A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable

by Herb Montgomery | March 30, 2018

City at night behind a fence

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash


“To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity.”


Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This week I want to discuss what liberation theologians such as Gustav Gutierrez call Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” Let’s consider a broader preferential option that includes all who are vulnerable: people who are vulnerable economically and also people vulnerable because of their race, gender, orientation, ability, age, gender identity and expression, their level of education, or any other basis for oppression.

I remember standing on the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with my daughter when she was in sixth grade, the weekend after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Grey. She stood holding a sign she had made while I looked up at snipers who lined the upper ledges of the building surrounding that lawn.

As we lined to the speakers addressing the crowd, I saw that much of what was being said was not registering with her, but for me it was resonating deeply. With the clarity that only comes from experiencing oppression for oneself, speakers repeatedly drew the connection between economic and racial oppression in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s not enough to solve poverty for some people and exclude others from that solution, especially if your economic solutions exclude some based on their race or ethnicity. We can’t afford to solve economic exploitation for some if those solutions come at the price of exploitating others whom we deem as different. It’s also not enough to simply teach a preferential option for some who are poor. We must enlarge our preferential option to include all who are targeted and made vulnerable by the status quo.

But before we do that, let’s unpack what is meant by this phrase preferential option for the poor.

The Poor 

Although there are many different types of poverty, the “poor” in this phrase first addresses people who experience material poverty. We must be careful not to romanticize the reality of poverty. For most of those who are materially poor around the world, poverty means death. As Gustav Gutiérrez says, “It is death, death before one’s time.” For theists who believe in a God who is life, or the giver of life, this death, and thus this poverty, is contrary to a God who is life.

Material poverty can take different forms and result from many different causes. At its core, though, material poverty is an expression of marginalization. Many people view those who are materially poor as insignificant, objectify them, and consider them non-persons. This marginalization calls us to consider the connection between marginalization based on poverty and other forms of marginalization such as those based on gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, etc. Addressing the complex nature of poverty can include charity for  mitigating harm while we work toward a just society, but it is vital that we don’t stop at charity and think our work is done. We must also identify and resist the structures that create poverty, and we need philosophical, social, and scientific tools to analyze what makes people poor systemically and institutionally.

Option 

The word “option” in our phrase does not mean that it is optional, something we could do without. It implies that we can make an intentional choice from a range of possibilities. It means making a commitment to stand in solidarity with and work alongside the poor. This does not mean we become the “savior” of the poor or do-gooders. The “option” is to recognize that we reclaim our own humanity as others reclaim theirs, and we begin to see our connectedness. We live into that connection. We begin to see, love, and engage others as ourselves.

Preferential

To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity. Jesus taught this with this famous phrase, “Last shall be first. And the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16) He demonstrated this in his favor toward poor, hungry, weeping, and hated people in Luke’s sermon on the plain and the woes he proclaimed against their exploiters. Think of imbalanced scales. To rectify an imbalance one has to apply greater weight to the side that’s up in the air to bring the scales back to center. Jesus’ enemies also repeatedly critiqued his table fellowship with those who were socially marginalized. Jesus modeled a bias or preference that chose the side of the poor.

Let’s look at several examples in Mark and Luke.

In Mark, Jesus also calls the wealthy to follow him in his preferential option for the poor:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)

Jesus took the side of a poor widow over even the central structure of his society’s political and ideological life—the Temple:

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. (Mark 12:42-43; cf. Luke 21:2-3)

As Ched Myers explains, this widow was being “impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them” (in Binding the Strong Man, p. 321-322). Another author states, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (A. Wright; The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, p. 262).

