Calling Good Evil (Part 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 29, 2019

Picture of neon rainbow
Photo Credit:
Jason Leung on Unsplash

“The image of God is the male-female spectrum. When we speak of a person’s sex, we’re describing their bodies in terms of characteristics we define as male, female, neither, or both. Wherever nature places a person on this spectrum, they are still just as much a bearer of God’s image. With gender identity, a person may identify as male, female, neither, or both. They are still fully human. Whether your orientation is to be attracted to men, women, neither, or both, you are still fully human and still bearing the image of God.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

I initially thought this series would only have two parts, so whether you’re still tracking with me, or joined me in the middle, I’m so glad you’re here. This week we’ll wrap up this series by considering the last two passages that some Christians use to harm the LGBTQ community and their allies. 

The first one is in the New Testament book of Jude.

Jude

“Remember Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring towns; like the angels, they committed fornication and indulged in unnatural lusts; and in eternal fire they paid the penalty, a warning for all. In the same way these deluded dreamers continue to defile their bodies, flout authority, and insult celestial beings.” (Jude 7, 8, REB)

Just recently, a non-affirming Christian brought up this passage in a conversation we were having. You see, in the New King James Version part of this passage reads, “having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh.” The person I was speaking with wanted to convince me that “strange flesh” referred to sexual activity with someone of the same sex. But nothing could be further from the context and language of this passage. 

In this series we have established that the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis does not address generic same-sex activity (see Calling Good Evil, Part 2). More than that, this passage is not only referring to the Sodom story in Genesis 19, but also to the less-told story in Genesis 6 where angels initiate sexual activity with humans. 

“Strange flesh” isn’t about sex between same-sex humans. It’s not about sex between same-ness at all, but about sex across utter difference: sex between humans and cosmic beings. Matthew Vines explains:

“The other verse, Jude 7, is more frequently cited by non-affirming Christians as a potential reference to same-sex behavior. There, we read that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh’ (NASB). The phrase ‘strange flesh’ is variously translated as ‘perversion,’ ‘unnatural desire,’ and ‘other flesh,’ which some argue is a reference to same-sex relations. But the Greek phrase used in Jude 7 is sarkos heteras—literally, other or ‘different flesh.’ Hetero, of course, is the prefix for words like heterosexuality, not homosexuality. Far from arguing that the men of Sodom pursued flesh too similar to their own, Jude indicts them for pursuing flesh that was too different. In fact, the phrase ‘strange flesh’ likely refers to the attempted rape of angels instead of humans. Jude 6 supports that connection by comparing Sodom’s transgressions with the unusual sins described in Genesis 6. In that chapter, ‘sons of God’ (interpreted by many to be angels) mated with human women, arousing God’s ire before the flood.” (God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, p. 69)

The context of this passage in Jude confirms this reading: the very next verse addresses an “insult” to “celestial beings.” 

Genesis 1

Our final passage is from the Hebrew origins story in Genesis 1.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

This passage, too often interpreted through a gender binary lens, is used against those with a same-sex orientation as well as against those who are transgender, non-binary, or gender nonconforming.

Last year, Asher O’Callaghan beautifully shared a more inclusive reading of this passage.

“In the beginning, God created day and night. But have you ever seen a sunset!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Gorgeous. Full of a hundred shades of color you can’t see in plain daylight or during the night.

In the beginning God created land and sea. But have you ever seen a beach?!?! Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Beautiful. A balanced oasis that’s not quite like the ocean, nor quite like the land.

In the beginning God created birds of the air and fish of the sea. But have you ever seen a flying fish, or a duck or a puffin that swims and flies, spending lots of time in the water and on the land!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Full of life. A creative combination of characteristics that blows people’s minds.

In the beginning God also created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. So in the same way that God created realities in between, outside of, and beyond night and day, land and sea, or fish and birds, so God also created people with genders beyond male and female. Trans and non-binary and agender and intersex, God created us. All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God’s image we live.

God is still creating you. You are no less beautiful and wild than a sunset or a beach or a puffin. You are loved. You have a place here.” 

(Asher O’Callaghan, Facebook, October 18, 2018)

I believe the creation story also can be understood in a way that not only affirms transgender or non-binary or intersex people, but also affirms people with same-sex orientations. 

This story is about beginnings. This story speaks of a God who began the human race by creating male and female, together, in the image of that God. Think of these categories as a spectrum with what we define as “male” on one end and what we define as “female” on the other. Could the image of God be the entire spectrum of humanity regardless of where any one individual identifies on a scale between male and female? 

The image of God is the male-female spectrum. When we speak of a person’s sex, we’re describing their bodies in terms of characteristics we define as male, female, neither, or both. Wherever nature places a person on this spectrum, they are still just as much a bearer of God’s image. With gender identity, a person may identify as male, female, neither, or both. They are still fully human. Whether your orientation is to be attracted to men, women, neither, or both, you are still fully human and still bearing the image of God. 

There are so many possible combinations. You could, for example, understand your body as male, yet identity your gender closer to the female end of the spectrum, have an androgynous gender expression, and be attracted to men. Whichever combination, whether in sex, gender identify, gender expression or sexual attraction/orientation, you are still part of the human family and a bearer of the image of God. You are as much a reflection of that original Hebrew story as anyone else. You are not other.

This means that God is much more diverse than we may have assumed. 

And humanity, bearing God’s image, is much more diverse than we may have assumed, as well. 

This beautify and diverse way of seeing humanity and the Divine image is reflected in a Jewish prayer first introduced to me by my dear friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie, “Blessed are you oh Lord King of the Universe for you vary the forms of your creatures.” And in the Jewish proverb another dear friend of mine, Danneen Akers, introduced me to, “Before every person there walks an angel announcing behold the image of God.” 

Conclusion

I want to end this series with a passage from Brownson’s work on the “one flesh” language of Adam and Eve in the Genesis story.

