Worshiping in Vain

Herb Montgomery | August 27, 2021

worship service

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 386: Worshiping in Vain)


I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, Why dont your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” For it is from within, out of a persons heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

There is a lot in this week’s reading. Let’s jump right in.

First, the text names the “Pharisees and some teachers of the law.” It is possible that Jesus himself had training in the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Yet those who were in power in Mark’s gospel were the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. I’ve written at length on the distinctions between these two schools of thought and Torah interpretation in The Golden Rule, Woes against the Pharisees, Woes against the Exegetes of the Law, and Renouncing Ones Rights, so I won’t repeat all of that information here. It’s enough to say that this week’s passage could have been attributed to Hillel the Pharisee as much as we attribute it to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The language and emphasis is very Hillelian.

I share this because throughout history Christians have used the label of Pharisee as a disparaging or derogatory title very carelessly and in very antisemitic ways. Some Christians continue to do so today. We can do better. I want to offer an alternative to these common, anti-Jewish interpretations, and shed some light on why the gospel of Mark speaks so disparagingly of “Pharisees,” I believe, particularly those of the school of Shammai. The following interpretation is not my own but found in Ched Myers’ excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.

Myers argues that the gospel of Mark uses the characters of Pharisees and teachers of the law not to pit Christians against Jews, but to help us understand classism within the Jesus stories and the conflict between upper classes (the elites) and the lower classes (the marginalized).

In Mark’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus’ society was shaped like a cone, with the Sadducees at the center and top of the cone. Right below them were the Pharisees, competing for power. This society also used faithfulness to the traditions of ritual purity and “cleanliness” to determine who were insiders and who were outsiders, who would be centered in that society and who would be pushed to the margins, and who was at the top of the pyramid and who was at the bottom.

The Sadducees were much more conservative in interpreting which behaviors enabled someone to be pure or “clean.” The Pharisees, by contrast, used a more liberal, “progressive” interpretation of purity standards. This enabled more people from the masses to claim cleanliness and therefore avoid being socially disenfranchised. If we were to look at this anachronistically, the Pharisees could be called the blue-collar, working person’s religious leaders, whereas the Sadducees were the religious leaders of the elite and the wealthy who could afford to live up to the Sadducees’ strict standards and their interpretations of who was pure and in or impure and out.

Myers uses the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ differing interpretations of Leviticus 11:38 and of eating domesticated, unirrigated grain versus imported grain from Egypt, which was irrigated but also much cheaper and so affordable for those with less means. Follow closely:

According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees had a more inclusive interpretation than the Sadducees, but even their broader understanding still left some excluded and outcast. Most of all, their interpretation used the needs of the working class as leverage in their power competition with the Sadducees. In Mark’s stories, Jesus sees through this. Though the Pharisees were relevatively more inclusive, they still benefitted from a classist system that left others on the margins.

Jesus emerges in the story as the prophet of the outcasts, whether they are outcast by Sadducees or by Pharisees.

This is the dynamic we are bumping into in this week’s passage. Handwashing was another tradition used to determine who was in and who was out, who was centered and who was pushed to the margins, who was closer to the top of their society and who was closer to the bottom.

But it was classist and elitist. To put it in terms used by Karl Marx, handwashing was bourgeois. Remember this was way before the discovery of germ theory: it was not about cleanliness as we now understand it. Handwashing in this week’s passage was about one’s dedication to Torah observance or rather their interpretations of and adherence to society’s definition of purity.

And Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is not unwashed hands that are harmful in a society, he says, but “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Today, in certain sectors of Christianity, we could apply these same principles. It’s not church attendance, offering size, worship music tastes, watching Fox News as your news media of choice, wearing the political label of “pro-life” or the claim of being a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” that makes you an insider. Jesus could just as accurately say to us: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

What truly threatens a person’s, a community’s, or a society’s wellbeing are greed, classism, scapegoating immigrants, a distrust of science, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacist ways of thinking and viewing the world. These are all things that come from within and are intrinsically harmful and destructive of our human communities—our life together. Jesus’ teaching could be broadened here to parallel contemporary analysis of systemic-isms or kyriarchy. Racism isn’t only internal to individuals, for example; it’s embedded in social policy and custom and culture as well as internal bias and socialization. I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.

Lastly, I don’t interpret Jesus here as simply giving his followers a new list of rules that allowed them to go on practicing the ways of marginalizing others, just with a more internalized standard. I see him doing something much different. By naming the things his new list, I see him calling the very ones who are marginalizing others based on something as silly as washing their hands to do a little introspection and see if there were things within themselves, practices that they themselves engaged in that harmed others or themselves.

What are the things that matter? Why do they matter? What are the things that are genuinely, intrinsically harmful?

And how are we as Christians today worshipping Jesus in vain, holding up elements of Christian culture as the test of who is in and who is out in the midst of our political culture-war, all the while engaging in practices that quite literally in this time of pandemic harm people around us.

What would the Jesus of our story this week say to us today?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. At RHM, we’ve often said that activism is a spiritual discipline. It can also be an act of worship. In what other ways can our justice work, informed by the Jesus story, also be an act of worship? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


Universal Love Means Universal Thriving

sunrise in field of green

Herb Montgomery | August 20, 2021


“Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:56-69)

There is a lot to unpack this in this week’s reading. This passage starts Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The original audience would have immediately recognized this as a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. Nonetheless, as we discussed last week, it is very hard to imagine a 1st Century Jewish male, deeply cultured in the teachings of Torah, using this kind language even metaphorically. And even the text itself recognizes this language is problematic on the lips of a Jewish teacher:

“On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

The author recognizes the problem that this language creates for its Jewish audience and seems to be trying to get out in front of it by highlighting the tension in the story itself: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

This passage also includes the early Gnostic and Pauline view of the world as divided between the spirit and the flesh. Christianity has a long history of harmfully categorizing things of “the flesh” as evil and things of the “spirit” as good. (For an excellent telling of this history I would recommend reading, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Brock and Parker.)

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) does not draw the deep distinction between the spirit and the flesh that’s described in the gospel of John or in Paul’s works. In the synoptic gospels, we see a very fleshly Jesus who is deeply concerned with what negatively impacts people’s material, concrete well-being. His response to suffering is not to focus on the spirit but to liberate humanity from whatever oppresses people in their “flesh.” The Jesus of these gospels is very enfleshed.