In Matthew, Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the sign of confirmation to be shared with the imprisoned John the Baptist:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Luke 7.22)

In Luke, it sums up Jesus’ entire ministry:

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)

Jesus calls the Pharisees to embrace this option to the degree that everything else about their morality would depend on it:

But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41)

In Mark, this teaching is given to a single wealthy person, but in Luke, Jesus’ call to sell excess possessions and redistribute wealth to the poor is a universal teaching for all of his followers:

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)

We see Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable in his teaching and story on who is to be invited to the banquet:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:13, 21)

In one of Jesus’ best known encounters, we meet a wealthy tax collector who embraces Jesus’ preferential option for the poor as his own ethic too:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

This preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable determined whom Jesus’ reign or kingdom of God belonged to:

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

In Luke, Jesus refers to people who are materially poor, whereas in Matthew, the blessing is for the poor “in spirit.” One interpretation of this difference spiritualizes or privatizes what it means to be poor “in spirit.” It has arbitrarily been defined as an attitude of dependence or reliance on God as opposed to reliance on oneself. The fruit of this interpretation has been to divert attention away from the liberation of those who are materially poor. But Jesus isn’t holding up some spiritual poverty or dependence on God as a character quality to strive for in this passage, and that interpretation has too often been used to subvert Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with materially poor people. Jesus is speaking, just like in Luke, to those the present structure has left poor in spirit. Note that Luke describes John not as poor in spirit himself, but as strong in spirit.

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80, emphasis added.)

When Jesus describes those who are poor in spirit, he is describing those who are experiencing a poverty of the spirit or will to keep fighting against oppression. Their spirit has been broken. They are worn down. They have no more spirit with which to fight. Just this week, it was announced that the police who murdered Alton Sterling will not face any chargers. Repeated occurrences as this have a way of breaking ones will or spirit to keep trying. HealingJustice.org posted a quotation from @fancisca_porchas on social media this week and commented, “In the wake of no justice for #AltonSterling , this one goes out to @blklivesmatter & all allies. You don’t have to hold this political fight or all that pain alone. All of us are with you. Check on your people & show up for action this week, fam. The quotation read, “Organizers have to do so much spiritual work every day just to get up and fight the state, fight ferocious systems, and hold so much pain at scale.”  Jesus’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3) This does not mean spiritually poor.

Just two verses later in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world structure the meek are not given the earth but rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. A preferential option for the meek is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.” Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken, so pushed down, they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to a preferential option that creates a world where those who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of as well

The passage between these two texts in Matthew is the verse,  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn are those whom the present structure so disenfranchises, disinherits, and marginalizes. Despite their present heartbreak and loss, this new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort as they gain hope that another world is possible. Lastly, in verse 6 of Matthew 5 Jesus, speaking of this same demographic states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This word “righteousness” is not persona or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them to the afterlife. The verse describes those who hunger for righteousness or justice here, now.

The Hebrew concept of righteousness included distributive justice, structural justice, systemic justice, and societal justice. Those who hunger for this world to be put right are those Jesus calls us to a preferential option for, to ensure that they will be filled!

All Who Are Vulnerable 

All those who desire to genuinely follow Jesus must create communities that center the most vulnerable people at the table. Not only are the vulnerable to be seated at the table but the table is also to practice a preferential option for them. Examples today might include those who are vulnerable on the basis of their race, identity as LGBTQ, or their gender as a woman. Applying Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable today means prioritizing these communities.

Jesus’ table is not one where where every person’s opinion is of equal worth and we simply agree to disagree and still get along. Such a table leaves the status quo untouched, doesn’t challenge the balance of power, and still leaves these communities vulnerable. Instead, Jesus’ table is a table where there is a preference for the vulnerable. As the saying goes, “The voice of the oppressed does not always call out for what is just, but we will not arrive at justice without listening to them.” This is what it means to practice a preferential option for the vulnerable: choosing the side of the most vulnerable.

Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work with them in solidarity for justice. Practicing the preferential option for the poor today might include advocating for LGBTQ rights; opposing racial red lining still being practiced today (red-lining stops people of color from accessing home ownership); or organizing with young people who are repeatedly victimized by gun violence.

The good news is we can do this. We can choose to create a world that practices a preferential option for the vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did just this.

When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46)

This is the same “sell everything” language as we read previously—“sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). It’s about selling out and going all-in toward a vision for a different kind of world, one that practices a preferential option for people who face oppression daily. It’s also about taking action and believing that another world is possible now. The man in Jesus’ teaching sold everything he had for the kingdom. And we can, too! In the words of someone I deeply respect, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” (Angela Davis; Southern Illinois University, February 13, 2014)

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor . . . “ (Mark 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns defines the preferential option for poor and vulnerable as looking “at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and [working] in solidarity for justice.”

