most profound to you personally. Discuss together the practical difference that paradigm shifts such as these could make.
    3. Individually consider what these changes mean for you. Then, as a group, brainstorm how you can support one another as you each lean more deeply into these changes.

To each of you out there laboring for change, you’re not alone. Keep living out those values, living in love, setting in motion a different tomorrow. In the words of the late Howard Zinn, “What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people that lay the basis for the events of human history. These are the people who have made change in the past; they are responsible for making change in the future, too.” (Quoted in Requiem for the American Dream.)

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.