Deliverance From Evil

Herb Montgomery | October 19, 2018

Silhouette of woman with upraised fist.

Photo credit: Miguel Bruna


“What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences.”


“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

As we wrap up our look at what we call the Lord’s Prayer, I want to begin with a story of a dear West Virginian woman, her children, and her husband in context of deliverance from evil. There is a type of coal mining here in West Virginia called mountain top removal. It’s legal here and is happening in much of the southwestern region of the state. Many of our elected representatives are financially supported by coal mine owners who profit from how those representatives structure our laws. This is the story of a family involved in trying to change these laws. Listen to how the mother of this family tells her story:

“Coal miners work in the coal mines because they have no other choice, others because they enjoy that type of work. Most coal miners have college degrees in many things, yet Coal mining is the only thing we have to offer them.

My husband has a degree in electronics engineering and 1080 [credit hours] in industrial electronics, but his only choice was to become a Coal miner. He worked in the mines for two years, the toll it took on his body… that was heartbreaking. When he would come home from work he looked like death in the face. He worked twelve hours a day six days a week — the kids and I only saw him on Saturdays and half a day on Sundays. His skin was stained black, he coughed constantly as if he had the flu.

I was 8 months pregnant with our son the day the UBB mine disaster happened. I had laid down to take a nap. When I got up my cell phone had 10 missed calls and 20 text messages on it. The calls and messages were from my two oldest daughters and my sister, asking if my husband was working. I called my 15-yr-old first and asked what was wrong. She was in a total panic and crying wanting to know if her step-dad was ok, that a mine just blew up and 12 (at the time) miners were trapped. The news didn’t report which mine or [its] location until later. When I informed her he was ok and was getting ready for work, she responded ‘NO, do not let him go back to work mommy, Please!’ I got her to calm down then called my 19-yr-old and got the same response. ‘Mommy, please don’t let him go.’ It broke my heart in two knowing he had to go to work to pay bills and take care of our babies. But what hurt the most was the fear and heartbreak that my children were feeling.

Anyway, I turned on CNN and started to watch the heartbreaking events unfold. I knew that come 9:00 pm my miner would be walking out the door to go to work. But somehow this night was different than all the other nights I told him goodbye. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had never felt before in my life. The mining pay was great, it gave us tons of nice things and plenty of money to provide for our family. But at that moment, I didn’t care if we had a dime in the bank and had to live in a tent. I was sending the love of my life, my best friend and my children’s father out the door not knowing if he would ever be back. He was killing his body and he was risking his life to provide us with worldly things, things that could be replaced. After he left, I sat and watched CNN until daylight waiting on his morning call letting me know he was coming home. Thank God in heaven I received that call.

As the evening went on I continued to watch the events at UBB unfold. As I watched the [miners’] families standing, praying and waiting on the news of their miner, it broke my heart. I will never forget the look on one young man’s face when a reporter [asked] him how he was feeling (stupid question). His response was ‘it feels like I’m getting punched over and over in the stomach.’ I knew at that moment, I didn’t want my son or daughters to ever experience that feeling… Two days later, he decided to leave the mines.

It has been 8 months now since he quit, we are all doing fine. We may not have as much money as before, but we do have the most important thing to our family and that’s DADDY!

I just wish our elected officials would see that West Virginia’s most valuable resource is our Miners themselves and not the Coal. But I’m afraid that they will continue to fight for the Coal Barons’ wallets and the campaign funding, as long as they ‘Keep Them in the Coal’ our politicians will be fine. Please keep our West Virginia Coal Miners in your thoughts and prayers. Never forget the ones we have lost in Sago, UBB and other places.” (Source)

Jesus envisioned a world where people were valued over profit, property and power. That’s where this week’s portion of the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

This is a prayer for liberation. This week’s portion of the prayer begins with “Lead us, not into the time of testing.”

A time of testing was a familiar concept in the Jewish tradition. 

“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Deuteronomy 8:2, cf. Exodus 16:4, Ecclesiastes 3:18, Isaiah 48:10, and Zechariah 13:9)

In the Psalms we read:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (Psalms 95:8-9, emphasis added., cf. Psalms 106:14)

It seems from these passages that in the Jewish tradition both humans and God could be tested. Yet, regardless of who was testing whom, people in Jesus’ day understood the idea of a time of testing. First century Zealots (see Faith Like a Mustard Seed) also used this phrase.

Josephus tells us how how the zealots used this idea of a test for one’s faith. He writes of incidents during the mid-1st Century, when revolutionary prophets/zealots would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, if they took the first step, if they submitted to testing, God would see their faith and respond by bringing them liberation from Roman oppression. 

Felix, the Roman procurator, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised the people reward if they would first step out in faith (the test) was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian” (Acts 21:38). 

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 147)

Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome rather than rebelling against Rome. Most scholars think he exaggerated the numbers of people involved: “30,000 dupes” as compared with the book of Acts’ “4,000 assassins.” But the fact that he mentions the event at all is important. In a parallel account, Josephus includes the “sign” that this rebel had claimed would be shown to the people if they passed the test of going out to assemble. It was supposed to be a sign like Joshua’s at the Battle of Jericho: at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before he could make his signal, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, pp. 170-172). Liberation prophets like the Egyptian framed the people’s act of taking an initiative despite hopeless odds as a test of faith that their God would honor with liberation from Rome.

Jesus grew up in Galilee in the wake of a similar destruction that Rome had wrought on revolutionaries in Sepphoris. I believe this played a role in Jesus seeking a different path toward liberation than violence, one that incorporated the best odds of survival and would not just be about the liberation of Jerusalem, Galilee or Judea, but also be about an end to socio-political structures of domination for humanity as a whole.

Gustavo Gutiérrez writes about this at length:

“This universality and totality touch the very heart of political behavior, giving it its true dimension and depth. Misery and social injustice reveal ‘a sinful situation,’ a disintegration of fellowship and communion; by freeing us from sin, Jesus attacks the roots of an unjust order. For Jesus, the liberation of the Jewish people was only one aspect of a universal, permanent revolution. Far from showing no interest in this liberation, Jesus rather placed it on a deeper level, with far-reaching consequences. The Zealots were not mistaken in feeling that Jesus was simultaneously near and far away. Neither were the leaders of the Jewish people mistaken in thinking that their position was imperiled by the preaching of Jesus, nor the oppressive political authorities when they sentenced him to die as a traitor. They were mistaken (and their followers have continued to be mistaken) only in thinking that it was all accidental and transitory, in thinking that with the death of Jesus the matter was closed, in supposing that no one would remember it. The deep human impact and the social transformation that the Gospel entails is permanent and essential because it transcends the narrow limits of specific historical situations and goes to the very root of human existence: relationship with God in solidarity with other persons. The Gospel does not get its political dimension from one or another particular option, but from the very nucleus of its message. If this message is subversive, it is because it takes on Israel’s hope: the Kingdom as ‘the end of domination of person over person; it is a Kingdom of contradiction to the established powers and on behalf of humankind.’ And the Gospel gives Israel’s hope its deepest meaning; indeed it calls for a ‘new creation.’ The life and preaching of Jesus postulate the unceasing search for a new kind of humanity in a qualitatively different society. Although the Kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a “necessary condition” for the arrival of the Kingdom nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge. More profoundly, the announcement of the Kingdom reveals to society itself the aspiration for a just society and leads it to discover unsuspected dimensions and unexplored paths. The Kingdom is realized in a society of fellowship and justice; and, in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all persons with God. The political is grafted into the eternal. This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, pp. 134-135, emphasis added.)

Jesus promoted a path toward liberation that parted ways with the methods of the Zealots and the elite Sadducees who wanted to cooperate with Rome hoping for greater representation in a system of exploitation. Jesus presented a restructuring of the norms we use to interact with one another, and at the heart of these new norms was a preferential option for the vulnerable, exploited, and marginalized.  

“What does it mean for Jesus’ followers today to follow that path? What does it mean for coal mining families here in West Virginia to be delivered from the evil of corporate oppression where the owners continue to gain more and more while the majority of the people struggle without being able to make ends meet? What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences. A prayer for deliverance from evil also has its application for the evil of bigotry that many in the LGBTQ face. We might expect to be delivered from the evils of racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and more.”

Jesus, whose teachings we follow, stood in the Jewish tradition that traced its roots all the way back to the liberation story of Moses’s alignment with toiling masses of slaves. So what is our work, today? 

What injustice or evil are you staring at this week?

What does it mean to work toward deliverance from evil in your context? 

What does it meant to work in solidarity with other communities affected most deeply by these evils as they also work toward their deliverance?

I’ll close this week with a statement by Dorothy Day that encourages me when I feel like our small efforts are insignificant, and I feel like a world structured in a way that answers Jesus’ prayer in Matthew is so far, far away:

“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

This week choose something to do, no matter how large or small, that aligns with Jesus’ prayer in Matthew:

“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6.13)

HeartGroup Application

Sharing our stories is how we heal the world. Hearing one another’s stories empowers us to let go of our fear of one another and enter into compassion. Listening to the diverse experiences of one another’s lives leads us to replace insecurity with a much broader understanding of each other and our larger world.  

1. This week I want you to take some time in your HeartGroup and let those who wish to share tell their story to the group.  

2. We here at Renewed Heart Ministries also want to hear your story.  We are asking our followers to share their stories with us. How has this ministry impacted your life for the better?  How have you been blessed by Renewed Heart Ministries?  How has journeying alongside RHM inspired you or made a difference for you? We want to hear your story! And if you give us permission, we may feature your story in one of our upcoming newsletter issues so your story can help others, too! (But only if you give us permission.) Send your story of how you have been positively impacted by the ministry of Renewed Heart Ministries by emailing info@renewedheartministries.com.

3. Consider making story-telling a part of HeartGroup experience on some type of ongoing basis, either monthly, quarterly, or even weekly.

We believe every person’s story matters and every person’s voice has value. The Jesus of the gospels spent the majority of his time teaching by telling stories. Author Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) states, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” 

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, with much gratitude and excited anticipation.