  1. This week, take time to read their page on the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Engage the discussion and reflection sections.

2. Discuss as a group what a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable could look like for your HeartGroup.

3. Choose a way to put your ideas into practice.

Wherever you are this week, thank you for checking in with us.

Remember, another world is possible!

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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

The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Against Enticing Little Ones

“Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

Photo Credit: “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

“Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society.”

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

“It is necessary for enticements to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is put around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he should entice one of these little ones.” Q 17:1-2

Companion Texts:

Matthew 18:6-7: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

Luke 17:1, 2: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’”

We stumble when we’re learning to walk. This week, we are focusing on those who are walking toward a safer, more just, and compassionate world, and we’ll be considering how as they move forward, others will actively obstruct their path rather than smoothing it out. Obstructionists place stumbling blocks in the way of those moving forward, causing their advance to be harder than it should be.

We are, again, considering one of Jesus’ sayings about “little ones.” As I wrote in Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children:

“The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.”

Our focus in this week’s saying is directed toward the “little ones” Jesus spoke of—the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the Greek, “little ones” (mikros) can not only refer to children, but also any who are vulnerable to exploitation by the status quo. It doesn’t have to mean a young person; it can also refer to a person’s “rank or influence” within a society. Christianity has a long history in doing damage to our most vulnerable and most marginalized.

Native People 

One example in this history is the way Christian preachers and missionaries used the Canaanite conquest and genocide stories in the Bible to legitimize the genocide of Native peoples here in the U.S.:

“Biblical notions of extirpation influenced colonial America from the earliest days of the settlement. In a tract publicizing the new Virginia settlement, Robert Gray expressed the hope that Indians might accept Christianity, but if they did not, biblical commands were clear: ‘Saul had his kingdom rent from him and his posterity because he spared Agag . . . whom God would not have spared; so acceptable a service is it to destroy idolaters, whom God hateth.’” (Philip Jenkins, in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 133)

During the colonial era, many New England preachers such as Cotton Mather compared Pequot Indians to modern Ammonites and New England to a modern Israel (see Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, vol. 1, p. 553). With this interpretation, if Saul had had his kingdom taken away because he failed to utterly destroy the Ammonites, the new American Christians were not to fail in the complete annihilation of their modern, native “Ammonites” if they wanted ensure their place on this continent, their “promised land.” The genocide of Native people was rooted in Christians’ lethal interpretation of violent Bible passages; it was a genocide they believed God had commanded them to execute.

Slavery

During the abolitionist years leading up to the American Civil War, many Christian preachers quoted Leviticus’ passages affirming slavery and claimed that neither Paul nor Jesus had reversed those passages. One famous preacher, ironically named Moses Stuart, wrote:

“Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these have said to Christian masters: ‘Instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission-how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly [so] against a malum in se [something evil in itself]?”

He confidently pronounced that those calling for the end of slavery “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing” (Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution; with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery, 1850).

Another minister, a Southern Methodist named J.W. Tucker, proclaimed to his Confederate audience fighting for their right to own slaves, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error-of Bible with Northern infidelity-of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” (Kurt O. Berends, “Confederate Sacrifice and the ‘Redemption’ of the South,” in Religion and the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, p. 105.) Tucker’s rhetoric sounds almost identical to the rhetoric of Christians today as they condemn movement in many faith traditions toward the affirmation of LGBTQ people.

Against Women

Christianity also has a long history with patriarchy and misogyny. Roman Catholic writer John Paul Boyer explains in Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women: 

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man—all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysical, the ‘accidents of Christ’s humanity;’ but his being a man rather than a woman is of the ‘substance’ of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was, but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.” (A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, ())

Womanist scholar Jacqueline Grant rightly states in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus that “the most significant use of this argument” came from Pope Paul VI on October 15, 1976, when he approved and published the following declaration:

“The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based up on natural signs, or symbols imprinted up on the human psychology: ‘Sacramental signs’, says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for personas as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.” (Franjo Cardinal Seper, Vatican Declaration, Feb 6, 1977, p. 6)

Never mind that the church’s own creation story states clearly that both male and female were made in the image of God. There have long been interpretations of these stories that have marginalized, wholly excluded, and damaged women personally and institutionally. Because of the patriarchal nature of many sectors of Christianity, and despite the fact that there are feminist and womanist Christians, some have gone so far as to say that Christianity is a man’s religion.

