The Sign of Jonah for This Generation 

Aircraft warning lightby Herb Montgomery

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it — except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” Q 11:16, 29-30 

Matthew 12:38-40: “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’”

Luke 11:16, 29-30: “Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’”

This week’s saying is another challenging one.. First, the saying is based on the Jewish story of Jonah, a big fish, and the Assyrian capital Nineveh. The Jewishness of this story and its specific application to the Jewish citizens in Galilee and Judea may be one reason why it doesn’t appear in the more Platonic collection of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Thomas. But there’s a lot in these verses  that bears all the marks of belonging to a 1st Century Jewish liberation rabbi and prophet for the poor.

The ancient city of Nineveh was known for decimating the poor and vulnerable. Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital, was also the empire responsible for annihilating the people in the northern territories of Israel. In the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah arrives at Nineveh with a message that Nineveh’s time is up and their account has been called due. His message is not a warning or a call to repentance. It’s simply an announcement: in forty days, Ninevah is going to be destroyed.

What happens next in the story is that the king calls the people throughout the empire to repentance. The people repent, and Israel’s God has a change of mind and calls off the threatened destruction. Nineveh will now be spared.

I believe Jonah’s response is the point of this story: He is enraged at God’s change of heart.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live with these Ninevites.’” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The point of the story is to point to a more inclusive worship of YHWH among the Hebrew people. Jonah would rather be dead than share the earth with “them,” and the story seems to rebuke him for this.

If any of us are excluded, ultimately it won’t be because we did not believe in a world that could include us, but because we could not stomach a world where others are included that we feel should be excluded.

That’s the story behind this week’s saying. The question I want to consider is what is this “sign of Jonah” spoken of in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions? A long tradition based on Matthew’s version assumes the historically reliability of the story of Jonah’s big fish.

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

In short, for Matthew’s community, the sign of Jonah was about Jesus’s resurrection. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jesus will be in the grave for three days and then be resurrected.

If this is what the sign of Jonah refers to, it’s more plausible that this is a section of the saying added by Jesus’ followers after the resurrection event rather than a prediction Jesus made beforehand. This interpretation produces more questions than answers for me though.

It is also curious that Luke defines the sign of Jonah differently. In Luke the big fish is left out, and so is the resurrection as a sign. In Luke, Jonah himself, his arrival, and his message are the only sign the Ninevites receive:

“As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’” (Luke 11:29-30, Emphasis added.)

Jonah came with his message of judgment against the wicked, and the Ninevites, with no assurance that their repentance would avert their destruction, took a risk and repented anyway.

Jesus’ audience in the 1st Century is also a society, a “generation,” that is oppressing the poor and will reap the intrinsic disaster that this eventually brings. The poor and economically oppressed in any community are always the ones susceptible to militaristic, hate-speaking, charismatic messiahs who promise a new day if they will follow them. Josephus tells us that it was the poor and economically exploited who formed the body of rebels that took control of the temple away from the Jewish elites and led the rebellion against Rome. The very first thing they did when gaining control of the Temple was to burn the records of the debts they owed to the wealthy aristocrats.

“The Sicarii [violent, radical zealots] and lower-class citizens force their way into the Temple and join themselves with the revolutionary priests (2.17.6 425) Together they force the royalists out of the upper city; the troops and Ananias take refuge in Herod the Great’s palace. The rebels burn the houses of Ananias and the palaces of Agrippa and Berenice, along with the Record Office, destroying the records of outstanding debts.” (See http://josephus.org/warChronology1.htm)

The end result is tremendously sad: forty years after Jesus, a violent backlash breaks out in Jerusalem and escalates to violent revolt against Rome. The outcome is the total annihilation of Jerusalem.

Jesus, like Jonah, came warning of destruction on the horizon. Jesus’ warning was about the intrinsic consequences of injustice, and was more organic than imposed. But it was an announcement nonetheless. Whereas Jonah was sad to see Nineveh turn and repent, Jesus was sad to see his community fail to do so. And just as the only sign given to Nineveh was Jonah and his message, Jesus, in Luke, tells us that the only sign that will be given to his generation is himself and his message.

Both versions of this week’s saying conclude:

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41, Luke 11:32)

What relevance might this story have to what we are experiencing here in America this week?

In 2010, Noam Chomsky wrote:

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.” (See Noam Chomsky called this political moment 6 years ago)

Could we as an American society be on a path similar to the society in Jesus’ time and place? What so many disenfranchised people in Jesus’ day thought were solutions brought untold destruction to all.

Yes, our society needs healing. It needs fixing. But whatever “great again” means, it has to mean great for everyone. We must define it as justice for everyone. We cannot afford to solve the problems of the future for ourselves at the expense of someone else because all we have is each other. I wrote this some weeks ago, but it’s even more relevant this week.

“There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.” (Looting a Strong Person)

So with this in mind, let us contemplate what warnings exist for us today as we’re challenged to continue our work of transforming our world into a safe home for us all.

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it—except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” (Q 11:16, 29-30)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want to you to brainstorm together as a group. Make these lists:

  1. What does resistance to injustice look like for you and your HeartGroup as you follow Jesus’ example of choosing the path of solidarity with those on the undersides of our society? List at least five ways you can participate in the work of resistance. Be creative.
  2. What does mutually working for the survival of those in your HeartGroup look like if you were to follow Jesus’ example in the ways you listed in your answer to the first question? How can you support each other? List at least five ways you can support one another in the work of survival. Be creative.
  3. Staying focused on thriving, not just for yourself at others’ expense but in a world where we all can thrive, pick something from each list you created and together put each into practice this week.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love characterized by resistance, survival, liberating the oppressed and disenfranchised, restoration, and transformation. Till hope shines bright again, or, for some, for the very first time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams in her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk writes:

It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131)

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.