Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community (Part 2)

Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

by Herb Montgomery | May 10, 2018

photo of rustic table set for many people

Photo credit: Hanna Busing; Unsplash


“Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle.”


 

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10:17-21)

Last week we looked at various shapes that human societal structures can take and compared them to Jesus’ vision for human community, a shared table. We considered that Jesus’ teachings were political, with an economic emphasis on distributive justice, not merely distant, purely religious theology.

I also want to be careful not to spiritualize Jesus’ vision. Jesus wasn’t telling us how to structure churches or worship services. His vision for human community was much larger: concerned with the structures of human community that create systemic oppression and social, political, and economic exploitation.

Jesus spoke about economics more than any other topic. He did not propose a system of charity, with the haves giving to the have-nots and leaving the system that creates haves and have-nots untouched. No. The vision of Jesus that we get from the stories was of an entirely different social order, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough, where “sun” and “rain” were distributed justly on all. (See Matthew 5:45)

As he taught his followers in Luke: 

“‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven [by giving to the poor] that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is [in the poor], there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

It is appropriate for Jesus to address his audience’s fear here. Fear is the primary emotion that causes us to hoard more than we need for today. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” He then reassures his followers, “It’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is not a world where the haves have all their possessions stripped away and given to the have nots. This is not a reversal of fortunes, but a redistribution that makes sure everyone has enough. Our fear of the future is replaced by a trust in our community—that we will take care of each other. 

Jesus was calling those who had more than they needed to liquidate those properties and give to those whom the system had impoverished. This was a kind of wealth redistribution: sharing. Poverty is not the result of chance. It’s is the end result of how economic systems are structured. Chance and accidents will happen, but Jesus was offering a way to include everyone rather than benefit a few at the expense of the many. At its foundation, Jesus’ vision was a call to redistribute hoarded wealth, and his shared table taught shared economics.

Any time we speak of wealth redistribution, those who barely have enough start getting upset. They clutch the little they have and say you’re not going to take it away from me and give it to someone else. This is understandable. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to people who were just breaking even. In Luke, Jesus is speaking to those who have considerably more than what they needed. Jesus’ vision was a social and economic order that benefitted everyone, together, where everyone took care of one another. Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle. Jesus’ shared table was rooted in equity. Everyone might not necessarily have the same, but no one would go without.

In 1902, a Russian naturalist and anarchist philosopher named Peter Kropotkin wrote an essay collection titled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In these essays, Kropotkin described mutually beneficial cooperation and reciprocity in both the animal world and human society. What he discovered was contrary to social Darwinism. The societies and species that were the “fittest” were not necessarily the strongest, where the strong ate the weak. The fittest communities practiced mutual aid. The strong took care of the weak. These species had the highest rates of “survival.”

What developed out of Jesus’ teachings was a community that sought to practice that kind of voluntary, non authoritarian, mutual aid. 

Ability and Need

In the book of Acts, which is believed to have been written by the same author as Luke’s gospel, we find that the very first fruit of embracing Jesus’ vision for human society, his shared table, was economic. The very first change that followers made when they were baptized into the Jesus community of the 1st Century was to sell your extra so others would have enough or receive from others so that you had enough.

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

Two chapters later we discover that these believers had completely eliminated poverty within their growing but small community.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis added.)

In this community, each person contributed “as each one was able” (Acts 11:29). And within this community, each person was given to “according to their need.” (Acts 2:45; 4:35)  Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

The Jewish Sayings of Jesus contain the earliest version of Jesus’ instructions to those who creating these community structures. We spent an entire two years on this collection of sayings found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (see Sayings Gospel Q: A Two Year Journey Reaches Its End)

If you are new to Q, an excellent place to begin is James Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News. I want to share two sections from Robinson that give insight on what we are discussing this week: 

“His basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on. (The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News; Kindle Locations 138-142)

“By using the ‘kingdom of God,’ Jesus put his ideal for society in an antithetical relation both to other political and social systems and to individual self-interest (“looking out for number one”). The human dilemma is, in large part, that we are each other’s fate. We become the tool of evil that ruins another person as we look out for ourselves, having long abandoned any youthful idealism we might once have cherished. But if we each would cease and desist from pushing the other down to keep ourselves up, then the vicious cycle would be broken. Society would become mutually supportive rather than self-destructive. This is what Jesus was up to . . . Put in language derived from his sayings: I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”).” (Kindle Locations 56-77) 

Equity often feels like oppression to those who have more than they need. Many have solved the problem of future uncertainty by hoarding for themselves today, others be damned. For them, this is not about possessions as much as it about surviving if something bad should happen to them in the future. I believe Jesus realized this. His vision for human society was to create a community where people will care for you if some ill fate should impact you in the future, and, right now, you provide for someone devastated by ill fate today. 

Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. The system Jesus taught where we take care of one another is a much better solution for the future than fear. Why not give it a try?

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10.17-21)

HeartGroup Application

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells one of the wealthy, religious and political elites, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41).

1. What does this mean for us today? Did Jesus really mean that “everything” is tied to our generosity toward those our present system impoverishes? It doesn’t matter why someone is othered and marginalized, whether because of race, gender, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability or whatever! Everything is connected to our attitudes toward those who face exclusion and/or exploitation: whether we are generous and compassionate or participate in the exploitative status quo. Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

2. Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed Jesus’ preferential option for the marginalized and vulnerable. What does it look like to learn to listen to and believe the experiences of those the present structure disadvantages and exploits? Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

3. Is it enough to grant everyone an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still produces haves and have-nots? Did Jesus envision a different social structure where no one became a have-not? What examples do we have of attempts to create societies like that in the past? What prevented these societies from being successful? What external or internal challenges were involved? Discuss these questions with your HeartGroup.

Pick a practice you shared in number 2 above and practice it this week. What difference does it makes in your “generosity” toward the marginalized. Experiment with it. See if it’s true that in creating a world where generosity and compassion are exercised toward those exploited, “everything becomes clean.”

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Response to a Town’s Rejection

by Herb Montgomery

“But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town.” (Q 10:10-12)

Picture of dirty sandaled feetCompanion Texts:

Matthew 10:14-15: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Luke 10:10-12: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Our saying this week has a long history of anti-Semitism. Christians have used the phrase “shaking the dust from one’s feet” as a symbol of Jews rejecting Gentiles. But it is simplistic to say that Jews shook the dust off of their feet when leaving Gentile territories as a rejection of Gentiles and it is anti-Semitic to use it to justify rejecting Jews for their rejection of “Jesus as their Messiah.”

What is a better way to understand this ancient practice?

Shaking Dust from One’s Feet

If this was a practice of the first century Jewish people it would have most likely been a practice of those who followed the Pharisaical school of Shammai. The school of Shammai wanted to maintain the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in an effort to preserve Jewish identity and culture when Hellenism was threatening their culture. I don’t believe that tribal distinctions are the healthiest way to preserve identity, nor do I subscribe to Shammai’s teachings on this, but I can’t fault the people of that era either. I get it. This was a people who were still recovering from their exile and dispersion throughout the region and trying desperately to hold on to their identity.

The Pharisaical school of Hillel, which many of Jesus’ teachings are more in harmony with, did not follow that strict distinction between Jew and Gentile. Instead, Hillel taught that every person, Jew or Gentile, was created in the image of God and worthy of respect and treatment according to the Golden Rule. (We covered this in much more detail earlier this year in The Golden Rule.)

Ultimately the Jewish people abandoned the school of Shammai in favor of Hillel’s more inclusive practices. Karen Armstrong writes about the people’s choice in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem:

“It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’

“Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Kindle Edition.)

Luke, the most Gentile of the synoptic gospels, colors Jesus’ instructions with the phrase “as a warning.” By rejecting the values and teachings that Jesus and Hillel sought to promote in Judaism, those in the school of Shammai who practiced shaking Gentile dust off their feet were headed toward the same fate that they claimed the Gentiles were headed toward. In their ethic of separation, alienation, and independence, they were actually aligning themselves more with the path of destruction then the Gentiles they wanted to be separate from.

Remember, Jesus’ community practiced interdependence, mutualism, and resource-sharing. The Jewish followers of Shammai rejected the path of interdependence for independence, isolationism, and exceptionalism, and so they shared with violent revolutionists a path that would ultimately lead to a devastating backlash from the Romans.