LGBTQ Fear

Anyone who lived through the 1980s here in the U.S. knows all too well how Christianity has done untold damage to the LGBTQ community, legitimizing the inmate homophobia of straight parishioners through interpretations that are trans-, bi-, genderqueer-, and homo-phobic. For a history that reaches back into the 1970s, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers an excellent history of the modern Christian anti-gay movement, starting with Anita Bryant in 1977. Just a quick read demonstrates how monstrously Christians have mischaracterized this community and used damaging interpretations of the Bible to bolster their mischaracterization. Jay Grimstead, a founder of The Coalition on Revival, bluntly stated that “Homosexuality makes God vomit”. Many similar arguments are rhetorically identical to those Christians in the 1800’s used in their opposition to ending slavery. The Christian Moral Majority didn’t get its start opposing abortion or gay people, but by opposing integration after Brown v. Board of Education. They began a network of private Christian schools to make sure their White children did not have to attend school with Black and Brown children.

I’ve given you four examples of how interpretations of our sacred text have done and continue to do damage to those who are most vulnerable within our society. I also, wrote two weeks ago:

“Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.”

In each of the above examples, you can come up with Bible interpretations to oppose valuing and protecting Native people and lands, ending slavery, promoting equity for women, and seeking justice for the LGBTQ community. Some claim they are just reading the Bible plainly. But we never see things objectively. As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society. This is how liberation theology was born: those in South America read the Bible very differently than their colonial Christian exploiters. It’s how Black liberation theology was born: Black Christians in the U.S. read the Bible radically differently than white Christians read it. It’s how feminist and womanist theologies were born and how queer theology was born. We need these voices and perspectives if we are to arrive at interpretations of our sacred text that cease to do harm.

Today we have a broad swathe of people who want nothing to do with Jesus because of the history of the church as the largest stumbling block in the path of the vulnerable in their work toward a world of justice and compassion. They see a Christianity that seems to habitually do harm, ever landing on the wrong side of history. They don’t see a Jesus who taught survival, resistance, liberation, and justice. They don’t see a Jewish Jesus on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Rather, that Jesus is eclipsed by a religion that was formed in his name. This is gives me great reason to pause. I know first-hand how my own faith has been fractured by watching Christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia just in my local community here in West Virginia. I love Jesus, but I have zero tolerance for the kind of Christianity my family seems to be surrounded by where we live.

I do not apologize for this week’s eSight. And I don’t believe the truth of our history to be too harsh to share. As someone who loves the historic, first-century Jewish Jesus, I have simply  become disillusioned with the most vocal sectors of Christianity in our culture. Just this week I’ve endured disappointment again as Christians who should have been passionately living out the value of compassionate listening to the voices of the vulnerable, who claim to believe God love’s everyone, were passionate instead to protect their own cherished theology that has been shown to be hurtful to the vulnerable. Does your God love the vulnerable or your theology? Which is it that should be given a priority of worth? As Emilie Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”  But what happens when you believe God loves everyone and that doesn’t lead to justice? What about when the ones preaching “God loves everyone” are the stumbling block for those working toward a safer, just, more compassionate world for the vulnerable?

As a Christian myself, I take this week’s saying seriously. It was said to Jesus’ followers, and we who take his name today must allow this week’s saying to confront us:

“Woe to the one through [whom stumbling blocks] come! It is better for them if a millstone is put around their neck and they are thrown into the sea, than that they should cause one of the vulnerable to stumble.” Q 17:1-2 

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time with the above article.

  1. As a group discuss what challenges this week’s eSight creates for you.
  2. Discuss together where you feel encouraged by this week’s eSight. Maybe encouragement comes just from hearing that you’re not alone in your feelings of frustration toward your Christianity being a stumbling block to so many people.
  3. What are some ways you can move toward interpretations of our sacred texts that are not damaging and don’t create stumbling blocks for those pushed to the edges of our society? Which interpretations can also move you to take tangible, concrete actions as an individual and as a group to stand in solidarity with those walking toward a more just world? How can you smooth out another person’s way toward liberation? As it states in Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

Thank you for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love engaging the work of transforming our world.