“As I have already observed, the language of ‘one flesh’ is the language of kinship. When the man meets the woman in Genesis 2:23, he declares, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In Genesis 29:14, Laban recognizes his kinship bond to Jacob, and says, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” In 2 Samuel 5:1, as the tribes of Israel move to make David their king, they declare to him, “Look, we are your bone and flesh” (similar examples can be found in Judg. 9:2; 2 Sam. 19:12f.; and 1 Chron. 11:1). In all these cases, gender distinctions play no role; the focus is entirely on kinship, shared culture, experience, and identity — the same focus that I argued is present in Genesis 2. Furthermore, the use of the word “cling,” used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the relationship of the man and the woman, does not carry sexual connotations in any other usage, but reflects the desire for association and connection that is characteristic of kinship.” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 107).

There is so much more I wish I had space to share from Brownson’s work on the Genesis narratives. If you’re interested in a more holistic understanding of the Hebrew Genesis stories, his work is well worth your time.

This Hebrew origin story points to human kinship, the foundational solidarity of the human family of which we all are a part. In a more specific way, it also points to any of the numberless committed, consensual, loving relationships between human beings, whether they be same-sex or otherwise. 

The story is about kinship. It’s about love. And any place we find genuine love, we find the image of God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8)

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)


HeartGroup Application

As we continue to work toward creating safe places in society for people who daily face marginalization, this work is desperately needed within our faith communities as well. This week I am encouraging both our readers as well as our HeartGroups to volunteer some time with Church Clarity. From Church Clarity’s website: “Church Clarity was borne out of a genuine desire to address very simple, yet profoundly impactful shortcomings of the church.” What is this harmful shortcoming? Ambiguity. “Church Clarity is a crowd-sourced database of Christian congregations scored by our team of volunteers based on how easy it is to find a church’s Actively Enforced Policy online. We currently evaluate church websites for policies that impact LGBTQ+ people and Women in Leadership.” You can find out more about Church Clarity here

This week:

  1. Volunteer as a scorer for Church Clarity. It’s not difficult and they’ll walk you through it.
  2. Recommend new communities that you are familiar with for volunteers to score.
  3. Then share with your HeartGroup what you’ve learned from your experience and how you feel you made a difference.

Thanks you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.  If you have been with us through this entire five part series, I want to say a special thank you to you. I’m so glad you are on this journey with us. 

Where you are today, choose to live in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | March 15, 2019

Picture of ripples from a droplet in a rainbow colored pond.
Photo Credit: Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

“Using the term ‘homosexual’ in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read ‘pederasty.’ One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

This week we’re continuing our look at passages that Christians have typically interpreted and used in ways that harm LGBTQ people and others. There are a myriad of ways to interpret the passages we are considering in this series, so I want to remind us to continue asking ourselves, what is the fruit of how I interpret these passages? Are my interpretations doing harm or are my interpretations life giving? As Jesus said, “No good tree [or interpretation] bears bad fruit.”

A few years back, I listened to a presentation by Justin Lee where he mentioned Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Lee brought up Noll’s book because of the striking similarities between the theological crisis slavery and the abolition movement brought to Christianity in America and today’s schisms caused by churches’ refusal to recognize, include, embrace, and celebrate Christians who identify as LGBTQ. The United Methodist Church’s recent decisions are just one example. Immediately after listening to Lee, I purchased Noll’s book and was shocked at how similar the arguments for and against abolition were to today’s arguments for and against inclusion of LGBTQ Christians as members and as clergy in the Christian church. 

Noll writes: 

“Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.” (Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 49)

As we turn to the New Testament passages under our consideration, we too must pay attention to nuance. We must do more than engage in surface readings of passages that too easily can be interpreted through our own unseen biases. We need not throw out our sacred text. We must simply learn to look more deeply at passages in their context and in our context today to arrive at life-giving interpretations. 

This is keenly true of our first two passages.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The term “homosexuality,” though invented in the late 1800s, did not appear in any Bible before 1946. This is significant. As I argued last week, the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Christians typically associate with loving same-sex relationships were not addressing same-sex attraction as we understand it today. Christians for most of history read these two New Testament passages very differently than those translated recently.

I want you to see the progression in translations. 

King James Version (1611):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 

1 Timothy 1:10: For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

Revised English Bible (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Surely you know that wrongdoers will never possess the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or sexual pervert. 

1 Timothy 1:10: And fornicators, perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers—in fact all whose behaviour flouts the sound teaching

The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate. We’ve seen that the passages in the Hebrew scriptures usually associated with our topic are actually referring to sexual violence that men used to terrorize or dehumanize other men in times of war. Brownson also reveals that these two passages were not speaking of what we call homosexuality today, but were describing the abusive Roman practice of pederasty (sex between an older man and a young boy): sex with a minor, which would today be condemned as rape by the LGBTQ community.

“[Arsenokoitai] is particularly problematic because there is no attested usage of this word preceding the New Testament documents — that is, in extrabiblical literature — that might provide additional information about its range of meaning. But the most important thing to recognize is that there are two words, not just one. Most scholars recognize that the presence of these two words reflects widespread assumptions throughout the ancient world about male-male homosexual activity: almost all the documents discussing male same-sex eroticism assume a distinction between active older men (commonly referred to in Greek as erastai) and passive younger males (commonly referred to as erōmenoi) — in other words, the practice of pederasty. The malakoi (“ softies”) are the younger, passive erōmenoi, and the arsenokoitai (“ man-bedders”) are the older, active erastai. (James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 274, emphasis added.)

Brownson concludes on the next page:

“But when we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Ibid., p. 275.)

After 1946, though, there is an obvious homophobic bias in New Testament translations that is not warranted by the original languages. Where the original languages address sexual and power violations between an adult and a child, i.e. injustice, we begin to see after 1946 generic homophobia instead.

Here are a few examples from more contemporary translations:

New International Version (2011):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

Notice how in the NIV the wording is “men who have sex with men.” The pederasty reference in the original language is completely and, with bias, ignored.

New American Standard  (1960):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 

1 Timothy 1:10: and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 

Today’s New International Version (2005):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

New Revised Standard Version (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 

1 Timothy 1:10: fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.

We’ve considered what was really happening in the ancient Sodom story. The term “sodomites” used in the New Revised Standard Version is a misnomer and betrays a heterosexist bias and the cultural normativity of our day. 