Picture of a pottery bowlAlso, don’t forget about our Share Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  Find out how you can participate and get your own Share Table Pottery Bowl as representation of Jesus’ shared table philosophy of doing life together. If someone wanted to actually use it, they by all means could. Each time you eat from your bowl or use it as a serving dish, you can be reminded of Jesus’ shared table, mutual aid, and philosophy of resource sharing as a means of restructuring our communities and healing the hurts in our world. You can also place it on your coffee table or desk at work as a conversation starter. When asked about it you can share with them about the Shared Table philosophy, and even direct them to Renewed Heart Ministries to find out more. That way you can partner with us in even more ways to spread the message of love, compassion, justice, sharing and taking care of one another.

Find out more here:  A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us with week. Keep living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, reparation and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 

A Prayer for Debts Cancelled

by Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2018

Brick wall with stenciled "Until Debt Tear Us Apart"

Photo Credit: Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash


“‘Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.’  She goes on to say, therefore, ‘There’s no opting out of it.’  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.”


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

This week I want to look at a portion of this prayer that has evolved: the portion on forgiveness. To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s version is much earlier than Luke’s. We’ll see the significance of this in a moment. And before Matthew’s version, many scholars believe the earliest version of the prayer was:

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us.” (Saying Gospel Q 11:2-4, emphasis added.)

In this earliest version of the prayer, notice the specific economic quality. It’s about cancelling the debts of those who are indebted to us. There is quite a bit of history behind this. 

The Torah taught that every seventh year in Jewish society, all debts were to be cancelled:

“At the end of every seventh year you must make a remission of debts. This is how it is to be made: everyone who holds a pledge shall return the pledge of the person indebted to him. He must not press a fellow- countryman for repayment, for the Lord’s year of remission has been declared . . . 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 15:1-4) (REB)

There were also strict warnings to lenders as they watched the seventh year approaching, in case they thought they could not make loans at all rather than make loans that would soon be cancelled:

“Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 15:9-10)

We’ve discussed Rabbi Hillel’s prozbul as a way to solve money lenders’ reluctance (see Renouncing One’s Rights and The Golden Rule). The prozbul was a loophole where a loan made just before the seventh year could be declared exempt from cancellation. This loophole was Hillel’s solution to the wealthy not wanting to make loans that less affluent farmers needed for survival whenever the seventh year was near. Although Jesus taught similar ethics to Hillel in other areas, in this area Jesus parted ways with Hillel and taught what the Torah had stated in Deuteronomy:

“Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42, cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

And

“And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:34-35; Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

Debt in the ancient world led to slavery, poverty and death.  In short, debt was a conduit of oppression. Jesus choose to stand in the stream of Jewish tradition that called for the liberation of the oppressed.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus’ liberation is tied directly the cancelling of all debts, or to put it in the language of his Jewish culture, “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“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)

The year of the Lord’s favor was “the year for canceling debts” (Deuteronomy 15:9), the year where there was to be a “remission” of all debts (Deuteronomy 15:1). That year was a type of wealth redistribution. It was a check on any system where the wealthy could just keep on getting wealthier while the poor kept on getting poorer. It was a safeguard against some having too much while many went without enough. If the Torah’s economic teachings were followed, poverty could have been eliminated: “There need be no poor people among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

In Jesus’ time, this aspect of the Torah was being disregarded and violated outright or through Hillel’s prozbul. Jesus was calling for a return to a deeply Jewish practice.

You can understand why many of the wealthy elites of Jesus’ society and others of privilege and power combined their efforts to have Jesus and his movement silenced. 

If this is the early form of the language of this prayer, which makes sense given its Jewish roots in the Torah, there is a telling evolution in the language.

In Matthew’s gospel, the word “forgive” replaces the word “cancel,” yet the economic word of “debt” remains. 

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

Once we get to Luke’s gospel, written much latter, the economic element of this prayer is wholly removed, and the prayer’s application has been universalized instead of referencing a specific economic situation.

“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:2-4)

Crossan also sees this evolution of language:

“I have three conclusions from all of that textual activity. One is that ‘debts’ was originally intended quite literally. Jesus meant that eternal peasant dyad of enough bread for today and no debt for tomorrow. Were it originally and clearly metaphorical—‘debts’ meaning ‘sins’—everyone would have understood that intention and the progression in terminology from ‘debts’ to ‘trespasses’ to ‘sins’ would not have been necessary. Another is that, from Mark through Matthew and into Luke, ‘debts’ change to ‘trespasses’ and then to ‘sins. ’ In its present format, therefore, it seems advisable to read Matthew’s text as including both debt and sin—not debt alone, not sin alone, and certainly not sin instead of debt, but both together. Indeed, the ultimate challenge may be to ponder their interaction. And, at least for the biblical tradition, when debt creates too much inequality, it has become sinful.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, pp. 159-160)

Debt can become exploitative. To curb this exploitation, the Torah did not permit debts to extend past seven years.

The language in the prayer changes as the followers of Jesus change. As the early movement of Jesus followers changes from illiterate to more literate, from marginalized and impoverished to more centralized and more affluent, this prayer also changes from the wealthy cancelling debts to the violated forgiving perpetrators for sins committed against them.

These changes transfer responsibility from those in power to those in a very different social location from them. When we consider the societal cone that privileges and empowers some at the center and top of society and pushes others to the margins and undersides of society (see Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community, Part 1 and 2), the original language of this prayer makes those at the center and top responsible for canceling the debts of those on the peripheries or further down the social hierarchy. As the language evolves, it risks being coopted by the elite, and the responsibility is now placed on those on the margins and undersides to forgive the injustice of their violators and exploiters so that they too might be forgiven. This removes the responsibility of creating a more egalitarian world, cancelling actual debts, and redistributing wealth from those who will lose with these changes. It also asks those exploited by debt to simply forgive without the world or its structure being challenged or changed. 

There is a lot to consider here and much room for pause. Putting the world right includes not just forgiveness but also reparations. To call for reconciliation without reparations, to call for reconciliation solely on the basis of forgiveness being exercised on the part of those who have been harmed, is a special kind of oppression. It fails to hold perpetrators accountable. It fails to value and protect survivors. It fails to work towards the transformation and re-humanization of perpetrators, and genuine healing for those who have been sinned against. Certainly Jesus taught forgiveness. Jesus also called the wealthy, like Zacchaeus and others, to make reparations. To focus solely on only one of these is move away from a safer, just, compassionate world rather than towards it. 

To reemphasize what we focused on last week, the original language of this prayer shows a concern the early Jesus followers had for people’s temporal needs as well as the spiritual and relational well being of all. It sees humanity as whole beings again in a very Hebraic fashion, rather than as divided people only impacted by the gospel in one aspect of life. It’s a holistic prayer.

I want to close this week with a story from Matthew, where the focus on monetary debt cancellation still remains:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:23-34)

Today, we live in a world where most of the globe is indebted to so-called developed counties with debts that are impossible to pay off. Six people possess more wealth than the entire lower 50% of the world’s population. But we have come to the end of the monopoly game. It’s time for a reset. It’s time for a Jubilee. It’s time for debts to be cancelled. 

One way or another, history proves this reset will come. We can choose a gentler path of debt cancellation and wealth redistribution now, or a more volatile path where many are hurt in the process will be chosen for us in the future. Historical resets are cyclical. We can choose whether they come in life-giving or destructive form. What is clear is that our current path is not sustainable, economically, socially, or ecologically. What does it mean to live in this world in such a way that the answer to Jesus’ prayer is realized?

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12)

HeartGroup Application

I have a unique request of all those in our HeartGroups. I believe everyone reading this would agree with me when I say people matter.  And that’s why this week I want to share with you why politics also matter. But hang on! How we define politics also matters. Here in America, we make what I believe is a mistake in how we define politics. Politics for too many means parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law. And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie defines politics. “Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.”  She goes on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.”  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.  And as follower of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed, because this distribution can concretely hurt people. Wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” (McKenzie) there is simply no way to be apolitical.  There is no such thing as a political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or doesn’t hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement must be a political statement as well.”

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary where she made the statement, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more.  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state also is about keeping the church from welding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot, in following Jesus, advocate along side vulnerable communities calling for a just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that politics in not simply about voting. It also must be combined with movement building. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements.  I’ve witnessed this first hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building a movement for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.”  Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes.  Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either a participant in the discussion or we are the target of another’s agenda.

Which leads me to say, that voting, given our current structure, and especially for marginalized communities, yes, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. So this week, I want you to do something simple. Check your voter registration to make sure it’s current. If you’re not registered, do so.  This November, vote your values remembering that at the end of the day people matter and they will be concretely affected by the outcome. Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible.  As Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson shared, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

Picture of a pottery bowlRemember, too, there’s still time to participate in RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  We’ve had a good response so far.  To find how you, too, can join in click:

A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Right where you are, keep living in love, justice, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Keep engaging the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate home for everyone.

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week.

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

by Herb Montgomery | September 28, 2018 


“‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.’ How many times have we witnessed traditional White Christianity emphasize religiousness, puritanical morality, and even the ‘love of God,’ but justice, justice for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited is neglected at best and at worst, obstructed? We have neglected the more important matters of the law! As Jesus prioritized people’s temporal needs, those temporal needs were also to be a priority for Jesus’ disciples.”


“Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:11-12)

Last week we began considering the prayer in Matthew’s gospel often referred to today as The Lord’s Prayer. This week we’re continuing with the portion, “Give us today our daily bread.” 

In the previous verse, Jesus prays for the reign of God, the will of God, to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. But just what is that will? We must exercise caution and care whenever we presume to speak of the will of the Divine. Good can be done from these discussions for the marginalized and oppressed, and great harm can also be done to the most vulnerable among us.  So let’s proceed this week with caution.

Let’s begin with a story found a little later in Matthew’s gospel: the feeding of the multitude.

