Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | May 3, 2018

Pyramid of Capitalism


“Politics answers the question of who gets what. So Jesus was not a religious figure as much as he was a political one. He did not fundamentally challenge his Jewish religion, at least not much more than his predecessor Hillel did. He did challenge the Jewish elites of his time, much more than Hillel did. As we’ve discussed before, Hillel made concessions, such as the prozbul, that centered the wealthy while endeavoring to take care of the poor. Jesus’ teachings centered the poor and gave them the entire “kingdom.” Jesus’ teachings were political.”


Luke 6:20-26: “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.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”

The domination structure of Jesus’ society was similar to ours today. Its structure was a combination of two two-dimensional shapes, a triangle and a circle. 

Let’s talk about the circle first. 

Circles have an inside and an outside. Societies shaped in the form of a circle can have a strongly defined border that distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. They can also have certain tests to decide who’s in and who’s out. Societal circles can also have people whose job it is to patrol the border to make sure no one from the outside is included and everyone knows when someone who was previously an insider no longer should be.

Control for circular social structures rests in the center of the circle. The more one adheres to the rules and identity of the circle, the closer one is to the center. The more someone varies, the more they are pushed to the margins of the circle. Even within the circle, among those who are insiders, some people will find themselves somewhere between the center of the circle and the edges.

What about the triangle?

The circle and the triangle are both hierarchical structures. Where the hierarchy in the circle is from the center out toward the margins, triangular societies have a top comprised of a few elites and a base composed of the majority. In triangles that practice domination and control, the closer one is to the top, the more power, privilege, control and ability to dominate others one also possesses. Your social location in the triangle determines the level to which you experience these privileges, and you can find yourself closer to the top in some areas of your life but closer to the bottom of the triangle in others. The triangle typically is structured to benefit those at the top at the expense and exploitation of those at the bottom. 

What happens when we combine these structures?

The combination of these ways of structuring human society is a cone. Within this cone, the closer one is to the center, the closer one also is to the top. The more one is marginalized, the more one finds themselves at the bottom of their society.

This hybrid of the circle and triangle shapes, the cone, is the shape of the society Jesus lived in in the 1st Century. It’s also the shape of many of our religious and civil societies today. In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus states that people his society structure had made poor, hungry, or weep would be specifically “blessed” by his vision for transforming human society. Jesus wasn’t saying it’s a blessing to be on the margins or at the bottom of society. He was saying that if you’re on the margins, you who his gospel was especially for. As we discussed in Directed Good News, those on the margins in Jesus’ society heard his gospel as good news. 

Matthew’s version of the Jesus story backs this up too. As we discussed last month in A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable, people the system had left too broken and impoverished in their spirit to keep trying, those whom the system had steamrolled over, those who hungered and thirsted for the world to be put right—these were the ones Jesus’ vision for humanity was especially targeted at (see Matthew 5:3; Luke 1:80; Matthew 5:5 and 5:6.[1]) These were the ones who had been labeled as “sinners” by those at the center/top of their society, and who, because of that labelling, had been pushed to the edges and underside of their community. They were drawn to the hope for change in Jesus’ gospel: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”(Luke 15:1-2) The term “sinners” is not a universal term here. It is used pejoratively to push some to the margins and bottom of the cone. It was a label those in power used to other people. 

Jesus’ vision for human community, his shared table, specifically inclused those his cone-shaped society had excluded. It also had an economic component. Consider the reversal of economic exploitation and reparation found in Luke’s story of an oppressor who embraced Jesus’ teachings.

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:7-8)

Jesus’ shared table required those at the top/center of their societal cone to pay reparations to those whom they had exploited and pushed down. Tax collectors were economically part of the elite, but socially and politically within Jewish culture they were pushed to the outside and labeled as sinners because of their occupational cooperation with the Empire subjugating Judea and Galilee. They were privileged in certain areas of their lives but marginalized in others.

Jesus’ shared table was also political.

When I use the term “political,” I don’t mean partisan. Politics means related to the polis, the members of a community. Whenever you have two or more people doing life together, you have politics. Politics answers the question of who gets what. So Jesus was not a religious figure as much as he was a political one. He did not fundamentally challenge his Jewish religion, at least not much more than his predecessor Hillel did. He did challenge the Jewish elites of his time, much more than Hillel did. As we’ve discussed before, Hillel made concessions, such as the prozbul, that centered the wealthy while endeavoring to take care of the poor. Jesus’ teachings centered the poor and gave them the entire “kingdom.” Jesus’ teachings were political.