That’s the biggest point this week. Those who seek to interpret these Bible texts in more life-giving ways within the LGBTQ community are often accused of allowing the present culture to bias them. But what we see in the progression of translations over the last half-century is that translating 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 terms as homosexuality rather than pederasty allows contemporary cultural homophobia to bias the translations while completely ignoring the cultural context which these passages were originally intended for and written in. 

Using the term “homosexual” in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read “pederasty.” One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us. 

In the Jesus story, some religious leaders (scribes, Sadducees, some Pharisees) taught interpretations of the Torah and practiced a kind of holiness that marginalized the most vulnerable. Jesus, like the prophets before him, instead valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of holiness that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. Even if, as a Christian, you deem same-sex attraction as condemned by your sacred text, you still have one grave reality staring back at you in the face: As a Jesus follower, why are the results, the fruits, of your interpretation so different from Jesus and so identical to those in the story who crucified Jesus? We must let this contradiction confront us.

Regardless of our claim, the fact that LGBTQ Christian youth have such a higher suicide rate in our Christian faith tradition, a rate that is increased by their being “Christian” and having been rejected by their religious families, a rate that is eight times higher rate than non-Christian youth who are accepted, all of this screams to us that in all our piety and holiness, we have imbibed more the spirit of those who stood in opposition to the Jesus of the story than we have the spirit of Jesus himself.

Being LGBTQ has not taken the life of one Christian gay young person, but our interpretations and the way we are relating to them has.

If sin is wrong because it produces death and does harm, and how we are to responding to our LGBTQ population is producing death, you have to ask where is the sin? First get the log out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly to get the dust out of someone else’s.

For the sake of every Christian LGBTQ young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every last phone call made and every effort engaged to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. 

If you are following Jesus, it’s time for change. Please don’t say you’re simply standing up for what is right. Those who rejected and crucified Jesus felt they were too. Jesus stood up to defend those who were being damaged by those who were standing up for what they interperated as right. It’s time that we and our Jesus looked more like the one in the story.

Next week, we’ll consider Romans 1.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

HeartGroup Application

First let me say, it’s good to be back.  While I have been traveling over the past few weeks, a lot has been happening in the Christian LGBTQ community in relation to the recent decisions made by the United Methodist Church.

It was a deeply disappointing to watch for many of us who were hoping for and even expecting a very different outcome. I’m encouraged personally to see how many within the Methodist tradition are standing their holy ground.  Churches who have been welcoming and affirming across the nation are choosing to be excluded on the basis of whom they include rather than included because of whom they exclude.

I would like your HeartGroup this week to sit down and discuss three ways your little group can become more welcoming and affirming, too. It’s never a bad time to become more inclusive of those others are marginalizing. As we have often discussed, Jesus modeled and practiced a preferential option for those others excluded. How can your group do the same. 

After you’ve listed three, make a timeline, and begin putting all three into practice.

Together we have the ability to be a source of change in our society. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.   

Calling Good Evil (Part 2)

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2019

“My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.”

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

As I shared last week, I’ve refrained from debating the passages we’ll be considering this week. I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t want to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet, as I said, I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about this does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent: not silent in my affirmation, but silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So I’ve promised to amplify two voices on this topic: the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a writer and speaker in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to, and James Brownson, a Bible scholar and parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. 

With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality,is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey of learning about affirming theology.

What follows is a brief explanation of how I interpret each passage typically used to address LGBTQ people. These are not exhaustive defenses of each passage, but brief summaries—an introduction to get you started. For a more detailed discussion of each passage, I recommend the two resources above. 

Let’s begin.

Genesis 19

This passage is an ancient story of a city’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality to strangers. This refusal came out of the townspeople’s desire to protect their affluence from the threat of having to share with others. The city, Sodom, was located in a coveted, agriculturally fertile region. Much like the U.S., which has recently separated migrant children from their parents on its southwest borders, Sodom developed an effective strategy of terrorizing potential migrants to keep foreigners away.

In the story, Lot was different. He saw two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly on their way at the first light of dawn. What happened that night was terrifying and an intentional message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.’ ‘No,’ they answered, ‘we will spend the night in the square.’ But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” (Genesis 19:1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those with same sex attraction/orientation or in same sex loving relationships. I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. 

In this story and culture, rape was a way to inflict the worst possible humiliation on another, and was rooted in ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. (See Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East) The laser beam of convicting truth in these ancient tales should not be focused on members of the LGBTQ community but rather on people who use sexual violence (or any form of terror) against others and on the kinds of xenophobic actions the United States is committing at its borders and against immigrants across the country. 

Hospitality toward strangers was and still is a deeply held Jewish value (see Deuteronomy 26:12; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Jewish followers of Jesus carry on this tradition of hospitality toward strangers in the New Testament scriptures as well. This passage from the book of Hebrews almost echoes the story of Sodom:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The story of Sodom is not about the LGBTQ community or LGBTQ people’s loving relationships. Instead it has everything to do with people who were extravagantly affluent and did not wish to share. 

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16.49-50)

The story of Sodom has nothing to do with sexual orientation.or loving same-sex relationships. It’s rather about the evil of responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, especially when their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. And it is a warning against xenophobia and the terror tactics xenophobes employ. (For additional background, read Judges 19:11-30; see also Rape as a “weapon of war” against men, Male rape survivors fight stigma in Uganda, and Male Rape and Human Rights). 

Leviticus 18

Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” 

Christian affirming theologies interpret this passage in many different ways. The way that speaks most deeply to me and my sense of justice is related to our previous story in Sodom, which does not address same-sex sex between women but only what men to do other men. 

Again, this passage is not informed by what we understand today as sexual orientation. It’s informed by the sexual violence that men inflict on other men to diminish them (see again Judges 19:11-30, Genesis 19:1-5, and the above sources referenced). As I just explained, a man raping another man intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation on him. In that culture, women were wrongly considered less than men and so one way to dehumanize a man was to lower him to the same status as a woman. 

So in this culture the law prohibited diminishing men by treating them as if they were women. Both men and women were raped in times of war and conquest, and still are today. But it is shocking to see how lightly many portions of our sacred text considered the rape of women. We seem to see much more concern with protecting men from being raped by other men than with protecting women from rape or raping women being “detestable.”