Shaking the dust off of one’s feet could not have indicated rejection of the Jews because Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. Yet a Jewish Jesus would have felt burdened to communicate that there was no moral difference between those who rejected his values and those they claimed moral superiority to. Jesus makes this statement in Matthew’s gospel:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47, emphasis added.)

Shaking dust off of one’s feet was not an act of rejection, but an act of warning. It was a warning to those one genuinely cared about, was invested in, and saw as one’s own people. It was a sign of deep concern with the direction one’s own community was headed in.

Sodom’s Story: Not Finished.

Let’s close this with the 1st Century Jewish belief that Sodom’s story was not finished. Sodom still had a future, and I believe this is important.

First, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. The atrocity of Sodom, according the Hebrew scriptures was this:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Sodom had become so wealthy and isolationist that any immigrants to Sodom were rejected, even if fleeing there for safety, and subjected to physical violence or even sexual violence. The threat of sexual violence we read about in Genesis 19, rape of men and women, was a common war practice in the ancient world, used to emasculate, dehumanize, and humiliate enemies.*

As inhospitable and greedy as Sodom was, however, Ezekiel uses Sodom’s narrative as an indictment against his own people:

“As surely as I live, declares the [LORD], your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.” (Ezekiel 16:48)

But then Ezekiel throws in a twist with the Sodom narrative. He envisions a river of life that one day flows out from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47.1-2). And what this river of life does for Sodom is restorative, not destructive.

“He said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. [In Ezekiel’s time, the Dead Sea was believed to be the region of ancient Sodom.] When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. People will fish along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.’” (Ezekiel 47.8-12, emphasis added.)

Ezekiel had previously said,

“However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before.” (Ezekiel 16:53-55, emphasis added)

Because of how many Christians use the New Testament passages of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6 today, it is important to understand that Ezekiel saw a positive ending to Sodom’s narrative. Many Christians today use Sodom’s narrative as an example of the future destruction of some categories of people and this belief influences them to practice a hopeless exclusion of whomever they deem unlike them. But Jesus, like Ezekiel, believed that the future of his own people could still be bright.

So in this week’s saying about shaking the dust off one’s feet, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets: he evokes the narrative of Sodom and compares it to his own people’s future fate. Jesus shows deep concern for the society of his day and the unbearable retaliation Rome would inflict upon Jerusalem if his community continued on its current path. Jesus’ nonviolence and the resource-sharing principles would have placed the people on a radically different trajectory.

I believe that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish people did, through the teachings of Hillel, partially transition to the path Jesus showed, and they made great strides in love, kindness, nonviolence, and radical inclusivity. Economically, Hillel’s and Jesus’ teachings were somewhat different, and I believe Jesus’ economic teachings were more in harmony with the Torah than Hillel’s. But Jesus’ radical resource sharing and ethics of nonviolence are both waiting for a present or future generation to choose.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at the interdependent elements of Jesus’ mission instructions. This week we’re beginning to transition into the next section of Jesus teachings. Just like this week’s saying, these next few sayings contain warnings for his generation if they didn’t abandon their path, if they didn’t choose the path he was presenting.

I can’t help but notice that history is cyclical. We in our society today may be being faced with the same choices that first generations of Christians were. With Jesus’ path of nonviolence and resource-sharing in mind, let’s take a moment to contemplate Jesus’ warning:

But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town. (Q 10:10-12) 

HeartGroup Application

I want to introduce to you a friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk. If you haven’t read his books, they are well worth it and I recommend them highly. This last week, Mark posted this statement on social media:

“I hate coercion!” says the modern man. “Except for, perhaps, the many coercions of the past that have made me so prosperous.”

It is like the parable of the man who slays an entire neighborhood and takes their treasures. Afterwards, he declares himself a pacifist. When the relatives of those slain [come] to his door, angrily holding bats, he says: “You should be pacifists, like me!”

1.   In the context of this statement, discuss in your HeartGroup what it would look like for your group to lean more deeply into the nonviolence and resource-sharing that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q taught.

2.   List three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to embrace nonviolence in today’s society. Also list three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to share resources and even participate in the reparations needed in our society today.

3.   Pick one action from each list to put into practice between this week and next.

We cannot continue today on our current trajectory without reaching a breaking point. As we are contemplating the changes we so deeply need, the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q and those whose experiences of life vary from one another can inform our choices to move toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all.

It’s much easier to simply worship Jesus than to put into place the world-healing teachings he taught. But healing the world is what Jesus spent his life doing, and his story has called to those who would listen ever since saying, “follow me.”

Thanks for joining us this week.

Wherever this finds you, 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.


*It’s part of the implicit misogyny of the original culture and contemporary Christian culture that the threatened rape of Lot’s daughters—human women—is almost always glossed over in favor of horror about the threat of rape against “male” angels, the different flesh of Jude.

The Tree Is Known by its Fruit

Grape VinesBY HERB MONTGOMERY

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:43-45)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6.43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 12.33-35: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Gospel of Thomas 45: “Jesus says: Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs picked from thistles, for they do not produce fruit. A good person brings forth good from his treasure. A bad person brings forth evil from the bad treasure that is in his heart, and in fact he speaks evil. For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil.”

The saying we’re considering this week answers a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized. People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”

The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.

I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.

I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.

Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared last week, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.

The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” Jesus teaches us how in the saying we’re looking at this week:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?

European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.

From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”

Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind eyes opened through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.

Wisdom Teachings

This week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q is included in Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel Thomas. It is classified as part of Jesus’s “wisdom” teachings (as opposed to apocalyptic teachings). We’ll discuss the differences between Wisdom sayings, Apocalypticism, and Platonism in much more detail as we continue along in the teachings of Sayings Gospel Q. For now, though, what you need to know is that the early Jesus communities saw this saying as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.

It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41).  A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed (p. 36).

When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.

As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, not initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.

Let me give three concrete examples.  There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming.  Here are the facts.

  1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
  2. LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
  3. Last year, more than 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. alone. The number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate.  (Learn more here and here.)

When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”

We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.  Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty.  And that is only a few.

With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Palestine that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.

“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)

Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”

Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is not surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there.

So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and behavior, Sayings Gospel Q states:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

 HeartGroup Application

This week, contemplate what it means for you to begin evaluating Biblical interpretations and their effects not just on yourself but also on the most vulnerable communities in our society. One good way to do this is to continue what you started with last week’s HeartGroup application.

  1. Keep reading the book your group chose! Keep listening!
  2. Begin journaling the insights, questions, and feelings that you experience as you work through the material.
  3. Circle in your journal entries what you want to share with your group when you review together next month. Review week is now only three weeks away.

To you who are joining us on this journey through Sayings Gospel Q, thank you! I’m so glad you are tracking with us.

Keep contemplating the “fruits” of your interpretations. Keep listening. And 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.

The Speck and the Beam 

Black and white image of an eye.BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

Luke 6.41-42: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7.3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Gospel of Thomas 26: “Jesus says: ‘You see the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but you do not see the beam that is in your own eye. When you remove the beam from your own eye, then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.’”

This week, we are looking at a saying of Jesus that’s become quite well-known here in the U.S. thanks to the culture wars of the last century. The saying has various names, but the two most popular are The Mote and the Beam or Jesus’s Discourse on Judgmentalism. 

This saying is at the root of Tony Compolo’s popular retort, “Jesus did not teach ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ Jesus taught ‘love the sinner, hate your own sin.’” (Read Campolo’s article, Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin Doesn’t Work.) Historically, Campolo is right: the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” doesn’t come from Jesus. It came from a phrase that St. Augustine used in one of his 5th Century letters: “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” (Letter 211). The Latin can be translated “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” But we have no record of Jesus ever using this phrase or any like it. It is a phrase that Christians have used, but one that is foreign to the teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi also gave a pointed response to it in his time as he reflected on the legacy of the Christian British colonialists in India:

“Man and his deed are two distinct things. Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world . . . For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being, but with him the whole world.” [Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Desai, Mahadev (2008-08-27). An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (pp. 143-144). Emphasis added.]

For Jesus, if one wanted to be a source of healing and help in the wider world, the place to begin was with introspection. Ultimately this close attention does go beyond one’s self—“then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.”—but it does begin with one’s self “first.” What does this mean?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can share with you what it has meant for me.

