Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


“Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the ‘gospel of God’ is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.”


 

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

This week we take our third and final look at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of members of vulnerable communities who daily face marginalization, domination, exploitation and/or oppression. We are going to listen at the feet of one of the greatest womanist theologians of our time, Delores S. Williams.

 

Last week, we considered how many feminist theologians reject the sufferings of Jesus as redemptive because of the lethal fruit this interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion has produced in the lives of women. Womanist theologians hav e the same concern.

 

“African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering — if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 161)

 

Seeking an alternative source of redemption in Jesus other than his sufferings, Williams addresses one the most historically damaging interpretations of Jesus’ death: Substitution, or as Williams calls it “surrogacy.” It doesn’t matter whether a theology represents Jesus standing in the place of God or of people. To the degree that Jesus was a substitute, representative, or “surrogate” sufferer in one’s interpretation of Jesus’ cross, then to that same degree surrogacy takes on “the aura of the sacred” and is divinely validated as an acceptable way for people to relate to each other. After all, if Jesus or God both participated in surrogacy, surrogacy itself cannot be impugned without calling the morality or justice of both Jesus or God into question as well. That has a particular import for Black women, historically forced into surrogacy during and following the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (For further discussion on the oppression of Black women specifically in the context of surrogacy see Sisters in the Wilderness; The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p 40-60)

 

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy. If black women accept this idea of redemption, can they not also passively accept the exploitation that surrogacy brings?” (Delores S. Williams; Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 127)

 

Some differentiate Jesus’ surrogacy for humanity from the historical surrogacy role of Black women under the subjugation of their oppressors by saying Jesus’ surrogacy was voluntary. Williams finds such rhetoric insufficient:

 

“After emancipation, the coercion associated with antebellum surrogacy was replaced by social pressures that influenced many black women to continue to fill some surrogacy roles. But there was an important difference between antebellum surrogacy and postbellum surrogacy. The difference was that black women, after emancipation, could exercise the choice of refusing the surrogate role, but social pressures often influenced the choices black women made as they adjusted to life in a free world. Thus postbellum surrogacy can be referred to as voluntary (though pressured) surrogacy.” (Ibid., p. 41)

 

Williams offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus as a source of redemption. Jesus, she explains, gave “humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” This is, by far, my favorite paragraph from Williams on this subject:

 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Ibid., pp. 130-131) 

 

Now, it is up to us whether or not we will follow Jesus and practice his vision, whether we will follow this “ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” If the world doesn’t seem that different after Jesus than it was before, then it’s not that Jesus’ teachings have been tried and found wanting. As Chesterton stated, they have “been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 5).

 

To focus on Jesus’ Kingdom of God theme as “the gospel”, the good news, and the source of redemption holds the most weight in the gospels. The gospels do not define the good news as “Jesus died for you.” The good news of the gospels is, every time, the Kingdom among us.

 

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

 

Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the “gospel of God” is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

“ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the gospel [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6) 

 

What I love about this passage is that it tells us that followers of Jesus were t preaching the gospel far and wide, but Jesus had not yet died, much less been resurrected. What, then, were his followers telling people when they proclaimed the gospel? Whatever it was, their message was a gospel without a cross and without a resurrection. We have to let that confront us. 

 

According to Luke, it is possible to preach the gospel and never mention the cross or the resurrection. What were they sharing instead? They were announcing the kingdom and it was good news! The good news is always primarily about the kingdom, the new social vision for humanity that Jesus taught was possible here and now.

 

Consider  the book of Acts and take note of the gospel they were proclaiming:

 

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12)

 

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

 

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” (Acts 20:25)

 

“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

 

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28.30-31)

 

I believe Delores Williams is onto something significant.  Survival, liberation, redemption, salvation, and quality of life—in the Jesus story these are the themes that come through what Jesus called the kingdom or reign of God. Again, “The kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” This is what is salvific about Jesus and his teachings.

 

Williams continues, “Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

 

As challenging as Williams’ words are to our traditional interpretations, they hold promise, too.y Consider again the book of Acts. Even after Jesus died, the gospel was primarily about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus had died and was resurrected but the story of the gospel would not include his death  fin its proclamation of the kingdom, and the emphasis when Jesus’ life story was told was not on Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The good news, in other words, was not that Jesus had died, but that he was alive! The Romans couldn’t stop him, and  a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold this prophet of the poor. He was still out there, still recruiting, still calling people to “follow me.” 