Again, this was an androcentric culture of deeply rooted patriarchy. Today, we still see misogyny and toxic masculinity at the heart of many men’s reaction to same sex relationships between men. Many men today seem to more easily tolerate same sex relationships between women than those between men. Some even treat same-sex sex between women as a sexual fetish. 

I remember sitting in a restaurant speaking with a friend of mine whose son had just come out to him as gay. My friend was beside himself. He stated how deeply repulsed he was by same-sex intimacy between men. He said he didn’t even want to be in the same room with “them,” and now his own son was “one of them” too! 

I looked at him and risked an accusation. I was banking on our relationship allowing me to get away with it. I looked him in the eye and said, “You just don’t like the idea of men looking at you the way you typically look at women.” 

The light came on in his eyes and the coin dropped in the slot. His misogyny and objectification of women was deeply tied to his inability to accept same sex relationships among men, including his own son’s.

I’m happy to say that conversation was a turning point for my friend. Today, he fully embraces and celebrates his son, and his relationships with women have become a million times more healthy. He is an outspoken ally of LGBTQ folks. He’s come a long way. 

What a contemporary reading of Leviticus should warn men about today is the intrinsic harm of believing women are somehow less than men. I’m convinced that if someone truly believed women were equal with men, then seeing men who don’t align with our culture’s toxic definitions of what it means to be a “man” would not threaten those of us who identify as male. And yet, even in saying all of this, it says a lot when “masculinity” is still defined as “not femininity.” When that’s the case, the rape of men is a problem because it treats men like women. The deeper violation is that sexual violence is a problem on its own terms and one that harms people of all genders. To fail to see this is still as androcentric as the culture out of which Leviticus was written.

We’ll look at four New Testament passages next week. Then we’ll close with a look at Genesis 1. 

For now, remember:

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

HeartGroup Application

I grew up in a faith tradition that looked at the Bible as having only one right interpretation and many wrong interpretations. I was wrongly taught that one could objectively find this one right interpretations if one practiced the proper hermeneutics. 

I no longer subscribe to this way of looking at sacred texts. Our biases are inescapable. We all have blind spots. Even in our attempts to be objective, we rarely recognize our own biases and blind spots. Fish don’t know they are wet. When we look at the text as having only one right interpretation, the result is that we seek to find that right interpretation, regardless of whether that fruit is harmful for life giving.  We want to be right rather than being righteous.  The goal, I believe, should rather be to allow the text to speak to us in our contexts today with the most life giving, life affirming, life celebrating interpretations our present level of knowledge will enable.

Sacred texts of all religions, including the Bible, can have a myriad of interpretations and applications. The goal is to embrace life giving interpretations and move away from interpretations that do harm to oneself and others. Asking whether an interpretation is right or not, I believe is the wrong question.  We must ask if our interpretations are righteous. What fruit do they produce? Is the fruit harmful or life embracing, life giving?  Does it liberate or oppress? Do our interpretations fuel injustice or do they empower us to move away from injustice toward the work of shaping of a just, compassionate, and safe society for everyone?

The choice, including in our interpretations, is an ancient one—life or death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-2) How can you know if you’re on the right track? Consider if your interpretations are bringing life or doing harm. “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) If your interpretation of a passage is doing harm, don’t hold on to out of a prioritized value of being right or because it is an interpretations that most resonates with your own biases, perceived or otherwise. Prioritize people first. People matter. Loosen your grip on harmful interpretations regardless of how long you’ve held on to them, and be open to embracing other interpretations that are righteous, that prioritize people’s well being, that are just, and that give life.

This week:

1. Come up with a list of three (if you can) interpretations of Bible passages that you believe are harmful. 

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup the harm you have witnessed from these interpretations.

3. Discuss with your group alternative interpretations and/or begin seeking out new interpretations with the goal of interpreting your sacred texts in more life giving ways.

Thanks for journeying with us so far. I’m deeply grateful that you’re here.  We’ll keep exploring next week. This week, wherever you are right now, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Calling Good Evil (Part 1)

Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2019

“And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic.”

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

In the last month, I’ve spent the last two weekends in the company of LGBTQ Christian communities. Every time I spend time with communities like these, I am deeply moved by their compassion, insight, and wisdom. The people I’ve met have always failed to match the mischaracterizations that homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic Christian communities assign to them. I walk away from each experience with a deeper understanding of my own faith and what it means for me to follow Jesus today our work of love, compassion, action, and justice.

During these visits I bumped into a high school friend who I haven’t seen since graduation. He told me of his sister, a deeply Christian lesbian woman, who recently married the love of her life, a pastor. On the morning of her wedding, her mother sent her a very ugly email. This mother, who had refused to attend the wedding, wrote this message to her daughter: “What you’re doing today makes me want to go jump off a bridge.”

When I heard this story I sat aghast. What is it about anti-LGBTQ Christianity that causes parents to so deeply reject and shame their own children? I have yet to understand this. 

For many Christian parents, discovering their child is attracted to those of the same sex or identifies with a different gender than the one on their birth certificate begins their journey of discovering that everything their faith tradition has taught them of the LGBTQ community has been deeply misinformed at best and intentionally maligning at worst. They discover they were wrong. 

But far more parents in these same faith traditions don’t make this journey. Far more often, parents reject their own children in order to be faithful to their anti-LGBTQ faith. Religion can be a powerful force of good in the world. It can also be a powerful force of the worst kinds of evil.

This week I want us to consider a story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew where Jesus was also mischaracterized and maligned. Jesus has strong words here for those who malign that which is holy, just, and good and call it evil.

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matthew 12:24-37; see also Mark 3:23-29)

In this story, Jesus teaches the principle of knowing a tree by its fruit. His community had ways to interpret their sacred texts that could gave them ample basis to reject him. But there were also other ways to interpret those same sacred texts that would have freed them to embrace him and his life-giving teachings. 