Introspection: My Experience

I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual American man. I have to come to grips with what that means in this society before I can help to make the world a safer, more compassionate place. When it comes to privilege in America, with the exception of not having degrees from institutions of higher learning, I’m the poster child, and I have to explore my blind spots before I can deeply serve others who are different from me.

I’ve learned that I cannot do this alone. I could probably make some progress by sitting quietly, contemplating my place in the status quo. But I’m not sure that listening to the voices within my own head would produce that much change: it would only push me deeper into my own perceptions. What I need is the voices of others.

There are many ways one can encounter others’ voices. As I shared last week, I have chosen a non-defensive posture of listening to those whose experience is not like my own. I have also encountered others by reading as many books as I can digest from those whose perspectives are different from mine.

I’ll give you two examples.

Two winters ago, Drew Hart, author of Trouble I’ve Seen, Rod Thomas from The Resist Daily, and others hosted a Twitter chat with the hashtag #JamesConeWasRight. They were inspired by Cone’s writings, and looked at events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other areas of the U.S. through the lens of what Hart calls “Anablacktivism”—Anabaptist Black activism. (You can read this chat for yourself at https://storify.com/h00die_R/jamesconewasright-an-anablacktivist-chat)

I had just begun reading James Cone when this chat happened, so I decided to follow along and just listen.

During the comments, someone mentioned a point of Cone’s which was also taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Someone else replied that they should not run from Cone to White, European, male theologians so quickly. I felt my internal defensiveness surge.

What?” I thought. Bonhoeffer stood up to oppression in solidarity with the Jewish citizens of Germany, but now we were just going to lump him in with all other White European theologians just because he was white and male? Where did that leave me?

This was the only time I was tempted to jump into the flow of the conversation rather than simply listen. But I heard a voice inside me say, “There it is! Sit on that. Just listen!”

As I kept listening I began to see how much the Church has privileged White theologians’ opinions and contributions, and I also saw the great need to center theological discussions and understandings in womanist, feminist, Black, Latin, and queer theologies as well. I realized that it was inappropriate to consider theology by White theologians “real theology” while downgrading theology done by other kinds of people to a lesser category. Other theological perspectives are just as valuable as White theology, and for me who grew into Christianity with only White theologians as my authorities and teachers they are even more 

valuable because I need to broaden my view of the Church. (A great read if you would like to explore this further is the book I quoted from last week, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James W. Perkinson.)

Sitting with the chat comments rather than defensively responding on behalf of a writer I still respect gave me a chance to see that bigger picture. It also challenged me not to get stuck in self-defense or even self-pity, and keep reaching out to others I needed to learn from.

The second way I’ve learned to listen is not just by recognizing which theologians aren’t privileged in the Christian community but by actually reading these theologians’ work.

Again, as a white, cis-hetero, male Christian, I must choose to listen to those who approach theology and who follow Jesus from a different perspective than my own. The theologians I wasn’t exposed to during my first few years in Christianity are no more infallible than anyone else. Like me, they also have “specks” in their eyes that need removing. Yet their experience, the experience they use as they approach theology, ethics, and morality gives them a unique advantage at showing me the “beam” in my own eye. A sample of the different theological voices I’ve sought out:

Feminist Theology:
Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology) by Phyllis Trible

Womanist Theology:
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams

Liberation Theology:
A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition by Gustavo Gutierrez

Black Liberation Theology:
A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition by James H. Cone

Queer Theology:
The Queer God by Marcella Althaus-Reid

All five of these lenses have been incredibly helpful as I’ve come to see the “beams” in my eye. Each of these authors has taught me to see how easy it once was for me to judge those who were unlike me, to morally evaluate them while cherishing a subtle or subconscious sense of moral superiority to them. I found it much easier to judge those not like me than to stop and listen.

I’m still on this listening journey, and I’m thankful for those who, out of love, have chosen to be in community with me and help me grow in compassion and understanding. I hope that they grow as well. The world that actually exists is a lot larger than I once believed, and I’m deeply grateful to those who have taken painstaking steps to show it to me.

Introspection for You

What does it mean for you this week to prioritize your own eye-beams rather than rush to others’ eye-specks? Both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels describe our “logs” as compared to other people’s “splinters.” And this saying comes in both gospels’ summaries of Jesus’s teachings about judging of others. Sayings Gospel Q places it in the same context, whereas the Gospel of Thomas groups this saying with the teachings on taking care of one’s “brother” (see Gospel of Thomas 25-26)

Luke shares this saying with Jesus’s sermon on the plain, and Matthew includes it in Jesus’s sermon on the mount, both locations that represent the core of Jesus’s ethical and moral teachings. Each of the gospel writers felt this teaching about our logs and others’ splinters was central to their memory of Jesus. If Jesus taught that we should begin changing our world by starting with ourselves, what would this mean for you?

Could this challenge the knee jerk response to the movement for Black lives, “All lives matter”? Perhaps it might halt a defensive explanation that “not all Christians are like that” when someone who has been deeply wounded by a Christian shares some of their pain. When a friend laments how they’re treated in this society, Jesus’s teaching could stop me from replying, “Not all men!”

It can at least mean we all hold our initial reflex of defensiveness and take a posture of listening to others. Where it goes from there will be different for each person, but we have to come to grips with the fact that the greatest obstacles to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us will not be the dust in another’s eyes but the beams that are in our own.

For all those who desire to lean more deeply into the teachings of Jesus, into making the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, all who want to become more keenly aware of your own blind spots:

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick a book from the list of five above that your HeartGroup will read over the next month.
  2. Set a date a month from now to share with each other your responses to what you have read. As you engage the book you’ve chosen, also engage your fellow HeartGroup participants in conversation about it to deepen your “beam” removal.
  3. At the end of your group’s discussion, choose a new action to embrace as a result of what you have read and discussed.

Thank you, once again, for journeying with us as we work through Sayings Gospel Q.

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Herb Montgomery

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

Luke 6:39: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?’

Matthew 15:14: “Leave  them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Gospel of Thomas 34: Jesus says: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”

The earliest record of a saying like the one we’re considering today is more than 200 years older than the time of Jesus:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. (Katha Upanishad; The Upanishads written between 800 BCE-200 BCE.) [1]

Two other early references to this metaphor appear in North India and Rome during the first century BCE. In North India, the Buddhist Pali Canon recorded an oral tradition story in 29 BCE:

Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. (Canki Sutta) [2]

In Rome, a similar phrase is found in the writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE:

Caecus caeco dux” [“the blind leader of the blind”]. Epistles 1.17.3-4

The Jewish community that treasured the sayings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q included this metaphor as one Jesus used. We’ll look at Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this saying in just a moment.

First, Jesus wasn’t talking about physical vision.  He was talking about perception, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn, and the danger this becomes when one is in a position of influence. I’ve experienced this personally this year. In my small town of Lewisburg and statewide here in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed ignorant leaders influencing the masses that follow them, inciting them to be afraid of those they are unwilling to genuinely “see” for who they are.

At the end of last year, our local city council began the process of updating the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Lewisburg’s nondiscrimination ordinance already included discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion. The city felt the need to also include gender identification and sexual orientation, to broaden the current nondiscrimination ordinance to include members of the LGBTQ community. This effort came when a coal miner with over a decade of employment was hazed, vehicle vandalized, and fired after getting married when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer. In West Virginia, a person can be evicted from their housing or fired from their job because of their orientation.

During the campaign to change this ordinance, one of the council members asked my wife and me, “Every person is somebody’s child. How would you like your child to be treated?” Regardless of what differences may exist among people, everyone should have a fair chance to qualify for work, to provide for themselves, and have a safe roof over their head at night. My family believes that, and not just for our own children.

Not long after that conversation, a local minister of the largest Baptist church in Lewisburg began to incite his congregation to fear. Choosing not to perceive members of the LGBTQ community for who they are, he began a campaign of dehumanization and mischaracterization. Out-of-town lobbyists we invited, rallies were held, signs were placed all over town. The message, like Seth Brundle’s in the 1986 horror film The Fly was, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.” Some of the most moral, ethically upstanding people I know belong to our local LGBTQ community, so the minister’s campaign was nothing short of slander. But the folks here in small town West Virginia don’t have the exposure or education to be able to “see” people unlike them for themselves. This was a classic example of the blind leading the blind.”