And to each of you who are supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, we simply could not do this without you. We have a lot of educational events lined up for this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Divorce Leading to Adultery

by Herb Montgomery

“Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.”

Featured Text:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, within at least Jewish society at the time of Jesus, divorce was the prerogative of the man. The laws were patriarchal:

Deuteronomy 22:13-18: “If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said,  “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”

This passage is disturbing for multiple reasons, but this week  I’d like to focus on the fact that reparation for the unjust slander in the text would be paid “to the young woman’s father.” There is no reparation to the woman in that case and she would also have to remain married to her offender.

Another disturbing example is found a few verses further on in Deuteronomy 22:

Deuteronomy 22:23-24: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”

Blaming the victim because “she didn’t scream for help” is sick. This law blames rape victims for their own rape. But also notice that the man is punished because he violated “another man’s wife.” The crime is against the other man, not against the woman who is simply “another man’s wife.”

The last deeply disturbing example to consider is just a few more verses even further:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

This is sick on multiple levels, too! The victim of rape must marry her rapist, and without the option of divorce? Again the financial penalty is one that must be paid to the woman’s “father.”

Jesus’s saying must be interpreted in light of a culture where a women had few rights. She could not send her husband away with a certificate of divorce; only men were allowed to do that.

Also, the Torah’s criteria for divorce was problematic.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

Notice that within the Torah, the only prerequisite for divorce was if the woman “displeased” her husband in any way. Deuteronomy was at the heart of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel. Hillel focused on the “displeasing” portion of this text and stated that a man could send his wife away, giving her a certificate of divorce, for any reason if he was “displeased” with her. Shammai, on the other hand, focused on the word “indecent” and said the permissible reason for a man to send his wife away was if she had committed an indecent act of infidelity, such as adultery. Notice that language. “Only if she” did. His adultery was not addressed because until Hellenistic influence, only men could issue a certificate of divorce. So you have two arguing factions. One said a man could divorce a woman for any reason he chose. And the other sought to limit the justification for divorce only to adultery.

Jesus and Hillel had so much in common in their teachings. Yes, Jesus and Hillel differed on the prozbul. Jesus called for the year of Jubilee where all debts would be forgiven and accumulated wealth redistributed to the poor. But in most every other area, Jesus interpreted the Torah in much the same way as Hillel. In the case of divorce, however, Jesus rejected the school of Hillel and sided either in the gospel of Matthew with Shammai, or in the gospel of Mark, a more stringent rejection of divorce than even Shammai (and Moses as well for that matter) would have been comfortable with.

Let’s look at each.

In Matthew, Jesus states that divorce in the Torah was a concession or an accommodation to male “hard-heartedness” within patriarchal marriages. Reasons could include something as minor as “finding something objectionable or unpleasing” about one’s wife (see Deuteronomy 24:1). In Matthew, Jesus goes beyond Torah and limits the reasons for a husband to divorce his wife to only infidelity.

Matthew 19:8-9: “He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’”

In Mark, we find a Jesus that is even more strident than in Matthew. There is no justification of divorce here, and even the reason of “infidelity” in Matthew is left out. “Whoever divorces his wife,” period.

Mark 10:5-10: “But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In the house, the disciples ask Jesus again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.*”[*Mark was written for a gentile audience, and within Roman culture women could divorce men as is seen here. In first-century Judaism it remained that only men could serve a certificate of divorce to a woman.]

I would argue that in each of these examples we see a Jesus who is living within the boundaries of his own Roman and Jewish patriarchal social order and marriage. His concern, within those constraints, is justice for women in a culture that disadvantages women, making women dependent on fathers and husbands for survival, with very few exceptions. In more egalitarian marriages, the principle would be the same: distributive justice for all parties involved.