 

Notice the good news now emphasizes his resurrection over his death:

 

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

 

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)

 

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33)

 

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16)

 

 “. . . Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11)

 

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32)

 

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43)

 

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38)

 

It is quite possible that atonement theories that focus on explaining how Jesus’ violent death saves us are trying to answer the wrong question. To use Williams’ phrase, a “more intelligent” question might be how do Jesus’ teachings save us? What does salvation mean for us here and now? Why did the proclamation that Jesus was alive inspire such hope among the  oppressed communities of Galilee and the surrounding areas in the 1st Century? However one interprets  the story of Jesus’ resurrection today, we cannot miss that it gave hope as good news to the early followers beyond hope for an afterlife. It gave them hope for this life. The reign of God had come near. The powers that be had tried to stop it, but failed. Another world is possible.

 

If what we learned last week holds any weight, if interpreting suffering as being redemptive is deeply damaging to marginalized and vulnerable communities, then this week we are being offered an alternative interpretation. tThe teachings of Jesus are salvific:  his vision for life and human community, his vision of distributive justice, the golden rule, our loving of one another as the interconnected begins that we are , his call to solidarity with those presently oppressed. These teachings and more point to a way that’s different from the course the status quo is presently pursuing. It’s a way or path to life. And it still calls to Jesus’ followers today.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1.14-15)

 

A Special Request

 

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Thanks in advance for your help.

 

And thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

The Sign of Jonah for This Generation 

Aircraft warning lightby Herb Montgomery

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it — except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” Q 11:16, 29-30 

Matthew 12:38-40: “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’”

Luke 11:16, 29-30: “Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’”

This week’s saying is another challenging one.. First, the saying is based on the Jewish story of Jonah, a big fish, and the Assyrian capital Nineveh. The Jewishness of this story and its specific application to the Jewish citizens in Galilee and Judea may be one reason why it doesn’t appear in the more Platonic collection of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Thomas. But there’s a lot in these verses  that bears all the marks of belonging to a 1st Century Jewish liberation rabbi and prophet for the poor.

The ancient city of Nineveh was known for decimating the poor and vulnerable. Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital, was also the empire responsible for annihilating the people in the northern territories of Israel. In the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah arrives at Nineveh with a message that Nineveh’s time is up and their account has been called due. His message is not a warning or a call to repentance. It’s simply an announcement: in forty days, Ninevah is going to be destroyed.

What happens next in the story is that the king calls the people throughout the empire to repentance. The people repent, and Israel’s God has a change of mind and calls off the threatened destruction. Nineveh will now be spared.

I believe Jonah’s response is the point of this story: He is enraged at God’s change of heart.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live with these Ninevites.’” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The point of the story is to point to a more inclusive worship of YHWH among the Hebrew people. Jonah would rather be dead than share the earth with “them,” and the story seems to rebuke him for this.

If any of us are excluded, ultimately it won’t be because we did not believe in a world that could include us, but because we could not stomach a world where others are included that we feel should be excluded.

That’s the story behind this week’s saying. The question I want to consider is what is this “sign of Jonah” spoken of in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions? A long tradition based on Matthew’s version assumes the historically reliability of the story of Jonah’s big fish.

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

In short, for Matthew’s community, the sign of Jonah was about Jesus’s resurrection. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jesus will be in the grave for three days and then be resurrected.

If this is what the sign of Jonah refers to, it’s more plausible that this is a section of the saying added by Jesus’ followers after the resurrection event rather than a prediction Jesus made beforehand. This interpretation produces more questions than answers for me though.

It is also curious that Luke defines the sign of Jonah differently. In Luke the big fish is left out, and so is the resurrection as a sign. In Luke, Jonah himself, his arrival, and his message are the only sign the Ninevites receive:

“As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.’” (Luke 11:29-30, Emphasis added.)

Jonah came with his message of judgment against the wicked, and the Ninevites, with no assurance that their repentance would avert their destruction, took a risk and repented anyway.

Jesus’ audience in the 1st Century is also a society, a “generation,” that is oppressing the poor and will reap the intrinsic disaster that this eventually brings. The poor and economically oppressed in any community are always the ones susceptible to militaristic, hate-speaking, charismatic messiahs who promise a new day if they will follow them. Josephus tells us that it was the poor and economically exploited who formed the body of rebels that took control of the temple away from the Jewish elites and led the rebellion against Rome. The very first thing they did when gaining control of the Temple was to burn the records of the debts they owed to the wealthy aristocrats.