“As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’ ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.” (Matthew 14:15-17)

What I want us to notice first about this story is that Jesus objected to the disciples sending the multitude away to meet their own concrete, physical needs. Too often, some Christians today promote the dualistic idea that a person’s temporal needs is categorically separate from their spiritual needs. Some faith communities therefore focus purely on the spiritual, believing that a person’s temporal needs are of lesser importance. 

This story strikes at the heart of this kind of dualistic thinking.

The disciples want to send the crowd away to find their temporal nourishment elsewhere. Jesus stops them and says, “They don’t need to go away. You feed them.”

This month, the book to read for RHM’s annual reading course is Gustavo Gutiérrez’ book A Theology of Liberation. It’s timely that we would also look at this passage in Matthew’s gospel this month, because Gutiérrez addresses this dualistic thinking too. While the temporal and spiritual are distinct, he writes, “there is a close relationship between temporal progress and the growth of the Kingdom” (p. 99). 

The liberation we find in the gospels stories is an integral liberation. It’s not about mere post-mortem escape, or private retreat into isolated, personal piety. This liberation integrates all aspects of each person’s being, including the temporal! It embraces the whole person. This is especially relevant to the question of what Jesus’ teachings have to offer us today in the way of resistance, survival, liberation, reparation and transformation. Again, Gutiérrez states, “The struggle for a just world in which there is no oppression, servitude, or alienated work will signify the coming of the Kingdom. The Kingdom and social injustice are incompatible (cf. Isa. 29:18-19 and Matt. 11:5; Lev. 25:10ff. and Luke 4:16-21). ‘The struggle for justice,’ rightly asserts Dom Antonio Fragoso, ‘is also the struggle for the Kingdom of God.’” (Ibid, p. 97)

The struggle for a just society is very much a part of following Jesus. People’s temporal needs matter, and Jesus teaches a whole liberation that goes beyond the individual person to include transforming and replacing oppressive structures and exploitative social systems. Gutiérrez calls for an expanded view of Jesus’ liberation gospel: even politically liberating events in history can be seen as part of the growth of what Jesus referred to as “the Kingdom.” Every event that leads to humans becoming liberated to experience full humanness can be seen as a salvific event.

“Nothing escapes this process, nothing is outside the pale of the action of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. This gives human history its profound unity. Those who reduce the work of salvation are indeed those who limit it to the strictly ‘religious’ sphere and are not aware of the universality of the process. It is those who think that the work of Christ touches the social order in which we live only indirectly or tangentially, and not in its roots and basic structure. It is those who in order to protect salvation (or to protect their interests) lift salvation from the midst of history, where individuals and social classes struggle to liberate themselves from the slavery and oppression to which other individuals and social classes have subjected them. It is those who refuse to see that the salvation of Christ is a radical liberation from all misery, all despoliation, all alienation. It is those who by trying to ‘save’ the work of Christ will ‘lose’ it.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 104)

In Matthew, Jesus tells his listeners of a God who clothes the lilies, feeds the ravens, and “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). This is a picture of everyone’s temporal needs being meet, and not merely their needs for survival, but also what they need in order to thrive. Everyone has enough.

Our present structure doesn’t look like that at all. Some are growing increasingly wealthy while others are in an ever-increasing struggle just to survive.

In Matthew 19:21-2 Jesus tells a wealthy person, “If you wish to be whole, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in the kingdom of heaven; then come, follow me.”

The wholeness I believe Jesus was speaking of here is a rediscovery or a reclaiming of one’s humanity. As we discussed in Another World is Possible (Parts 1-3), the narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, competition, and violence is dehumanizing whether you are made poor by this narrative or made wealthy by it. Instead of poverty or wealth, Jesus offers a narrative of enough. This is a narrative where there is enough for every person’s need. As in the story of the loaves and fish, even when we are tempted to embrace the narrative of scarcity, if we will in the moment choose a narrative of sharing, sharing our resources in distributive justice produces enough for everyone. It ends in gratitude, in cooperation, in connectedness. We begin to face the future with a different posture when we realize that we are in this life together and if we will choose to take responsibility for caring for one another, we can face whatever may come. It’s a collective stance more than an individualistic stance. It’s a vision of a distributively just world that gives birth to peace, where no one has too little or too much and everyone has enough.

It was this aspect of Jesus’ teachings that led the early church to hold “everything in common.” As Luke reports, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes daily and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:41-47)

Salvation is not a post mortem life insurance policy. People were being saved from starving to death right then and there! Two chapters later in Acts we read, “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 . . . 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 4:32-34, emphasis added.)

Can you imagine a world where there is enough bread for every person each day? Where world hunger is no more? This is why Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” (Luke 6:21) This is a world that is especially in the favor of those the present world causes to go hungry. Those made last by the present structures are made first. 

Last week, we read from Amos about those who valued religiosity more than social justice. This week, Jesus stands in that same Jewish prophetic tradition. Consider this from Luke’s gospel:

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this exchange (see Matt. 23:23) put justice in the family of “the more important matters of the law.” Justice and the love of God are intimately, intrinsically connected. As Dr. Emilie Townes says in the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” How many times have we witnessed traditional White Christianity emphasize religiousness, puritanical morality, and even the ‘love of God,’ but justice, justice for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited is neglected at best and at worst, obstructed? We have neglected the more important matters of the law! As Jesus prioritized people’s temporal needs, those temporal needs were also to be a priority for Jesus’ disciples. 

Antonio Fragoso drives this point home in Evangile et Revolution Sociale (The Gospel and Social Revolution): 

“The struggle for justice, is also the struggle for the Kingdom of God. The Gospel should strike the conscience of Christians and stimulate an understanding among all persons of good will regarding the liberation of all, especially the poorest and most abandoned.” (p. 15)

We are not to dualistically divide a person’s spiritual needs and their temporal needs. We are whole people. Jesus’ liberation in each gospel included the whole person. This is the example set for us to follow. I long for the day when Jesus’ name is not immediately associated with the supernatural and a disconnected privatized understanding of religion, but with relief work and social transformation/justice work for the vulnerable and marginalized that would make relief work unnecessary. 

Next week we’ll consider Jesus’ phrase, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This week, what does it mean to live and work in harmony with these words of Jesus’ prayer for all?

“Give us today our daily bread.”

HeartGroup Application

Again this week, in the context of Supreme Court Confirmation hearings here in the U.S., we are hearing a lot of rhetoric that supports attitudes and a worldview that results in violence against women. This is the rhetoric of what has been defined as rape culture. Tolerance of jokes and excusing of behavior supports a normalization of a whole spectrum of behavior of which the other side results in violence, degradation and assault. 

Jesus stood in defense of women within his own culture.  What does it mean for Jesus followers to do the same today?

1. This week, if you are unfamiliar with what is meant by the phrase rape culture I’m providing four links that can start you on a better understanding:

http://www.southernct.edu/sexual-misconduct/facts.html

http://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/

http://www.dayofthegirl.org/rape_culture

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_culture

2. Take time this week, again, to affirm the women in your HeartGroup. Discuss as a group what you learned from engaging the information in links above.

3. It is from making our smaller communities safer that I believe we create a larger world that comes safer for the vulnerable as well.  What can you do as a group to practice a preferential option for women and the vulnerable in your midst that makes your HeartGroup a safe place for them.  Make a list.  This next week, pick something from this list and implement it. Keep doing so each week till you’ve completed your list.

4. Don’t just stop with your HeartGroup. Engage the work of making our larger communities safer as well. Call your Representatives and share your concerns, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Right where you are, keep living in love, justice, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Keep engaging the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate home for everyone.

And one last thing, as we approach Autumn, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries especially needs your support. Not only are we are planning for events next year, but we are working to prevent a budget shortfall for the present year. If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one-time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters. Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.” Any amount helps. And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week. 

Hating One’s Family

by Herb Montgomery

“We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.”

Featured Text:

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” —Q 14:26

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple of mine. And whoever does not hate his brothers and his sisters (and) will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Gospel of Thomas 101:1-2: “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine.”

Of all the sayings of Jesus that I dislike and could be most easily misunderstood, misused, or abused, this week’s saying tops my list. I don’t like it at all. I’ve seen too many young people, especially LGBTQ young people, thrown out of their homes and cut off or shunned by their family on the basis of this week’s saying to have fond feelings about it. Whatever the saying, one must always judge its ethic on its fruit. What is the fruit of practicing one’s interpretation of the saying—life or death? If the fruit of your interpretation is death, I say change your interpretation!

What could Jesus have been thinking as he gave this teaching and made hate a core part of what it meant to follow him?

First, let’s understand that the socio-economic context of this saying is very different than our context today. We in the modern West belong to very individualistic societies. Socially and economically, we are individualists, not communalists. For middle-to-upper class people, there are retirement programs, insurance policies, and other programs and vehicles for one to take care of oneself rather than need a world where people take care of people.

These economic structures are designed to work as each individual seeks their own self-interest. Those at the top of society have structured the world to benefit them, and every act of those at the bottom of society does benefit those at the top. People desperate enough to become dependent on the system will work their lives away to survive, and their survival makes those at the top who benefit from their labor very wealthy.

In the 1st Century, Judea and Galilee was more communal. People in that region practiced a redistributive and reciprocal economy. Redistributive economies are economies where third parties (kings or aristocracies) collect the surplus from producers and then distribute that surplus to others who are not producers. This third party typically redistributes by directing and controlling labor, taxing people, or having officials make decisions rather than the people themselves. An example is an economy where rural producers feed urban dwellers. Redistribution can be done justly or unjustly: the book of Acts characterizes the early church as a redistribute economy based on voluntary giving, whereas the gospels characterize the Temple as a redistributive economy based on taxation and market selling.

Reciprocal economies are different. These types of economies are where those who belong to families or even communities freely give goods or services to each other. Yet as these gifts are given, community members keep an eye on the general ebb and flow of giving to make sure there is balance or fairness. People eventually become characterized as givers or takers. Those who give much are entitled to receive back, while those who are known to be takers are eventually starved out.