Recently, while chatting with a friend, I bumped into an often repeated misconception of how things worked in Jesus’ society. My friend claimed that Jesus never challenged the Roman civil government but only challenged the religious establishment of Judea. My friend went on to state that Jesus’ followers should ignore the state and simply focus on bringing about religious reform within their own traditions. 

This is far from how Jewish society actually functioned in the 1st Century. Today our culture believes that church and state should be separated. But Jesus’ society didn’t have these distinctions. My friend claimed that Jesus was only focused on impacting the religious views of his community, especially as they related to the temple. But this simply isn’t true, historically. 

First, the temple was not solely religious, and it was not merely the center of the Jewish “church.” The temple was the center of the Jewish state. The priests and the Sanhedrin were civil authorities, not only religious ones. In 1st Century Judea, there was not a separation between “church and state” or religious and civil duty as we understand either today. The Torah governed both, and they were not two distinct areas of life. They were just life. 

The temple received taxes that were to be redistributed to the poor. That’s why the temple functioned as a centralized banking system through which money lenders lent their monies. When the poor took over the temple in the 60s CE, the very first thing they did was to burn the debt ledgers of the temple, which until then recorded all loans. By storming the temple, they forced political and economic change: a year of Jubilee and the forgiveness of all debts. 

Secondly, Jesus was a Jewish laborer, not a Roman citizen. He didn’t have access to Rome to protest for change. But he did have access to his own state authority, the temple in Jerusalem. Note that even this distinction between the temple and Rome is not completely accurate either. Rome governed Judea through the temple. Rome determined who would be High Priest each year, and it was the temple that funneled collected tribute back to Rome. The Jewish aristocracy gained privilege and power by cooperating with Rome, and Rome received a degree of control over Judea by using the Jewish temple state in Jerusalem. 

So when Jesus overturned tables in the temple-state, this was not only a religious protest; it was political protest as well. Jesus staged his demonstration in the temple with the money changers in solidarity with and on behalf of the poor who were being economically exploited by the Temple-state. Jesus was indicting both Rome and his own state. This is why his execution in response to the temple demonstration was at the hand of Rome, on a Roman cross. 

Ched Myers confirms this in his commentary on the book of Mark, and notes the deep implications for all who should choose to follow this political Jesus.

“Jesus has revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to ‘come after him’ will have to identify themselves with his subversive program. The stated risk is that the disciple will face the test of loyalty under interrogation by state authorities.” (Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 247)

When answering the question of who should get what, Jesus stated his political views:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is [in people not profit], there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12.32-34)

The poor, the marginalized, the pushed down, these were those to whom Jesus’ political views were good news. What he taught them was the gospel of hope. Gustavo Gutierrez accurately reminded us that this hope is more than a forward expectation of charity. This hope is for the creation of an entirely different social order:

“Love of neighbor is an essential component of Christian life. But as long as I apply that term only to the people who cross my path and come asking me for help, my world will remain pretty much the same. Individual almsgiving and social reformism is a type of love that never leaves its own front porch . . . On the other hand my world will change greatly if I go out to meet other people on their path and consider them as my neighbor, as the good Samaritan did… The gospel tells us that the poor are the supreme embodiment of our neighbor. It is this option that serves as the focus for a new way of being human and Christian in today’s Latin America. But the existence of the poor . . . is not neutral on the political level or innocent of ethical implications. Poor people are by-products of the system under which we live and for which we are responsible . . . That is why the poverty of the poor is not a summons to alleviate their plight with acts of generosity but rather a compelling obligation to fashion an entirely different social order.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez; Liberation Praxis and Christian Faith, p. 14)

When we follow Jesus, we don’t build a pyramid, a circle, or a cone. We build a shared table.

“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.” (Luke 6:20-22)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Go through the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and find five of Jesus’ political views.
  2. What difference does it make to see Jesus not simply as a religious figure but as a political figure as well? What difference does it make to see Jesus’ temple protest not only as a religious protest but also as a political protest of those in power in response to their economic exploitation of the poor?
  3. Is there a difference between working toward a politic of distributive justice where everyone is safe and has enough, and there is equity, protection and compassion, and Christians wanting to co-opt political power in the spirit of domination and subjugation to legislate their moral views? Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love, in survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

I love each you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week.


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate”! 

[1]
Matthew 5:3—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Luke 1:80—And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Matthew 5:4-5— Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Matthew 5:6—Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Picture of mustardby Herb Montgomery

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.”

Featured Text:

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Companion Texts:

Matthew 17:20: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

Luke 17:6: “He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 48: “Jesus says, ‘If two make peace with one another in one and the same house, then they will say to the mountain: “Move away,” and it will move away.’”