“The Sicarii [violent, radical zealots] and lower-class citizens force their way into the Temple and join themselves with the revolutionary priests (2.17.6 425) Together they force the royalists out of the upper city; the troops and Ananias take refuge in Herod the Great’s palace. The rebels burn the houses of Ananias and the palaces of Agrippa and Berenice, along with the Record Office, destroying the records of outstanding debts.” (See http://josephus.org/warChronology1.htm)

The end result is tremendously sad: forty years after Jesus, a violent backlash breaks out in Jerusalem and escalates to violent revolt against Rome. The outcome is the total annihilation of Jerusalem.

Jesus, like Jonah, came warning of destruction on the horizon. Jesus’ warning was about the intrinsic consequences of injustice, and was more organic than imposed. But it was an announcement nonetheless. Whereas Jonah was sad to see Nineveh turn and repent, Jesus was sad to see his community fail to do so. And just as the only sign given to Nineveh was Jonah and his message, Jesus, in Luke, tells us that the only sign that will be given to his generation is himself and his message.

Both versions of this week’s saying conclude:

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41, Luke 11:32)

What relevance might this story have to what we are experiencing here in America this week?

In 2010, Noam Chomsky wrote:

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.” (See Noam Chomsky called this political moment 6 years ago)

Could we as an American society be on a path similar to the society in Jesus’ time and place? What so many disenfranchised people in Jesus’ day thought were solutions brought untold destruction to all.

Yes, our society needs healing. It needs fixing. But whatever “great again” means, it has to mean great for everyone. We must define it as justice for everyone. We cannot afford to solve the problems of the future for ourselves at the expense of someone else because all we have is each other. I wrote this some weeks ago, but it’s even more relevant this week.

“There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.” (Looting a Strong Person)

So with this in mind, let us contemplate what warnings exist for us today as we’re challenged to continue our work of transforming our world into a safe home for us all.

“But some were demanding from him a sign. But he said‚ ‘This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, and a sign will not be given to it—except the sign of Jonah! For as Jonah became to the Ninevites a sign, so also‚ will the son of humanity be to this generation.’” (Q 11:16, 29-30)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want to you to brainstorm together as a group. Make these lists:

  1. What does resistance to injustice look like for you and your HeartGroup as you follow Jesus’ example of choosing the path of solidarity with those on the undersides of our society? List at least five ways you can participate in the work of resistance. Be creative.
  2. What does mutually working for the survival of those in your HeartGroup look like if you were to follow Jesus’ example in the ways you listed in your answer to the first question? How can you support each other? List at least five ways you can support one another in the work of survival. Be creative.
  3. Staying focused on thriving, not just for yourself at others’ expense but in a world where we all can thrive, pick something from each list you created and together put each into practice this week.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love characterized by resistance, survival, liberating the oppressed and disenfranchised, restoration, and transformation. Till hope shines bright again, or, for some, for the very first time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams in her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk writes:

It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131)

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.

Not Just Saying Master, Master

by Herb Montgomery

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

Where We Stand

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

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

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

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

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

Doing As Jesus Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Jesus “Master”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application 

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

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

Thank you so much for joining us this week. Let’s keep putting the sayings of Jesus into practice together, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Beatitudes for the Poor, Hungry, and Mourning

by Herb Montgomery

A loaf of bread in an old mans hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Sayings Gospel Q we find:

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

Luke and Matthew also make this point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus 

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Sayings of Jesus

by Herb Montgomery

 

Blue Abstract Letter Q

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a diagram that may help you visualize this.

Diagram illustrating the composition of Mark, Matthew and Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

I’m looking forward to next week already!

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

I love each one of you.

Happy New Year.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus and Naturalism

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

science“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have [taught] you” (Matthew 28:17, 18-19, The Message, emphasis added).

Last week, we talked about one of the worldviews that informed the writers of the gospels. We learned about the traits of the ancient apocalyptic worldview and how it differs from the modern Christian focus on the end-times. This week, let’s talk about another worldview that influences how we read the gospels: naturalism. It is important to understand how the beliefs that we take for granted in our time mirror and differ from the worldview of the Jesus of the gospels and the disciples who wrote about him.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism seeks to explain what happens in this world by natural causes (natural laws) rather than appealing to supernatural explanations. In its purest form, it assumes that this world is a closed system, which means that nothing that isn’t already a part of this world can be looked to as a cause to explain why something in this world is happening.

Not all naturalists are pure naturalists, however. Many people in the West would much rather look for a natural cause and cure for conditions like lupus than assume a person’s lupus is caused by a supernatural demon and they should see the exorcist. They’re not going to the doctor for prayer. They’re going to the doctor for medicine. Yet many of these same naturalists are also theists and still accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. They still believe in the healing Jesus.

