A Christmas Story for the Marginalized

Herb Montgomery | December 6, 2019

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

“The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.”

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'” (Luke 2:8–10)

We have entered the holiday season and I want to begin by wishing each of you a very happy one. In the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. In Luke’s version of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, the author chooses to center an unlikely community to receive the first announcement of “good news to all people.” This was the community of “shepherds living in the fields nearby.”

In Luke’s society, socially, politically and economically, shepherding filled one of the lowest occupational roles and shepherds bore the brunt of their lower social location. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy, and their work—according to some then-popular interpretations of Torah—made them continually unclean.

The most obvious implication is that the “good news” of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of Jesus’ society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power.

This narrative contradicts the one that modern, Westernized Christianity has so long used to equate Christianity with social respectability. Today, with few exceptions, the church has often missed out on building relationships and community with people pushed to the fringes of our larger society. I’m being generous when I say it this way: to simply say that Christian communities have “missed out” ignores the reality that the marginalized have been more than simply “missed.” The church has in many cases driven these folks to society’s fringes so that they’re marginalized by the very ones who carry the name of Jesus.

It matters how we understand each version of the stories of Jesus’ birth and what social, economic, political and even religious implications these stories would’ve had for their original listeners and contexts. When we read contextually today, we begin to see a rich field of insights for our work of social justice. Historically, Christians have spent countless hours on apologetics defending certain details in Jesus’ birth narratives but ignored the more socially relevant implications of these stories. One example of a detail we’ve historically focused on is Matthew’s gospel’s virgin birth. This story element would have meant something to those living in Galilee continually bumping up against the Roman myths about the birth of Caesar Augustus. It says little to us today in our scientific age. Yet other elements of Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke still can offer much to us who are working for a world of love and justice today.

How we as Christians hear the Christmas story, read the Christmas story, and interpret the Christmas story matters! Reclaimed interpretations of the Christmas story emphasize details that we can’t afford to miss. Jesus being born into immense poverty, being announced to the socially outcast, bypassing the politically, economically, socially and religiously of the day, and his parents becoming violence-fleeing refugees for the wellbeing of their child—there is an entire foundation here on which to build a framework for Christians who are working toward social justice today.

The story whispers to us of the need for communities to prioritize the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalized. These are the people who gathered at this lowly manger and dared to believe that the babe who lay there, this good news, really belonged to them.

The message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:8–10)

The babe in a manger would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18-19). Instead, he would grow up to gather the outcast, the socially marginalized, those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. He called for a society that did this, too, and it began with his early followers. Early communities of Jesus-followers were almost wholly comprised of people from society’s edges.

At the heart of Luke’s retelling of the Jesus story (and I believe it was the reason he—unlike Mark and John—included the details of Jesus’ birth) is a desire to contrast Jesus’ vision for human community of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society they lived in.

We’ll cover these contrasts in Luke in the upcoming weeks leading up to Christmas. I believe they hold wonderful encouragement for those working within or alongside marginalized communities today, especially for Christians who allow Jesus’ teachings to speak into their lives.

And lastly, during this holiday season, in the midst of all that is taking place in the news presently, we must not forget what these stories say to those who are marginalized in our society. We’ll talk about all of this, too. For now, it is enough to meditate on the fact that in the gospels’ birth-narratives about Jesus, it is the marginalized who are centered. It is foreigners, shepherds, the poor, the marginalized, so-called “nobodies,” and even the animals of a stable that gather around the manger to symbolize, I believe, the human community this newborn babe will grow up to speak about. The good news is for them.

People are of infinite value in this story. In these stories, people and communities marginalized by their present society are, especially of immeasurable worth. When I was born, my parents printed and sent out baby announcements to all their family and friends. I don’t know if many parents still do this, but I still have my birth announcement. To think of Jesus’ birth stories in this light, it is the marginalized who are the ones to whom the birth announcements of Jesus’ birth are first sent.

In the hustle and bustle of this season’s celebrations, traditions, and revelry, Christians who still subscribe to various forms of exclusion (xenophobia, racism, homo-, bi-, and transphobias, sexism, etc.) must allow the universal truths this story tells to confront them. If you are a Christian setting out nativity scenes in your home, stop for a moment and look at each of the figurines you’re placing. Who do these figures represent today? How are they represented in your life? Are you one of them? If not, are you living in solidarity with those represented in this scene?

Your nativity scene hints to us that this babe lying in a manger, born into poverty, and surrounded by those on edges of his society, will grow up to cast before the imagination of his listeners a vision for human society and those society considers less-than. His is a story for the powerless, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the judged, and the labeled, and excluded, the insignificant, and forgotten. These are the very ones that can gather around this lowly manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really is for them.

This last year, one of the RHM recommended reading books was Miguel A. De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins. Speaking of our nativity scene reminds me of this passage:

“Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.” (Kindle Location 629)

Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalized. On the contrary, the Christmas stories call these specific Christians to recognize that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.

The stories of Jesus are not stories of inclusion where those presently centered maintain their positions of privilege. These are stories about a fundamental change in the way we shape our human communities. And it begins with recognizing the universal truths of the manger scene. Change always happens from the grassroots up, from the margins inward. The question for those at the center is whether they will obstruct those working for a safer, just society, or work in harmony with them.

