Not Just Saying Master, Master

by Herb Montgomery

Dictionary entry of the word ethics. “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

Where We Stand

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine came up to me with concern after one of my evening presentations. We were in the middle of a week-long series on the Sermon of the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. We’d progressed through Jesus’s rejection of violence and his teaching on sharing our surplus with the poor, and those two teachings alone were about enough for him. He said, “Herb, I feel like you are just giving us a really difficult way to get to heaven.”At that moment, I really didn’t understand all that his statement meant. But as I thought about it, some things began to become clear for me.

First, I didn’t write the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, there are things in it that are difficult to accept, especially for Americans today. Its statements on nonviolence (e.g. Matthew 5:39) and anti-capitalism (e.g. Matthew 19:23) are potently un-American. So yes, some things in Matthew’s gospel are difficult for us.

But before we chuck the entire message, let’s first ask what sector of society we’re encountering these teachings from, where we stand in society. Those of us who are privileged in the status quo always find the teachings of Jesus difficult, whereas those who are subjugated tend to resonate with his teachings as good news. (Both oppressor and oppressed are challenged with the practice of nonviolence, although it challenges them in very different ways.)

So if a saying of Jesus initially strikes you as difficult, first begin by locating yourself within the socio-economic pyramid, and why your place in society might make his teaching hard to accept.

Second, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus present us with a nice and easy program to follow so we can obtain post-mortem bliss (i.e. heaven.) You won’t find it. Jesus teachings were about the “empire” of God here on earth “in this generation,” through people learning how to take care of people. It is Paul’s gospel that addresses post-mortem bliss, not Jesus’s. Jesus placed before us a vision of things on earth being transformed to be “as they are in heaven.” He was not giving us a difficult way to get to heaven, but rather a risky and often deeply challenging way to heal this world. I believe Jesus was showing us a path, a “way,” to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all through mutual participation and mutual care.

Doing As Jesus Said

G.K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying that the history of Christianity does not prove that the teachings of Jesus have been “tried and found wanting,” but that those teachings have been “found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World). But again, Jesus isn’t trying to make it hard for us to get to heaven; he is being honest about how hard it really is to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone. When we tell the truth about this, we don’t make following Jesus hard. We are simply honest about how hard it can be for those at the top of our socio-economic pyramids to follow him. It’s easy to worship Jesus. It’s easy to hold a cosmological notion about Jesus. It’s much more challenging to distill his ethical teachings from a first century Jewish context and apply them to the challenges we face in our society today. And it’s still more challenging to actually follow through with those actions.

But I believe the challenge is worth it. No medical student graduates from medical school and says, “What a bunch of legalistic professors! All they told me for four years was ‘Do this and do that! Do this and don’t do that!’” Instead, they go out into the world with a set of skills and perceptions that we all hope will enable them to alleviate suffering in our world.

It’s the same with Jesus. Jesus didn’t give us a list of doctrines to believe. He left us a set of teachings, wisdom teachings. As we endeavor to put them into practice, our experience grows, our practice becomes more skilled, our listening becomes more honed, and our actions become more intrinsically healing and liberating to those who are not privileged by the current status quo.

Matthew is clear: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the “empire” of God. (I’m beginning to prefer the term “empire” over “kingdom,” because I believe it is more historically consistent with the time in which Jesus taught, when that whole region lived under the oppression of the Roman empire.)

Luke is clear, too, that the sayings of Jesus must be “put into practice.” This set of teachings includes the “Way” of grace, nonviolence, peace-making, loving enemies, forgiveness, restorative justice, transformative justice, social justice, economic justice, working alongside those who are oppressed, marginalized, disinherited, excluded, a generous inclusivity, a radical sharing, and a community built on the principle that the empire of God is people taking care of people, rather than people competing with people.

If I had to choose between someone who believed in all the cosmological claims about Jesus but did not wish to put into practice the teachings of Jesus, and someone who doubted the cosmological claims but saw intrinsic value in Jesus’s teachings and sought to both understand and practice them in the here and now, I would have to choose the latter. The former has brought too much suffering on our world, whereas the latter endeavors to alleviate that suffering and sometimes succeeds!

