Great Joy for All People (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | January 10, 2020

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Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.


Happy new year! As we begin 2020, let’s take one last look at our series for this recent Advent season and the springboard it provides us for this new year. In Part 1 and 2, we looked at Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus in the social contexts of Rome, Judaism under Roman imperialism, and early Christianity. We asked whether the birth-narratives have anything to offer us in our justice work today, politically, economically, socially and theologically. I want to end our holiday consideration with Luke’s Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1).

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

We have seen that Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus both converged with the social, political, and economic hopes of their day, and diverged from and sometimes subverted the social, political, and economic practices of Rome. Mary’s Magnificat matters because of this context.

The first thing to notice about it is that Mary’s praise contains absolutely no reference to the afterlife in relation to the one she has conceived and the hopes she believes her child will fulfill.

Some Christians may be surprised that Mary’s words of gratitude and praise are not rooted in thankfulness for needed relief from a post-mortem hell and the gift of an eternity in heaven. Line by line, Mary’s words instead express gratitude for relief and liberation from the oppressive realities she and her Jewish society experience in this life, in the here and now.

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the beginning of his last book, Path of Life, “Genuine religion is not about speculating about God or the soul or about what happened in the past or will happen in the future; it cares only about one thing—finding out exactly what should or should not be done in this lifetime” (p. 3).

Christianity today is deeply focused on attaining heaven in an afterlife and avoiding or escaping hell, but that is not the focus of the Jesus narratives. Christianity’s focus on the afterlife has too often produced profoundly harmful fruit. To the same degree, where Christianity has focused on liberation, justice, and equity in this life, it has produced profoundly life-giving fruit. Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader in the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, commented on this history:

“The non-ethical practices and beliefs in historical Christianity nearly all center on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.” (Walter Rauschenbusch; A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 15)

Many sectors of Western Christianity still miss this point today. Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker give several examples in their beautiful book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. One such example that explains how Evangelical Christianity today has become such an obstruction to matters of social justice is the history of the First Great Awakening:

“Rather than engage people more deeply in the world, the Great Awakening lifted the soul beyond earthly life, to the ‘upper world.’ [Jonathan] Edwards’s earthly loves had always to point beyond themselves—to primary beauty—and, as he said, even the love of other human beings was ‘secondary beauty.’ To look through earth into heaven, through death into eternity, through the beloved into God was the spiritual ideal. To love in this way was always to have your heart, mind, and soul turned elsewhere, perpetually departing the present for something better. Edwards’s beauty did not draw people into ethical engagement with life in this world, but moved them beyond the spirits in trees and clouds, dirt and rain, fish and deer, and bodies and winds. He asked them to dwell with one foot always in another, better world, not here, not now.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 371)

History is littered with other examples of how an otherworldly, afterlife focus in Christianity has brought concrete damage to communities on the margins of their society. Christianity may have begun as a community on the edges of its society, but today, from a position of power and privilege, it has a history of becoming complicit with harm and even participating in pushing others to the edges of society instead.

Jesus’ story, including his Christmas birth narratives, speak of liberation from oppression in this life, the end of injustice in this life, and the end of violence and marginalization in this life. We can glean much from the Jesus story for our justice work today, and the story’s largest focus is economic justice. That foundation allows us to discern applications for the other kinds of distributive, reparative, and restorative justices we have discussed throughout this entire series.

Let’s begin with this phrase found above:

“He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”

This phrase still offends those who have more than they could ever possibly need in a world where others are barely surviving. But before we alleviate the discomfort of Mary’s words, let’s consider what other types of injustice we could apply them to today.

In matters of racial justice, these words today could read:

“He has filled people of color with good things
but has sent White people away empty.”

In matters of immigrant justice, these words could read:

“He has filled those fleeing violence in their homelands with good things
but has sent privileged citizens away empty.”

In matters of gender inequity, these words could read:

“He has filled cis and trans women with good things
but has sent men away empty.”

In matters of LGBTQIA justice, it could read:

“He has filled Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender, Asexual, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning people with good things
but has sent straight, heterosexual folks away empty.”