What I do appreciate about this week’s passage in John is that its author keeps defining “spirit” for Jesus followers in terms of the “words” of Jesus. Jesus’ words “are spirit and life.” Simon Peter also affirms that Jesus has the words of life in the story when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (emphasis added).

He’s pointing to he words of Jesus—his teachings, his message. In our context today, it’s difficult to understand the distinction between “flesh” and “spirit, even if John’s original audience understood it. But defining whatever is meant by “spirit” as focused on the words or teachings of Jesus—this I can begin to get my head around. Perhaps it’s easier for you to understand as well.

The teachings of Jesus bring to my mind Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which the author of the gospel of John does not mention, and the economic justice found throughout the entire gospel of Luke. In Mark, the teachings of Jesus repeatedly challenge the political status quo through stories full of political symbols and meaning. And even in John, the teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of love more than any of the synoptics.

Consider the following passages:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 cf. Luke 6:31)

And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.(Matthew 22:39)

To love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)

He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied, ‘Do this and you will live.’ (Luke 10:27-28)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

These are the words/teachings that are life, two thousand years ago and today. Love is not only named in the gospels as an ethic of life, but it is also defined in the gospels. John emphases love more than the other canonical gospels and yet the synoptic gospels are still needed to define what that love looks like publicly: as Cornel West often says, justice is what love looks like in public. Matthew and Luke can be interpreted to teach this:

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations. (Matthew 12:18, emphasis added.)

You neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too. That is social justice. We at RHM sometimes call it making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. Yet whether you call it social justice, or politics, or economics, or whatever, in the end what we are talking about is love and treating others the way oneself would like to be treated.

Anything less isn’t love, no matter how “Christian” the language for it. As Jesus followers, our words of love must be accompanied by actions of justice. We say something about this every week: Choose compassion. Take action. Work toward justice. This is how we define living in the way of love repeated in each version of the Jesus story we hold sacred.

Love and justice.

These are spirit.

These are life.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Many of us are feeling deeply concerned with the events in Afghanistan this week. Here are a few organizations that are providing ways for those who are moved to take action to do so:

No One Left Behind

https://nooneleft.org/

International Refugee Assistance Project

https://refugeerights.org/

Women For Afghan Women

https://womenforafghanwomen.org/afghanistan/

Lutheran Immigration And Refugee Service

https://www.lirs.org/

International Rescue Committee

https://www.rescue.org/

Global Giving

https://www.globalgiving.org/

WorldHelp

https://worldhelp.net/

Child Foundation

https://www.childfoundation.org/

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Choosing an Ethic of Love

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


heart drawn on foggy window

Herb Montgomery | August 13, 2021

Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)

This section of John’s gospel includes some problems. First, it’s difficult to imagine a Jewish Jesus using the language of “eating flesh and drinking blood.” Second, this version of the Jesus story comes to the canon very late, written while the latest gospels were being composed. Third, the analogy of flesh-eating and blood-drinking is only found here in this late gospel. It’s absent from all of the earlier, older synoptic versions of the Jesus story, and that becomes even more confusing because though bread and wine are found in each of the other stories of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, they are absent from John.

John’s gospel is where we would expect bread and wine to be, given John’s references to eating flesh and drinking blood, and yet they are nowhere to be found in this version of the last supper. Further, John’s Jesus does not command his followers to continue the Eucharistic sacrament in this gospel as the synoptics do. In fact, if this were the only gospel we had, we would never even know that the last supper included bread and wine.

For all of these reasons and more, most progressive Christian scholars ascribe our opening passage to the Johannine community—the community that emerged around this gospel—and not to the original, Jewish Jesus.

Yet there’s a way for us today, with our focus on establishing justice on Earth and making our present world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone as objects of a Divine, universal love, to reclaim these words in a life-giving way. Let’s talk about it.

Many Christians today focus on what they believe was the focus of the Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That Jesus did not focus on himself or his own person, but rather focused on inspiring others to follow his teachings or what early Christians called the Way (see Acts 9:2). Christians on this path focus on following Jesus’ teachings as found in the stories, rather than on worshiping Jesus or believing in Jesus. In fact, they feel that they may be more accurately worshiping or honoring the Jesus of the stories by endeavoring to follow his teachings in our society rather than merely mentally assenting to Christianity’s high claims about his person.

As I shared last week, we could substitute the language here in John of “flesh” and “blood” with language about following the teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor and the marginalized communities of Galilee.

For example:

My teachings are the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats these teachings like we partake of bread will experience those things that are not temporary but eternal. This bread is my teachings, by which I reveal the path of life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you internalize and follow my teachings and drink deep of their wisdom you have no life in you. Whoever eats my teachings and drinks my teachings has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my teachings are real food and real drink. Whoever internalizes my teachings, allowing my teachings to become part of themselves like we do with food and drink, remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on my teachings will live because of them. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58, personal paraphrase)

I realize this kind of substitution won’t work for everyone. For some, the analogy is still unreclaimable for now, and that’s okay. For others, it’s not clear why this language from a deeply Jewish Jesus might be challenging. We are all on a journey, and for me today, where I am on my own journey, the substitution works. It places my focus where I believe it should be.

Christian history is littered with those who honored Jesus with titles and high claims, yet committed harmful atrocities in his name. I want and choose to place greater value on endeavoring to follow the ethical values in the Jesus story than on promoting the higher claims about Jesus found in the Christian religion. Though those options are not mutually exclusive, I want to be clear that many find Christianity’s high claims about Jesus unbelievable while they see value in the Jesus story because of its ethic of love in human community.

While we don’t have to choose between these options, certain sectors of Christianity seem to choose high claims about Jesus over practicing his ethics. Sometimes they are ignorant of them, but sometimes they practice harmful ethics and hold destructive values while using Jesus’ name.

I’m also in relationship with people who no longer believe in Christianity’s high claims, but who still engage the work of living the golden rule, practicing the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and modeling an ethic of personal and social love above all else. Again, I don’t believe this has to be an either/or, but if I did have to choose, I’d prefer the latter. I would much rather that a person have questions and doubts about the person of Jesus while endeavoring to practice the way of love Jesus taught than that they claim to believe all of Christianity’s high claims yet promote a bigoted, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, classist, nationalistic, or supremacist kind of Christianity.

At the end of the day, someone may believe all the approved, orthodox teaching of the Christian religion about Jesus but not actually be following the Jesus of the story.