How do we know if our interpretations of our sacred text, in any religion, are moving in the right direction? Jesus tells us in this story: What is the fruit of your interpretation? If the tree is good, its fruit will be good. If the tree is bad, its fruit will be as well. 

While I was in Arizona last month, a sincere questioner asked me how I interpret the Bible’s passages that contemporary homophobic and biphobic Christians use to scare people away from affirming LGBTQ people. For a long time, I’ve refrained from debating these passages. A dear friend of mine calls such debates “text hockey.” I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t what to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic. First is the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a voice in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to. The second is James Brownson, a parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

I want to share their work with you so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you to how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey learning about affirming theology.

As Vines reminds us, “Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered” (p. 24). He also writes, “The telescope didn’t lead Christians to reject Scripture. It simply led them to clarify their understanding of Scripture” (ibid. p. 38). 

Certainly there are multiple ways texts can be interpreted. We must reach for the most life-giving choices when possible. What are the fruit of the interpretations we choose? We must be honest about the fruit that is born from homophobic and biphobic theologies. We must also be honest about the life-giving fruit of our Christian LGBTQ siblings’ affirming theology. The life-giving fruit of their affirming theology is something we cannot afford to ignore.

Jesus said that it’s one thing to mistake an evil thing good, and quite another to label something that’s holy, just, and good evil. Jesus called the latter unpardonable. 

So next week, we’ll begin in the book of Genesis and progress through the texts Christians typically use to harm our LGBTQ friends, relatives, and neighbors. Each text will be well worth our time to explore. I’m so glad you’re here with us on this journey.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application

In your HeartGroups this week, discuss the meaning of these two words—intrinsic and imposed

  1. Have you ever experienced imposed rules within a community (religious or secular) prohibiting actions that you knew had no negative intrinsic result? 
  2. Have you ever experienced a lack of concern, acceptance or even encouragement of attitudes and actions that you knew to intrinsically bring harm or bear destructive fruit?
  3. Discuss both of these experiences within your group this week. What are the differences between actions to which are added imposed results such as imposed penalties or affirmation, and actions that have their own intrinsically harmful or beneficial results? Is there a place for imposed rules and consequences when properly associated with actual intrinsically destructive choices? Can imposed rules be abused? Can they be misapplied in ways that label things as bad or harmful that can are actually good or at least neutral?  What can your group learn from this discussion? How can your group become a healthier community that bears life-giving fruit, itself? How can your HeartGroup community impact your larger community in life-giving ways as well?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Humanizing the Monsters 

by Herb Montgomery

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

Tomorrow is Halloween so let’s talk about that first. Halloween has roots in the Western Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day or All Hallows. In the Eastern Orthodox community, Christians celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost during the spring, not the fall. But the West has observed it on November 1 since the 8th Century CE, which makes October 31 its eve and thus All Saints’ Day Eve, All Hallows Eve, or “Halloween” as pronounced by the Scots. Over time, Halloween became influenced by Gaelic and Welsh harvest festival traditions and folklore. It is important to keep Celtic Fall Festivals and the Christian roots of Halloween separate in our thinking. They are related; they are not the same.

In these festivals, humanity’s fascination with and fear of death is invoked. Whether we are memorializing the lives of “saints” who have died (in the spring or the fall), or Celtic fall festivals marking the transition from summer to winter, we’re tracing the transitions from light to darkness, plenty to paucity, life to death.

Humanity and Death

Death is at the heart of all our discussions about morality and ethics. That which leads to life is seen as good and right, and that which leads to death is seen as evil or wrong. Our entire moral compass as a race is dictated by how certain behaviors relate to life and death, the continuance of humanity or its end.

Historically, religion has held out hope for some type of existence beyond death (e.g. Egyptian religion, Christianity, Islam) or a more mystical resignation with death (e.g. Buddhism and Ancient Judaism).

The Jesus Story and the Resurrection

The resurrection is the most potent force in the early Jesus movement. The original followers believed they had witnessed Jesus, whom the status quo had executed, alive again, and it was his resurrection event that liberated them from the fear of death. Because of that event, they could stand up to domination systems and threats of execution if they stepped out of line, because death had become a conquered enemy.

Notice how the letter to the Hebrews, in true apocalyptic fashion, states this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15, emphasis added.)

These early Jesus followers could stand against the violence, injustice and oppression of earthly principalities and powers whom they viewed as conduits of cosmic evil Powers, because they no longer feared death and no longer feared what these earthly powers could do to them.

Through Jesus, death had been overthrown and so if his followers were executed by the domination systems as their Jesus had been, they believed they would also follow him in being resurrected at the time of universal restoration (see Acts 3.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, 1 Corinthians 15.22-23)

As a side note, I find it fascinating when humanists and secularists who do not believe in life after death but are resigned about death are still willing to lay down their lives unselfishly for those who may come after them. The gift of their life is genuinely selfless but is given purely for betterment of others. (Some researchers think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been such a humanist in his later years.)

Humanizing Monsters

Regardless of how we arrive at that point, from my own experience, being liberated from one’s fear of dying is a breathtakingly beautiful thing, especially when it has the potential to change how we relate to each other.

Morality rooted in our fear of dying influences the way in which we view one another: those who threaten our lives are viewed, too often, as evil. And those who significantly threaten our lives in ways that terrify us the most—those people we deem monsters.

The first step in ridding someone from society is to villainize them. If we can cease to see someone or a group as human and begin to see them as monsters, then we are well on our way to imagining an existence without them. These people must be seen to threaten the “good” —the life—of a society. And if they are, then fear drives out compassion, just as perfect love drives out all fear.

Tomorrow, millions of children will don masks and costumes, and go from door to door asking for cheap chocolate and industrially produced sweets. But underneath each mask is a child. I wonder if there is a deeper lesson in this.

Could the masks we see over the faces of those we fear simply hide children of a divine being, children just like you and I? Whether it’s fear of someone of a different culture or race than you, fear of someone from a different economic status than you, fear of a person with a different gender than you, or fear of someone whose orientation and sexuality is different than yours, our challenge is to pull back the mask that we have fixed upon them in our own hearts, and see that person as the genuine human being that they are. They are a child, just like you, of God, a sibling of yours within the divine/human family. It takes effort to humanize our monsters. Yet it’s only by doing so that we can fully to embody the value of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our choices are fear or compassion, death or life.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take inventory of the people on this planet that you are afraid of. They can be specific people or simply types of people. I want you actually write down a list. I want you to name your fear this week.