Naturalism in its purest form leaves a person with three options when it comes to a Divine being.

  1. No God exists. (Atheism)
  2. God exists but is disconnected from and uninvolved in this world. (Deism)
  3. Nature is God (Pantheism)

The atheist, deist, and pantheist naturalists can also be referred to as metaphysical naturalists: they agree that the supernatural does not exist. But there are other naturalists, like the theists who seek natural medical explanations for illness, who are merely methodological naturalists: they prioritize natural causes, effects, and explanations for things that happen on this planet. Scientific research and discovery is possible whether one is a metaphysical naturalist or a methodological one. Many of my theist friends who are naturalists still maintain a belief in a personal God from whom these natural laws of cause and effect originated. And recent surveys of professional scientists have shown that more than half conduct their research and also believe in a higher power.

Strengths of Naturalism

Discovery of Actual Causation

Naturalism began with the ancient Greek philosophers’ attempts to explain this world without appealing to “the gods.” Naturalism as we know it today made its first significant inroads into Christianity during the 12th Century Renaissance thanks to Christian natural philosophers. It then picked up steam in the 16th Century where Christian scientists referred to the study of nature as the study of God’s secondary causes. Galileo promoted naturalism during this time, and the approach allowed early scientists to discover some of the basic laws of nature.

Prevention and Cure

If one can discover and predict the causes of things that promote human suffering, then one can discover ways to prevent and/or cure human suffering as well. Over the last several centuries, scientific naturalism has significantly lessened human suffering and increased quality of life for the beneficiaries of its discoveries.

Deliverance from Superstition

Using a scientific basis, Christian naturalist scientists like Galileo began noticing the observable and measurable forces that have repeatable results on things in the world. They found causes for the things that were happening around them rather than appealing to the existence of devils or angels behind every bush and event.

This is significant on a religious level. As people began to discover natural reasons for their suffering through science, they lost fear of provoking the anger of the church’s God and fear of varying from the teachings and explanations of church officials. The Black Death, for example, was not the result of God’s wrath; it was the result of germs. Lightning strikes were not the sign of an angry God; they were the product of observable changes in the atmosphere.

Connectedness

Naturalists believe that all of the natural world is connected in a network of causes and effects. This connectedness we share with one another can lead to concern and care for others besides just ourselves or those like us. Ultimately naturalism has empowered human compassion with tangible methods and means to make a difference in the lives of those hurting.

Responsibility and Accountability

Naturalism may have more benefits than what I’ve listed here, but another that is meaningful to me is the emphasis on human responsibility for the things that happen on this planet: the worldview encourages people to embrace accountability toward each another and not excuse themselves by blaming supernatural forces. A pastor friend of mine who is deeply concerned with climate change also lives in the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Each time a natural disaster occurs, he is fond of saying, “When bad things happen, God gets blamed for things God didn’t do. A devil gets blamed for things a devil didn’t do. And people continue to not take responsibility for the things we are setting in motion.”

Weakness of Naturalism

The naturalist worldview has some beautiful strengths and a few weaknesses as well.

Dependence on Rationalism

Science has no explanation for many of the things that happen on this planet. Although my metaphysical naturalist friends would be quick to say, “Science has no explanation, YET…”, time will tell whether everything on this planet can truly be explained by only appealing to nature without accounting for the supernatural. We can’t yet know.

Addiction to Explanations

While we can explain most things, we sometimes have a tendency to have to explain everything. Naturalism can produce an intolerance of mystery. I do agree that many mysteries need solving and some things that become more beautiful as they are explained. I also believe some things become less beautiful once their mystery is removed and they become explainable. Life must not only be explainable, it must also possess enough beauty and mystery that it’s still worth living.

Meaninglessness, Absence of Compassion, Lack of Ethics

There are a number of popular Christian critiques of the naturalistic world view. First, some Christians say that naturalism produces a meaningless existence. I have found this to be untrue: instead life takes on new and different meanings. Second, some Christians say the naturalistic world view robs humanity of any compassion because it doesn’t root service to humans in service to God. I have also found this to be untrue.  Human compassion results from our discovery of our connectedness. Naturalists and supernaturalists differ in the explanation of why we are connected.  Yet they agree with each other that we are all connected.  In many naturalists, that discovery has deepened their compassion and empowered them with the tools to make a difference in others’ lives. Finally, some Christians warn that if the naturalistic world view is embraced it will produce a world devoid of ethics. I have yet to meet an amoral naturalist. Their ethics may have a different basis than an apocalypticist’s, but it is unfair to say naturalism ultimately removes our ethics.