A history worth reading is Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. This book will be one of our Annual Reading Course books either this year or next.

Calling Jesus “Master”

I want to address the word “Master” in this week’s saying.

As we progress through Sayings Gospel Q, we are going to see that Jesus taught what we would today call anarchy. Anarchy does not mean chaos; it means the rejecting of hierarchy. Anarchy rejects the way of domination and subjugation. 

I want to be clear here. While anarchy is commonly associated with freedom, Jesus didn’t teach “freedom” as we individualistically understand it today. He taught that although we are not to seek to dominate or subjugate one another, we are also not free from one another. We are connected! We are interdependent. No person is an island, and, as branches on the vine, we are all dependent on each other. Jesus taught the way of mutual aid, and he cast a vision of a world of people mutually serving each other. The hope for our world in Sayings Gospel Q is not in our devising more efficient ways of subjugating others, but in our discovering more effective ways at taking care of one another.

And yet we have this word “Master” in this week’s verse. I don’t believe the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q actually wants to be anyone’s “Master” or even “Lord” in the sense of an emperor or feudal baron. I see no example of Jesus grasping that kind of power in any of Sayings Gospel Q. Like all wisdom teachers, Jesus desires to lead his listeners to a better way. And I don’t see him in any of the synoptic gospels wanting to dominate others. His desire was not to be served but to model what it means to serve.

Mark 10:41-45: “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Matthew 20:24-28: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Luke 22:24-27: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’”

Even in John, which was written much later than the other canonical gospels and uses “Lordship” language the most, we find this narrative:

John 13:4-5: “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

John 13:12-15: “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’”

These passages suggest to me that Jesus was much more interested in modeling and teaching a different way for us to live together as members of the human family. Even when he uses the phrase “empire of God,” he subverted the Domination Empire of his day and cast a vision for a world where people no longer dominated and subjugated each other as they did in the empires of that time.

Jesus did not emerge in Judaism only to become another in the long list of lords who practice domination. Instead, he showed us something very different.

This week’s saying is a significant challenge to today’s Christian culture. Today, we overwhelmingly emphasize verbally acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” so that a person can be assured of a post-mortem seat in the non-smoking section. Yet, in many sectors of the Christian religion, the sayings of Jesus on nonviolence, his preferential option for the poor, and his critique of domination systems are largely ignored by those who call him “Lord.” We read these sayings of Jesus in the gospels, but don’t hear them. The sayings pass right by us without substantially challenging the shape of our world. It is a very strange phenomena to me, one that I, too, used to experience.

I recently finished a book entitled Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. If you have not read it, I recommend it. Day is an example of a modern Christian who tried to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. Day wrote, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” (The Catholic Worker, May 1940) The contrast between this paradigm and the paradigm I hear from some Christians today is stark.

And yet there is hope. There are many who have woken up and are waking up to this contrast. To each of you, this week’s saying serves as encouragement. You are working in the light given off by this question:

“Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, pick either Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Dedicate some time to reading either one. And then, after you have read through your selection:

  1. Pick a saying that you would like to lean more deeply into.
  2. Research that saying, including different perspectives and interpretations of this saying. Start with a simple Google search if you don’t know where else to begin. Remember what we covered last week. Consider what fruit varying interpretations have yielded or could produce.
  3. Experiment putting this saying into practice in this coming week. When you do, journal about the experience before you forget, and share your reflections with your HeartGroup when you come together.

Thank you so much for joining us this week. Let’s keep putting the sayings of Jesus into practice together, 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 Last Shall Be the Same as the First and the First the Same as the Last

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

But he answered one of them, I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didnt you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Dont I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:13-16)   

12345It’s good to be back!  At the end of last month, I found myself needing to take a break for a little self-care.  I had just completed giving 27 presentations to three separate audiences within nine days.  I appreciate the patience of each of you.  I’ve missed you!  Let’s dive in this week.