2. Secondly I want you to do some research on your similarities with those you fear. This may be difficult for some, but it will be well worth it. Write down ten ways that those you are afraid of are like you: where do you not differ from them?

3. Journal the insights you gain from this exercise and share your results with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

We are all children of divinity. We are all siblings of the same divine/human family. Our hope lies in learning how to sit beside one another at the same family table once again. There are no monsters! There are only people, who feel, who love, who hurt, who, like us, are scared. Everyone has a story, and it’s time we give those we are afraid of an opportunity to share theirs.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

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

Jesus’ Words to the Disinherited: Salt, Light, Justice, and Anger 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Eyes close-up little boy

“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.14)

Last week we talked about the difference it makes when we place the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus belonging to and speaking among the community of the oppressed.

I’ve taken this week’s title from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have not read Thurman’s work, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a short read, and packed with insight.

There are four passages from the Sermon on the Mount that I’d like you to consider this week. Notice how each changes when we name their audience as the disinherited.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5.13)

New studies show how first century farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his audience to more fully engage this world, “the earth,” not to escape it. The metaphor is about re-enriching the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth. Jesus directs the oppressed to place their focus on “this world,” not the next. He directs his audience away from escape and he empowers them to make a difference in the world they live in.

Imagine it this way. Compassion and safety for everyone are just two of the plants that grow out of the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is here telling the marginalized and oppressed that they are the salt of the earth. Their inclusion can give back to the soil of a society the nutrients of a wider consciousness and perspective that enables compassion and safety for all to grow again. Including marginalized voices enables one to integrate the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: inclusion uproots weeds of fear and insecurity, and provides rich soil for a society to produce compassion in the place of those weeds.

Our societies today are depleted of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems also force to live on the fringes. Jesus actually believes they are the “salt,” or the fertilizer, and their voices will give back to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to the societies of our world. Remember, Jesus is looking at the disinherited when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As we have said so often, Jesus’ shared table must not be homogenous. It is at a heterogenous table that we share our unique and different life experiences, form a more beautiful and coherent world view, and make this world a safer more compassionate place for us all. Through this teaching, Jesus is saying that it is the subordinated, the oppressed, and marginalized who restore the nutrients of society’s depleted soil. It is the disinherited who are the “salt of the earth.”

The Light of the World

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine. (Matthew 5:14-15)

When we understand Jesus’ audience to be the disinherited Jews, those who are pressed down, and those who are silenced even among the ones forced to live on Jewish society’s fringes, it becomes empowering to hear Jesus affirm that they are the light of the world. Jesus is investing those around him with value and telling them not to hide their light. They are to “let their light shine!”

Some of you who are reading this have been told that your voice is not welcome. You have been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this darkened society needs.” Remember, darkness is only the absence of light. When we exclude and marginalize voices, their very absence creates darkness in society. And as Dr. King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Jesus is telling you that the inclusion of your voice brings “the light.” Your story is worthy of being shared at Jesus’ table. It is to you that he says, “Let your light shine!”

There is also another truth to what Jesus is saying here. Too often, Christians have taken for granted that they are the light of the world when they have been the ones in society calling for the exclusion of those unlike themselves. Whether it be with Jews and Muslims during the crusades, the silencing of women’s voices by patriarchal Christians, Black voices by White Christians, the voices of the poor by rich Christians, or the voices and stories of those who belong to the LGBTQ community by christians in general.) Yes, there are exceptions, but as a rule, Christians have made some of the loudest calls for certain voices, certain stories, to be pushed to the margins. Certain people are not ordained worthy of being heard.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of that voice creates darkness. It is the excluded and marginalized in every situation who are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back to dispel the darkness that their absence created. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light,” and instead become the creators of darkness itself. “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.23) It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

Surpassing Retributive Justice

Unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20)

The community that Jesus is speaking to here is one whose theism, morality and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Law and the Prophets approved and taught by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These groups were the religious educators of the Jewish working class. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these teachers, and in this saying, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings.

The Pharisees believed in a Messiah who would usher in world peace, and many believed this peace would come through a sword retributively raised against Israel’s enemies and energized and supernaturally empowered by the strictest Torah observance.

The justice that Jesus is placing before them in Matthew is of an entirely different nature: it is a restorative, transformative, liberating justice that includes one’s enemies. Jesus is clear in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Fullfil” here in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to perfect. In the very next verse Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The word here for “accomplished” is ginomai which also means “to perfect or complete.” By implication, that which precedes this perfecting is imperfect or incomplete. What Jesus addresses in verse 20 is the retributive, punitive justice that is often found among those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Retributive justice is one of the elements that Jesus is referring to as incomplete, partial, underdeveloped and imperfect. Yes, within the Law and the Prophets one may find a justice defined as an eye for an eye. But one will also find a more complete, restorative, transformative Justice, too. Jesus is calling his audience away from an imperfect retributive justice to a more complete and holistic restorative kind. Jesus’ quality of justice was to “surpass” the eye-for-an-eye justice longed for by his contemporaries. So is the justice of his followers.

Liberation from Internalized Anger

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

This passage, our last for today, is where we see Jesus beginning to describe how his teachings would surpass the teachings his community was used to hearing. As we discovered last week, Jesus invites us to stop viewing well-being as solely external and recognize its internal nature as well. In this passage, Jesus is naming the hatred that those who have been wronged so often feel toward those who have wronged them. He teaches that the external liberation the disinherited so deeply long for is founded on prior internal liberation. An example of this is found in his teachings on nonviolence. These teachings were not simply techniques for more effective protest: they were that and they were also much more than that. Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence was rooted in an internalized love for enemies and forgiveness that enabled the Jesus follower to think and feel radically differently toward their enemies, to transcend revenge and instead work for their enemies’ transformation. Ponder what Jesus is saying in Matthew 15:

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.’ (Matthew 15:10-20, emphasis added)

If Jesus’ disinherited peers were to experience liberation from their enemies, it would be because they were internally liberated from ‘anger’ against one’s enemies. Anger, wrongly placed, too often turns efforts that could have been restorative from transformation to retribution and mere punitive revenge. As King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This teaching highlights two ditches, two places we could stumble. One ditch is the idea that the disinherited need to focus only on external liberation with no thought for their internal relation to their oppressors. The second is the belief that all one needs is internal liberation, and that when this is in place it no longer matters whether a person is externally liberated. This second ditch has been dug over and over throughout history in the path of the oppressed: it pacifies the oppressed and leaves the status quo unchallenged and undisturbed. I see this too often, even today.