I come from a long history of divorce on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. I am the son of both my mother’s and father’s second marriages. My mother would go on to be married a total of four times and my father, three. I grew up with my mother living despite a physically and emotionally abusive situation, afraid to leave because there had been no case of marital infidelity on her or husband’s part. I see this as a gross misunderstanding of the cultural context of Jesus’ words. In Jesus’ culture, where Jesus speaks of divorce, we see a double standard where men didn’t commit adultery against their wives, but only against the husbands of the married women they may have had sex with. If woman was unmarried, the man paid a penalty to the father of the woman (cf. Deuteronomy 22:29), but it was not labeled as adultery, even if the man himself was married. This was a culture whose adultery laws were written when men were permitted to have multiple wives, as long as the rights of fathers in those wives’s lives were “respected.”

Jesus words in the gospels regarding divorce should not be shallowly interpreted and lifted out of their context to promote injustice and abuse toward women today. This would be to contradict the spirit of justice for women originally within those words.

Nor should they be used today to support patriarchal marriage as an ideal for human society. Speaking of Jesus’ words in the Temple debates (see Mark 12:24-27) where he unequivocally denounces patriarchal marriage as having a place in the world transformed, made just, safe and compassionate for all, Elizabeth Schüssel Fiorenza writes in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins:

“[Jesus is not claiming] that sexual differentiation and sexuality do not exist in the ‘world’ of God, but that ‘patriarchal marriage is no more,’ because its function in maintaining and continuing patriarchal economic and religious structures is no longer necessary . . . [Mark 12:26-27] replies directly to the question of the continuation of the patriarchal family: in the burning bush God is revealed to Moses as the God of promise given to the patriarchs and their posterity. The ‘house’ of Israel is not guaranteed in and through patriarchal marriage structures, but through the promise and faithfulness of Israel’s powerful, life-giving God. While the God of the patriarchal systems and its securities is the ‘God of the dead,’ the God of Israel is the ‘God of the living.’ In God’s world women and men no longer relate to each other in terms of patriarchal dominance and dependence, but as persons who live in the presence of the living God . . . The Sadducees have ‘erred much’ in assuming that the structures of patriarchy are unquestionably a dimension of God’s world as well. So, too, all subsequent Christians have erred in maintaining oppressive patriarchal structures.” (pp. 144-145)

Today, I hear Jesus’ words this week calling us to prioritize the vulnerable within our societies. Whether that vulnerability is rooted in discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, gender identity, class, education, sexuality, ability, age, culture, language, and/or religion, we are called to put people and their well-being first, even if that means we going against traditional and popular interpretations of our sacred texts. This week’s saying speaks of women being more than disposable objects, easily discarded in consumer-style patriarchal marriages. People couldn’t simply discard or trade wives based on legal loopholes in the Torah without acknowledging the damage done to the women involved. In Spirit, it calls us to reject seeing anyone as a disposable means to our own pleasure and gratification. People matter.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

HeartGroup Application

Our saying this week has been used to harm spouses in abusive marriages.

  1. How have you witnessed our saying this week used to keep people in abusive relationships?
  2. Does seeing this week’s saying through the lens of a call for social justice toward women in a patriarchal society make a difference for you?
  3. Discuss as a group which other sectors of society are presently being objectified, used for another sector’s benefit, or scapegoated in the name of community integrity and unity? Brainstorm things your group can do to make a change.

People matter. They aren’t disposable. They aren’t means to another person’s ends. We are worthy of more than being cogs in other people’s machinery.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice if we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by giving on our Donate page.

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference! This month an attendee of one of our events contacted us via our website and shared:

“I heard Herb speak today for the first time and was deeply moved by his presentation. I came away understanding The Lord’s Prayer from a new perspective and committed to become more involved in social justice. Thank you for your honesty and ability to shed new light on basis truths.”—Attendee in Arizona

If you prefer, you can also mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the work of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “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. For 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.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice is we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so at by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the world of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

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

Confessing or Denying

woman holding drawing of zipper over her mouthby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Anyone who may speak out for me in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels.” (Q 12:8-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Luke 12:8-9: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

Not Remaining Silent

The context of this week’s saying is Jesus teachings to his followers to:

This week’s saying repeats the encouragement not to remain silent that we saw three sayings ago. What could Jesus have meant by the phrase, “Speaking out for me?” I grew up believing this was about being proud to be a Christian, about boldly engaging others in a conversation about whether they had accepted Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior” so that they could enjoy assurance about an other-worldly post-mortem life. Nothing could be further from the social context of this saying in Sayings Gospel Q.