If you can do both, I affirm and honor you. If you can’t do both, I want to honor and affirm you too. Whatever you choose, choose the way of love, the way of life, even if you can’t wake every morning absolutely sure that the way of love will eventually and ultimately win. Choose the way of love because you believe it is the better way. We may not be able to change our world by those actions, but we do get to decide what kind of people we will be.

We may not influence the harmful, destructive means we encounter in our world. But by our choices we get to decide whether they will influence us and the kinds of people we want to be. Personal choice today, given enough time and influence, can become social choices tomorrow.

So this is my hope:

That the kind of people we choose to be today will impact the kind of world we compose tomorrow. Even if we never get to see those choices work their way into social change in our lifetime, I rest in the thought that what we choose does matter. It matters to me, and it impacts the kind of person I am choosing to be today.

My hope is that it will matter to our world, too; that it will impact the kind of world we and future generations get to live in tomorrow.

Whoever internalizes my teachings has come in contact with those things which are eternal.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does practicing an ethic of love look like for you in your daily life and as part of your larger society? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Bread of Life

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue to be a voice for change because of you.


Herb Montgomery | August 6, 2021

Our reading this week comes from the gospel of John,

Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty . . . At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:35, 41-51)

Our passage this week starts a chain of “I am” statements that are unique to the gospel of John. There are six more in this version of the Jesus story, seven in total. In John 8:12, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world.” In John 8:58, he says, “I existed before there was an Abraham.” In John 10:11, he says, “I am the good shepherd,” and in John 11:25, he says “I am the resurrection and the life.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am life,” and lastly, in John 15:1, he says, “I am the authentic vine.”

Robert Funk explains that John’s Greco-Roman audience would have recognized this series as an “established formula in speech attributed to one of the gods” (p. 419, The Five Gospels). For John’s Jewish audience, these sayings could have echoed Yahweh’s words to Moses: “ I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Both associations would have highly honored the Jewish Jesus by whom many who encountered him had their lives changed forever.

But also note two things. John’s language about “the Jews” has proven deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. We must be careful in how we read, understand, and use this passage, and we must not use it to harm Jewish people.

Another problematic phrase is, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” This seems to contradict the synoptic Jesus who accused those in control of the status quo of having established a monopoly on knowing God: “Damn you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have blocked those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52) There is much to ponder here.

Can we reclaim this passage in our lectionary reading for this week?

I think the synoptic gospels can help us.

The synoptic gospels don’t emphasize Jesus as a person (as John does) but emphasize Jesus’ teachings, specifically his teachings on nonviolent resistance, mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, debt forgiveness, and more. Jesus’ teaching in these gospels has very concrete political and economic implications for communities. No wonder many of those with much political and economic power, then and now, have chosen to interpret Jesus as providing a path to heaven rather than an affront to unjust social structures in the here and now.

But ponder for a moment how our understanding changes if we interpret these teachings as “the bread of life.” Coupling John’s Jesus who is the bread of life with the synoptics’ definition of Jesus in terms of his teachings would lead us to state:

Nonviolent resistance is the bread of life.

Mutual aid is the bread of life.

Resource sharing is the bread of life.

Wealth redistribution is the bread of life.

Debt forgiveness is the bread of life.

And in a time of massive wealth inequality, when the richest are competing on getting to the edge of earth and space while most of the world still does not have even their daily needs of food, shelter, and care met, we wonder if these statements could be true.

Consider the political and economic forces obstructing the changes we need to make right now to effectively address climate change alone. What does it mean to have the bread of life today?

If eating this kind of “bread” would lead to life and refusing these things would lead to death, that would make much more sense to me if we defined the bread of life as the ethical, social and political teachings of the Jesus story.

It is much larger than this, too. As a Jesus follower, I have encountered these teachings in my own journey with Jesus. Others exposed to Jesus through harmful expressions of Christianity have encountered these values from other sources. I can say that they, too, are partaking in the bread of life, even if they aren’t associated with “Jesus.”

What is bread that is only temporary and what is bread that leads to life everlasting? What are sustainable, renewable, long-term ways of supporting life? Could these practices from Jesus be a way for us to interpret Jesus’ words in John’s gospel?

Lastly, we once again bump into the myth of redemptive self-sacrifice in this week’s passage:

“This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

It’s good to deny greed for power and resources from the powerful and privileged. I see those kinds of denials as a way for the powerful to reclaim their humanity or “self” rather than sacrifice it. Likewise, I do not interpret Jesus as prescribing self-sacrifice for those who are marginalized, victimized, or disenfranchised. In a system where so many people’s full humanity or “self’ is already being sacrificed, I do not believe the message for them is one of greater, voluntary sacrifice of themselves, but rather, as we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings a call for them to reclaim their full humanity in their struggle for justice. (See Imagery of a Good Shepherd and A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Parts 1-10))

Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker correctly warn of the damage that unhealthy interpretations of John’s gospel can produce:

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world.” (God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

If you would like understand this analysis more deeply, I recommend reading their critique in its entirety.

So what does the bread of life look like for us today?

Rightly understanding our history including our society’s racism is the bread of life.

A living wage is the bread of life.

Open, free, and fair elections where voting rights and voting access is protected is the bread of life.

Affordable and accessible health care for all is the bread of life.

Getting vaccinated when we can be is the bread of life.

Common sense preliminary background check on all gun purchases is the bread of life.

Funding those trained in mental health to respond to crisis situations in our communities, ending police militarization, and investing in non-policing forms of public safety and community support is the bread of life.

Clean, renewable energy is the bread of life, especially for those monetarily profiting from the fossil fuel industry now. What does it profit you if you gain all the money in the world but have no planet to live on?

What is the bread of life that results in concrete, life everlasting for humanity rather than temporary gain? What does that mean to you?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What do you interpret to be the bread of life in our context today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Those Things Which Are Eternal


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


hands held in community

Herb Montgomery | July 30, 2021


“The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right. In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

‘Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Sir,” they said, always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:24-35)

I grew up understanding this passage as encouraging focus on getting to heaven in the afterlife, and not focusing on earthly realities that impact our lives in the here and now. An earthward focus was considered a waste of time, “arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.” This school of interpretive thought has born deeply destructive fruit and has always been coopted by oppressive powers to create a kind of Christianity that leaves the oppressive systems of the powerful untouched by Christian followers. This kind of Christianity led those such as Karl Marx to label religion an opiate of the masses.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation of Jesus’s words in John. Jesus said to those wanting to use him to gain political power, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.” (See last week’s eSight.)