Despite that rampant misinformation, in February of this year, our city council unanimously voted to update our city’s nondiscrimination policy. I’m also happy to say that it has been over a month now in our sleepy little town and the world has not come to an end.

After this decision though, many of the people who were working locally to incite fear and misinformation moved their effort to thestate level to try to undo the local vote. Lobbyists got legislators to introduce a new bill that was a West Virginia version of the “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up all over the U.S. Over and over again, those responsible for this bill denied their bill was connected to the discrimination ordinance but was simply designed to “restore” religious freedom they claimed had been lost (yet they could not show where or how).

This new bill passed in the state House but was voted down in the Senate. What made the difference? The Senate amended the bill to state that its provisions could not be used to undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in the name of religious liberty. Legislators then dropped the bill, proving that it had nothing to do with religious liberty, but was rather designed to give people a legal loop hole for continuing discrimination against others in the name of their  “sincerely held religious belief.”

Yes, each person should be free in matters between themselves and their God, with at least one exception. When one’s sincerely held religious beliefs endanger another human being, one is never free to practice those beliefs. Once, child sacrifice was a sincerely held religious belief. For some people, racism is still a sincerely held religious belief. Subjugation of women is a sincerely held religious belief, and homophobia and heterosexism are also sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religion has done good. And religion has done great harm. We must encourage the good while we limit the harm. The freedom to practice what one believes is a value that must be held subject to the greater value of “do no harm to one’s neighbor.” Anyone our religious beliefs would endanger has the right to be protected from our sincerely held religious beliefs. While we possess freedom of religion, they also possess the right to live in freedom from our religion.

So what does this have to do with the blind leading the blind?

I took a day to go and visit my state capitol and speak directly with my local representatives in both the House and the Senate about our religious freedom bill. What I was overwhelmed with as I left that day, beside disillusionment of the system, was how “blind” two of my three local representatives had been to understanding what was really behind this bill. Only one of the three understood. The truth did eventually come out, but in the meantime, the depth of ignorance and lack of exposure of my local and state leaders left me speechless.

In both secular civil governance and religious faith and worship, the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is, at times, overwhelmingly appropriate.

Now, there are plenty of instances in first-century Palestine where Jesus could have applied this metaphor.

  • The faithful, radical Zealots who felt the only way to liberate Palestine from Roman domination was through violence.
  • The Jerusalem-centered aristocracy who, in order to preserve their own place in society, copted the Temple to add religious legitimacy to Rome’s imperialism.
  • The wealthy elite who failed to share their surplus with the poor and instead used their capital to exploit the poor and make greater wealth.
  • The group of Pharisees and Sanhedrin members who subscribed to the teachings of the school of Shammai, and who not only drew strict lines between Jew and Gentile but also drew lines between themselves and other Jewish people they perceived as not orthodox enough.

How do Matthew and Luke show Jesus using this parable?

Luke includes this as one of Jesus’s sayings in the body of teachings scholars call The Sermon on the Plain.

He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Matthew does something quite different, and his use of the saying begins with Mark’s underlying narrative.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts physical “defilement” with ritual “defilement.” The author of text mistakenly claims that “all the Jews” do not eat without first washing their hands. This is historically untrue, and the later Matthew and Luke, knowing this to be untrue, correct the error by leaving it out. (Compare Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Luke 11:37-41) In fact, among the Pharisees, only Pharisees of the school of Shammai would have washed their hands before eating, and only the priests (according to both Hillel and Shammai) were required to wash their hands before eat their food. That is, the rest of the people who were not priests were not legally required to wash their hands. But the stricter Pharisees chose to conduct themselves like the priests, believing that they also held a scholarly position in Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy. So it was not a requirement for all Jews during Jesus’s time.

By refusing to wash his hands in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus was making a political statement. I believe he was aligning himself with the “common” people of his day as opposed to the religious “elite.” In all three gospels, Jesus turns the discussion from washing hands to the religiously-justified oppression of the poor by the wealthy, religious elite of his day. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the religious elite included the priests and some wealthy Pharisees.

This is where our saying from Matthew comes in this week:

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15.12-14)

The context of this saying in our most Jewish gospel is Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, the common people, and even those judged as unorthodox.

We can pair this week’s metaphor, “blindness,” to the one we discussed last week, “deafness.” The inability or unwillingness to listen to the stories of those whose experience is different than your own is what these metaphors are describing. Could it be that the cure for socio-political “blindness” is using our ears to listen to the stories of those unlike ourselves? By listening, our eyes can be opened and we can begin to “hear with our ears” “see with our eyes” and “understand with our hearts” and our blindness can be “healed.” (Compare Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14-17; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40.)

I believe that those who desire to follow the teachings of the 1st century Jewish Jesus of Nazareth must learn to listen to each other. Especially, we must learn to listen to those who, as in Jesus’s time, are presently being marginalized and subjugated by social structures of privilege.

We must learn to stop debating about people who are being oppressed by the status quo, and begin listening to them instead. Those interested in leaning into this exercise of listening, consider beginning with listening to the experience of people of color. There are other demographics that you could start with, but this would be an excellent first step. Three books that I can recommend to get you started on your journey of listening are:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone

A Black Liberation Theology (Fortieth Anniversary Edition) by James H. Cone

As we use our ears, our eyes become opened. The cure for healing our eyes is in letting others have our ears and thereby access our hearts.

In the words of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q:

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

HeartGroup Application

One of the purposes of HeartGroups is to facilitate a space where we can begin to learn how to listen to each other. Yet even this is not enough. Too often the groups we listen to are the ones we most identify with. In other words, we listen to people who are most like ourselves. This can create a ideological feedback loop that becomes precious little more than philosophical inbreeding. The type of listening that cures our blindness is when we listen to those who are unlike us, especially those harmed by the way things are.

This week, I invite your HeartGroups to:

  1. Together, watch the recently released film Enough Room at the Table. You can access the film here. It will only cost your group $0.99 to watch together. That’s unbelievably affordable.
  2. Discuss with your group, after watching the film, how your group could begin taking steps to become more diverse. List the steps you discuss.
  3. Pick one item on your list to practice.

Thank you for joining us this week. We’ll continue with Sayings Gospel Q next week.

Until then, 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.

  1. Juan Mascaró. The Upanishads (Penguin Classics, 1965) p. 58
  2. Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Not Judging

by Herb Montgomery

Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork

“Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The saying we are looking this week teaches against judging (krino).

The verb translated as “judge” in this saying has a rather broad meaning, so the only way we can only narrow it is by looking at its textual context. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q emphasizing the Golden Rule and our interconnectedness. In this context, then, we can define krino as “to separate” or “to make a distinction between.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary) It can be positive or negative. At its heart, though, is to separate another from one’s self. It means to discriminate.

Discrimination is perfectly acceptable when we have two things to choose from: we should strive to discern which choices are harmful and which are compassionate. But discrimination toward choices is not the same thing as discrimination toward people. It is judgment or discrimination toward people that is opposed in this week’s saying.

It’s also helpful to consider this week’s saying through the lens of our social dynamics. Too often I hear those at the top of social pyramids say, “Don’t judge me! Jesus said not to judge.” They are using this saying as a way to avoid accountability for their actions. At the same time, those at the bottom of certain pyramids are judged by those at the top continually.

As I said in the dialogue film Enough Room At The Table, we’re are not talking about creating communities where there is no mutual accountability among community members. Instead, we’re opposing the kind of judgment that would distinguish and separate us from one another. We are affirming communities where we see ourselves as interconnected with each other, and where we can be accountable to one another. Let me tell you a story that will help make this clear.

I’m in community with two friends that self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Both are people of color. One identifies as gender-nonconforming, and she prefers the pronouns she and they. The other as a cisgender man, though he is involved in activism for the rights of transgender people. Never have I encountered such accountability as I have from being in relationship with these two. They have continually called me to analyze my blind spots as a white, cisgender, straight male. Being in community with them has never meant that “anything goes” and they do not allow me to live unconsciously when it comes to my position in our society’s social pyramid. Each of us is deeply committed to an expression of strict ethics rooted in compassion, interconnectedness, and the golden rule. Each of us is dedicated to a Shared Table world view, and, just like them, I am called to come to that table in a posture of humility and learn about other people’s experiences in our world.

I wouldn’t for a moment ever say that these friends have ever judged me. Yes, they have called me on the carpet for my ignorance at times, and there have been times when these moments were even painful to my misplaced ego. But their feedback has always been in the spirit of connectedness. My friends make it clear that we are in this together.