Families, in Jesus’ Jewish culture, especially in rural Galilee, practiced a more reciprocal economy. Jerusalem, through taxation, practiced a more redistributive economy. So when the gospels portray Jesus as saying, “The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple,” this saying involved the economic aspects of these relationships.

If following Jesus caused a person to lose economic support from their parents or their children, Jesus asks his followers to prioritize his vision for society: everyone is taken care of based on their needs, not based on their family’s, clan’s or tribe’s reciprocal system.

So perhaps Jesus’ saying was much more about communal economics than individual relationships with one’s family or tribe. Ched Myers explains the connection:

“It is important to recognize that in antiquity, much more so than today, the social fabric of the rural extend family was bound to the workplace. Thus the break demanded by Jesus is not only with economic but social security as well.” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 132)

But what if that interpretation isn’t the whole story? What if Jesus actually was telling us to hate our parents or children for not lining up with what we deem is morally appropriate? Should we hate our moms, dads, or kids because Jesus told us to?

Religiously fueled hatred or cold-hearted rejection of one’s own family has a long history in our sacred text. In Deuteronomy we find this command against daughters believed to not be virgins:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:20)

This passage reflects the authors’ unjust patriarchal economy that relegated women to the level of property. Yet we must also be clear. It would be wrong for me as a father to read Deuteronomy’s injunction and seek to apply it to my children. There is no way around it. Our interpretations of our sacred texts must be held subject to love, compassion, and their fruit in our lives. As a friend of mine, Alicia Johnston, recently shared with me, “All teachings must be harmonized with love and compassion. Teachings that are inherently damaging, unhealthy, or unloving, cannot make people’s lives better. They, inherently, are not gospel.”

As we covered in Children against Parents, Matthew’s context is telling because it’s not the Jesus follower who is rejecting their family, but the family that is rejecting the Jesus follower. It makes much more sense to interpret this week’s saying as Jesus calling his followers to prioritize participating in his revolution over the rejection of family members. Matthew borrows from the Hebrew scriptures:

“For a son dishonors his father,

a daughter rises up against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—

a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” (Micah 7.6)

The social location of the intended audience for this week’s saying really does make a difference. Is this saying telling parents to reject their children (or vice versa) who do not align with their definition of right and wrong? Or does this saying tell children who are being rejected by their parents (or vice versa) to remain committed to following Jesus’ revolution even in the face of such rejection?

Again, we don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable often creates conflict, and often it’s conflict within one’s own family. (I know something of this myself.) I don’t believe that this suffering is good and I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone.

I do believe that when those threatened by a just world do raise their swords or threaten us with a cross, we should stand up anyway, even if those opposing us are relatives. We are not to patiently submit. Rather, we are to take hold of life and, following Jesus, resist.

This is the only interpretation of this week’s saying that makes sense to me. More hate will not heal the world. Prioritizing a just, safe, and compassionate world over systems of domination and privilege, even if those at the helm of such systems are one’s own family, makes much more sense. I still would not have used the word “hate” as these translators did. But then again, I’m reading this saying two millennia and cultures away from its original time and place.

What can we glean from this week’s saying?

Reclaim your own humanity and stand alongside others who are reclaiming theirs. As we have stated so often, we are each other’s fate.

I choose to see this week’s saying as a matter, not of hate, but of priority. The difference may be subtle, but we don’t need more hate. We need compassion, justice, and equity. We don’t need more silence, even if those pressuring us to be silent are our family members. We don’t need more “submissive patience.” Take a strong position for yourself, for compassion and justice, even if that stand puts you at odds with those you still hold dear. I know it’s not easy.

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” (Q 14:26)

HeartGroup Application

On August 16, 1967, at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the address, ”Where Do We Go From Here?” In this address he made the now famous declaration:

“Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

In the excellent piece God So Loved the World?, Parker and Brown remind us, “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? ….If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.”

Next week we will discuss Jesus’ saying to take up our crosses. In Christianity, European and North American theologies have mostly interpreted this saying as calling us to passive acceptance of suffering. We’ll be discussing different ways that some oppressed communities have interpreted this saying.

In light of this week, and in preparation for next,

  1. What does it mean for you to insist on compassion and justice even when those closest to you would rather you remain silent?
  2. Share with your group an experience where you had to prioritize justice and compassion over the pressure you felt from people you cared about deeply.
  3. How can your group support each other when one of your group is experiencing pushback as a result of standing up for compassion and justice?

In a world that benefits some at the expense of others, it’s not always easy to hold up the vision of a world where justice, violence and oppression are put right. It’s even more difficult when doing so is compounded by rejection from those you care for. In moments like these, we need each other.

Wherever this finds you this week, right where you are, choose love, not hate. Choose a life of compassion and justice. Remember, you’re not alone. We are in this together, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

 

For all of you who are in or near the Asheville, N.C. area, registration for our free event this August 4-5 is now open! Find out more about this event at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville.

Space is limited. We are using Eventbrite to make it super easy for you to register and reserve your place. Our Eventbrite page is:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sayings-of-jesus-the-intersection-of-faith-and-social-justice-tickets-36048274359

The location is:

First Congregational United Church of Christ
20 Oak Street
Asheville, NC 28802

The session dates and times are:

Session 1: Friday evening, August 4 at 7 p.m.

Session 2: Saturday afternoon, August 5 at 2 p.m.

Session 3: Saturday evening, August 5 at 7 p.m.

 

Light refreshments will be served, and there will be discussion time at the end of each session.

500:24:1 LogoWe are so excited to be moving forward with our first 500:25:1 event. We’ll keep you posted on where we’ll be teaching next!

Remember we are taking requests for weekends all across the nation. You can request a weekend in your area at http://bit.ly/RHMSeminar Find out more about these events at http://bit.ly/RHM500251 and learn how you, too, can participate in making these events happen.

To fund our new events, go to http://bit.ly/RHM500Support.

Remember, if you are in the Asheville area, make sure you register at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville. Space will be filling up quickly.

I love each of you dearly.

Thanks for checking in with us.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

Karen Baker-Fletcher writes: “If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.” 

Featured Texts:

“A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, ‘Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.’” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 22:2-3: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

Matthew 22:5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”

Matthew 22:7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Luke 14:16-19: “Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”’”

Luke 14:21: “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’”

Luke 14:23: “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”

Gospel of Thomas 64: “Jesus says: ‘A person had guests. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant, so that he might invite the guests. He came to the first and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said: “I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go and give instructions to them. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came to another and said to him: “My master has invited you.” He said to him: “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I will not have time.” He went to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: ‘My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came up to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: “I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.” The servant went away. He said to his master: “Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his servant: “Go out on the roads. Bring back whomever you find, so that they might have dinner.” Dealers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.’”

As we have stated before, even though Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free,” this week’s saying again presents one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: the normalization of slavery.

Jesus never spoke one word against slavery, in fact, as we see this week, he uses the institution in his own stories. This has been used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christians holding tight to slavery, especially in the South. (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis)

It is interesting to note what appears to be an attempt at the softening of “slave” to “servant” from the “Q” texts to the more modern translations of the gospels, including Thomas. Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order, and we must be honest about how problematic this has been and continues to be.

Also, Matthew and Luke use this week’s saying differently. We’ll begin with Luke, and then look at how Matthew frames it.

Inclusivity

One of Luke’s burdens, which we see in Acts, is to explain how a community that began as a Jewish poor people’s movement came to be so populated by Gentiles. Luke places this week’s saying in the context of the “banquet in the Kingdom of God.” We discussed popular views of this banquet in 1st Century Galilee and Judea a couple of week’s ago.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus challenged the more exclusive interpretation of the eschatological banquet where purity standards in that culture prevented some from being allowed to sit at the table. Jesus had just stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-13).

Someone offended by what they interpreted as reckless inclusion and abandonment of the cultural purity taboos of the day responded by objecting, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” For those who held the more exclusive interpretation of this feast/banquet, those who would be specifically excluded from that feast would be the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” While some would have the least honorable seats at the table, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be invited at all as some believed their state was the result of their transgression. Jesus then responds by telling a story that includes this week’s saying.

Jesus’ story is of a householder who simply wants his “house to be full.” He doesn’t lower the purity standards; he completely ignores them. He invites, welcomes, and effectively affirms all those who would have been excluded under the more selective interpretation. The motive of the householder is what Luke places in the forefront. A full house is priority number one. Everyone is invited and if someone is not there, the onus is on those invited, not rumors of exclusiveness on the part of the householder. He simply wants a full house.

Connectedness and Equality

Matthew’s story includes two elements we’ll look at in turn: the king’s rage as well as the guest’s refusal to be identified with everyone else at the banquet. We’ll discuss the second item first.

Matthew’s story ends:

“‘So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:9-13)

This parable makes no sense to me if attire for the banquet was not included in the invitation. How can a host invite “all the people they could find” so that the hall could be “filled with guests” and then get upset that someone in there was not wearing the proper attire, if such attire was not also provided? Did the host really think that everyone they found on the streets, even the poor and barely-scratching-by artisans, would have fine clothing for a wedding banquet of the wealthy?

I’ll freely admits that this is taking an interpretive liberty, but let’s assume for a moment that attire was provided as an option for those who needed such, so that no matter how poor you were, you had no excuse not to attend. If that’s the case, that gives us an entirely different ending. Who is the parable being told to in Matthew? This cluster of parables is aimed at “the chief priests and Pharisees” (Matthew 21.45) and the political place of privilege they held. In the story, someone refuses to wear clothing appropriate for the event. Whether this is a wealthy person refusing to be associated with the poor, or the poor refusing to be seen along side the exploitative rich, it’s a show of arrogance or separateness. It’s possibly an expression of one’s exceptionalism in protest to the inclusion of those he feels are “Other” or beneath him. For him to don the same attire as everyone else would be to intimate that there was no difference, at least at this banquet, between himself and those he feels should not be present. He is better than the others around him here and he will not be included on their same level. For him this is a rejection of the reality that we are all interconnected, we are part of one another. We are not as separate from one another as we often think.  We share each other’s fate. In fact, we are each other’s fate. It could be because of the guest’s desire to be seen as separate, or as reluctantly participating with everyone else, that the host so angrily responds to his lack of attire.