Jesus message in Q announced the arrival of the reign of God in the hearts of people. This reign, in Q, made itself manifest in a person’s newly embraced commitment to take responsibility for the care of the people around them—especially those pushed to the underside and margins of society by the status quo. The “kingdom” in its simplest form is people helping people. It critiqued the present system, which privileged elite at the expense of the dominated and subjugated class. It called people to dismantle society’s present arrangements and replace them with the community Jesus modeled in his shared table. 

Why would Jesus need to encourage his followers to speak out and refuse to keep silent? Because whenever you begin speaking truth to power, whenever you begin speaking out against the way things are, those benefited by societal bias will always feel threatened. Equity to those who are disproportionately privileged always feels like a threat to their way of life. And rightly so, because it is! Those who benefit push back against critiques, endeavoring to silence those who speak out against injustice. To those whom others are trying to silence, the Jesus of Sayings Q encourages, “Speak out for me and the societal vision we are casting before the imaginations of any who will listen.” Adolf Deissmann in his classic volume, New Light on the New Testament From The Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, tell us that archaeological evidence indicates that the primitive Jesus community was “ a movement of the proletarian middle class.” (p. 7) Jesus was a community organizer teaching his disinherited and oppressed proletariat followers how to speak up for and work towards the changes they wanted.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Whether Jesus subscribed to an apocalyptic world view or that was the worldview of those who preserved his story, the dualism of apocalypticism is in plain view in this saying. As we covered before, this ancient worldview assumed that there were cosmic forces of good and evil connected to earthy conduits of good and evil.

Jesus accesses the cosmic imaginations of his listeners by referencing “angels” on the Day of Judgment, one of the events where those who subscribed to this worldview believed injustice, violence and oppression in our world would be put right. Jesus’ gospel was an announcement that this long awaited “putting right” had come and it was theirs if they would embrace the reign of God manifested in people choosing to take care of people. It was a deeply held belief that the Day of Judgment was a breaking in of the cosmic world into this world: a day of reckoning, a day of reward and punishment, a day of reversal, when the oppressed would be liberated and oppressors would be removed from their places of domination. The last would be first and the first would be last. In our saying this week, this vision of a future day of judgment is used to motivate the early followers of Jesus. Jesus says that those who speak out would be spoken for on that day, and those who remained silent in the face of injustice would be repudiated.

This may have been a deeply motivating idea for the first audience of the Jesus story. Today, we can use other motives to inspire one another to take care of each other. We are interconnected. We are each other’s fate, and what affects you, affects me. Whether one subscribes to the apocalyptic worldview of the 1st Century, or a more naturalistic 21st Century worldview, the truth of our interconnectedness is universal. We are in this life together. If I do not speak out for those being marginalized and pushed under, it will come back to negatively affect me as well. The world we create for others is the world we are creating also for ourselves.

Son of Humanity

I trace the “Son of man” title for Jesus back to the political imagery of Daniel 7. In this piece of Jewish apocalyptic sacred resistance literature, the Son of Man is seen:

“Coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:27)

This is not imagery where the rulers or destroyed or annihilated, but rather they are gathered into Jesus’s ethical vision for the world, and they follow it.

This imagery is picked up in the Christian scriptures in the apocalyptic book of Revelation:

“All nations will come

and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:4)

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:24)

We could reclaim some of this imagery today, but not in the way that the colonial nations or modern Christian Right have used it. We don’t imagine a world where everyone embraces the evangelical Christian religion and its Western White theology—or else. We could reclaim this imagery in a much more compassionate, holistic way: a vision of human societies being transformed as they embrace the universal truth that Jesus taught: we are connected. In the “everlasting dominion that will not pass way,” human society chooses to end racism, to end classism, to end sexism, to end heterosexism, and more. Humans cease their endless efforts to gain power over others in order to preserve a world that’s safe for them, but not safe, compassionate, or just for others. Our differences are not met with fear but embraced as part of the beautiful human kaleidoscope that we all are.