This is what these stories are saying to me this year. What are they saying to you?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see transformative work being already engaged within communities that are societally marginalized today?
  2. Pick one of these communities. Reach out to the community you have chosen and find out the needs of those in this community who are doing transformative work.
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how your group can help to alleviate the needs you discovered. Picks something from your discussion and put it into practice. Note your experiences. Then share with your group what you’re learning.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries this month are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we’d like you to invite you to become one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You’ll receive a special gift from us for doing so. To find out more go to renewedheartministries.com and click on the “Share Table Fundraiser” image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Enoughism

by Herb Montgomery | November 22, 2019

green corn field under sunrise
Photo by AK¥N Cakiner on Unsplash

“Some will say, ‘This sounds like socialism!’ I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, ‘Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is, if you need an -ism, . . . Enoughism . . . Enoughism would be a more accurate description.’”

This passage in Luke has been on my mind this week:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18:29, 30)

Many Christians today read these words and hear Jesus saying that if we give up something for Christianity, we will somehow have more materially in this life than we could possibly imagine. This has led some to embrace what others have labeled a “prosperity gospel”: if someone follows Jesus and becomes a Christians they will have the best life now. I believe these interpretations are mistaken.

First, this passage is not about embracing Jesus in name. Nor is it about things, including religions, that have Jesus’ name attached to them. In Luke, Jesus’s gospel is about embracing “the kingdom,” Jesus’s vision for human society. This was a human community founded on the golden rule and love of others as connected and part of oneself. It also involved material, distributive justice, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid or resource-sharing. This society’s members committed to care for one another, to make sure everyone had what they needed to thrive.

This passage is not a magic formula: sending a TV preacher money does not mean that you will be materially successful. Jesus’s assurance is that if following Jesus’ vision for human community causes one to lose privilege, power, security, and family affirmation, then the intrinsic return of belonging to a society rooted in love and caring cooperation rather than survivalist competition is distributive justice. No one has too much while others don’t have enough, and we all gain a better human society or community.

It may be helpful to look at Mark’s record of these words:

“Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Mark 10:29,30, emphasis added.)

Did you catch it?

“Along with persecutions!”

This isn’t a promise that the road to the equitable society Jesus imagined will be smooth, but that the end quality of community we’re creating is worth the struggle and difficulty to get there. Whenever we begin to critique the status quo, those who benefit from wealth, power and privilege inequalities will fight back. Those who mistakenly feel they have the most to lose will be the most threatened. At the end of the beatitudes in Matthew where Jesus calls us to envision what human society could look like, he encourages those who reach out to begin shaping these communities with the words:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-11)

Consider how the book of Acts describes the early Jesus community beginning to take shape:

“All the believers were together and HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON. They sold property and possessions TO GIVE TO ANYONE WHO HAD NEED. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOMES AND ATE TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

Jesus’s followers formed tightly knit communities where people took care of each other. If someone suffered great material or relational losses for following Jesus, they became part of a community that cared for them in this life.

This is hard for many today to visualize because our culture is so individualistic. First-Century followers of Jesus held all things in common. If someone suffered loss for following Jesus, within their own Jesus community they would be cared for.

It is vital that we break out of our individualism to see this.

Consider these words from Matthew:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

If we remain individualistic in our thinking and living, taking care of ourselves is a matter of survival. What if we were to actually begin to create communities where we committed to taking care of each other? Our current means of surviving would become obsolete.

Some will say, “This sounds like socialism!”

I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan:

“Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3)

It would also be wise to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be EQUALITY. At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. THE GOAL IS EQUALITY, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, emphasis added.)

Helping someone pushed to the edges of society today means creating the type of world I’d prefer to live in for tomorrow. I agree with Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren who recently wrote, “Most of us would rather not live in a kill-or-be-killed world, an enslave-or-be-enslaved world, a dominate-or-be-dominated world, an impoverish-or-be-impoverished world. If we had the chance to build a live-and-let-live world, a world of generosity and justice and neighborliness where we do to others as we’d have them do to us . . . we would gladly choose that option . . . A less violent future is available. It’s within reach.” (The Seventh Story: Us, Them, & the End of Violence, p. 61)

Stop for a moment and dream with me. What would a society shaped by “enoughism” look like? Would a few have more than they could ever need while a majority of others barely scratch out enough to exist? What would a world where everyone has enough to thrive be like? What would most of our collective resources or taxes be spent on? How would we choose to use our personal resources? How would power and responsibility be distributed, and how would we structure our communities?

Where we can begin today is creating communities where we abandon staunch, individualistic survival and begin viewing each other, with our differences, as connected, as part of one another. We aren’t simply passing through. Another world is possible, here and now, if we choose it.

I’ll end with these words from James Robinson in his classic volume The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News:

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

The world we live in presently doesn’t have to look the way it does.

We can do better.

We may not be able to change the entire world overnight, but we can, right now, today, and in our lives, begin with displaying the beauty of what a world shaped by Jesus’ teachings could look like.

And in the end, isn’t the world of “enough” the kind of world we really want?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group the difference between equality and equity. If this is a new discussion for you, a quick Google search will give you plenty of places to start. Why is it that in our striving for equitable equality some folks must be treated with a preferential option or differently than others?
  2. How does this difference impact your personal life in how you relate to others who may also be less privileged or marginalized?
  3. Does this difference also impact the way your HeartGroup is structured and operates? How does this impact how your HeartGroup relates to your larger community and society?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations for the months of November and December are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your support go twice as far during these final two months of 2019. Also, we’d like you to consider becoming one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You can find out more about this special offer to our supporters by going to renewedheartministries.com.

I love each of you dearly.

Have a wonderful weekend.

I’ll see you next week.