A Path Toward Societal Equity

Herb Montgomery | July 3, 2020

red wall


“Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too. How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?”


“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ He replied: ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them . . .” (Luke 21:5-9)

Most scholars today date the gospel of Luke after the events described in Luke 21. In this passage, Luke’s Jesus lays out two potential paths for his society, each with its own outcome.

The disciples are remarking on the physical beauty of the temple. But Jesus, seeing instead a system that exploited the poor, widows, and other marginalized people, saw it as a political and economic symbol of that systemic exploitation. This difference in perspective explains Jesus’ table-flipping protest in the temple courtyard: the temple was the capital of the temple-state.

As we must say repeatedly when reading the latter half of Luke’s gospel, Christians have a long history of interpreting passage like this in antisemitic ways. But the passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It is a critique of a civic and economic system, not a religious one. Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is instead about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the Jerusalem temple-state who resisted his teachings and the distributive, economic justice teachings in the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to any system that is rooted in exploitation and valuing products and profit over people. Today’s climate for those deemed essential workers during our present pandemic is similar. As the Swiss author, Max Frisch wrote, “We asked for workers; we got people instead.” Any society produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides. Jesus responds to the people by warning them not to follow violent messiahs.

After the fact, we can see how the tension between the haves and have-nots of Jesus’ society in the latter half of the 1st Century finally did erupt into a protest, then war, and finally desolation. Stating that these violent false messiahs would come, Jesus offers the people another path, a path of hope mixed with persecution and turmoil.

“Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. (Luke 21:10-19)

The context of this whole section is vital. Just before this week’s passage, Luke reminds us of how positively the people responded after Jesus’s protest in the temple:

“Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words” (Luke 19:47-48, emphasis added).

Jesus was not rejected by the people. He was silenced by the powerful and elite of his society who had everything to lose if the people continued to follow him and if the systemic changes he taught actually took root.

Luke then reminds us:

“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple” (Luke 21:37-38, emphasis added).

The picture we get from Luke is that this was a time in Jesus’s ministry when it looked as if society might be turning the corner and actually becoming more economically, distributively just. This brings to mind recent movements in U.S. politics before the pandemic.

According to Luke, those surrounding Jesus as he speaks are farmers forced by taxes and debt to become day laborers. They are also the destitute and the starving who have been drawn to Jesus given his promise that God’s just future would restructure society in their favor (see Luke 6:20-26). Jerusalem, at this time, was a large poverty center. The streets were lined with beggars, and a significant section of the population of Jerusalem lived chiefly or even entirely on charity. Jesus’s words gave this crowd hope!

Yes, Jesus speaks in these passages of expecting persecution, arrest, and imprisonment. The revolution/movement would grow and receive negative pushback from those in positions of privilege, who benefitted from and controlled the status quo. Yet even that backlash would be used to “bear testimony” or raise awareness and move toward greater societal consciousness.

Then things become incredibly detailed. Remember, Luke was written after these events took place. It would have been almost impossible for someone in Luke’s space and time not to attempt connecting these dots for us.

“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its DESOLATION is near. THEN let those who are in Judea FLEE to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people . . . (Luke 21:20-24, emphasis added.)

Luke’s gospel claims that the poor people’s revolt, the Jewish and Roman war, and the events that followed in its wake all resulted from those in positions of power rejecting a path toward systemic, distributive justice. We now know how that played out historically. Again, the poor people’s revolt grew into an all-out open war with Rome in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. In Luke’s gospel, though, Jesus was saying that once there was war, hope was lost. It would be time to leave. It would be time to get out. No more revolution or societal transformation for Jerusalem would be possible. We know Rome’s retaliation was catastrophically violent. But Luke’s gospel claims that all of it was avoidable.

Recently, I listened to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, address New Zealanders and I was honestly moved to tears. I wish we had a leader in the U.S. like her. She has not politicized the pandemic, divided the people along partisan lines, or refused to bring the citizenship together. New Zealand pulled together, uniting its citizenry: it acted quickly, and in the context of greater social safety nets, universal access to health-care, lower rates of inequality, and economic support for its citizens during a shutdown, has now effectively eliminated COVID-19 from its population.