The context is the eschatological banquet that some people in Galilee and Judea believed symbolized the distinction between this age of violence, injustice, and oppression and the coming age where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be put right. But this new age in Jesus’ world view is egalitarian: everyone receives what is distributively just. No one has too much and no one has too little, we all, together have enough. So garments could have been justly distributed, making everyone equal. But if a person has spent their life working to be “first,” few things could be worse than to be faced with a world of equity and equality and being thrown into the same group with everyone else. They believe they are better, chosen, extraordinary, or exceptional. They are not like everyone else and they refuse to embrace our connectedness. But whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already in this together.

Those who choose the path of exclusion are themselves eventually excluded from a world that’s being put right through inclusive egalitarianism. As we discussed previously, exclusionary thinking is a self-fulfilling ethic. Again, when you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from attending the same “banquet” with you, it’s going to make you so angry! This is the gnashing of teeth Jesus and Luke describe (cf. Acts 7:54) So if any end up in outer darkness, it will not be because they could not accept their own invitation. It will be because they could not accept the inclusion and equal affirmation of those they feel should be excluded.

Now about the king’s rage.

Matthew includes the historic treatment of Hebrew social prophets. As I shared last year, in the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly for those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they cast an imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right. These prophets were often rejected and executed by those in power.

Matthew’s Jesus story locates both John the Baptist and Jesus in this tradition of prophets silenced by execution. I would note that in this tradition, Jesus’ execution is not unique and not hard to explain. Execution as the response of those in power to those who critique and speak truth to power is nothing new or strange. Nor is it peculiar to one culture. It happens all the time in every culture. It was not too long in our own culture that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in five years.

And it’s this treatment of the Hebrew prophets (including John and Jesus) that I believe Matthew is using to explain to his community and perhaps even make sense to himself (like Jeremiah of old) how such a catastrophe could have befallen Jerusalem in his lifetime. People explain tragedy differently. People try to make sense of our suffering differently. Matthew’s gospel assumes that if the outcry against social injustice would have been heeded, the Jewish poor-peoples revolt, the Jewish-Roman war, and the razing of Jerusalem itself, could have possibly been avoided.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:4-7)

What I would be quick to point out is Matthew’s use of the plural “them.” Matthew was a Jewish Jesus follower trying to make sense of his entire world ending as he had known it. But even then, unlike many Christian supersessionists, he did not isolate Jesus’ rejection as the sole reason for the events of 70 C.E. Matthew wasn’t a Christian blaming “the Jews” for their “rejection” of Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew included the rejection of Jesus and John in a long list of many “servants,” from Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, all the way back. In other words, Jesus’ rejection was not unique to Matthew but part of a much longer trajectory. Ched Myers in what Walter Wink states is “quite simply the most important commentary on a book of scriptures since Barth’s Romans,” reminds us of the “prophetic script”:

“The ‘true prophets’ are not identified by ‘proof’ of miraculous signs, but by their stand on the side of the poor, pressing a ‘covenantal suit’ against the exploitative ‘shepherds’ of Israel. From Elijah to Jeremiah the result is always the same: opposition from the ruling class and a threat to the prophet’s life.”

Matthew’s use of this week’s saying seems to be indicating that, once again, in the life of Jesus, the prophetic script has been fulfilled in human society.

Today

Today we have to ask which voices are we refusing to listen to? Which voices are we not heeding? Who are we in our stubbornness ignoring; what could, by ignoring, like in 70 C.E. for Jerusalem, wipe out everything for everyone? There are many voices that come to mind for me, but at the top of my list are those seeking to raise our consciousness of the connection between corporatism and the climate changes that threaten humanity’s continued existence. Karen Baker-Fletcher, womanist theologian and co-author of My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk, writes:

“If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.”

A couple weeks ago, I caught an insightful interview of Naomi Klein on what she feels many on both sides of the political debate about climate change are refusing to acknowledge as we look to our planet’s future. Again, we have a choice of whether to refuse or embrace our connectedness. Whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already, all of us, in this together. We as a whole will survive or we will all, together, face the results.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s saying. Whose voices are you reminded to pay attention to this week?

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, “Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Before your group meets this next week, write down three things that speak to you in either Luke’s or Matthew’s use of our saying.
  2. Why do these things resonate with you and what do they mean to you?
  3. When you do come together, take some time to go around the room and share with each other what this week’s saying is saying to you, and what the implications could be for your HeartGroup as a whole.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where this finds you, keep engaging in the work of love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation on our way toward thriving. We are in this together.

Also don’t forget to check out the new 500:25:1 project we are launching this August. Go to http://bit.ly/RHM500251 where you can find out more about why we’re launching new weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

I Do Not Know You

Two paths

by Herb Montgomery

Why is the path narrow? It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow. But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Featured Text

“Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 25:10-12: “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”

Luke 13:24-27: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”

In this week’s saying brings us the imagery of the “strait and narrow.” Typically this saying is read in relation to a post-mortem, divinely-imposed reward or punishment. I’m going to ask you to read it instead in the more immediate cultural context of the destruction in 70 C.E. that Jesus saw looming on Jerusalem’s horizon. We’ve discussed this at length previously. As the elites rejected Jesus’ call for debt cancelation and wealth distribution, exploitation of the poor increased. The poor rejected Jesus’ nonviolent forms of resistance, and they eventually initiated an uprising against the Temple and Rome’s occupation. Their uprising became the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. This eventually resulted in Rome’s violent backlash against Jerusalem.

When we recognize that context, our saying takes on a different taste. Jesus had witnessed many violent revolutions and revolutionaries come to destruction because of Rome’s backlash. History also tells us of many cultures where inequalities became so extreme through exploitation that they imploded and their societies were destroyed. This, we know, was how Rome’s empire eventually fell, too.

History teaches us:

Violent revolutions are typically embraced by the many and end in more costly consequences.

Exploitative societies, the way of domination and subjugation, have also been common—the way of the many. Such societies also have a self-created, expiration date: they will implode.

By contrast, there have been few revolutionaries throughout history, comparatively, who have chosen nonviolent forms of resistance and change.

Few societies have genuinely embraced egalitarianism or a distributive justice that produces life and peace. Few societies and communities have genuinely embraced the way of abundance and sharing, where each person contributes “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), and the resources are “distributed to anyone according to their need” (Acts 4:35; cf. 2:45)

In our saying this week, Jesus is speaking about the realities of life in this world. Once again he calls fellow impoverished Jews to the form of resistance that gave them the greatest chances of surviving attempted liberation. And he also called those at the helm of their economically oppressive society to a Torah style Jubilee where all debts would be cancelled and the wealth of their society would be radically redistributed (cf. Luke 19:1-9, cf. Luke 12:33; 18:22; Mark 10:21).

Varying Failure Costs

In Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink compares the costs of failure for violent revolutions and nonviolent ones. Both kinds have histories of success, like the violent American Revolution that many American citizens celebrate each 4th of July. There are also successful nonviolent revolutions, and some of them are documented in the film A Force More Powerful. Our saying this week is about the cost of failure for both forms of revolutionary resistance. Wink writes:

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence. [Jesus’ nonviolent form of resistance] means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution . . . We need to be very clear that it is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d’etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government. The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals- though in another sense it always ‘works’—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. I do not believe that the churches can adequately atone for their past inaction simply by baptizing revolutionary violence under the pretext of just war theory. No war today could be called just, given the inevitable level of casualties and atrocities. Nonviolent revolutions sometimes happen by accident. They are usually more effective, however, when they are carefully prepared by grassroots training, discipline, organizing, and hard work. Training, because we need to know how to deal with police riots, how to develop creative strategies, how to defuse potentially violent eruptions. Discipline, because all too often agents provocateurs are planted in peace groups, whose task is to try to stir up violence. So we need to know how to neutralize people we suspect, by their actions, to be such agents. Organize, so as to create affinity groups that can act in concert, be able to identify by name every person in their cluster, and develop esprit de corps. And all that is hard work. But also (and this is a heavily guarded secret), nonviolent action in concert can be one of the most rewarding-and sometimes fun-activities available able to human beings.” (Chapter 4)

I believe Jesus was trying to engage the work of survival and the work of liberation in creative nonviolent forms of resistance that provided the best chances for both.

Debt Forgiveness and Wealth Redistribution

At the heart of Jesus’s economic “path,” which few societies find, is the Jewish Torah’s and Hebrew prophets’ call to a distributive justice where inequality is seen as an intrinsic social harm. Debt forgiveness and support of the poor better societies, but few societies have practiced either. Yet there are a multitude of societies, much like America today, where wealth inequality became so extreme that it ultimately destroyed those societies from within. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

Aristotle also saw this same truth:

“Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves; and therefore the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then to distribute this fund in block grants to the poor.” (Aristotle’s Politics, Book VI, Chapter 5)

In his new book, Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky comments on Aristotle’s call to redistribute the wealth of the elites.

“It’s of some interest that this debate [less democracy which protects the elite vs. less poverty that protects broad democracy] has a hoary tradition. It goes back to the first work on political democracy in classical Greece. The first major book on political systems is Aristotle’s Politics— a long study that investigates many different kinds of political systems. He concludes that of all of them, the best is democracy. But then he points out exactly the flaw that Madison pointed out. He wasn’t thinking of a country, he was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and remember, his democracy was for free men. But the same was true for Madison— it was free men, no women— and of course not slaves. Aristotle observed the same thing that Madison did much later. If Athens were a democracy for free men, the poor would get together and take away the property of the rich. Well, same dilemma, but they had opposite solutions. [James] Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy— that is, to organize the system so that power would be in the hands of the wealthy, and to fragment the population in many ways so that they couldn’t get together to organize to take away the power of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was the opposite— he proposed what we would nowadays call a welfare state. He said try to   reduce inequality—reduce inequality by public meals and other measures appropriate to the city-state. Same problem—opposite solutions. One is: reduce inequality, and you won’t have this problem. The other is: reduce democracy. Well, in those conflicting aspirations you have the foundation of the [American] country.” Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Kindle Locations 152-163, emphasis added).