Most Biblical Greek scholars recognize that the word translated “eternal”, aionios, described a future time when God would establish justice on Earth. That vision contrasted this present age of violence, injustice, and oppression with a future age of justice, restoration, and peace. The eternal age contrasted with a present temporary age. The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right.

In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.

Let me offer some examples.

Those in control of and benefiting from the US fossil fuel industries have a decision to make: continue making enormous profits today and make our planet uninhabitable through the climate change that results from burning industry products, or abandon those profits (“food that spoils”) to ensure our planet remains a safe, habitable home for everyone (“food that endures to eternal life”).

A friend connected to various Evangelical and fundamentalist ministries shares another example. My friend has witnessed those who have successful ministries pressured to embrace or align with the current surge in Christian nationalism and that movement’s politics. If they do, they’re choosing to support or at least go along with things they never would have imagined themselves supporting just to keep money flowing into their ministries. Their choice is between standing against what they see happening, trying to rightly inform their supporters, losing financial support, and downsizing their “successful” ministries, and staying silent, going along with troubling things, and trying to maintain supporters who understand what they are doing and supporters who are sincere but misled or misinformed. This is a textbook example of working for “food that spoils” rather than “food that endures to eternal life.”

US politicians now have a very similar choice: go along with Trumpism, anti-vaccination, and/or other troubling party platforms to get re-elected next year (working for “food that spoils”) or stand against what they feel is harmful and face political ruin over the right thing to do long-term (working for “food that endures to eternal life”).

This is another variant of the choice laid before Luke’s gospel’s audience:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)

I know something of having to make this kind of choice.

When I had these decisions to make, I was naïve and did not fully understand what doing the right thing would cost. My line in the sand was for Renewed Heart Ministries to choose between inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ folk and exclusion. My choice to embrace affirming Christian theology has cost this ministry everything to this day, and my journey has included consequences that have not always been easy to bear. I don’t regret my decision. I also want to be honest that the decision almost tanked Renewed Heart Ministries. One year we were one of the most successful ministries of our denomination, and the next we were on the brink of having to close—and more than eight years later, we’re still coming back from that.

For me, not “working for food that spoils” meant refusing to stay silent (and conventionally employable) when I saw my LGBTQ friends being harmed by our denomination. Working for food that endures to eternal life meant doing the right thing, the just thing, the compassionate thing, the nonviolent thing, even if that meant I had to give up some things on that journey.

And what has been the result? Today I belong to a community that’s very different than the one I used to belong to. Some folks from the old days have kept on journeying with me. Some have yet to make that journey, and still others never will; I’ve had to accept that.

But my community today includes people who feel as passionate as I do about justice and making our present world a better and safer place for those marginalized in the present system. Have we seen sacrifices? Absolutely. But have we seen gains as well? Yes! Our ministry is still recovering materially, but those I have met and am in relationship with today I might never have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing if I had not chosen this path. They make it worth it for me. If there is an age to come, as Jesus taught, what we will be able to take with us is not our money, political power, or our property, but rather the relationships we’ve made here, in our present age, with the people we hold most dear. Working with them is working for food that endures to eternal life for me.

What does that mean for you?

What decisions have you made in your own journey?

What have they cost you?

What have you gained instead as a result of making those difficult choices?

And, for all of us, what decisions still lie ahead?

Whatever they are, I have confidence today that the food that endures is the better choice. It may not always be the easiest choice, but it is ultimately the better choice, and together, in community, we can face the fallout of our better choices, come what may.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does eternal versus temporary mean to you? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Another World is Possible (Part 3)

by Herb Montgomery | July 27, 2018 

Hands offering bread


“The poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” — Gustavo Gutiérrez; The Power of the Poor in History


“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 .’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God !’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.’” (Mark 10:21-24)

This week we’ll wrap up our series with this section of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is inviting a wealthy inquisitor to join him in practicing Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. 

I’m also reminded of a discussion I had years ago with a pastor while I was visiting his church. He confronted me with my concern for the poor, and said that the “rich need the gospel, too.” He felt that plenty of churches in his area practiced charity (not justice, mind you, but charity) for the poor, but he believed he was called to lead his church to minister to the spiritual needs of the wealthy. 

As he continued to explain why didn’t focus on poverty, a poverty I believe is created by the current social order, my mind wandered to our passage this week. Let’s take a closer look at it. 

The first thing we see in this passage is Jesus’ love for this man. Jesus doesn’t hate the wealthy. No. Mark’s Jesus loves both the rich and the poor. The system that creates wealth disparity, with concentration of riches on one side of the spectrum and poverty on the other, dehumanizes both the rich and the poor. It dehumanizes both differently, but both ends of the spectrum are dehumanizing. Whereas poverty steals a person’s humanity, wealth can cause people to lose their connection with and become isolated from their own humanity and forget their interconnectedness with the humanity of others.

In this context, Jesus’ love for this rich young man speaks to me. Jesus loves him and thus seeks to reconnect him with the humanity of “the poor” and thus his own humanity as well. Wealth redistribution is rooted in regaining our humanity no matter which section of the wealth/poverty spectrum you find yourself on. 

I agreed with my pastor friend that Jesus loves the rich, too. Because he loves them, he calls them to join him in his service to the poor. Jesus didn’t minister to the wealthy and the poor differently. He practiced a preferential option for the poor and called the wealthy to join him. Jesus didn’t minister to the wealthy by ignoring the poor. Jesus ministered to the rich young man by calling him to “Go, sell everything” he had “and give [it] to the poor.” 

Jesus ministered to the rich of his own society by calling them out of a system that created gross wealth disparity and into a system that redistributed wealth, that recognized the humanity of everyone, and that distributed justice to ensure everyone had the means they needed to survive and thrive. 

My pastor friend argued that this was only counsel for the young man in the story. Certainly Jesus saw the unique needs of that specific young man. But in Luke and Acts, this was not a unique teaching but one that Jesus gave to his entire audience in mass:

“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 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 12:32-34, emphasis added.)

In Acts, believed to have been written by the same author(s) as Luke, the very first thing followers of Jesus are characterized by is these kinds of actions:

“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 2:40-45, emphasis added.)

The entire community practiced this preferential option for the poor to the extent that wealth disparity was replaced with a distributive justice and there were no more poor among them. 

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.)

But like the young man in the story above, my pastor friend choose to go a different route.