The US crested over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 that same week, and I sat in silence after listening to Prime Minister Ardern, wondering what might have been here in the U.S. I could not help but see that much of what we are now experiencing here in the U.S. would have been avoidable if we just had competent leadership. Much as in our passage, our massive loss of life here was avoidable, and the coming economic fallout is avoidable too.

Luke’s Jesus called for a transformation to a more just, a more equitable society. Even with all the pushback from our status quo, if societies become more just, they avoid an eventual implosion that accompanies societies repeatedly not choosing more justice over and over again.

Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation, or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too.
How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. What social equity changes would you like to see, both within your own faith community, as well as in our larger society to which we also belong? Discuss with your group?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Peace through Nuclear Threat: A peace that put Jesus and numerous others on a cross

 

Picture of fence gate with sign that reads "no path."

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2018


“Yes, we are to engage in the work of justice alongside those working in matters of labor, race, and the developing world. We are to also engage that work in matters of gender equality, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and indigenous people’s rights.  We have an important choice to make. Either we will choose to allow anxiety and frenzied desperation to lead us down a path of mass destruction we wrongly think will create peace, or we can choose to be fiercely loyal to our fellow human siblings, seeing ourselves in their eyes, seeing ourselves in their struggle toward distributive justice. We can choose the beautiful but difficult task of building a world that will eventually thrive through compassion, safety, justice, and peace.”


 

“To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

I had a smart mouth as a teenager. I was the quintessential little guy with a big mouth and I had a lot of growing up to do. But what kept me out of trouble was that I had a bigger friend whom no one in my school wanted to mess with. Most of the school was afraid of my friend, which ensured no one messed with me. It assured me a certain level of peace and freedom from anxiety as I walked through my school’s halls. I’m not proud of how I abused this social insurance in my public junior high school.

Now consider our global community. At the risk of oversimplification, there are a lot of parallels between junior high and high school and the international climate right now. On February 2, the Trump administration announced its new nuclear weapons strategy. It comes with a price tag of at least $1.2 trillion for upgrading the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal and developing new nuclear weapons too.

Anti-nuclear advocates have stated this strategy is “radical” and “extreme.” As the climate breaks down around the globe, this new strategy (and the new global arms race it will set in motion) has caused the doomsday clock to be moved up 30 seconds to two minutes to midnight. (Read more at The Guardian.)

Whether I’m thinking back to my school’s locker lined hallways or at our global community today, I see two paths toward peace. One I would argue is not actually a path toward peace, but a lull before the next fight/war. The other path is rooted in what some refer to as enough-ism. I’ll explain.

Jesus lived in a culture where the known world’s peace was later called the Pax Romana (the Roman peace). That peace was similar to how peace is presently attempted in our global community. In a world controlled by capitalists whose primary motive is to protect their present and potential future profit, “peace” is achieved in the way I had peace roaming my school’s hallways: either have the biggest stick yourself, or be friends (allies) with the one who has the biggest stick. Be the biggest bully on the top of the hill yourself, or at least have that bully as a friend you keep happy with you. In this model, pragmatism takes a higher priority than people. Humanity as a whole is considered of less value than the fate of an elite few.

That’s the peace of Rome: achieved through fear of violence. To make waves in the Roman world was to court the possibility that you could end up on a Roman cross. Jon Sobrino refers to this in his evaluation of Jesus as a holy troublemaker who also unmasked injustice, making waves in solidarity with those being pushed to the margins and undersides of his own society:

“Jesus, then suffered persecution, knew why he was suffering it and where it might lead him. This persecution . . . reveals him as a human being who not only announces hope to the poor and curses their oppressors, but persists in this, despite persecution . . . The final violent death does not come as an arbitrary fate, but as a possibility always kept in mind.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 201)

True to form, like most people who stand up to the system in a way that significantly threatens those in positions of power and privilege, Jesus ended up on a cross. This is how threats are handled on this pathway to this kind of peace.

The Pax Romana, and the kind of peace America attempts to achieve globally, puts many Jesuses on many crosses along the way. Ultimately, it produces Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If Jesus’ cross does nothing else for us, it should at least unmask the results of this strategy. The human price tag alone should be enough to awaken opposition in the lives of Jesus followers. After all, this is the same policy that brought Jesus and many more with him to death before their time.