The community that Jesus is teaching about in this week’s saying is not a community where we throw out all values, as some today wrongly imagine a judgment-free community would. The community Jesus points to, and the community I have experienced with my friends and others, is a community where I have allowed my own values to be informed by members of the community that my previous values had harmed. There’s a world of difference between throwing out all values, and holding strictly to a new set of values that come from embracing our interconnectedness with each other rather than judging and separating from each other. In this community, there is no us-versus-them. There is only us.

This kind of community centers the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. This is not a community that holds on to domination or subjugation in any form. Religious communities characterized by heterosexism, racism, or sexism sometimes claim to be simply trying to hold to account those who don’t align with their values, and disciplining those others “out of love.” So it is very difficult to get these communities to see that what they are really engaging in is not love, but discrimination. They claim to be, in love, pointing out the self-destructive “sin” of others. But they fail to see that by disconnecting (krino) themselves from those they claim to love, they risk developing a false feeling of moral superiority, and they also risk failing to listen. Listening is a way to allow our values to be shaped by other people, and is essential for people accustomed to harming other people.

By contrast, it is acceptable to for those receiving this type of unjust or prejudicial treatment to respond to would-be judges with Jesus’s teaching “Do not judge.” For those at the bottom of a social pyramid, even one claiming the authority of the Bible, asking for an end to discriminatory judgment is survival. They aren’t crying out for a community without boundaries; rather, they are desperately longing for a community characterized by a posture of listening and not one of judgment, a community that embraces the interconnectedness of humanity rather than sharply drawn lines between kinds of people.

Remember, like the sayings last week, this saying of Jesus was written during a time when the rabbinical school of Shammai was dominant. The school of Shammai drew sharp lines between Jew and Gentile, but didn’t stop there. It never does. Before long, lines were also drawn between what we might call today “fundamentalist” Jews and Jewish people who were more all-embracing.

In his book, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins shows how the conquest narratives of Canaan have fueled and justified Christianity’s violence through history. Jenkins then looks at today’s headlines in Palestine. I believe what we see happening today illustrates the trajectory Jesus challenged in his own social context.

Jenkins writes: “Jewish extremists do not confine their campaigns to attacking Arabs and Muslims. As Rabbi Lamm observed, in trying to show the moral and intellectual perils of the Amalek doctrine, the concept is infinitely expandable . . . Next would come the turn of religious Jews whose faith is not quite what the strictest Orthodox think it should be. Actually, in terms of their condemnations, rather than of actual violence, that is a fair description of how some extremists have escalated the biblical commands. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown, so they have become ever more strident in denouncing mainstream or secular Jews who, they believe, fall short of the theocratic standards that are demanded of the new Israel.”

The entire book is really worth your reading. It is an excellent critique of Bible-based segregation, what we would call “judging” others, and the violence that results from both. In Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus stands in the spirit of Hillel against this human tendency and teaches instead “do not judge.” Do not engage in the game of “us and them.” Ultimately, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There is only “us.” And our future depends on seeing and embracing this reality.

For the same measures that we use for others will be used for us. We will reap the intrinsic results of what we sow. Jesus lays the choice before us: the way of discrimination, segregation, extirpation, and global annihilation, or the way of compassion, interrelation, integration, cooperation, restoration, and peace. The way of judgment will not stop at your own doorstep. The law of reciprocation will work either for or against all of us.

We have the power to set in motion the kind of world we would like to live in. Choosing to live in harmony with the type of world we desire is choosing to take the first step toward it.

As Jesus says: “Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

HeartGroup

This week,

  1. List the changes you would like to see in your world.
  1. List the values associated with those changes as well as discussing both of your lists (changes and values) with your HeartGroup to help you with any of your potential blindspots within both lists.
  1. Choose to put at least one of those values into practice this week.

Do not judge.

Do not look at others as separate from yourself.

Embrace our interconnectedness with each other, and keep living in love; till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Impartial Love 

by Herb Montgomery

Dominoes lined up and falling“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” —(Q 6:32, 34)

Luke 6:32: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”

Luke 6:34: “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.”

Matthew 5:46-47: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Gospel of Thomas 95: “Jesus says, ‘If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.’”

Our saying this week builds on the sayings we’ve discussed over the last three weeks: Loving Your Enemies, Renouncing One’s Rights, and The Golden Rule.

This week’s saying addresses those in Jesus’s audience who might have accepted his teaching on the Golden Rule, but only for those who would do the same for them.

These audience members would have reduced the Golden Rule to reciprocity: an exchange between equals for one’s own advancement and benefit. For them, the Golden Rule could have been co-opted to mean only “getting ahead” and not a way to make the world a safer, more compassionate world for us all.

James Robinson, in his book The Gospel of Jesus, describes what this limited interpretation could have looked like in the Roman patronage system and can look in our political systems today:

“In the Roman Empire, [self-interest] was called the patronage system and was even codified in the Latin expression Do ut des, “I give so that you give”; in the animal world, it is “I scratch your back so you scratch mine.” In modern politics, it is called euphemistically “special interests.” Lobbyists get elected officials to vote for the legislation that favors the firms whose “generous” campaign gifts made it possible for the officials to get elected in the first place. This is how elections are “bought”: our firm treated you well in your last election campaign, so you treat our firm well in the way you vote, and our firm will treat you equally well in your next election campaign. . . . Self-serving favoritism does not deserve the term “love,” for love shows itself to be real by being directed toward persons who have nothing they can do for us by way of return. So Jesus called for love to go far beyond one’s kinsfolk, neighbors, peer group, patron, and campaign contributors. As a result, his new love commandment is much less known, not to speak of being much less practiced.”

This quality of reciprocity is quite different from the ethic we are considering this week. The Sayings Gospel Q teaching is about loving those who cannot offer us anything in return. There is no quid pro quo here.

As we’ll see in the weeks to come, Jesus uses the Golden Rule to inspire a domino-effect in those who receive love to then turn and practice that love in their relations with others. The Golden Rule wasn’t designed to establish private relationships of mutual benefit between two individuals, but to produce a whole new world where everyone treats everyone as they’d like to be treated even when there’s nothing gained in return. Love was to be reciprocated, but more importantly, love was to be shared with other people.

This distinction is foundational to the rest of Jesus’s teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. The Golden Rule is not merely or exclusively between a loving person and a loved person. It’s between the loved person and another person in need of love, as well. The person who receives this kind of impartial love is called upon to reciprocate by indiscriminately loving a third person, and through their love, what Jesus calls “God’s reign” transforms the world and enlarges continuously from each person to the next.

In Sayings Gospel Q, the reign or kingdom of God begins with love even when we have nothing to gain.

Jewish Pride; Jewish Power

I need to say a word about the comparisons in this week’s texts and the text references to Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, and pagans. As we covered last week, when these texts were written, the school of Shammai dominated both the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. In an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and culture, the School of the Shammai drew a sharp line between Jews and Gentiles, and prohibited the people from crossing that line.

But it’s in the soil of human disconnectedness that the weeds of supremacy and superiority take root. It doesn’t matter whether a group is in the dominant position within a society, as the Romans were, or forced into a subordinate position, as the Jews were. Supremacist beliefs for those at the top of domination systems justify and protect their position of privilege, power and control, whereas supremacist beliefs for those at the bottom are, as Howard Thurman taught, a useful fiction that oppressed people use to survive domination. (For a discussion on techniques of survival used historically by oppressed peoples that end up being self-destructive in the long term, please see Thurman’s excellent volume Jesus and the Disinherited.)

In this 1st Century context, Hillel taught that every person bore the image of the Divine, and worshipping God was revealed in how one treated another regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. But Shammai sharply distinguished between Jew and Gentile—we could call it “Jewish pride” or “Jewish Power”—and his school framed it as a matter of Jewish survival while the Jewish self was being denied by Roman oppression.  In our time, James H. Cone in his book Black Theology and Black Power, within the context of his own experience, rightly rejects defining Black Power as an effort to “assert their right to dominance over others because of a belief in black superiority . . . Black Power is an affirmation of the humanity of blacks in spite of white racism.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p.14-16, emphasis added.) The same could be said regarding LGBTQ Pride as a necessary expression of affirming the humanity of those whose humanity has been denied by the dominant sector of society.  Protesting Jewish subjugation in the context of the Jesus story could very easily be seen as a Jewish Lives Matter movement within early first century Palestine.