I have often quoted this passage from James Robinson’s volume, The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News:

“[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”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.” (Kindle Edition, Location 117)

After the wealthy young man departs, the story shifts to Jesus’ interchange with his disciples.: 

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

The idea that Jerusalem had a very narrow “needle gate” and that merchants had to unload their camels and have their camels kneel to pass through that gate is fiction made up in the 15th century. We know of no narrow gates in Jerusalem and none named the “needle gate” in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or Galilee.

On interpreting this passage, I land instead with scholars like Stant Litore who suggest that Jesus said it is easier to thread one of the big ropes used by the fishing community, which many in his audience were from, through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In Aramaic, the words for rope and camel have the same spelling. Aramaic did not use vowels, so these words would have been pronounced differently but written the same way. 

In Greek, too, specifically the common Koine Greek of working and poor people, the words for rope and camel are also very similar. The difference is in a single vowel: kamélos (camel) and kamilos (rope), but the prounuciation is the same. The meaning of the phrase remains the same: It is impossible for either a camel or a large fishing rope to be threaded through a small sewing needle. 

Jesus isn’t making it hard for rich people to “enter” his kingdom of resource sharing, mutual aid, cooperation, and a just distribution of the resources needed for survival and thriving. Instead he’s simply being honest about how difficult it is for people with accumulated wealth to embrace this world. A rope (or camel) won’t fit through the eye of a needle. And for the rich to enter Jesus new human society, here and now, they must be willing to let go of their wealth and embrace a distributive justice where everyone has enough.

Again, Jesus isn’t picking on the rich. He’s simply saying that in his vision for human society there’s no longer a wide chasm between the rich and poor. His vision is a society where everyone has enough to thrive. No more rich. No more poor. The sun shines and the rain falls indiscriminately on all.

Today we live in a world where the few who are on top are striving to maintain their position of control. But if one looks, on the horizon, a new day is coming. Will that new day bring a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone regardless of their race, gender, orientation, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, and education? It’s up to us. We can make it that way, if we choose to.

Another world is not only possible, it’s coming. Change is coming. Let’s make the choices that ensure that that change is for the better.

“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 .’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God !’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.’” (Mark 10:21-24)

HeartGroup Application

As of yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court deadline, over 900 parents are still separated from their children. Here are three ways your HeartGroup can do something.

  1. If you live in a boarder state, you can volunteer at an organization that is engaging the work of helping families that have been separated. If a protest is happening in your area, you can show up and participate.
  2. If these are not an option, you can donate to organizations who are involved and need your support. One such organization (which I know some fo the ones who are involved) is the New Sanctuary Coalition. This is a coalition comprised of Auburn Theological Seminary, Central Synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, HIAS, Immigrant Families Together, International Rescue Committee, New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, and Union for Reform Judaism. You can support their work to help reunite families by going to https://newsanctuarycoalition.nationbuilder.com/family_reunification
  3. Lastly, contact your local elected representatives. It is important that we continue to express our outrage against the current policies. Let them know.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are this week, right where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Together we can make our world a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. 

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.

Another World is Possible (Part 2)

Aside

Picture of friend standing on horizon at sunset

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

by Herb Montgomery | July 13, 2018


“To live out the reign or kingdom of God is to replace wealth accumulation with a distributive justice that ensures people’s needs for survival and thriving are taken care of: an early version of ‘people over profit.’” 


“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)

Last week we considered Jesus’ narrative of enough for everyone, sharing, generosity, peace-making, distributive justice, and cooperation to replace our tired narratives of scarcity, competition, accumulation, monopoly, violence, and hoarding. This week we see this theme in some of Jesus’ most pointed teachings on resource sharing and mutual aid. 

In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6:24-33), Jesus says: 

“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. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the gentiles run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Let’s try and taking this passage section by section. 

“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.

In this passage, “money” is not arbitrarily labeled as evil. What’s being labeled as evil is the endless pursuit of money that opposes Jesus’ vision of human community. To live out the reign or kingdom of God is to replace wealth accumulation with a distributive justice that ensures people’s needs for survival and thriving are taken care of: an early version of “people over profit.” 

To serve God means to take responsibility for the care of others. Doing that cuts into profits: you can’t place people and profit as both your highest priority. Endlessly pursuing capital leads to wage exploitation, environmental abuse, and violence to protect one’s accumulation or gain more at the cost of dehumanizing other people. How many injustices toward humanity such as patriarchy, slavery, racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia are based on building more capital over care for people? We are part of one another. The service of ever pursuing the gain of money as the highest priority leads us to sever our connectedness to the humanity of others and ourselves as we sink into the quick sand of individualistic concern for only oneself and your own survival. 

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Worrying that there is not enough for everyone can lead us to try to solve the dilemmas of survival and thriving for ourselves at the expense of others. Jesus addresses this “worry” head on. It really is a matter of trust. 

Do we trust that another world is possible? Do we trust that if we truly choose people over a never-satisfied, never-satisfying accumulation that there will be enough for everyone in the end? I’m growing more and more convinced that for many who suffer from a drive to accumulate that is never satisfied, that drive is based on a deep-seated fear that at some point in the future they will go without. 

That fear has answers. One is to abandon others and ensure that you will never go without. Another is to invest in people, in a community where we take care of one another and where, no matter what happens, whatever the future holds, whatever comes our way, we as a community are in each other’s corner. Those who have more than they need share with those who don’t, and that creates a community where because giving is part of their values, they will also receive if they’re ever in need.. 

Jesus is asking his audience to value people in this kind of community over their worries of what to eat, drink, or wear. That’s not because Jesus wants anyone to go hungry or naked, but because he calls his followers to the path of sharing responsibility for making sure that no one is hungry and/or naked and that everyone has enough to eat, drink, and wear. 

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

Jesus then brings up birds and flowers. It’s true that birds don’t sow or reap; they are hunter-gatherers. Yet Jesus also uses the phrase, “store away in barns.” When a farmer in Jesus’ society reaped more than they needed, they built bigger and bigger barns (see Luke 12:18). Jesus is instead asking his followers to share their surplus if they have more than they need between now and the next harvest. Share your harvest with those whose harvest was not enough. Don’t build bigger barns. Share with those who need the extra that you were blessed with. 