Nonviolence and Wealth Redistribution (including debt forgiveness) are the soil of distributive justice and equity from which the fruit of peace grows out of. This “narrow” path leads to life.

Why is the path narrow?

It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow.

But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Isaiah 40:3:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Before It’s Too Late

There is also an element of “before it’s too late” in this week’s saying:

“When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.”

There is a point of no return that violence and inequality reaches in societies when those societies cannot recover. If Jesus could see his own society getting closer and closer to that point, it would make perfect sense that he would try to warn those who would listen. Many societies don’t accept what that means; even Jesus’s did not heed the wisdom. How often throughout history have the wealthy voluntarily let go of their power and resources to share with those who have less?

Even so, Aristotle saw this vision for Athens. Some in his day decried the inequalities in Athens that Rome was facing its last days. We see Jesus, three decades before Jerusalem would be turned to Gehenna, trying to turn the tide within first-century Palestine, too.

Today the poets and prophets still cry:

Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27 cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-4)

HeartGroup Application

The last phrase in our saying this week, “you who do lawlessness,” reveals that in Jesus’s call for debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution he was calling the people to follow those sections of the Torah that called for the same. Deuteronomy 15 stated clearly that if inequality were strictly guarded against, “there need be no poor people among you” (verse 4).

This week I want you as a group to watch a short documentary together and then engage in an exercise in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts.

  1. The documentary I’d like to you watch is Requiem for the American Dream.
  2. Then I want you to find five places in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts where you see examples of either Jesus calling for the redistribution of wealth or Jesus followers heeding Jesus’ call and engaging the redistribution of their surplus wealth.
  3. This last part will be the most challenging. What do you envision wealth redistribution looking like today? Describe what forms this could possibly take within our own society. Discuss the various descriptions your group comes up with and how each of you could lean into these descriptions, like those in the book of Acts, in your daily lives.

At Renewed Heart Ministries, we believe that this first century, Jewish prophet of the poor has something to offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Each of us is called, together, to the work of making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for all.

Where this finds you this week, lean into that work, and know you are not alone.

It is this work that defines what it means to keep living in love.

Thanks for checking in this week.

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Yeast

hands kneading dough

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And again‚ with what am I to compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was fully fermented.” (Q 13:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:33 “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’”

Luke 13:20-21 “And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’”

Gospel of Thomas 96:1-2: “Jesus says: ’The kingdom of the Father is like a woman. She took a little bit of yeast. She hid it in dough and made it into huge loaves of bread.’”

About a decade ago I started an experiment with Appalachian sour dough bread. I placed a container outside to catch some rain water and then slowly over the next few weeks added flour hoping to catch some local Greenbrier county yeast strains to make my own local sourdough starter. I learned a lot.

I still have that starter alive in my refrigerator. I feed it once a week. I probably only use it twice a year, but when I do, it’s the joy of having my own locally sourced sourdough bread.

This week’s saying is all about leaven.

Leaven wasn’t always a positive term in 1st Century Palestine. The Passover ritual of eating unleavened bread reminded the people of the stories about their hasty departure from Egyptian slavery. These stories were the soil that Hebrew prophetic and liberation theology grew out of.

The community was oppressed, scattered, and returning and their theology and practice reflected this arc. During Passover, they removed all leaven from their homes. And over time, leaven took on a negative association.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses yeast in a negative way, and warns the people about “the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15)

Jesus’ disciples mistakenly thought he was speaking of literal yeast, as if the Pharisees and Herod had opened a bakery! (Mark 8:16) Instead, he was using the metaphor of yeast for greed, harmful teachings, anything that could spread through society with ill effects.

In Matthew and Luke, we see a different use of yeast/leaven. Jesus hints that his own teachings, values, and the ethic of people taking care of people (the “empire of God”) were being viewed as negative, as leaven that could ferment in society and change society’s nature.

Last week we talked about the harm that results when we misclassify as negative something that not only isn’t harmful to society but also bears good fruit. This week’s saying was part of that section of the text and so was preserved in that context.

Sometimes things that are perfectly harmless are classified as “wrong” and things that are actually very harmful are classified as “good and right.” Religious communities aren’t the only type of community that does this, but they do have a long history with it. Some of us grew up in religious communities that prohibited harmless things yet allowed or even praised things that were intrinsically destructive. Part of the journey of growing up is learning to distinguish between that which is harmful and that which isn’t by looking at the intrinsic results of something rather than external bans or affirmations.

Religious and secular history provides a long list of people who received religiously legitimized bigotry and oppression. Even in Jesus’ own society, religion had been co-opted to justify the exploitation and marginalization of the poor by the elite, temple aristocracy. Not much has changed. The characters of the stories may have changed, but the narrative is much the same.

How does one tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong, between something that’s harmful and something that’s either neutral or beneficial? For those who have discovered that their previously cherished rule was not aligned with reality, these questions can be quite unsettling. I’ll share with you something that has helped me.

Say a child is running down the sidewalk and you say, “Listen if you keep running down the sidewalk, there’s a chance you could fall and skin your knee.” Let’s say the child doesn’t listen and, sure enough, they fall and get hurt. Did you impose that pain on the child for running on the sidewalk? Or did they experience pain as an intrinsic result of the activity they were engaging in?

Now let’s imagine you said to the child, “Listen, if you keep running around on this sidewalk I’m going to put you in time out and you have to sit still until you can calm down.” This might mean a type of pain or discomfort. But would this pain be intrinsic to the nature of the activity the child was engaging in? Or would you have imposed that “penalty” on the child for engaging in the activity?

Moving from being governed by fear of imposed penalties to understanding the intrinsic consequences and results of our choices is maturity. It’s “growing up.” We are quick to do this in certain areas of our lives. And we are painfully slow to do so in other areas, especially the areas of our life that are religious. In some areas of our religious life, we have moved from being motivated by the fear of divinely imposed punishment or the hope of divinely bestowed reward. We make these choices based on what these choices will result in. And there are areas in our religious lives where we still need to mature.

This journey toward maturity in a religious context is always met with fear by those who have not traversed this ground as of yet. But in our material lives, motives that may be appropriate for a five year old are developmentally inappropriate for an adult.

So how do we know if something is good or “right?” We could try to find a rule that does all of our thinking for us. We could look at the evidence before our eyes for what certain choices will result in. And we could do a hybrid of both. We could look at instructions in our sacred text and  try to ascertain what intrinsic negative results the instruction was seeking to help adherents avoid. We could then discern whether those intrinsic results still apply today, given the time and culture differences. We will then understand why something may be in a 3,000-year-old sacred text, but it would be foolish to try and follow the same instruction in our contexts today.

This is all part of growing up.

Will we always get it right? No. But we aren’t supposed to. Growing up is about sometime making mistakes and gaining experience and the wisdom to avoid larger mistakes in the future. It’s okay. Give yourself permission to grow and mature. As the old adage states, “The only way to not make mistakes is to gain experience. And the only way to gain experience is to make a few mistakes.”

Here in America we are seeing a backlash from those who are threatened by society maturing. Change scares us. But change that means moving away from discrimination and bigotry is not something that should scare us. Our consciousness is broadened and informed when we listen to the truth of others’ suffering. And these changes work toward making our world a safe place for us all, not just a few.

Yes, these changes may be properly referred to as leaven. They may permeate and change the nature of society. But they are not bad: these changes are actually good things! Equality, justice, reparation, the removal of power from those who would wield it to benefit themselves at others’ expense is a good thing regardless of how negatively labeled it may be.

As James Cone reminds us:

“For the oppressed, [Yahweh’s] justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all.” (in God of the Oppressed, p. 159).

Those who possess the power to hurt others never view its removal as a good thing. They will always see it as a threat to the status quo from which they receive benefit or privilege.

But as Paulo Fierre states, whether it is perceived as good or not, this “leaven” is in fact “humanizing” to all, both those who wield this power and those who are harmed by this power.

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an historical vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair. The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons would be meaningless. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” Paulo Freire; Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition

This humanizing will require change on the part of oppressors too:

“Nor does the discovery by the oppressed that they exist in dialectical relationship to the oppressor, as his antithesis— that without them the oppressor could not exist— in itself constitute liberation. The oppressed can overcome the contradiction in which they are caught only when this perception enlists them in the struggle to free themselves. The same is true with respect to the individual oppressor as a person. Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is [in solidarity]; it is a radical posture. If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these beings for another. The oppressor is [in solidarity] with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor— when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.” (Ibid.)

In the 1st Century, Jesus called the exploited in his community to forms of nonviolent resistance. He called exploiters to cancel all debts and redistribute their wealth. Had they followed his teachings, they would have leavened their entire social structure and so fulfilled the summary of Jesus’ purpose in Luke 4:18-19. Was Jesus’ leaven a good or an evil for his time and culture? The answer to that question might have depended on which “side of the tracks” you asked. I argue that it was ultimately humanizing for all people and therefore good.

What are the leavening elements you see at work in our society today? What are the intrinsic results of those elements? Is it equity, fairness, justice, the protection of the rights of minorities, and enough for everyone? Do those who disproportionately benefit from imbalances in society get upset? Are the oppressed calling for justice? Do you see the other side labeling changes for those who have been historically marginalized and excluded as part of a sinister, evil agenda?

If so, there’s leaven at work again in our generation.

Pick up some dough yourself, and start kneading.

And again‚ with what am I to compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was fully fermented.” (Q 13:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

Cleve Jones writes in his recent book, When We Rise: My Life In The Movement, “The basic human rights of any group of people should never be subjected to a popular vote.” Minorities’ rights can never be protected as long as they are dependent on the whim of the majority. Rights given by the majority can just as easily be taken away by such, too.

  1. What difference has listening to minority voices made for you personally? Stop and write out a list.
  2. How have these differences affected the choices you now make in your daily life?
  3. What can your group do together to center the voices of the vulnerable and broaden your capacity to listen to the voices and experiences of minorities? Pick one action and put it into practice this next week.