In the gospels we encounter a Jesus who had a different vision for peace than Rome did. Jesus’ vision was of peace through distributive justice: no one would have too much while others did not have enough. It was a reparative justice, a restorative justice, and a transformative justice. It was enoughism.

“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.’” (Luke 6:20-21)

Jesus envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3). This phrase does not mean spiritually poor. That interpretation has been used, too often, to circumvent Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with those who are materially poor. It is also not a call to become poor in spirit. In Luke, we are told that Jesus, even as a child, was not poor in spirit, but “strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80).

So what does Jesus mean in Matthew by “poor in spirit”? We get a clue just two verses later in Matthew 5:5 where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world, the meek are not given the earth but are rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world, one where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. This is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.”

Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken that they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to create a world where those whose spirits have been broken and who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of. “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” For these people, the new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort. A new world is possible!

In verse 6, Jesus speaks of this same demographic when he states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word “righteousness” is not personal or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them into postmortem bliss. It’s about righteousness here, now. The Hebrew concept of righteousness includes distributive justice and societal justice: those who hunger for this world to be put right, they will be filled!

That leads me to the differences between the Pax Romana, the kind of global peace America seeks today, and the peace that is the fruit of the world Jesus envisioned. The peace in the gospels is not peace because the biggest bully with the biggest stick is sitting on top of the heap telling everyone to sit down and shut up. The peace we find in the gospels is a peace that is the intrinsic fruit of a world shaped by the values of distributive justice. Everyone has enough.

Two relevant statements from Borg and Crossan in their book, The First Christmas:

“For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence….

“The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 65, 166)

It was this same violent path toward peace that in the end put Jesus on a Roman cross. IAs Sobrino rightly states, it is also the source of “all other violences.”

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

Again, there are two paths toward peace. We can work on bigger, more technologically advanced bombs. Or we can work toward reparations, restoration, and redistribution that considers not only what is just for us, but also what is just for those we share the world with and who are the most vulnerable among us.

“It is crucially important for Christians today to adopt a genuinely Christian position and support it with everything they have got. This means an unremitting fight for justice in every sphere—in labor, in race relations, in the ‘third world’ and above all in international affairs.” (Thomas Merton, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p.133)

There are more spheres than the ones mentioned by Merton, too. Yes, we are to engage in the work of justice alongside those working in matters of labor, race, and the developing world. We are to also engage that work in matters of gender equality, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and indigenous people’s rights.

We have an important choice to make. Either we will choose to allow anxiety and frenzied desperation to lead us down a path of mass destruction we wrongly think will create peace, or we can choose to be fiercely loyal to our fellow human siblings, seeing ourselves in their eyes, seeing ourselves in their struggle toward distributive justice. We can choose the beautiful but difficult task of building a world that will eventually thrive through compassion, safety, justice, and peace.

This is the path of peace that the gospels and the teachings of the Jesus we find there call us to:

“To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I mentioned above, Borg and Crossan remind us that each path toward peace requires something of us.

“Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative option—peace through justice.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 75)

What does peace through justice look like?

What are some of the programs, processes, strategies, tactics, wisdom and patience that this alternative path toward peace involves? Discuss these with your group and see what you can come up with. And then find a way in your community that your HeartGroup can engage the work of distributive justice. Know that as you do so, you are working toward peace. As the saying goes, if you want peace, work for justice.

Another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Yeast

hands kneading dough

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s saying is all about leaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is all part of growing up.

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

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

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

As James Cone reminds us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up some dough yourself, and start kneading.

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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I love each of you dearly.

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Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

Sayings Gospel Q: Sheep Among Wolves

by Herb Montgomery

sheepwolves“Be on your way! Look, I send you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Q 10:3) .

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10.16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Luke 10.3: “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

The image of this week’s saying is one of risk. In the last saying, we prayed for laborers. In the saying for this week, we encounter Jesus sending forth fellow laborers and being honest and frank about the risk involved.