In this section, Jesus is digging into his own Jewish roots for the manna story of the Exodus. (Read Exodus 16.) Those who gathered much manna shared with those who had gathered little and there was enough for everyone. There was no need to hoard for tomorrow; there would be more tomorrow, and today’s hoarded manna would be worm-ridden and rotten by tomorrow. Every day provided enough, just as each day the birds had enough. 

“If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the gentiles run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Each time a community of people desires to live out the reign of God and practice distributive justice in our world today, we see Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. A kingdom is a region where the will of a sovereign is done. Jesus borrows “kingdom” language to illustrate his God’s desire for everyone to have enough, enough bread for today, and no debts for tomorrow. 

Jesus isn’t giving a magic formula. He’s not saying that if we work toward this kind of world then all that we need will simply fall out of the sky. No, it’s more cause and effect. When we seek the kind of world rooted in mutual aid and care that Jesus labeled “the kingdom” we are creating community where each person takes responsibility for ensuring that we all, together, have enough to drink, eat, and wear. Jesus tells us to choose to create a world of mutual aid and care. When we do, “all these things” that we are so worried about today “will be given to us as well” because we’ll be giving them to each other. We have each other’s back. Ours will be a community where we take care of one another. 

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

This last sentence really hits the nail on the head. What keeps us from sharing today is worry about what we will do tomorrow if we need what we’ve given away today. Jesus asks us to let go and trust in kinship. Trust in our connectedness. Trust that in being someone who cares for others, we are awakening in others the willingness and generosity to care for others too. Be the person God is sending into someone’s life today to care for them and don’t worry about tomorrow. Focus on building the kind of community where mutual aid is deeply valued. And then let tomorrow worry about itself knowing that if trouble should come, we belong to a community that is much larger than its parts. This is a community that takes care of its own (and maybe even those, too, who don’t yet belong). Reach out and care for the needs of those before us today. Generosity and sharing awaken generosity and sharing such that tomorrow, should you need it, someone will be there to generously share with you, too.

I like the way Luke’s gospel sums up this portion of Jesus’ teachings:

“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 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 12:32-34)

Again, Jesus addresses our worry or “fear” of the future with the words “don’t be afraid.” It’s God’s pleasure to work through us and give us the kind of world where we, rather than competing with one another, have learned to cooperate with and take care of one another. So with this assurance, sell your hoarded possessions and give to those the present system has left in poverty. Set in motion a new social and economic order where there truly is enough for everyone to thrive. In doing this, giving to those presently without, we are “providing purses that will never wear out.” We can keep our money pouches to ourselves in hope we’ll have enough for whatever comes our way in the future, or we can invest in people and a world where our money pouches are open to others and each person willingly opens their money pouch to us when we are in need. There truly is enough for everyone when we choose to share what little we may have with our human siblings. This community is a treasure “in heaven” that will not fail and that no thief or moth can destroy. 

But why “in heaven?” I don’t need a community in heaven, I need that community here, now, on earth.

Right now, my daughter is away at college. Most of her most prized possessions are being kept in our attic, safe for when she needs them. But when she needs them, she won’t have go up to the attic and stay there to enjoy them. These things being kept safe in our attic will be brought down and she’ll be able to enjoy them with us. God wants to give us this kind of world here, now today. Another world is possible. And when we invest in this kind of world, we are investing in a community the vision of which is being kept safe “in heaven,” until such a community of people can be realized here “on earth” (see Matthew 6:10).

In this world, we have to make a choice. Will it be people or the endless accumulation of money? We can’t do both. But we can have a world where we and those around us have enough to thrive. It won’t be through individualist monetary accumulation. It will be through seeking a world of mutual aid, love, service and care for our fellow humans. 

“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

HeartGroup Application

1. This week discuss some of the ways you, as a community, can take care of the needs within our group.

2. How can your group help those not part of your HeartGroup.

3. Pick something from the above two discussions this week, and put it into practice between now and the next time you come together.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation, working toward a world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for all. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week with part 3.

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

Another World is Possible (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2018


“Tempted to succumb to the narrative of scarcity and competition against one another for the one loaf in the boat, they forgot the lesson in the feeding of the multitudes.  What little we have (even a few loaves and fish), when passed through distributive justice and shared with others, creates an entirely different order.”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

In the gospel narrative, John the Baptist was arrested after being deemed a threat to Herod (see Mark 6:17-18). In Mark, his arrest marked the launch of Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry. Jesus would also follow in John’s footsteps in becoming a threat to the status quo. Whereas John was arrested and beheaded, Jesus would be arrested, too, but his execution would also carry the extra political weight of crucifixion. 

Which elements of Jesus’ teaching were so threatening to the privileged and powerful? Let’s consider a story Jesus told in Matthew’s gospel:

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the 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 20:8-16)

This story captures one of the central values of Jesus teaching. Jesus’ solution to the problems of his own society was community, but not just any kind of community. His community put “first” those his society was placing last. It reversed the status quo. To put it in the language of liberation theology, Jesus vision for humanity was a community that practiced a preferential option for those typically made “last.”

As I’ve shared before, this is good news for those who are last. It’s threatening and problematic for those who are first, especially those who have worked their entire lives competing and scheming through the power struggles of society to achieve their position. To those people, Jesus’ idea of reshaping human society into a community where those presently privileged and powerful become equal to those who have been pushed to the undersides and/or margins of society is deeply threatening. It causes trouble. Egalitarianism is not a good thing to people who want to be privileged above or hold power over others. To these people in Jesus’ story, the message that the “last will be first, and the first last,” that they would all be paid the same wages and treated equally regardless of how long each had labored that day, left them incensed. I love how the employer in the story responded: “Are you envious that I am generous?”

Another key value in Jesus’ vision of community was generosity. Jesus’ community was rooted in a generous sharing with one another based on need, not necessarily how many hours each one worked. In the book of Acts, Jesus-followers shared as they were able and received as they had need. Their community didn’t rely on individualistic competition, but on mutual aid and commitment to take care of each other. The future had hope not because each had insulated themselves from other members of the human family, but because they had embraced their connectedness to one another. They leaned into their connectedness and loved others “as themselves” (see Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27).