We are still taking testimonials of your experiences in HeartGroups for our new HeartGroups page. Share your experience by going to the Contact Us page on our website and sharing with us.

Thank you to all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. People like you enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

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If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

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For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The One not with Me 

by Herb Montgomery
Fast moving train

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:

Context.
Context.
Context.

Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.

Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?

I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963.  The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey.  King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.

In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.

While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”

Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.)  He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul.  His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened.  This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.

Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral.  I don’t want to take sides.”  And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable.  But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side.  It’s taking the side of oppression.  Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19)  Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice.  Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.

Matthew, Luke and Q

In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil.  As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America

I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity.  Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in.  An example is in the white Bible belt of the South.  White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement.  Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration.  The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children.  The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry.  So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.

Whether it be:

  • White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
  • Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
  • White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
  • Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
  • Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.

This history has been repeated over and over again.

Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest.  I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him.  I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.  This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out.  They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply.  They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC.  Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.

Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years.  What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many.  They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves.  They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered.  This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”

Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.

It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition.  It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.

It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to:

1.  As a group, together sit down and read aloud both the public statement by eight Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity side by side with King’s response Letter From Birmingham Jail

2.  What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.

3.  What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.

I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.”  It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review.  But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift.  I’m so excited for you.

Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Confronting Potential Followers 

by Herb Montgomery

Candle with rainbowBefore we begin this week, I want to take a moment to pause and remember the forty-nine victims of the Orlando Shooting. This tragic event took place at the gay nightclub Pulse, where our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning siblings within our human family were targeted.  Fifty-three others were injured.  That’s 102 beautiful lives either gone or at minimum will never be the same.

Within the Jewish wisdom tradition it is said, “Whosoever sheds human blood diminishes the divine image; destroying only one human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world.”  In this instance it was a specific demographic within our world that was purposely, hatefully, and senselessly singled out.  This was the largest targeted mass killing of LGBT people in the Western world since the Holocaust.

Our hearts at Renewed Heart Ministries are with the families and loved ones of those who were both injured and lost.  Our hearts are with the LGBTQ community at large who daily live in fear, afraid to drop their guard, constantly aware they are at some level of risk; ever performing habitual safety-checks assessing their surroundings when in public.  You are not alone.  We grieve with you.  And we at RHM will continue to stand along side you in the work to end homophobia, heterosexism, and the violence through which they most often find their expression.  We acknowledge and affirm your presence within our human family.  You deserve dignity, respect and life. And to all the critics, our time among the LGBTQ community has taught us that there really is only one, as is so called, “gay agenda” and that too often, sadly, is simply to survive. If history has proven anything it is that those who are excluded today will be eliminated and exterminated tomorrow.  To the LGBTQ community, we love you. We are standing with you, and when needed, we pledge to stand between them and you.  The names of those lost will not be forgotten.  Varied is the image of God.  Our work will continue.

As the sun continues to rise, so will our efforts till the day comes when our world is a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all.

 


 

Jesus Facebook popularity graph

Image from my friend David Hayward at NakedPastor.com

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” (Q 9:57-60)

Companion Texts:

Luke 9:57-60: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man  has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

Matthew 8:19-22: “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”

Gospel of Thomas 86: “Jesus says: ‘Foxes have their holes and birds have their nest. But the son of man has no place to lay his head down and to rest.’”

Jesus wasn’t a politician, and Jesus wasn’t a pastor.

Too often diplomacy, peace-keeping (as opposed to peace-making), and efforts to appeal to the largest number of people are the modus operandi of those working for social change while also trying to obtain or maintain a position of privilege in the status quo. But this wasn’t Jesus’s method in Sayings Gospel Q. I’m reminded of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Jesus wasn’t trying to win at popularity. One of my favorite quotations from Peter Gomes’ book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus is this: 

“Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”(p. 31)

It seems that just about every time a crowd of followers begins to amass behind Jesus, he does something to ground them, making sure they understand exactly what they are signing up for. And what is their response? He loses that large numbers of followers every time.

Jesus wasn’t trying to get as many people to go to a post-mortem heaven as possible when they died. He was working to create change here, now, today, and he realized that lip-service wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think that Jesus would have been against large membership lists. I think he just understood that numbers are meaningless when the people that the numbers represent aren’t significantly challenging the injustice, violence and oppression of our world in their deeds.

Homelessness

This week’s statement is one of the most haunting statements that Jesus makes; at least it is for me personally. I am not homeless, and in my lifestyle here in America, I do not reflect Jesus much at all. I have a family. Crystal and I have children. We look more like foxes and birds than we do like Jesus. I do wrestle with this. I wonder: how much does my privilege, and my reluctance to jeopardize that privilege, hold me back from following Jesus’ teachings more deeply?

Also, I think of Christianity as a whole. Ever since the days of Constantine, the Church has become one of the greatest holders of land and property on Earth, all while claiming to be following the homeless Jesus. The Church’s land holdings have been at the root of poverty and complicit in economic structures that cause poverty.

Yet one of the elements of ancient Jewish hope was a vision of a day where “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4.4, emphasis added.) The vision didn’t include large land holdings exclusively owned by a small oligarchy. This ancient hope saw everyone with a secure place to live and provide for themselves.

Yet it seems that Jesus abandoned the pursuit of “property” as long as that property meant joining a coalition with a domination system that exploited the poor, transformed small independent farmers into debt-ridden indentured slaves under the Roman system, and pressured the Temple leadership to religiously legitimize the system. As a means of working toward the Jewish hope of property to all as a human right, Jesus chose solidarity with the property-less, rather than pursuing a propertied institution to establish his movement’s permanence.

The Christian Church has not done what Jesus did. This gives me much cause to pause and contemplate.

Studies of U.S. capitalism, English enclosures, Soviet collectivization, and South American latifundia have shown that there is a deep connection between the creation of a dependent labor force for the Western industrial revolution and the majority of the population’s loss of land ownership. In the United States, land was concentrated into the hands of a few and the majority of the population became dependent on working for industrialists just to scratch out a living. The same happened in state-enforced capitalism, state Soviet socialism, and colonial capitalism. (Land ownership is different from property ownership, though owning even a small home can leave people dependent on working for industrialists to pay a mortgage.) Much has been written on this history, and I recommend Joseph R. Stromberg’s English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization

I wrestle with how to work toward Micah’s vision of everyone having their own safe vineyard. But I take that wrestling as a call to lean more deeply into experimentation to find things that work, and not stop at futility or throwing up my hands. As Dorothy Day once wrote in her journal, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

At bare minimum, we might begin, as Tolstoy stated in his book The Kingdom of God is Within You, with being honest about what is transpiring around us. We can begin to tell the truth.

“And therefore you cannot but reflect on your position as landowner, manufacturer, judge, emperor, president, minister, priest, and soldier, which is bound up with violence, deception, and murder, and recognize its unlawfulness. I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself. There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.” (pp. 263-264, emphasis added.)

I have found this to be true in my own life: Just keep “telling the truth”; “you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.” Maybe this is why Jesus was unlike foxes and birds himself. He chose to speak the truth in a society that exploited the many for the elite and marginalized an other-ed few. Jesus chose not to be silent, even knowing it could cost him his life; he saw what Desmond Tutu and others said much later on about silence and neutrality: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” (in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 19)

Jesus chose not to be silent, even if it would cost him his life, and it did.

The Dead

Last week’s eSight helped us to understand that Jesus would refer to the lethargic, passive, complicity larger society around him as “dead.” Some scholars believe that he made this statement about the dead burying their dead about a year after the would-be disciple’s father’s death.

In that era, the burial process sometimes had two parts. It involved an initial interment in caves, hewn tombs, sarcophagi, or catacombs. Then a secondary burial of the remains into ossuaries sometimes took place about one year after the original burial, after the body had decomposed and the only remains were the bones of the deceased loved one (see Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Ancient Burial Practices).

But it is difficult to tell for sure whether Jesus’s conversation with the follower was about their request to take part in a first interment or a second. It would be impossible for me to defend this saying if it was the first interment. Both within Jewish culture and according to Torah, denying someone burial was the most humiliating indignity that could be shown to the deceased (see Jewish Encyclopedia: Burial). Also, Jesus’s social vision was rooted in people taking care of people. I have a hard time believing Jesus would be so callous (as well as non-Jewish) as to not let grieving people bury and properly grieve the loss of their loved ones. (Especially in the wake of the events of this week.)  If the context of this saying was the second interment, however, this would have been a year later, a year removed from the grief, and although still difficult to accept, the saying does contrast a Hellenistic-Jewish ceremony related to what a loved one was experiencing in their “afterlife” (see Jewish Burials), and the priority of a movement focused on taking care of those still alive. Sectors of modern Christianity place a high priority on obtaining entrance to a post mortem heaven or avoiding a hell while grossly ignoring the hell that many are living in now. It could be that, to them, the Jesus of this saying replies, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

This saying challenges me. I don’t see taking care of the living and honoring the dead as mutually exclusive; I see them as connected. However one interprets this saying of Jesus, whether one justifies this statement or believes Jesus went too far in prioritizing his revolution above what is decent and compassionate, this saying must be held in tension with a Jesus who elsewhere defined his vision for human society as people taking care of one another rather than disregarding them.

Either way, the confrontation in this week’s sayings is hard. It’s a serious wake-up call to us to genuinely understand what we are signing up for when we choose to lean more deeply into and begin following the teachings of the historical Jesus. This journey is not for those who desire to remain comfortable. It’s not about a post-mortem destination that has little to do with this present life. This journey is about change. It’s about liberation. It’s a path, sometimes very difficult, of compassionate work toward systemically resolving those things that presently cause humans suffering. It means embracing the “way of the cross,” not as “sacrifice” but, as Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother say, “actively struggling for social justice” (pp. 79-80). Make no mistake: the conventional domesticated Jesus of the American Christian religion is not the Jesus we find in the Jewish Sayings Gospel Q. And this is a difference that is worth recognizing.