But make no mistake: Jesus’ new social order, Jesus’ new world, what he called “the Kingdom,” is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally. The new world subverts the status quo here, now. The whole system is to be dismantled. Jesus’ revolution doesn’t end with internalized liberation from hatred, fear, and anger toward one’s enemies. That is only where Jesus’ revolution begins.

HeartGroup Application

Reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ audience being his own community, a disinherited people. May this small interpretative key turn on some more lights for you as it does for me.

  1. Choose a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week and contemplate its meaning within the context of his audience being his fellow oppressed. How does this audience inform your understanding of his words?
  2. Journal what you discover.
  3. Share your insights with your HeartGroup, your Shared Table, this week.

In the introduction to Jesus and the Disinherited, Vincent Harding eloquently states that Jesus’ teachings are replete with significance for any group being subordinated in modern domination systems: “Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, many women, and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions” and the Black people Thurman originally wrote to. Today, so many make up the community of the disinherited, oppressed, marginalized, or as Thurman would put it, those whose backs are against the wall.” Jesus’ teachings directly empower these community members to live with dignity and creativity as they move toward liberation.

Whatever your place in this world, whether you belong to the community of the poor, the Native Americans, African-Americans, cisgender women, women of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, YOU have the power to enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of our society, YOU are the light of this world, and it is your voice that must be heard at Jesus’ table as we journey together toward a meaningful, more coherent whole, and a safer, more compassionate world for all.

Jesus’ new world is coming. In fact, in those whose hearts the Kingdom’s mustard seed has already sprouted, Jesus’ new world has already begun.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, enriching the soil of the earth around you, and shining bright like cities on hills, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.

Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.

The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.

You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)

Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.

For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”

However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies. [1] The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect. [2] The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated. [3] What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.

The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. [4]

What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love. [5] And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”

This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here! [6] And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!

There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.” [7] In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Where does this leave us right now?

Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.

HeartGroup Application

  • Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
  • Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
  • Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.

Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things [8] was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began. [9] It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:

Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world. I love each of you; I’ll see you next week.


 

1 Luke 6:27–36—But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

2 Luke 22:24–27—But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

3 Luke 4.25–29—“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

4 For an excellent, and more detailed discussion on this topic, please see Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker.

5 See last week’s eSight here.

6 Luke 10:9—Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:11—Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in

protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. Luke 11:20—But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

7 The Curetonian Gospels read “Today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” By

contrast, the Sinaitic Palimpsest reads “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

8 Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

9 Luke 4.18–21—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 1 of 9

Part 1 of 9

Two Definitions of Holiness

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

This week I want to begin a nine-part series leading up to this year’s Easter season. Beginning next week, we will take a look at each of the last sayings we are given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will begin with Mark and Matthew and progress from there. We will finally take a look at what relevance the narrative element of the Resurrection may have for us in our world today in the week leading up to Easter.

In the interest of being transparent, this series has come out of an exercise I was engaged in personally throughout 2014. As each week is composed of seven days, I took one of the last sayings of Jesus each day as the subject of contemplation—one saying, every day, for the whole year. What I’m about to share, very humbly, is simply the fruit of that year-long contemplation.

I want to begin this week by taking a look at what actually put Jesus on the cross.

Jesus’ crucifixion (and resurrection) in the gospels comes at the end of a long history of contention that began between the privileged/oppressive priesthood (Levitical) and prophets who spoke up as advocates for those the priests were oppressing. For dominating priests, holiness was defined by the purity codes attributed to Moses (sometimes referred to as holiness codes). For the prophets, holiness was defined not by ritualistic or religious “purity” but justice for the oppressed; mercy for the poor, fatherless children, and widows (within a patriarchal culture); and humility. [1]

The struggle between these two groups began, by most scholars’ reckoning, with Amos and Isaiah (Isaiah Chapters 1–39) in the eighth century BCE.

Here is just a sampling:

Amos

This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2.6–7)

There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. (Amos 5.7)

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5.11–12)

“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)

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)

Notice the meticulous keeping of the New Moon and Sabbath (ritual purity codes) but utter disregard for justice toward the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! [2] “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 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, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.10–17)

She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! (Isaiah 1.21)

Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1.23)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10.1–2)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with justice he will govern the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Justice will be his belt and integrity the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11.1-5) [3]

LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name . . . You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress . . . (Isaiah 25.1-4)

The Maccabean Revolt

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, there was a revival in fidelity to the purity codes and the definition of holiness as fidelity to those codes. It was during this time that we see the birth of the Pharisees. This group was more liberal in their theology (angels, resurrection, etc.) yet more strict in their adherence to the purity codes. They stood in alliance with the privileged class of priests, placing the blame for their captivity and foreign oppression on ritual or religious impurity in not keeping the purity codes of Moses. Yet it must be remembered that the prophets stood in direct conflict with this explanation of Israel’s history, expressing that the captivity was rather a result of the abuses of the priestly domination culture over the poor, fatherless, and widowed—of the privileged over the oppressed.

Jesus

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the priests (along with the Pharisees) are well entrenched again within a politically and economically oppressive system consisting of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and Jerusalem/Judea at its heart. Jesus comes not as a teacher out of Judea, or the priesthood, but was rather from the northern region of Galilee, far removed. Galileans, according to the Pharisees and priestly class of Judea, were considered less faithful to the ritual purity/holiness codes as a result, not only because of their proximity to their surrounding Hellenistic culture, but also their distance from Jerusalem, the temple, and the theological leadership of the Pharisees and priestly class themselves.