Jesus does not condemn the School of Shammai’s survival technique in our saying this week. His Jewish listeners did not need to have their self further denied: their oppressors were already doing that. They needed their self affirmed and liberated from oppression. While supremacy anywhere in society opposes egalitarianism, feelings of supremacy in the hearts of oppressors are of a markedly different quality than claims of superiority oppressed people might make.

Jesus does push back on his audience’s claim to be superior while using the oppressor’s ethics. When they loved only those who loved them, Jesus said, their morality was no greater than their oppressors’ morality. For Jesus, failing to love people who might never give anything in return negated any claim to moral superiority.  If the “Jewish Pride” and “Jewish Power” movements of his day would enter into the new human society they were seeking to establish, it would not be through more disconnectedness, but through endeavoring to embrace humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence.  In other words, in response to a “Jewish Lives Matter” statement, Jesus as a fellow Jew is not disregarding their daily struggle to survive by responding, “No, All Lives Matter.”  To the contrary, he is saying, “Yes, Jewish lives DO matter! And if our liberation is going to made a reality, we must live by set of ethical teachings greater than those presently adhered to by our oppressors!”  The teaching we are looking at this week asks us to live from the truth of interconnectedness by taking care of those from whom we will never receive anything in return.

As Howard Thurman also states in his book The Luminous Darkness, “[A] strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all [people] are members of one another.”

Remember: according to Jesus, the reign of God was shown in people taking care of people.

The Prozbul

We have spoken about Hillel’s prozbul enough over the last few weeks that I won’t detail it this week. Where Jesus mirrors the school of Hillel in their broader interpretation of Torah, Jesus pushes them even further on economics.

Jesus’s economics, in harmony with the Deuteronomic code (Deuteronomy 15:9), called the wealthy elite to lend even if the sabbatical year was approaching and to expect their loans not to be repaid.

To lend knowing that all debts would be cancelled in the Sabbatical year and your money would never repaid was a pathway toward wealth redistribution and a way to eliminate poverty among the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 15:4). Today, some fear “socialism” or “communism” yet wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the poor was central to Jesus’s economic teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. He taught his followers to lend even if they would never get their capital back.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we are called to love indiscriminately and impartially. Jesus calls us to love in a way that mimics a God who “raises the sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d). Any partiality perpetuates the disconnectedness that pervades our planet.

The answer is to see that we are all interconnected and to love based on that, even if there is no immediate return on our relational investment. The goal is what Jesus called “the reign of God” where people, rather than dominating one another, learn to take care of and provide for one another.

So for all those in whom this week’s saying resonates as true:

“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:32, 34)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time contemplating the nature of impartial love.

  1. What does it look like for you to love impartially? What does it look like to help others in need when there is no hope of them ever returning the favor? What does it look like to love in moments when the cost of that love will never be repaid?  And just because the love is not reciprocally repaid does that mean that the world created by the act has no overall reciprocal value in return?
  2. If you were part of the wealthy elite of Jesus’s day, how would you have felt about loaning your wealth even if your loan would be cancelled and never repaid?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup relational and economic ways to apply impartial love toward others. Choose to practice one of those applications.

Again, I’m so thankful that you are joining us for this series.

Until next week, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

See you next week.

Love Your Enemies

by Herb Montgomery

Woman holding protest sign which reads "love your enemies."“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

The saying we’ll look at today from Sayings Gospel Q builds on the passage we looked at last week. The last saying blessed those being persecuted while working toward the social changes Jesus imagined and invited us to imagine as well. This week’s saying goes one step further and addresses how we are to respond to our persecutors.

Let’s look at how this saying is written in our companion gospel texts.

Luke 6.27-28: But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Luke 6.35: But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Matthew 5.44-45: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Arguably, the most prominent American champion of enemy love in a context of working toward social change in the last century was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On November 17, 1957, King stood before the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and delivered an sermon titled Loving Your Enemies. In that sermon, he said:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Last summer, I spoke at a convention, and sat in the audience during another speaker’s session. At the end of that session, a participant asked the speaker the question, “What is it that prevents the present hegemony from simply being replaced by another hegemony when it is overthrown?”

(As we’ve shared before, a hegemony is another word for a domination system in which one group holds hierarchical dominance over a group it has subjugated.)

Jesus’ vision is not a hegemony. It is a world where there is no more domination, and no more subjugation, a world where every person has treated with the same indiscriminate egalitarianism that is expressed in the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.

But the audience member’s question about replacing one hegemony with another is a serious and important one. The challenge with most revolutions is that the revolution’s “enemy” is framed as someone to be defeated and then subjugated as they had subjugated others. This approach doesn’t remove pyramids of oppression but simply replaces them with a different pyramid of oppression founded on a different set of values. And this is not the vision of either Martin Luther King or the Jesus of the gospels.

The answer to the problem is in King’s concept of “double victory.” Not only can we win liberation from oppression, but we can also win our oppressors to join us in this liberation work. The goal, again, is that everyone gets to enjoy the sunshine: everyone is equal.

And this paradigm of a double victory is rooted in Jesus’s enemy love. Rather than seeking retributive justice against the revolution’s enemies, which too often becomes an attempt to extract an eye-for-an-eye, Jesus’s enemy love is rooted in restorative, transformative, liberative justice, justice that frees all parties involved.

Enemy love requires us to see our enemies as in need of liberation from a system of injustice as much as we are. Their liberation is of a different character than ours, yet they still have a need.

I do want to say a word of caution though, about this teaching. Jesus was a poor Jewish teacher in first century Palestine and lived under Roman rule. He was not, as many of us are, a citizen of any of the most powerful nations in the world. To illustrate this difference, Howard Thurman once wrote, “Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected [like Paul] by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as Paul did]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch . . . Unless one lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 33)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was not part of the Jewish wealthy elite. Jesus belonged to the community of the poor (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8). Jesus did not tell wealthy people, “Listen, we need to be charitable toward the poor impoverished people around.” No, when Jesus spoke of generosity, he was speaking to his fellow poor craftsmen and rural peasant farmers in Galilee, giving them teachings on how we can create an alternate society where each of us trusts God to send people to take care of us to the degree that we let go of what we may be hoarding out of insecurity, and instead listen to the God that sends us to go and take care of them. Jesus called this alternate society “the rule of God”.

In the same way, when Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, just as he was not part of the wealthy elite speaking about the poor, he was also not part of the wealthy Jewish elite telling the oppressed and poor Jewish craftsmen and rural farmers they needed to love wealthy oppressors in spite of the hardship and injustice the elite had caused them. Let me explain why this is important.

First, Jesus was speaking to his fellow impoverished Jews, inspiring them with an approach that, rather than destroying their enemies, had the potential to transform their enemies. And although Jesus did not use the language King used two thousand years later, what he taught was in essence, King’s “double victory.”

Recently, a police officer who was attending one of my presentations objected to my support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His objection was based on his perception that a sector of that movement sees using more violent means, in order to be heard, as a viable option.  (Being a police officer, the irony of his concern over the use of violence was lost on him.)

The important difference I want you to consider is that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to be a man of color telling other Black men to work toward transforming their White enemies. Gandhi had to be a brown-skinned Indian inspiring his fellow Indian citizens to seek the transformation of their British oppressors. Had King been White, or Gandhi been a British Colonialist, a message of enemy love would have been a subtle form of self-preservation and violence toward the oppressed and served to continue their oppression.  The exceptions to this are when there are internal variations, within the larger groups, that we must consider.  King was Black speaking to Black people, but he was also a middle-class, highly educated Black male from the clergy class.  Gandhi was an Indian speaking to Indians, but he was also light-skinned, a Kshatriya (as opposed to the so-called “untouchables”), and a lawyer (from the 2nd top caste in their social pyramid.)  Sometimes there are intra-group variations who (within the same community) can speak to these matters less oppressively.  They may look different in other words, but they share other facets of the oppressed people’s experience more than those whose appearance is the same. For example, I am in community with a person of color who upon hearing Justice Clarence Thomas speaking on race, she would not respect him, but equally feels that Jane Elliot could credibly speak on the matter.  There are ways for people who look the same to sustain the same oppression that the mainstream sustains.  The point is that commonality and solidarity can’t be assessed on the basis of one characteristic alone. Intersectionality as a theory highlights these intra-group distinctions and they are important. (If you would like to explore these ideas further please read We’re not all alike, and that’s not a problem by my dear friend Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD.)