 

Jesus Followers and Naturalism

Although the writers of the early Jesus story were not naturalists, the Jesus we find in the story offered a wisdom teaching that I believe can be relevant even for contemporary naturalists today.

Notice what is said in our feature text this week, Matthew 28:17-19. Jesus invited his disciples to produce other Jesus followers. A Jesus follower is not someone who has embraced the worldview of the 1st Century people who first heard Jesus speak. What it meant to be a Jesus follower then was to be “trained” in a “way of life,” in the “practice” of the ethics and values of the 1st Century, Jewish, revolutionary Jesus.  Many in that era embraced a Jewish Apocalyptic world view, yet they were not followers of Jesus. That worldview and discipleship were not the same thing. The question we must wrestle with today is whether someone must embrace a 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic worldview to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. And I don’t believe they do.

The Jesus of the Jesus story offered alternative wisdom to the social norms of his own day. He valued every human being as a being of inestimable worth, and so he contrasted with the way the culture used purity codes to marginalize some of the people. He taught within his context, and his teachings had a political dimension. Jesus opposed arranging human society according to domination systems. He challenged the Roman domination system and its religious legitimization in the Jewish temple at that time, especially among the priesthood and some of the Jewish leaders. (We can gain much from paying attention to the religious legitimization of political domination in our own time and culture. For more on this aspect of Jesus’ teachings, please see Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem)

In addition, Jesus taught nonviolent noncooperation and nonviolent confrontation in response to unjust domination systems. This nonviolence can be tested, observed, and seen to have tangible and repeatable results in the lives of those such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus’ teachings had an economic dimension that called to account systems that produce poverty. He offered a preferential option for the poor in our societies, and his stories, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, called his audience to look at themselves and others in a different way.

Jesus made original contributions for his own place and time within Jewish culture. He was offering a transformative and restorative justice for all based on a universal and non-discriminatory love for all.

As we said last week, since the 4th Century, Christianity has transitioned away from Earth and begun focusing on how people might enter a post-mortem heaven. This focus was not the focus of the early Jesus’ community. Jesus offered the people teachings on matters directly related to this world, not another. And although the Jesus in the story spoke of supernatural entities, his teachings primarily offer a set of values and ethics that we can test to discern whether they help us find The Way to a safer more compassionate world for us all. As he taught, we can “know by their fruit” whether they have value.

A naturalistic worldview is common in our time. It may remodel our cosmology, and it may adjust our understanding of history, yet I do not believe it requires us to remove our sense of a Heart at the center of the Universe or relegate the 1st Century Jesus to irrelevance.

Science and Jesus can be good neighbors to each other! Again, there is not one Jesus follower I know today who subscribes to a purely apocalyptic or a purely naturalist worldview. We subscribe to a hybrid of both, and I believe there is room in the human family for us all. As we learn to listen to each other, even with our differences, we will together find our way to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate world. (Those of you who are further down the naturalist spectrum than me and are curious to see ways that other naturalists embrace Jesus: check out these four articles—Christian naturalism is possible: Naturalistic Christianity 101, Christian Naturalism, A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, and Christianity Without Religion.)

I’ll close this week with a statement by Arthur G Broadhurst, a Christian naturalist:

“Once we get beyond the mythological language [in the gospels], it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… [Being] a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”

HeartGroup Application

This week we are learning to listen to those who may see things differently than we do. HeartGroups are intended to help us experience what Jesus modeled at his own shared table.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote, “Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding.”

The beauty of Jesus’ shared table is that it enables us to begin integrating various and diverse perspectives into a meaningful and consistent whole, each of us discovering our own blind spots as we chose to listen to another. Jesus is calling us to choose love for one another over the fear of one another.

  1. This week, take Matthew chapters 5-7 and list the teachings of Jesus there that you find meaningful and maybe even challenging for you personally.
  2. List the teachings you have questions about or don’t readily understand.
  3. Present both lists to your HeartGroup and then invite anyone who is willing to share from their own perspectives what the teachings in your second list may mean.

I’ve witnessed some amazingly beautiful moments emerge from members of a diverse group following these three simple steps. The purpose is not for everyone to see everything the same. These are moments for us to practice listening: difference is inevitable but division is optional.

Till the only world that remains is Jesus’ safe and compassionate world where Love reigns.

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