Today, there is a strong current in U.S. society toward rugged individualism. Each person is expected to take care of themselves. There is a concerted effort afoot to diminish social aid, (already at a bare minimum compared with places in Europe), which in the end would leave the vulnerable at the mercy of charity, the wealthy, and powerful corporations. Some want to exploit those who are more vulnerable for the benefit of a few who have money and power. Instead, Jesus teaches us to be generous toward those the present system makes last.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, we find another element of Jesus’ teachings that can easily be understood to have threatened those in power in his society.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Start preaching that poverty is not the result of chance but the cause and effect result of whatever system is producing that poverty and see how quickly pushback ensues. Start advocating for a new system that eliminates poverty entirely (a recent example would be the Poor People’s Campaign) and see how quickly opposition mounts.

But the passage in Luke 4 doesn’t just mention good news for the poor. It also includes good news to prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. What I believe Luke is referring to here is what many scholars of that time and culture call “prison blindness.” In that time, when someone was awaiting trial, they were simply thrown into a deep hole in the ground. It was so dark in that hole, the prisoner could not see their hand right in front of their face. So the recovery of sight to those with prison blindness simply meant release from incarceration. It was liberation. It was setting the prisoners free. 

Begin today advocating for the abolition of mass incarceration and watch the result. Advocate for the end of the “war on drugs” which was created with racist intent and watch who begins to feel threatened by it (Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies). Two books that in my opinion are must-reads if you want to understand how deeply unjust the U.S. judicial and mass incarceration systems are are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground.

Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground also sheds tremendous light on U.S. immigration policy and what we are watching right now on the U.S.’s borders. U.S. immigration policy has always been about maintaining a White-majority population in the United States, and still is.

The next element mentioned in Luke’s passage of Jesus’ gospel was liberation, the setting free, of the “oppressed.” Liberation and survival is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. Repeatedly Jesus’ vision of resource sharing and taking care of each other allowed his followers to survive the present world and also work to create another one. It helped them hold on to hope and practice the belief that another world was possible. I believe the greatest contribution liberation theologies have made to our understanding of the gospel over the last 50 years is a return to the heart of Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed. With that heart, many Christians have been introduced to Jesus for the first time. 

Lastly, in Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, we read “and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was the year when all debts were to be forgiven. It was to be the beginning of a kind of wealth redistribution: slaves freed, prisoners released, debts cancelled, and a reset back to level ground for all society. In the year of the Lord’s favor, the oppressed were freed from those in positions of power. 

This part of Luke’s passage always reminds me of the game of Monopoly. Most folks love the game of Monopoly on the opening rounds. But the last two rounds are awful for everyone except the person who owns all the property on the board and has created the “monopoly.” 

I have a friend who had to quit playing Monopoly because every time it would reach this point they would flip the board and send pieces and money all over the table. It reminds me of the story of how Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, sending property and money over the courtyard. Capitalism has today reached the need for a reset as well. We can either choose it voluntarily or those who who have no other option will rise up and force the reset. Today 6 men own more than more than half of the entire global population. That is unsustainable as well as being distributively unjust. The God of the Jesus story, Jesus states, causes the sun to shine and rain to fall equitably on all (see Matthew 5:45).

If this discussion makes you defensive or apologetic, I’d ask you to consider these words in Mark’s gospel:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,; they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’ (Mark 8:14-19)

According to the gospels, the Pharisees did not understand. As an aspiring economic and political class within Jesus society, rather than believing another world was possible and seeking to create it, the Pharisees simply sought greater power and privilege in the present one. (Listen to Fox Valley: Jesus From the Edges). The first Herod, too, had achieved great wealth and power by pushing himself to the very top of Jewish society. The Herod Jesus was referring to in this passage had done the same. 

What then is the “yeast” that Jesus told his disciples to avoid? I believe it represents the lure of the present order that benefits a few at the expense of the masses; the lure of believing you can achieve the status of the 1% by competing and don’t have to lean into Jesus’ vision of mutual care and responsibility, sustainability and cooperation with others. Jesus references the stories of multitudes being fed by sharing few resources among them. “There’s only one loaf in the boat and if I want any of it I’d better fight for it,” they each were tempted to think. Tempted to succumb to the narrative of scarcity and competition against one another for the one loaf in the boat, they forgot the lesson in the feeding of the multitudes.  What little we have (even a few loaves and fish), when passed through distributive justice and shared with others, creates an entirely different order. There is often fear that there is not enough to go around, that if we share rather than continue to compete, that we will go without. And that’s why Jesus asks, “how many basket fulls were left over each time?” The answer was enough for the crowd and for the disciples too. Jesus was offering a narrative of resource-sharing, generosity, distributive justice, peace-making, and gratitude in the face of the too-often-lived-by narratives of scarcity, competition, greed, monopoly, violence, and hoarding.

Jesus called for putting people first over profit, power, privilege, and property.

Another world is possible. 

Will we believe it?

Will we choose it?

This gospel still calls to us today.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

HeartGroup Application

Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 45) 

1. What are some of the other ways Jesus teachings called for a “different social order” than what we have listed here in this week’s article? Make a list.

2.  Discuss your list with your HeartGroup along with the lists others have made. What are some of the ways you can practice some of the things on your list this week?

3. Now pick something on your list and, as a HeartGroup, do it together. 

Paulo Freire stated, “As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly, the oppressors halt by any method (including violence) any action which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous— to the oppressors— for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition; p 141). 

There is power—people power—in combining our energies in working to make our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this last week as a combined outcry challenged the U.S.’ policy of separating families entering its borders. This problem is not yet resolved. In fact, the “solution” still does inestimable harm. As people of faith and good will who seek the intersection of their faith and their work toward societal justice, this is a great petition to have your entire HeartGroup sign:

Petition: All Rights for All, Without Borders

“As scholars and teachers of religion, we rejoice that public pressure led to initial steps to end family separation. Yet, we remain deeply concerned with the Trump administration’s attempt to substitute mass detention of families as a ‘solution’ for family separation. These practices continue to be rooted in an inhumane policy of ‘zero tolerance’ that is morally, ethically, and spiritually reprehensible, and we exhort all people of faith, and all people of good will, to reject and resist this immoral approach.”

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, 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 with part 2.


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

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.

Jesus’ Vision for Community, Wealth Redistribution, and Closing the Inequality Gap 

By Herb Montgomery

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

First, I didn’t say the above statement! So don’t be upset with me. But it is in Mark’s version of the Jesus story, so I’d like to address it.

Most believe Mark’s gospel was written just before or just after the destruction of the Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish war. The events taking place in the Jesus community at this time help us understand re-emphasizing Jesus’ teachings on sharing our superfluous wealth with each other.

According to the book of Acts, the Jesus community practiced communal care: they took care of the needs of those within their community.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2.44-45)

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 needed.)