I want to begin by asking you to experiment with me.  Let’s, for the sake of experimentation, just for a bit, NOT spiritualize everything Jesus said about money and economics.  Not spiritualizing Jesus’ teachings on money enable us to gain deep insights into Jesus’ new alternate society that we are simply prevented from seeing when we spiritualize it all.

I also want to define the word denounce.  To denounce means to “publicly declare to be wrong or evil” (New Oxford American Dictionary); its synonyms include condemn, criticize, attack, censure, decry, revile, vilify, discredit, damn, reject, proscribe, malign, rail against, lay into, formally castigate, expose, betray, inform on, incriminate, implicate, cite, name, and accuse (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). A denouncement can also be a public accusation or reporting (Wikipedia).

In Matthew 11:20, this version of the Jesus story tells us that “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed.”  What did this look like?  What form did Jesus’ denouncements take?  They come to us in the same form as the denouncements of the Old Testament prophets.  They come in the pronouncement of a “woe.” In the very next verse (Matthew 11:21) we find “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Eerdmans Dictionary states that “In the New Testament ‘Woe’ functions as prophetic denunciation.”  Jesus is standing in his prophetic lineage in his use of language here.

Yet what I want us to contemplate this week is another denouncement Jesus made.  This denouncement is made in Luke’s Jesus story, chapter 6:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now [as opposed to mourn over the present social order], for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26)

Let’s back up and look at the big picture.  Jesus had just pronounced a blessing (the opposite of a denouncement) on the opposite group.  Remember, Jesus is not saying that there is something “righteous” about being poor.  He is saying that for those whom the present social order has left poor, hungry and morning, the changes Jesus had come to make were especially favorable.  The alternate human society Jesus was inviting all to join would be a blessing for those who were poor under the present system and, at a bare minimum, be problematic for those benefiting from the present system.  But we will talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at the two groups first.

“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 [as a result of the present system], for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20–22)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24–25)

Jesus is doing two things.  First, yes, he is proclaiming that the new social order he is teaching is good news for those who are presently in the position of being “last” and at least problematic for those who were presently “first,” benefitting from the present system.  Second, he is indicting the rich.  There is no way around it.  To understand the logic of this, this planet and its resources are not infinite.  It provides enough for every person’s needs, Gandhi once said, but not every person’s greed.  I understand the “opulence” for everyone argument, but the resources of this earth simply do not work that way.  If someone is hoarding more than he or she needs, someone else is going without what he or she needs. (Think of the truth of the Hebrew manna story; everyone had what he or she needed because those who “gathered much” shared with those who “gathered little.”)  To say that Jesus was putting forth an alternate society seeking the equal distribution of earth’s resources so that each person could have what he or she needed was good news to the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

What does this mean? At minimum, it means that if our Jesus is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor, we have to at least wonder if our Jesus is the same Jesus as the one in the story.

Jesus’ new economic teachings also have something to say about debts that had been incurred under the present system.  All debts are to be cancelled!  This, too, is good news to the debtors and problematic for creditors.  But remember, Jesus’ goal is equality, not just in opportunity, but in result.  What Jesus is announcing is the never-practiced Hebrew tradition of “Jubilee,” during which all debts were to be forgiven.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This was hard news for those economically benefiting from the present system.

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

The idea that there was a gate called a “needle” that camels had to get down on their knees to enter and was difficult to enter but not impossible has long been debunked by scholars.  That’s a made-up story.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s impossible for the rich to enter Jesus’ new alternative society here on earth because fundamental to this new society’s core is a sharing of one’s superfluous riches with those who have less.  At its core, Jesus’ new alternate society is a divestment of and a redistribution of the riches of the dominant class with the aim of equality.

Notice how this played out in the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is EQUALITY.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–14)

The reason the rich cannot enter is not an imposed reason but an intrinsic one.  The first step for the rich in following Jesus is a divestment of their riches.  It’s making the rich un-rich.  It’s alleviating the poverty of the poor through sharing those riches, not, as some claim, making all people poor but equal.  Jesus taught the rich, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

This was not an isolated occurrence only privately applied to this specific person.  This was a staple of Jesus’ words to all who were rich:

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus’ alternate society), 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 that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31–34)

This is exactly why the very first expression of following Jesus in the book of Acts was manifested in Jesus-followers’ selling their properties and giving to anyone who was in need.