In matters of Indigenous justice, it could read:

“He has filled the First Nations with good things
but has sent the colonialists away empty.”

Like many of Jesus’ words, these words can be perceived as good news by some in society and as problematic by others. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s great news for those ranked last in the present system. It’s at least problematic for those who have worked their entire lives to be privileged as first.

Statements like these from Mary and Jesus help us understand why the elites, privileged, and powerful of Jesus’ concluded that Jesus, his influence, and his teachings must be silenced and removed.

Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.

One example is in Jesus’ teachings on the tradition of nonviolence. This month, RHM’s featured book of the month is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Nonviolent methods are beneficial to those working for interpersonal and social change, and in 2020, we will focus on these teachings of Jesus to discover:

  • How Christians can be better humans
  • How Christians can engage the work of reparations for the harm they have been both complicit in and committed themselves to marginalized groups.
  • How we can work toward a world of love and justice in life-giving ways.

The Jesus story doesn’t end with his teachings being problematic for the powerful and privileged, with his execution for the social problems he was creating/solving, or even Jesus’ murder and resurrection. The story reaches its climax with the early followers of Jesus learning to follow his example and seeing the universal truths they had encountered in Jesus working through themselves.

“The disciples also saw that the spirit that had worked within Jesus continued to work in and through them. In their preaching they extended his critique of domination. They continued his life by advancing his mission. They persisted in proclaiming the domination-free order of God inaugurated by Jesus.” (Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, p. 153 )

That’s the order we proclaim too. Another world is possible if we choose it, and this new year, this new decade will offer us many opportunities to make it if we wish.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within the group this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  2. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger faith community this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  3. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger society this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.

Here’s to a world of love and justice and the work required by each of us to create it.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Happy New Year to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Great Joy for All People (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | December 20, 2019

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“Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism . . . In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.”


We’re picking up where we left off in Part 1.

Judaism in Imperial Rome

Living in Roman-occupied territory, Jewish people hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of prophecies valued within first-century Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision of the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing visions of the fate of the Gentiles, including the Romans. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, ‘Where is the Lord your God?’ My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of this world’s future. The other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression, and violence would cease. Other prophets also envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this Jewish, pre-Christian vision also included a Messiah figure who would birth this new world into existence:

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

Another example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

We can see from these passages that when the book of Luke was written, many within Judaism hoped for a restored world where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. Some believed this would be accompanied by violent retribution against oppressors, and others believed the Messiah figure would bring more restorative, distributive, nonviolent, and reconciling justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he includes a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins his birth story with John’s conception, before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke parallels that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

It also parallels the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2). For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus, the renewed “David.” At his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple in Jewish birth-narratives and were especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Imperial Rome, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this Christmas passage:

Bold phrases represent the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and Italics represent a subversion of Roman imperialism. Black and Italicized phrases represent both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” ( Luke 2:10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas, from the time of Caesar Augustus onward, the title “the Lord” meant the emperor, just as “der Führer” meant “the leader” in German. Eventually, that term designated Adolf Hitler as Germany’s supreme and only leader. In that context, to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau (p. 154).

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.
By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him… For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added)

That year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus), and it was named Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace that Rome proclaimed was a peace achieved through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in the restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class and most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows Jesus’ entire message in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel (through violence) and the peace gospel of Jesus (through distributive justice) come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored distributive justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas, p. 166).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolently-achieved, distributive-justice of Jesus produces lasting peace. Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, but Luke’s Jesus points the way to peace based upon distributive justice achieved through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, too often it is certain sectors of Christianity versus Jesus.

Luke’s Christmas story offers more than a private peace of mind for Christians. It points to a path to peace on earth for everyone, and a peace that comes through distributive justice for all, especially those marginalized in the present system. In our next and final installment of this holiday series, we’ll consider this further.

For this week, it’s enough to ponder the words:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:11-14)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week as you gather together before Christmas, take some time to go around the room and say something you appreciate or value about each person.
  2. Next, share with your group something you are grateful for from 2019. Take time to celebrate and be thankful together as this year comes to a close.
  3. Share something you are hopeful for or looking forward to in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Also, all year-end donations to Renewed Heart Ministries are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your year-end gift go twice as far as we move into the next decade. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners for the coming year. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

Happy holidays to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in the new year.