I want to point out the participatory nature of this week’s saying. And lastly we’ll look closely at the imagery of sheep versus wolves and consider what this might have meant given Jesus teachings on changing the status quo with self-affirming nonviolent confrontation. Let’s talk about risk first.

An Ethic of Risk Not Sacrifice

When people interpret Jesus’s message for victims and survivors of injustice as requiring them to embrace an ethic of passive self-sacrifice in the face of injustice, there are harmful results..Karen Baker-Fletcher has gone to significant, convincing lengths to show that Jesus’s message was of self-affirmation, the affirmation of living not dying, and that, although his message was nonviolent, it was nonetheless a message that confronted with nonviolent direct action those who perpetuate injustice.

Jesus’s message of choosing life also involved an “ethic of risk.” This “risk” was not intrinsic to choosing life but was the imposed result of the elite who felt threatened by the subjugated people’s life choice. The way of life is only a way that involves a cross when the status quo threatens the work of social justice with a cross.

In other words, when we follow Jesus, we are not primarily choosing a cross: we are choosing the way of life. But because the powers that be threaten those who choose the way of life with a cross, the way of life also becomes the way of the cross. It need not be thus.

The way of the cross is simply the choice to hold onto life (not suffering), even when threatened with pushback from the dominant party that may result in suffering. It’s choosing life and stubbornly refusing to relinquish that life even when the choice confronts the powers of death and the death (cross) they would silence you with. Jesus taught a message of life, survival and liberation. It was the society around him that determined that his message should also involve a cross. For Jesus and for us, the cross is the result of working for justice and transformation within oppressive systems and social orders.

“Persecution and violence suffered by those who resist evil and injustice is the result of an ethic of risk. The assassination of a Martin King or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the risk involved in actively struggling for social justice. But such people daily resist the very power of systemic injustice that may crucify or assassinate them.” —Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk, p. 79

Rosemary Ruether also elaborates:

“Jesus did not ‘come to suffer and die’. Rather Jesus conceived of his mission as one of ‘good news to the poor, the liberation of the captive’, that is, experiences of liberation and abundance of life shared between those who had been on the underside of dominant systems of religion and state of his time . . . He did not seek to be killed by the powers that be, but rather to convert them into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.” (Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, p. 104)

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire to fully live? The distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, than your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” —Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18

When we talk about the way of the cross, or our being “lambs among wolves,” we must be careful not to understand or communicate these images as an admonishment to be passive “lambs” on the way to sacrificial “slaughter.” The lamb/wolf dichotomy is a reference to methods of seeking social change. Self-affirmation and self-giving are involved, but not self-sacrifice. We are lambs only in the sense that our efforts are nonviolent in the face of wolves that use violent means to establish and maintain their position of control in society. Through nonviolent confronting means, after the example and teachings of Jesus and the early Jewish Jesus-community, we challenge privilege and favor that is enforced by violence.

Hero Liberator or Participatory Mutualism

Another element we encounter in this week’s saying is Jesus being more than an isolated hero liberator and forming a community. He not only went out himself, but also empowered a community to go out as well. This community was influenced by him, and also influenced him in a mutual give and take relationship. One example of this is found in Mark’s story, which Matthew includes in his narrative, of the Syrophoenician woman. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her fantastic work Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, contrasts the difference between viewing Jesus as a individual, isolated, hero-liberator and viewing him rather as a pioneer or center of a participator community where each member is participating in envisioning and creating a new social order:

“Jesus is the hero and liberator… 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.” (p. 65)

What we see in this week’s saying is very different than that unilateral, heroic model. Brock would refer to it as a community participating in the work of liberation with Jesus rather than an individual Jesus doing the work of liberation alone on the community’s behalf.

“I believe the above views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited 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.67)

We should not underestimate that the power of the early Jewish Jesus-community was that it was a community. It was not a group rooted in the unilateral dominance of a lone, hierarchical leader, but rather in the power of community centered on the values, teachings, and ethics taught by Jesus and resonant with community members.

Even the collections of the community’s sayings, which we now recognize as our scriptures, bears witness itself to this. These writings are a manifestation of a mutually participatory group, not just a lone prophet of social change. Jesus never wrote anything down himself. The community that formed around his teachings did, and it’s because of that community that we have accounts of his ministry. We cannot simply gloss over this. We are not waiting for a heroic savior: We are the community he anticipated.