An Accompanying Call For Restoration

Jesus spoke powerfully and convincingly to the poorer class of Jews of his time, yet Jesus’s message of enemy love to the oppressed was accompanied with a strong requirement that oppressors restore justice toward the oppressed. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he did not call this charity. He called it justice.

Luke 12.33: Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Luke 19.8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Luke 7.29: All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right . . .

To only call the oppressed to love their enemies without calling for oppressors to make reparations and restore justice is a subtle form of violence to those who have been wronged. If enemy love is going to be taught, it must, with the same breath, be taught alongside emphatic calls for justice to be restored.

The goal is not to replace one hegemony with another, to place the oppressed on top instead. The goal is rather a world where every person participates in equity, where each can share abundance, enjoying the sun and rain side by side, and where there is enough for all.

One last word: loving your enemies is not “letting them off the hook.” It is not ignoring what they have done, lessening its value, or pretending that it’s nothing. It takes their offense seriously and also desires their transformation. Loving your enemies is the desire that they don’t face mere retribution but rather encounter a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is the desire for them to experience healing and to choose to reject their place in great machines of injustice. And who knows, they might just join you in trying to transform the very ones who they used to resemble.

The question we must wrestle with is whether the radical transformation of the Zacchaeuses in our lives is enough. Do we need them to pay as a form of penance for what they have done? If they should be brought to a place where they desire to give out of a sincere wish to restore, would that be enough?

It really does come down to asking the question of intent. What do you desire for your enemies? Is it a world where now you are on top, dominating those who once wronged you? Or do you desire a “double victory,” a world where your enemies have undergone radical transformation? Is your desire a world where there is no more domination, no more oppression, no more subjugation, discrimination, or injustice?. A world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike? Could you share a world with those who have wronged you if they were “won” rather than just defeated, transformed rather than just destroyed? Could you live in a world alongside them if they, too, were radically changed?

If your answer is yes, you are moving toward the heart of the message of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q as he admonishes us to love our enemies.

As we progress through  Sayings Gospel Q, we will encounter Jesus’ strong words to those who need to restore the justice they have violated. That part of the message is as vital is the part we looked at today. Both messages are what we must wrestle with if we want a world that is truly safe and compassionate for everyone:

“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

HeartGroup Application

Is transformation enough or do we want retribution?

  1. This week I want you to begin with an private exercise. Picture the person on this planet that you like the least. When you have them in your mind’s eye, ask yourself: Would it be enough for you if that person came to understand what they have done to you, if they were more than sorry, and if they actively sought to repair the wrong they have done to you? Not all wrongs can be undone, but if that person was transformed, could you forgive?
  2. Jesus, in Sayings Gospel Q, calls us to pre-empt this transformation by initiating the process with enemy love. This does not mean that you accept what they have done. It means that as you imagine and interact with them, you have in view the end result of their transformation. As you ponder these questions, write down the questions, emotions, struggles, and challenges these questions present to you.
  3. If you feel comfortable, share what you learn with your HeartGroup. Discuss with each other how, whether we belong to the party of the oppressed or the oppressors or to both parties in different ways, we can move toward a safer more compassionate world for all, where equity is as indiscriminate as the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.  Then make some choices to act in the way of forgiveness and reparation. These steps don’t have to be huge at all. You can take small steps, but take a step. Step toward either transformative forgiveness, or restorative reparation in one of the ways you discussed with you group.

Enemy love and enemy transformation was at the heart of Jesus teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. It was at the heart of Gandhi’s ahimsa (love or compassion), as well as King’s struggles for racial equity and his final movements in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Yes, if you take these steps, there will be push back. When you call for change, there will be pushback from those ill-treating you. Keep calling, all the while, learning to love transformationally those who oppose you. And remember, as the Dalai Lama has said, “It is the enemy who can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance.”

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Beatitudes for the Poor, Hungry, and Mourning

by Herb Montgomery

A loaf of bread in an old mans hands

And raising his eyes to his disciples he said: Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled. (Q 6:20-21, Robinson)

We begin this series on the sayings of Jesus and Sayings Gospel Q with the passage in Q where the opening narrative ends and Jesus begins to teach. This passage has parallels in Luke, Matthew, and the 1st Century Christian text The Gospel of Thomas:

Luke 6:20-21: “Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’”

Matthew 5:1-4: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’”

Gospel of Thomas 54: “Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the poor. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 69.2: ”Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who desires will be filled.”

The ethic of charity, taking care of the less fortunate, the poor, or the weaker sections of society, long predates the teachings of Jesus. What Jesus is doing here is not admonishing us to take care of the poor but rather announcing that the situations of the poor, the mourning, and the hungry are about to be reversed! I’ll explain.

If we live in a society of limited resources, then for someone to hold on to more than what they need (i.e. wealth) means that someone else is going without what they need. Countless philosophers and sages throughout the centuries have taught this to one degree or another. Gandhi spoke of the earth providing each day enough for every person’s need but not every person’s greed. Karl Marx described our societies as pyramids with the wealthy elite at the top and the masses of working class and the poor at the bottom.

First Century Jerusalem had a similar social structure. The Greek and Roman empires had monetized the region. Historians estimate that over two million Jewish people lived outside of Jerusalem. Each male older than twenty years of age was required to pay an annual half-shekel temple tax, and so the temple amassed an enormous amount of wealth. Josephus recorded Rome forcibly taking money from the temple during its occupation of the region (Sabinus: The Jewish War 2.14; Jewish Antiquities 17.50; Pilate: The Jewish War 2.175-177; Jewish Antiquities 18.60-62; Florus: The Jewish War 2.293). When Judea was placed under a Roman Prefect, the Temple became the primary Jewish political institution. During this time, the Temple took on more of the role of a national treasury and “bank” for the wealthy aristocracy of Jerusalem.

“It is quite possible that, under pressure of this increasingly wealthy elite, the temple began to make loans on their behalf or to hold their capital so they could proffer from such loans to the poor.” – William R. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation.

The wealthy looking for ways to profit from investing their surplus in loans or acquiring land upon debtors’ default created an unbearable debt load for both peasants and craftsmen. The farmers needed these loans to survive, the wealthy sought greater profits, and the temple, with its politically and economically privileged priesthood and Jewish aristocracy living in luxury, was at the very heart of a system of economic exploitation. As Josephus records, the burning of all records of debts held in the temple was the first act of the Jewish Revolt that led to the Jewish Roman war (The Jewish War 2.426-427).

The temple had become more than a site for religious worship. It had become the heart of economic oppression. This system created wealth through making others impoverished. And so in our first passage this week from Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus does not prescribe charity for the poor as a way to maintain an unfortunate but unavoidable state of affairs in a system that should be left unchanged. Jesus is calling for justice toward the poor and change to the system itself for all who choose to participate.

Jesus announces a path toward a great reversal, where the poor are now benefited, the hungry finally and permanently have enough food, and those for whom the present system caused mourning, they will rejoice. The justice of Jesus involves a change for everyone.

As James M. Robinson states in his book The Gospel of Jesus, “It is no coincidence that the oldest collection of Jesus’ sayings, what we call the Sermon (what Matthew expanded into the Sermon on the Mount), begins by pronouncing just such down-and-outers fortunate: it is the poor, the hungry, the mourners who are ‘blessed.’ The kingdom of God is not God’s stamp of approval on the status quo, the powers that be, the ruling class. Rather, it is countercultural, for it gives hope to the hopeless. It is not consoling them with ‘pie in the sky by-and-by,’ but involves concrete intervention in the lives of the needy, mitigating their plight in the here and now” (p. 170).

In Luke’s gospel we come in contact with wealthy Pharisees who reject Jesus’ new plan and wealthy tax collectors who embrace it. Luke’s gospel uniquely includes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, originally a story that the Pharisees told about a rich tax collector and a poor scholar of the Torah (see J. Jeremias, Parables, p. 183). Luke’s Jesus expands the story from being about a tax collector and a Torah scholar to being about all who are wealthy (including wealthy Pharisees) and all who are poor (Luke 16:19-31). We encounter in characters like Zacchaeus tax collectors who respond positively to Jesus’ new economics and choose to give their wealth back to the poor (Luke 19:1-10). And we encounter Pharisees who “loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14).