“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.” (Acts 2:41–45)

When the wealthy young man heard this, it was too much.  “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven [new alternative society, here, now].’” (Matthew 19:22–23)

I want to juxtapose this statement from Jesus, that it is “hard” for those with wealth to enter into Jesus’ beautiful alternative community, with the statement of Matthew’s Jesus just eight chapters earlier:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

What can’t be missed is that Jesus is saying if the present system has caused you to not be at ease and not be surrounded by riches but to be “weary,” “heavy laden,” and in need of “rest,” you will find entering Jesus’ alternate society “easy.” It is a blessing!  But if you are one presently benefiting from the current system, Jesus unmistakably states that you’re going to have a harder time embracing Jesus’ teaching on economics.  Entering into this alternate society centered in the teachings of Jesus is impossible on your own and only possible with God (see Matthew 19:26).

Again, why is it so “hard?” It is hard because Jesus is not selling the American definition of “equality.”  Jesus is not simply offering equality as a matter of “opportunity.”  Jesus is calling for a system which creates equality in results as well.

This is the point in the story at which Jesus tells of the workers who arrived at the end of the day but were paid the same as those who had been there all day:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’” (Matthew 20:13–16)

This, again, was good news to the last.  It was at least problematic for those who were first.

Gandhi is one of the many in history who have experimented with Jesus’ teachings on equal pay.  There are two books that Gandhi states had a bigger effect on his life and thinking than any other books he read.  The first was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  The second was John Ruskin’s Unto The Last.  Gandhi, in his autobiography, states that this second book crystalized for him three truths.  In the words of Gandhi himself:

1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right to earn their livelihoods from their work.

3. The life of labor, e.g., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

Gandhi embarked, from Ruskin’s book (the title of which was taken from our featured text this week: “I desire to give unto the last the same as I give to the first”), on an experiment called the Phoenix Project, in which everyone was paid the same amount regardless of the job they did.  The sense of community and mission this produced is breathtaking if one takes the time to read about it.  Everyone worked for the mission; they looked at each other as equals.

We all know how Hasbro’s Monopoly game ends.  Gehenna, in the Old Testament prophet’s sense, may be unavoidable. Jesus is offering a way to life—an alternate, beautiful community.

There are two narratives we can live by:

Narrative 1: Scarcity – Anxiety – Competitive Accumulation – Stockpiling/Hoarding – Violence

Narrative 2: Abundance – Confidence – Cooperative Sharing – Generosity – Peace

Narrative 1 involves believing that there is not enough for everyone’s needs and allowing the anxiety that belief produces to drive you to a life of accumulating stockpiles that you must protect with violence.  The other narrative involves believing that there actually is enough for everyone’s needs to be met if we share and cooperate.  We can subscribe to a narrative of confidence rather than anxiety, of generosity rather than hoarding.  And rather than producing stockpiles one needs to protect with violence, a shared mutuality that produces peace arises.

The least we can do is begin to be honest about our narratives.

I’ll close this week with the words of Leo Tolstoy.

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.

If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible.  But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so.  You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.  You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or Tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society.  You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth.  And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.

There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.”

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

HeartGroup Application

This week for our HeartGroup Application, I want to recommend to you the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy.  You can download a copy free of charge at amazon.com.

1.  Dedicate some time each day to reading and contemplating what you are reading.

2.  Journal your thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights.

3.  Spend some time in your HeartGroup this upcoming week discussing what you are reading.  In other words, process some of what you’re reading out loud with others.  Jesus’ teachings were never meant to be understood or applied in isolation but with “one another.”

Together we can make a difference.  Together we can learn to recognize and participate in Jesus’ alternate society, the beloved and beautiful community, centered around a shared table.  It is a beautiful community.

Keep living in love until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week

IMG_0332