Mark 11:23: “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

The Mountain of the Temple State

We have a lot to unpack in this week’s saying. Let’s begin with talking about the mountain or mulberry tree. In the book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers writes about Mark’s use of this week’s saying under the heading “Faith as Political Imagination.” William Telford also saw an economic and political backdrop on which to understand this week’s saying:

“In Jewish circles, the correlative mountain and tree uprooting images [were] found in legal, legendary, thaumaturgic and eschatological contexts and employed in connection with the Rabbi, the king, the hero, the thaumaturge or the Messianic follower. In a legal context, the term ‘uprooter of mountains’ was found to have a technical meaning. Applied to the king (and to Herod in particular), it could be employed as a double entendre, bolstering a legal argument for the exceptional nature of Herod’s pulling down of the Temple . . . The function of [Mark’s] redaction is therefore to announce, we believe, that the ‘moving of mountains’ expected in the last days was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount. The Temple, known to the Jewish people as the ‘mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain’ was not to be elevated, as expected, but cast down!” (William Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 118)

Jesus’ narrative contrasts with the narrative of the elites of his day and of future Zealots in Jewish-Roman war, which would take place three decades later. Both of these groups saw the Temple State as enduring. The elites believed that as long as the Empire remained strong and the Temple aristocracy cooperated with Rome’s demands, the Temple State centered in Jerusalem could endure. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to reform the Temple State. They, along with the Jewish poor, revolted against economic exploitation and wrested control of the Temple State from the aristocrats. They then launched a three-and-a-half year war to liberate Jerusalem from Roman occupation and the poor from the exploitation of the controlling Jewish families of their time.

But both of these narratives involved a Temple State enduring in some form, and Jesus taught that the Temple State could be overturned. I cannot state this strongly enough: Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. He did not envision a Christian religion replacing Judaism; rather he envisioned a Jewish society without a Temple State. Why? Because in his day the Temple State was at the heart of the exploitation of the poor he had dedicated his life to working in solidarity with. The Jesus of the gospels envisioned a world where the presence of YHWH could be expressed through a community of resource-sharing and redistribution as opposed to a Temple at the heart of the systemic exploitation of the poor.

Consider the following passages:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. (Mark 12:42, cf. Luke 21:2)

“Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:43-44)

Then immediately following this account of the economic abuse of this poor woman, we read:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)

It was a vision of a different world.

The exploiting Temple State is the mountain the Jesus envisions being cast in the sea in the synoptics.

Thrown into the Sea

In Mark’s gospel, we first encounter the imagery of being thrown into the sea in the story of the exorcism at Gerasenes. Here the demoniac is a symbol of the Jewish people being occupied by the Roman Empire—the demons’ name is “Legion,” like the unit of Roman soldiers. When the demons plead not to be driven out of the land, Jesus permits them to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs who hurl themselves (and the empire they symbolize) into the sea.

“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, hurled themselves down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.” (Mark 5:11-13)

Now Jesus is using this same image for his listeners, calling them to imagine a world where the exploitative Temple State (Mark and Matthew’s Mountain and Luke’s Mulberry Tree), too, could be thrown into the sea.

The message was that the world can be remade, without exploitation.

This is the part of the message that received the greatest pushback. It threatened not only the aristocratic Temple elites who finally had Jesus executed, but also those who saw the Temple as the manifestation of YHWH’s presence among them as a chosen people. Throughout history, religious worship of a God has often been tied to the oppression of vulnerable people, and the liberation of the oppressed has often involved throwing out God too. It’s no wonder. It makes perfect sense.

Jesus was calling the people to imagine that a different God, too, was possible: they could imagine a world without a Temple without having to embrace a world without their God. God’s presence, instead of in an apartment in the Temple, would show up in the midst of their community, a community that Jesus called “the kingdom.” That terminology is problematic for those of us who live in republics today but simply it meant a community that endeavored to practice God’s vision for human society according to Jesus. This was a world rooted in distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough. This was a community where we took responsibility for taking care of one another. Our interconnectedness was understood, embraced, and experienced. We have been robbed of so much in our capitalist society today by individualism and competition. Jesus taught that a very different world was possible.

Today

Today in the U.S., we don’t have a religious state with a temple at its heart. Our society is a secular pluralist society with a large sector of citizens claiming the Christian religion. We do have folks who feel that to abandon the religion they were raised in, the religion of their oppressors, they must also abandon their faith in their God. I believe there’s much to learn from Jesus’s distinction between faith in God and faith in a religious institution.