In Sayings Gospel Q we find:

“For John came to you, the tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Q 7:29–30

Luke and Matthew also make this point:

“(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)” (Luke 7:29-30)

“For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:32)

This rejection was much more than simple disagreement about Jesus’s theology. The religious authorities rejected Jesus’ new economics.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we read one of the proofs that Jesus sent back to the imprisoned John: the poor having good news proclaimed to them:

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else? And in reply he said to them: Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are evangelized [hear good news]. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.” (Q 7:18–19, 22–23)

“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’” (Luke 7:18–23)

“When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

Sayings Gospel Q tells us what that good news was, a great reversal of affairs:

“The last will be first, and the first last.” (Q 13:30)

“Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30)

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

“For many who are first will become last.” (Gospel of Thomas 4:2)

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” Q 14:11

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

“Nobody can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Q 16:13)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

“And it is impossible for a servant to serve two masters. Else he will honor the one and insult the other.” (Gospel of Thomas 47:2)

Again from James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus, “Jesus must have believed that, in spite of appearances, the givens of life were basically changed: as the ideal becomes real and God rules, there are to be no poor or hungry, no handicapped or sick, no exploiter or enemy, no mentally disturbed or force of evil. Jesus believed that this ideal was the basic reality and acted accordingly.” (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2495-2504).

As we close this week, I want to address a common misunderstanding of a statement Jesus makes in Mark and Matthew.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 26:11)

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. (Mark 14:7)

Some have taken these words to indicate that Jesus is proclaiming that poverty is an unavoidable reality that will always exist no matter what we do. Yet when we understand this statement from a Jewish perspective, we see this is not the case at all.

In Jewish history, Yahweh had proclaimed that if they would follow his instruction to them, they would be poverty-free: “There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God by carefully keeping these commandments which I lay upon you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15.4, REB, emphasis added)

Jesus is reversing this statement from Deuteronomy when he states, “You will always have the poor among you.” Poverty is a human creation, and thus, humans could reverse it if they chose to. Jesus is showing a way for his generation to do so through voluntary wealth redistribution rooted in love for our fellow human beings. Yet the wealthy elite of his day, including Judas, rejected his teachings in favor of greed. And as long as they held on to their present system, rather than eliminating poverty they would immortalize it. The choice was theirs.

The poverty of Jesus’ day was the result of an unjust system. And just as following Yahweh’s laws would have eliminated poverty in ancient Judaism, following the way of Jesus could have eliminated poverty in the 1st Century. Luke’s narrative in Acts explains the results for those who chose to give his economic teachings a try:

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

What were Jesus’s economic teachings? We’ll learn more as we continue our study of Sayings Gospel Q, but for now, it’s important to remember that Jesus’s teachings were rooted in what he called the reign of God (the kingdom). For the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q, a world where God “reigns” is a world where I trust God to take care of me by sending people who will care for me while I take care of you and listen to God when God calls me to take care of you!

“[Jesus’] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society . . . I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”).”

– James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus 

HeartGroup Application

In the 1st Century, Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn. In our society, whom do you think Jesus would proclaim good news to today? Most definitely it would still be the poor, hungry, and mourning. But whom else would it include? Which other members of your human family would Jesus call you to trust God to send people to take care of you while calling you to take time today to take care of them?

  1. Discuss this question with your HeartGroup and see which people or communities you come up with.
  2. Dedicate time during your HeartGroup each week to share experiences you have when you reach out to take care of someone in need.
  3. At the end of this special sharing time each week, share who you might have come in contact with the previous week that may need your group’s help. Combine your group’s resources to see how you can care for them in the upcoming week.

For Jesus, the reign of God looked like people taking care of people while trusting God that if we would chose a world of “care,” this would actually bring about a new human reality for us all. It’s a world that we like to describe as a world where only love reigns.

We’ll take a look at the next passage in Sayings Gospel Q next week, but for today, here are the words of Jesus:

“Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled.” (Q 6:20-21, Robinson)

Thanks for taking the time to journey with me in this series.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Sayings of Jesus

by Herb Montgomery

 

Blue Abstract Letter Q

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. (Matthew 5.1-2, emphasis added.)

From each of us here at RHM, Happy New Year!

To kick off this brand new 2016, we are going to be starting a new series for our eSights and podcasts.

In 2015, we focused on the gospel of Mark. Beginning this year and for as long as it takes us, we’re going to looking at the sayings of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke, a body of texts that scholars call “Q”. Let me briefly explain this.

As we said a few weeks before Christmas, the early church was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Mark’s version of the Jesus story was written within a Gentile Christian context. Both Matthew and Luke based their versions of the Jesus story on Mark, yet there are things Matthew and Luke have in common with each other that are not found in Mark’s gospel. Since 1801, scholars have believed that Matthew and Luke used a secondary source, Q. You can read more about it here.

Here is a diagram that may help you visualize this.

Diagram illustrating the composition of Mark, Matthew and Luke

The Q source material (also called the Sayings Gospel Q) is believed to have belonged to the Jewish Christian community and included sayings of Jesus that they cherished.

When the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians blended in the early church, Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel were written to unite two Jesus stories, the Jewish Q and the Gentile Mark, for the blended community. Matthew’s gospel combined Mark and Q for the Jewish Galilean territories, while Luke-Acts combined Mark and Q for the larger Gentile world.

This background is important for us because it’s the sayings of Jesus, held in common by both Matthew and Luke (Q source), that have historically inspired significant positive world change. From Francis of Assisi and the anarchistic Anabaptists to Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, whenever those who desire to follow Jesus’ teachings have sought to rediscover what those teachings actually were, the result has been positive change in each of their societies.

I believe that can be true today. Those who desire to follow the 1st century Jesus today, including Christians, need to rediscover the teachings of Jesus found in the Q source, the gospel that the Jewish Christian community claimed Jesus actually taught.

Although the Q source manuscripts were lost after the early Gentile Christians squeezed the Jewish Christians out, we can rediscover it to the best of our ability by simply looking at the sayings of Jesus held in common by both Matthew and Luke. These are the sayings that have inspired those who’ve approached them thoughtfully toward building a safer, more just, and more compassionate world for us all.

This is going to be an exciting series. I can’t think of a better way to begin a brand new year!

I’ll close this week with this statement from James M. Robinson in his volume The Gospel of Jesus:

“Paul’s letters were of course the most popular among theologians, but it is not they who converted the Roman Empire. Rather, it was the masses from whom the foot soldiers in Constantine’s army came. They knew firsthand of the underprivileged and oppressed who had been rescued by the soup kitchens (which served more than wafers), the adoption of orphans, the absorption of widows, and the many other forms of humaneness that derive ultimately from Jesus, mediated through the Sayings Gospel Q and then through the Sermon on the Mount. So it was his foot soldiers that the emperor told of having seen the cross in the sky with the message “In this sign conquer!” The troops, heavily Christian and hence pacifistic, fell into line and marched into battle, on to victory. It seems to have been Francis of Assisi who then rediscovered the Sermon on the Mount. The Franciscan order that emerged from his leadership has been the bearer down through the centuries of much of the message of Jesus found in the Sayings Gospel Q. Then Leo Tolstoy took up the torch in his War and Peace, followed by Mahatma Gandhi with his “passive resistance” and Martin Luther King, Jr., with his “dream” of an integrated America. Now that the Sayings Gospel Q is readily available for study, we can see how Jesus’ message has indeed continued to be heard, though in quite unusual ways, down through the centuries.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, become familiar with the theory of the Q source. Read about the Q source here and here.
  1. Take time to read through the critical text of Q from the International Q Project here.
  1. Begin writing down the sections of Q that you can’t wait to get to and share with your group why those sections are special to you.

As a Freshman in college taking Theology, the Q source theory was the very first thing I remember being taught that first semester. At the time, in my youthful impatience, I remember thinking, “Why are we wasting time on sources of materials when we should just be jumping into the material itself?”  Now I understand why getting back to what the early Jewish community claimed Jesus actually taught is so important. It is in these teachings that we discover the potential to choose personal change as well as positive change within our world.

I’m looking forward to next week already!

I can’t wait! Thank you for joining us for this look at what the early church taught were the sayings of Jesus.

I love each one of you.

Happy New Year.

I’ll see you next week.