I had the privilege of witnessing two contemporary, practical examples of participatory mutualism this week in the form of two podcasts.

Both of these are community responses to the massacre of LGBTQ people in Orlando on June 12. The first is from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults Live Webcast. You can find it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZetBq0vJEWE

The second is The Adventist Podcast: Pulse Massacre Orlando which you can download and listen to at:

http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/06/20/adventist-podcast-pulse-massacre-orlando

In each of these examples, those affected, the brokenhearted, are speaking to the dominant society. Rather than waiting for unilateral heroism, the community members are working themselves for survival, liberation, and thriving.

The examples are exactly what what I envision happening among those in whom Jesus’s sayings first began to resonate in the 1st Century.

Sheep Among Wolves

As we covered in Renouncing One’s Rights, Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were not that victims should embrace passive self-sacrifice or self-denial in a world where oppressors already denied the selves of the oppressed. Jesus gave his listeners a vision of nonviolence that confronted and discomforted those in positions of dominance and gave those being subjugated a way to affirm themselves in a social order where they were being dehumanized.

Yet to choose to only use nonviolently confronting means of challenging injustice when those you are standing up to have not made those same choices is risky. It’s a choice to be a lamb among wolves. Yet it cannot be forgotten: the goal of Jesus’ new social vision is not to replace an old hegemony with a new one. His goal was not peace through victory, the victory of slaughtering our enemies, but peace through restored justice. He was not teaching a new social pyramid to replace the old, but a shared table where victims were not passively complicit in their oppression and their oppressors were not continuing oppression in more subtle ways. Victims were confronting injustice, not in order to become oppressors themselves, but, in the words of Ruether, to “convert” oppressors “into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.”

Too often the sheep among wolves imagery of nonviolence is used to keep victims passive in the face of injustice. Making sure those being oppressed remain passive co-opts the nonviolence that Jesus and others have taught. Martin Luther Kings’ nonviolence was trouble making. Gandhi’s nonviolence became feared and avoided. Those who use violence themselves will always desire their opposition to “remain nonviolent” if one defines that nonviolence as simply rolling over. Yet true nonviolence is a force more powerful. It is not passive. It confronts, awakens, at times even shames those it is seeking, but not to defeat them, to win and convert to a new paradigm of seeing and a new set of behaviors. To use Jesus, MLK, or Gandhi to induce the subjugated to remain passive and calm is a gross way to use their teachings.

We are sheep in the midst of wolves because our methods of action and the goals we hope to achieve by those actions are radically different from the wolves we seek to transform or change. The Jewish community that cherished Jesus’s imagery was a community that held the Jewish vision of a new social order described by the words:

Isaiah 11:1-9: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit . . . Justice will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 65.25: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 58.6, TEV: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”

In this week’s saying, those who believe Jesus’s teachings have intrinsic value and inform the work of nonviolently confronting, liberating, and transforming our world into a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all, are reminded that this vision involves embracing an ethic of risk. As I have said before, Jesus was not giving us a hard way to get to heaven, but a risky way to heal the earth. We are also reminded that our hope is not in following heroic, unilateral liberators but in discovering and applying the power of mutual, participatory, nonviolent communities.  And lastly, we are reminded that we are up against “wolves.” But we also hold the hope that wolves can be converted, and destruction and harm can be become, by our continued choice, a thing of the past.

A new world is coming, if we choose it. And today, while we make those choices, we find ourselves often in this story . . .

“. . . like sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Q 10:3)

 

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss three sets of contrasts with your HeartGroup as you work together toward clarity.

  1. What are the significant differences you feel need to be communicated clearly between nonviolence direct action and merely being passive?
  2. What are the differences between a hero model of liberation and a community model rooted in mutual participation?
  3. What difference does it make for you to define the way of the cross we choose as Jesus followers as a refusal to let go of life rather than a way of merely sacrificing yourself with no change to the status quo around you?

Thank you for joining us this week. Keep living in love, working toward Justice, 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.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.