When one understands this history, along with the political and economic privileges of the priestly class in Judea in the first century, the fact that Jesus takes up the heritage of the prophets in advocating for the oppressed is breathtaking.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4.18)

Just like the prophets before him, in response to the privileged, priestly ruling class of his day, Jesus denounces economic oppression. [4] Just like the prophets before him, in response to the Pharisees defining of holiness as strict adherence to the ritual purity codes of Moses, Jesus stands in solidarity with those the Pharisees label as unclean and defines holiness rather as justice/mercy for those the Pharisees are marginalizing. [5] Remember, the Pharisees defined a “sinner” as a Jew who was not observing the ritual purity codes. That Jesus embraced and ate with these “sinners” infuriated the Pharisees. Holiness to a Pharisee was exclusive and punitive. Holiness to Jesus was inclusive and restorative. Holiness to a Pharisee was defined as strict adherence to ritual purity codes including the Sabbath, the New Moon, the sacrifices, etc. [6] Holiness to Jesus was justice for those the priestly class, along with the Pharisees, were oppressing based on their non-adherence to the purity codes. Jesus would offer a way of worshiping their God that completely bypassed the temple, the sacrifices, and the purity codes. [7]

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12.7)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9.13) [8]

Jesus would take his final stand against the political and economic oppression of the priests, temple tax and its rituals. His effort was not to “cleanse” the temple but to dismantle the entire system.

For those who believed that holiness was defined as adherence to the ritual purity codes, with the temple and sacrifices at its heart, Jesus’ acts would invite greater foreign oppression. In their opinion, contrary to the prophets, it was laxness in adherence to the purity codes that had caused foreign captivity originally. Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and priests, along with his doing away with the temple and its rituals would surely bring the destruction of the nation at the hands of foreign enemies once again.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin . . . “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11.47–50, emphasis added)

It was the priests, along with the temple police, who arrested Jesus. [9] Their privileged way of life was at risk. And yet how twisted it was.

Their perception was thus:

  1. They defined holiness as adherence to ritual purity.
  2. The stricter the people were in following the purity codes, the more privileged their political and economic place in their society became.
  3. Failure to follow strict ritual purity would invite the punishment of their God.

Jesus proclaimed the very opposite:

  1. Holiness, like previous prophets proclaimed, is justice and equity for the marginalized,   oppressed, subordinated, and disadvantaged.
  2. The dominance system of the present social order, where some are privileged at the subordination and oppression of others, must be abandoned.
  3. Failure to advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed would be at the heart of all that would eventually result in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome.

How did the ruling class of priests along with the political party of the Pharisees respond to Jesus’ teachings?

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. (Matthew 27.1, emphasis added)

I’ll close this week with a small insight we get from John’s version of the story of Jesus.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19.31)

It’s as if, right here, we step all the way back into the days of Amos and Isaiah. Once again, there are those who are more concerned with strict adherence to the ritual purity and holiness codes of Moses than this gross act of injustice against one they had just lynched. The story does not end with the success of the Pharisees and the priests in murdering Jesus. In the narrative element of the Resurrection, Jesus’ God stands victoriously against the God of the oppressors. Jesus’ God stands in solidarity with Jesus, as well as the prophets of old, bringing him back to life and overturning and undoing the lynching of Jesus over and against the political and economic oppression of Jesus’ day. The resurrection is God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the established authority. But we will get there. I’ll save that part for Part 9. First, let’s take a look at each of the seven last sayings of Jesus on the cross and see what those statements are whispering to us today.

Marcus Borg once stated, “”Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by established authority.” As we begin, it would be good to remember that our society today holds, in principle, the same dynamics that existed in Jesus’ day. Whether we are talking about the rich subordinating the poor, the educated subordinating the uneducated, whites subordinating nonwhites, men subordinating women, white women subordinating nonwhite women, straight people subordinating and/or extirpating those who are LGBQ, or cisgender extirpating those who self-identify as transgender, we are living in the Jesus narrative every day. Therefore, if you are a theist, you have to ask yourself how your God defines holiness. Does your God look like Jesus’ God, or does your God look like the God of the priests and Pharisees?

Jesus had a definition of holiness that radically attracted and was embraced by those who were repelled by or steered clear of the definition of holiness put forth by the priestly ruling class of Jesus’ day.

I guess what I’m asking is this: If you are a theist, does your God look like Jesus?

The answer to this question is at the heart of everything. Is your theism destructive or restorative? Inclusive or exclusive? Attractive and inspiring or repulsive? One leads to annihilation and the other to a whole new world.

HeartGroup Application

1. I’d like you to go back and reread all four Gospels. They won’t take you that long. They are shorter than you think. Watch for the dynamics I’ve put forth this week and see if you see them at work in the narrative as well. Look for why the narratives themselves tell us that Jesus’ ministry ended up on a Roman cross. Then we’ll go from there next week.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you write down this upcoming week.

Until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Many voices, one new world.

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


1. Micah 6.8—He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

2. Two centuries later, Ezekiel would define the sins of Sodom (and Gomorrah) as violations of social justice. Ezekiel 16.49—“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

3. It is most interesting to read the rest of Isaiah 11 as a metaphorical description of a new social order where the present dominance order is replaced with a world where oppressors no longer oppress and victims are no longer victimized, but both, transformed, peacefully coexist.

4. Luke 6.20, 24—Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Mark 12.40—They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. Mark 12.43—Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. Luke 18.3—And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

5. Matthew 9.11—When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 11.19—The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Luke 15.1–2—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.”

6. John 9.16—Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” It is interesting to read the whole of chapter 9 with the redefinition of “holiness” and “sinner” away from the ritual purity codes to the restoration of justice and mercy toward the oppressed.

7. Mark 7.19—“For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

8. Remember, Jesus is using the Pharisee’s definition of sinner here as someone who was living outside the ritual purity codes of Moses. Jesus defined holiness and the term “sinner” much more like the prophets of old did, which was radically different than the Pharisees, priests, and experts in the purity codes (“experts in the law”).

9. Luke 22.52—Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?