Take some time this week to meditate on what this saying may mean for you:

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’ (Q 9:57-60)

HeartGroup Application

It is much easier to face the challenges of societal change as a community. In fact, to follow Jesus’s teachings regarding social change, it’s impossible to do so outside of community. Jesus’s method of subverting domination systems was community.

  1. This week, to honor your community, sit down with your HeartGroup and share with each other ways you can support one another in your private and communal efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus.
  2. Actually write them out and discuss ways you can come underneath and support one another. Note what that looks like, what it doesn’t look like, and what supporting one another would cost the group, as well as what it would cost the individual.
  3. Choose at least one other person in the group to affirm and support in tangible ways this week. Begin taking responsibility for taking care of each other personally.

As we have said before, we don’t want to make following Jesus difficult. We want to be honest about where following Jesus is difficult. This is not an easy, feel-good way to arrive at a celestial shore. This is a honest and compassionate way of healing and transforming our world, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Again, our hearts are with all those grieving the tragedy in Orlando.

Keep living in love.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.

This Generation and the Children of  Wisdom

(Being awake to today’s socio-economic, Liberation movements.)

by Herb Montgomery

image of lots of people“To what am I to compare this generation and what is it like? It is like children seated in the‚ market-places who addressing the others say: ‘We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not cry.’ For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and you say: ‘He has a demon!’ The son of humanity came, eating and drinking, and you say: ‘Look! A person who is a glutton and drunkard, a chum of tax collectors and sinners! But Wisdom was vindicated by her children.’ (Q 7:31-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:16-19: To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Luke 7:31-35: “Jesus went on to say, ‘To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

“We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.”

‘For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But wisdom is proved right by all her children.’”

This week’s saying is one of my favorites. Let’s dive right in.

Market Places

One of the key images in this saying is “the market-place.” In Ancient Greece, the agora, a “gathering place” or assembly, ” was the center for city politics, sport, religion, and art.

Easton’s Dictionary tells us further that the agora was “any place of public resort, and hence a public place or broad street (Matt. 11:16; 20:3), as well as a forum or market-place proper, where goods were exposed for sale, and where public assemblies and trials were held (Acts 16:19; 17:17). This word occurs in the Old Testament only in Ezekiel 27:13. In early times markets were held at the gates of cities, where commodities were exposed for sale (2 Kings 7:18). In large towns the sale of particular articles seems to have been confined to certain streets, as we may infer from such expressions as ‘the bakers’ street’ (Jer. 37:21), and from the circumstance that in the time of Josephus the valley between Mounts Zion and Moriah was called the Tyropoeon or the ‘valley of the cheesemakers.’”

So in 1st Century Jewish culture, the agora or marketplace was where social and economic life happened. When Jesus refers to the marketplace, he is describing an economic or civic gathering.

This Generation

I hear some frustration in this week’s saying. Both John the Baptist and Jesus had cast before the imaginations of their generation a vision of a society that was very different than the society they lived in. They weren’t simply waiting for Rome to collapse before reorganizing; they were working toward a new social order, which Jesus referred to as the “Empire” of God.

In God’s order, people took responsibility for taking care of people. And God’s order was a new social structure subversively seated in the shell of the old Imperial order. God’s order primarily focused on the local scene rather than the entire Empire, and offered a new day for local laborers (see Mathew’s parable in Matthew 20.1-16).

Their vision involved resource sharing, food distribution, wealth redistribution, and care for the sick. It was a society centered in solidarity, interconnectedness, and interdependence. The point I want you to focus on most this week is that God’s “empire” was not a future state waiting for Rome to fall or Jerusalem to be liberated. It had begun already, while the current power structure existed, to help the very people being exploited. It presented people caring for people in place of hierarchical institutions. It showed people a means, a way, to take care of each other.

And yet, neither John, nor Jesus, nor their followers could awaken the larger portions of their  lethargic society who seemed to be waiting for something big. They were piping and singing and yet the largest sectors of their society would not dance, and they would not cry in response to the children’s wailing. They were asleep. Passive. Complicit. Remember, this was a time when Jesus’ followers and John’s followers were, although sizable, still a minority within their larger Jewish communities. We’ll explore further in next week’s saying why Jesus’ group of followers remained smaller.

The Asceticism of John

Asceticism is a lifestyle of abstinence, temperance, and withdrawal. An ascetic person doesn’t participate in luxury or simple pleasures. Luke seems to hint that John’s asceticism was rebellion against the Priestly aristocracy to which his father belonged.

John chose a version of Judaism that rejected economic exploitation of the poor in the name of YHWH. And yet he was accused by the religiously wealthy and elite of having “a demon.”

Jesus the Socialite

Jesus, on the other hand, did not choose the wilderness of the countryside. He chose the larger city metropolises of Galilee. He blessed the poor and pronounced judgment on the rich. (Luke 6:20, 24). Luke portrays Jesus proclaiming thirteen woes (or curses) on that group. Some scholars attribute the origin of the woe oracle to the cultic practices of curses (see Deuteronomy 27:15-26).  The book in the Hebrew scriptures that holds the record for “woes” is Ezekiel and it only includes six.

As we considered last week, the wealthy tax collectors responded to John and to Jesus and Jesus embraced and welcomed them. Jesus includes a tax collector among his disciples and after Zacchaeus repents of stealing and promises to redistribute his wealth, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Those like Zacchaeus, whom the religious wealthy labelled as “sinners,” shared the same economic class with them. The religiously wealthy and the tax collectors differences were in their feelings toward Hellenism and its influence in Judaism, but economically, they were very much the same. The well-to-do more fundamentalist rich regarded themselves as morally superior to those who were listening and responding to John and Jesus. They gathered around Jesus and he shared bread and wine with them. Yet his only reward was that those who saw themselves as superior to that crowd viewed him as a glutton, a drunk, and a chum of tax collectors and sinners. This couldn’t have been said about John. But it was said about Jesus.

Asleep

A meme came across one of my news feeds last week that I think summed up the scenario nicely. It stated, “1% control the world. 4% are sellout puppets. 90% are asleep. 5% know and are trying to wake up the 90%. The 1% doesn’t want the 5% waking up the 90%.” If we were to view 1st Century Galilee through the lens of those categories, Jesus would certainly have been a part of the 5% calling for nonviolent resistance to Roman and Jewish oppression of the poor, and for a just distribution of food and resources. Our sayings last week and this week teach us that the religious authorities refused to respond positively to John and Jesus, and instead undermined their influence in order to keep the “90%” asleep.

Sophia’s Children

Just as a tree is known by its fruit, “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” I love the feminine imagery used for wisdom in this week’s saying.

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), the Greek word for wisdom in Proverbs 8 is “Sophia.” Feminine imagery for wisdom has an intriguing history in Hellenistic Judaism. Philo of Alexandria was a philosopher and a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth who lived from 25 BCE to 50 CE. As a Hellenistic Jew, Philo attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy with Judaism. He used the Greek word logos to represent sophia (or wisdom), and in the gospel of John, this became the word used to describe Divine Wisdom and the mysterious form of a pre-existent Christ. Sophia has a long history with feminine imagery for the Divine, and affirms that women bear the image of God just as much as men.

I like the fact that the Q community preserved this scene with Jesus stating that his teachings were an expression of the way of Sophia. Within a 1st or 2nd Century context, this would have subtly subverted social patriarchy.

Today

Recently, I’ve been reading a book entitled Markets Not Capitalism by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson. Gary Chartier is an associate dean of the School of Business and an associate professor of law and business ethics at La Sierra University. Charles Johnson is a research associate at the Molinari Institute and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and has published the Rad Geek People’s Daily weblog at radgeek.com since 2001.

What I appreciate most about this book are the articles by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker from the later 19th and early 20th Centuries. As I got to the end of the book, I was overwhelmed by two thoughts: First, how deeply asleep those who are comfortable in our society are today: people don’t seem to really desire freedom as much as they desire comfort, and as long as they are comfortable, they will trade almost anything. Second, how awake those are who are deeply discomforted by the present economic and political system are: these are the very ones Sayings Gospel Q would have referred to as the “poor,” the “hungry,” the “mourning.” Howard Thurman referred to them as the “disinherited.” They are the oppressed, marginalized, and subjugated. They live with an urgency about justice, out of necessity, that those who are comfortable in privileged positions fail to understand. And when any attempt at waking up society is made, a multitude of methods (shame, status quo explanation and apologetics, social exclusion, and coercion) tell people to simply roll over and go back to sleep. I encourage you to read the book for yourself (the link above is for a free copy), but most of all, I want us to see that in this week’s saying is Jesus’s call to WAKE UP!

Wake up to the call of living compassionate, involved lives with those presently suffering from injustice, violence and oppression. Wake up and “put your hand to the plow” alongside those who are working for their own liberation. Wake up to the reality that we are not free till everyone is free. Wake up, and, in the words of this week’s saying, “dance” with those rejoicing in hard-won victories, “mourn” with those whose victories are yet future, and work, work hard, toward that day imagined in Micah where “everyone” will one day “sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Let others call you a “friend” of those labeled in our time as tax-collectors and sinners were in the time of Jesus. Let them accuse you as they did Jesus of having a “demon,” being a “glutton,” or being a “drunkard.” These accusations are the status quo’s efforts to keep you quiet, passive, and compliant. So keep speaking your truth into the darkness of injustice. And may it not be said of any of us:

“To what am I to compare this generation and what is it like? It is like children seated in the‚ market-places who addressing the others say: ‘We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not cry.’” Sayings Gospel Q 7:31

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, sit down with your HeartGroup and write out, together, what it looks like to be awake to injustice, oppression, and violence in our world today.
  2. Discuss three visible manifestations in this list that resonate most deeply with your group.
  3. Pick one of those three to lean into this week individually and as a group. Focus on practicing them in your day-to-day life.

We are in this together. You are not alone. Jesus’s “empire” of God is a world where people take responsibility to share with and take care of people. I’m so thankful that you are here. Together we can make a difference.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.