Great Joy for All People (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | December 13, 2019

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“Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?”


 

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10)

Advent season has begun!

Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?

To answer these questions, we have to go back and try to read the story from the social locations of its intended audience. These narratives are primarily concerned with this world and this life, not with heaven. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A “spiritual” or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the expanding Roman Empire’s culture and European colonialism. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives as being about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were political, economic, and social, as well as theological! And they pointed toward the hope of the end of violence, injustice, and oppression: good news, of great joy, for all people.

First, acknowledging the political context in which Jesus-narratives were written is important. Borg and Crossan, speaking of their own books’ focus on the political context of the Jesus stories, remind us:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”— Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 55

The political context of the Jesus stories could forever change how we read the birth narratives of Jesus. In Luke, these narratives were originally intended to subvert the systemic injustice in the Roman Empire. They speak to our time too. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of these stories and rightly apply them to our justice work today, we must begin by reading them in the matrix of Imperial Rome alongside the hopes of many in first-century Judaism. The titles given to that babe in a manger were, in the Roman world, titles given to the emperor, Caesar. The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than their conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through a restored distributive justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Luke’s birth narrative is quite different from Matthew’s. One difference is that Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew’s does. Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ in geography: Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then from there moves onto Nazareth. Finally, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Jewish, Jesus-followers in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile Jesus-following audience. This may help to explain why Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke takes a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

These stories are not about a debate between Christianity and Judaism. We do see an early hybrid Christian-and-Jewish move against Roman imperialism. Early Jewish Jesus-followers lived within Judaism and while they were in dialogue and even compete with the other Jewish voices, they were still Jewish.

This is the backdrop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel, not as much in Luke as we find in John. Yet Luke contains more than Matthew, and definitely, more than we find in Mark.

We can explore Luke’s agenda when we read Luke’s birth-narratives of Jesus through these filters:

  1. First-century Christianity,
  2. Christianity within first-century Judaism; and
  3. Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism.

We’ll start with Roman imperialism, and work our way backward.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a social order and its exercise of (or lack of) distributive justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for peace within its empire.

During the time of Luke’s birth narrative, it was Augustus Caesar who received the titles Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Rome had experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy, and Augustus was regarded as a god. In addition to his other titles, he was dubbed Augustus in Latin (one who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (one who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects of Rome produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four imperial aspects in his gospel.

In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents Jesus teaching nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus teaching wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.”

Scholar Adolf Gustav Deissmann once wrote of “the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (Light from the Ancient East, p. 349). Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities like Mars the god of war, but Caesar was worshipped as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives reinforces this. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, his father dreamed that the sun rose from his wife Atias’ womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

This description of Augustus Caesar’s conception is from the 2nd Century CE and cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden, a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in modern Turkey refers to Augustus as “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.” So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

This is why the Christmas stories for Luke’s gospel are significant: Luke’s birth narratives allow the author to draw a deep contrast between Rome’s vision for society (the Pax Romana) and Jesus’ vision for a society of distributive justice, especially for the presently marginalized. This contrast provides rich insights for us today who are also working toward a world characterized by distributive justice for all.

We’ll see this more deeply as we discuss Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism next week. I wanted to start this series by showing how deeply Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus are political contrasts between Jesus and his vision for society and Caesar and Rome’s vision for society.

Those who allow the Jesus story to speak into their lives today as we all work together to shape our world into a safe, compassionate, distributively just home for everyone will have lots to consider.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the political implications that you see in Luke’s birth narratives in the context of the above contrasts of Luke’s gospel between Jesus (and his vision for society) and imperial Rome? Discuss with your group. (One example of where to start is Mary’s declarations beginning in Luke 1:46)
  2. Discuss with your group what applications can be drawn from these narratives in our work of making society more just, today.
  3. Pick something from your discussion that you can implement or practice as a group in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Remember, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries, this month, are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

Houses Built on Rock or Sand

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

A Little Background

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

Bedrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weathering A Coming Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to:

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

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

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

I’ll see you next week.