Let me be frank. Faith traditions and institutions have used their sacred texts and religions to oppress women, to hold on to and practice racism, to legitimize classism, and to condone and even prescribe their own homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a letter was sent to all the pastors of a conference in the tradition I was raised in from their conference president, warning, “We do not receive into membership anyone who is in a practicing homosexual relationship.” Last weekend I had a very different experience hosting as guests in my home two very dear friends of mine, women who are married and raising two beautiful daughters. This couple still very much identifies as being a part of the same denomination that wrote that letter excluding them. They are raising their kids in the denomination and one of their families goes back generations in this tradition. But the denomination’s letter singles out people like my friends, who are already marginalized.

Shame! Shame on those of us who use our religion as a tool of oppression and dehumanization rather than liberation.

And for those who find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination both in the world outside their religion and also within their religious tradition as well, actions like the denomination’s bring them the extra struggle of having to parse their faith in a God whom they believes loves them and a religious tradition where they first encountered God but that rejects them.

I love how Jon Sobrino sums up Jesus’ message to those who find themselves in this place:

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 82)

Jesus stood in solidarity with people the religious, socio-economic, and political powers of his day pushed to the margins. He called them to envision a different world without the oppressing Temple State. And he was crucified by the Temple State for doing so.

There’s an interesting detail in the story, though. At the moment Jesus died, each of the synoptic gospels includes this note:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27.51)

“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15.38)

“For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23.45)

This curtain separated the innermost Holy Place in the temple from the rest of the structure.

The Holy Place was the room where YHWH’s very presence was believed to dwell.

But in the story when the curtain is torn in two, what is revealed?

What do the people see beyond the veil?

The room is empty.

The God of the poor, the God of the Oppressed, the God of those pushed to the edges of society, the God of the marginalized is not there. The room is empty. The God who stands with society’s vulnerable is actually present in the one suspended between heaven and earth, between two rebels, the one who lived his life in solidarity with them and died as a result of it. That God is not at the heart of the system exploiting or marginalizing them.

God is with them, the crucified community.

The resurrection undoes, overturns, and overcomes all that was accomplished by Jesus’ execution in the story. But before the resurrection, the first post-execution event is the rending of the temple’s veil.

It can be very painful to sever or tear the association of your religious institution with your God. But I believe that disillusionment must come. Deconstruction must be embraced. And as painful as it is, we must lean into that deconstruction and come out on the other side to reconstruct a beautiful revolution. And this is where we come full circle back to this week’s saying about faith.

Faith

Angela Davis describes activism as a matter of faith. She states, “We always have to act as if revolution were possible. We have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And if we do that work, the world is gonna change. Even if it doesn’t change the way we need it to change right now, it will change.” (Spirit of Justice with Michelle Alexander & Angela Davis)

In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)

“‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’” (Mark 10:52)

“According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Matthew 9:29)

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

“Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” (Mark 5:36)

“When Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2:5)

“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’” (Matthew 8:13)

“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’” (Matthew 15:28)

“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)

“Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

The text of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was written when people were struggling to continue believing—but believing in what?

It wasn’t the existence of God that they were struggling to believe. A person could opt out of the Jesus movement and still believe in the existence of God.

In Mark, faith is not defined in terms of accepting doctrinal truths of a religious organization or tradition.

It’s not even defined as confessing Jesus as the Christ or as Divine.

Jesus did not preach himself in the stories. Let me repeat that. Jesus did not preach himself. So what did Jesus preach? What did Jesus call his listeners to believe?

“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, emphasis added.)

Jesus called his listeners to believe the good news that the kingdom, the reign of God, or God’s vision for human society, had come. Belief was tied to embracing the kingdom, to “imagining another way of being another way of existing in the world” (Angela Davis, ibid). The good news of God calls us to imagine a new world and believe it’s possible. This kind of faith is what made all the difference in the stories of the gospels: the belief that things could actually be different, that we can choose a different world. It was a message of hope. And even if it doesn’t come to full fruition in our lifetimes, the kind of world we want to create cannot receive its finishing touches by future generations if we haven’t either laid the ground work for them or kept building today on the foundations of those that have come before us.

“It’s about how we show up in this world in the limited time we have.” — Michelle Alexander

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Heart Group Application

  1. This week I want you to work toward putting that kind of faith into action. As a group, make a list of all the things everyone enjoys doing in their free time.  Go around the room and have the group share the best qualities about each person present. What kind of skills are in the room? What kinds of things are the people in the room typically asked to help out with?
  2. Everyone has something special to contribute. With this list in hand, brainstorm ways your HeartGroup can volunteer in your community to help shape the world into what we believe our world can be. How can your group work as if revolution were possible?
  3. Pick an action and, as a group, do it.

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And thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation as we follow Jesus toward abundant life.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.