What is so amazing about both of these passages is the result: the early Jesus community eliminated poverty in their group. “There were no needy persons among them”—this is what a world influenced by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

One of the purposes of Mark’s gospel is to encourage Jesus’s followers to continue this care-taking. Here’s how he does it. Mark dedicates a large portion of the narrative to this topic.

First, we have the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, with twelve baskets of leftovers in chapter 6:34-44. Then, two chapters later, we have another feeding a multitude (Mark 8:1-10). This time it’s four thousand fed, and seven basketfuls left over.

Just one of these stories would be expected; it’s the repetition of the elements that should cause us to sit up and ask “Why.”

Mark answers this question in verses 14-21 of chapter 8:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’

Let’s begin to unpack this exchange: “Are your hearts hardened?,” Jesus asks. In Hebrew folklore, the quintessential hardened heart was Pharaoh’s in Exodus. Within that story, Egypt symbolizes a world empire built on scarcity, accumulation, and storage that over time grew into a domination system rooted in greed, oppression, and ruthless brick-production. The story climaxes with a stand off between Moses the liberator and Pharaoh the oppressor; the story says Pharaoh’s heart was “hard,” meaning that he would not let the Israelites go.”

Jesus emerged within 1st Century Judaism as a liberator of the poor and oppressed. To the degree that Jesus’ disciples would not participate in this liberation, they, like the Pharaoh in the story, choose the way of a hardened heart. Jesus called for his followers to radically embrace one another to the degree that even the wealthy would embrace the poor and liquidate superfluous assets to eradicate need. Two chapters after the conversation in chapter 8, we see Jesus telling a rich questioner, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Mark 10:18-25).

There are two obstacles to this level of radical sharing. One is feeling like you don’t have enough to share; the other is having enough today but being so afraid of not having enough in the future that you refuse to share now. The stories of the feedding of the multitudes address the first obstacle, whereas the rich man in Mark 10 represents the second.

In each of the “multitude” stories, there is not enough to go around. But in these stories, each person brings what they have and “miraculously” there is somehow enough with more to spare.

In Mark 8, in the boat, the disciples are bumping up against a “scarcity” mentality once again. There is only one loaf to be divided among them, and their temptation is to revert to the narrative of hoarding or “competing” for what there is. Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of Herod and the wealthy Pharisees. The leaven Jesus is referring to here is that fear of future scarcity that leads to accumulation, hoarding, greed, and a hard heart that ignores the needs of others today. The hard heart makes you a mini “pharaoh,” one who refuses to liberate those around you from whatever prevents them from being fully human.

Jesus’ solution to the oppression of the poor is not charity, but community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with charity. Charity is vital! Charity takes care of hungry stomachs right now. Certainly following Jesus includes no less than sharing charitably with the needy, but it also includes more. Following Jesus means community, where each person, rich and poor alike, brings what they have to the shared table. Even though we may be tempted to think that we only have two loaves and a few fish to feed an entire community, when we come together, something magical happens. As each person contributes what they have, somehow every person’s needs are met.

A couple weekends ago, I encountered an organization in Glendale, CA, called Communitas. Communitas is a Latin noun referring to an unstructured community in which people are equal or to the very spirit of community. The philosophy is that we can choose to network together in a community where each one of us has something that someone else needs. Our needs put us in touch with one another. As we choose to take care of each other, each ability connecting with each need, we can eliminate need by applying the abilities we already possess. Even those who are “in need” have abilities and talents they can bring to the shared table. Communitas is an amazing organization that does more than offer bandaid solutions to poverty. It’s an organization subversively casts a vision of systemic change.

In Mark, Jesus’ solution to “need” or poverty is to close the inequality gap by inviting each person into community where every need is supplied by another person’s shared ability. Some of the wealthy responded well: think of those among the wealthy tax collectors who had chosen to follow Jesus. Others did not: think of those among the Pharisees who viewed Jesus’ teaching with contempt and dismissal.

Mark finishes his story in chapter 10 with these words:

“Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

Notice that he does not say it was impossible. He did say it was hard. Jesus was simply being honest about the difficulty. In the words of Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” But for those who felt as if they had much to lose, choosing the way of compassion and bringing what they possessed to the shared table was, at best, a challenge.

An aside: there actually wasn’t a camel gate in Jerusalem that camels had to get down on their knees to enter. This is a myth that began in the 16th Century to allow the wealthy to follow Jesus and still hold on to their wealth. The phrase “eye of the needle” is beautiful Hebrew hyperbole, and also appears in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Mezi’a 38b. Jesus is also using an Aramaic play on words. The Aramaic word gamla can be translated as “rope” as well as camel, because most ropes were made of camel hair. And so the phrase can be read as “getting a rope through the eye of a needle.” The pun holds as Mark’s gospel is translated from Greek into Latin: The Latin word for rope is kamilos, and the Latin word for camel is kamelos.

So what does the pun mean? For a rope to go through an eye of a needle, it must undergo a change: it must be pared down significantly. The rope must become thread. Jesus is saying that the way the wealthy are saved is through choosing to let go of their fear of the future, their trust in the safety of what they have accumulated, and to accept instead the way of compassion that values fellow humans more than wealth. Jesus calls the wealthy to place their wealth on the shared table alongside everything that others bring to the shared table. No hoarding allowed.

The emphasis is not about reducing individual wealth; it’s about making wealthy communities. Jesus is casting the vision of sharing communities that create shared wealth. In these communities, as it states in Acts, there will no longer be a needy person among us.

“A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” — Solomon Ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (Spanish Jew and Collector of Jewish Aphorisms; Spain, c. 1021 – c.1069; see Geary’s Guide to the Worlds Great Aphorists)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — attributed to Margaret Mead

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a special activity for each HeartGroup.

  1. Before you meet as a group make time to personally watch Richard Wilkonson’s 16 minute Ted talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. Write down any thoughts, questions, or insights you get as you watch.
  2. When you meet together for your HeartGroup this upcoming week, watch the short presentation again as a group and then spend some time sharing with each other your response.
  3. As a group, write down ways you could close the gaps that exist within your own HeartGroup. Then pick one of these ways to experiment with over the next few weeks. Schedule a time a month from now when you can, as a group, discuss what you have discovered through this exercise.

I’d love to hear what your group discovers. Shoot me an email and let me know what has happened.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world, through the means of a shared table, for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.