Taking Hold of Life

The saying of Jesus we are considering this week is Jesus’ repeated call to “speak out.” A statement that I have referenced before and will be referencing repeatedly over the next few weeks is Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement on the myth of redemptive suffering. I can’t get this statement out of my head. It deeply challenges the way I have applied the teachings of nonviolence in the past as a person who benefits from the status quo.

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

In our saying this week, Jesus calls those being intimidated into remaining silent to speak out anyway. He calls them to take hold of life and keep holding onto life even if they are threatened with a cross for doing so.

This strikes home for me. Recently I was shut out of a network of Christian churches in North Dakota, a region that has been experiencing a gold-rush like financial boon over the last few years. I was told that because of my solidarity with and support of Native people’s NoDAPL movement, they do not want me speaking in their churches at this time and so my meetings in North Dakota for this month have been cancelled.

When I heard this, I had a choice to make. Do I let go of my solidarity with Native people to be able to speak, or do I maintain my hold on life (and my humanity for that matter) in spite of the negative consequences? Many people have written to me over the past few weeks having experienced social media silencing, on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve shared stories of friends telling them they are being “too political” when they have spoken out or acted in defense of people being made vulnerable in the U.S. today.

To those experiencing that silencing, I would say, keep speaking out. People matter, and therefore politics matter. Politics is much more than arguing over individual candidates, too. Don’t misunderstand me: the character and policies of politicians matter. Yet these policies and how they affect the most vulnerable among us also matters.

The subject of politics is the discussion of how power is distributed and who gets access to resources. Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets, spoke of distributive justice and an order where power and resources are distributed in a way that ensures a world that is safe, compassionate and just for all, including the most vulnerable, and the vulnerable are no longer exploited, evicted, or excluded.

While I was in Canada a couple of weekends ago, I heard stories of Canadian citizens being refused entrance to the United States just because they are Muslim. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/another-canadian-citizen-refused-entry-united-states-border-1.3976230) A sports team was allowed past the border to an event being held in Boston, except for their one Muslim team member. This week mothers who were brought to the U.S. as children and are now adults with a husband and children being ripped away from their kids and shipped to a country they have never lived in. People matter, and therefore we should be speaking out.

Jesus’ gospel, as we have defined over and over again, was people taking care of people. This is what it means to speak out for Jesus. When we speak out, it isn’t in defense of Christianity, but in defense of Jesus’ vision of a world where people matter and we choose to take care of each other rather than being afraid of one another.

Over the past three years, I’ve repeatedly experienced backlash for affirming the lives of my LGBTQ and Black siblings. And the small pushback I’ve encountered as an ally isn’t even to be compared with the real and genuine crosses that LGBTQ community members and people of color face themselves for having the courage to “take hold of life,” stand up for themselves and stand up against bigotry and racism. As someone whose starting point in theology is Jesus’s gospel to the poor, I’m reminded too of how the Occupy movement was also demonized by those in power and those benefiting from the present structure. They, too, were threatened, and those who sympathize with their “taking hold of life” were misrepresented and became the focus of misinformed prejudice.

But to every group seeking to affirm their God-given selves and thrive in life, to those who are tired of the sun and rain God sends on all being systemically prevented from reaching them too, speak up and stand up.Whether you realize it or not, you are accessing the same courage that the Jewish Jesus sought to have his first followers find and take hold of as well.

Last week, Now Toronto reported around 1,300 Torontonians joined MILCK to sing the unofficial protest anthem I Can’t Keep Quiet. You can watch it here. Speaking out has a long tradition, and the Jesus of the gospels belongs to that tradition. These historical moments give us pause and a possible way to reclaim and reframe the sayings of Jesus:

Anyone who may speak out for me [and my egalitarian social vision for society] in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels. (Q 12:8-9)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to engage in a group activity. I’m hoping at least one person in your HeartGroup is a Netflix subscriber. I’d like you to sit down together as a group and watch the documentary The 13th.

  1. Watch the documentary.
  2. Afterward list 2-3 paradigm shifts you experienced during the film. Depending on your social location you could experience more than this, but start with 2-3.
  3. As many as feel comfortable, discuss as a group each person’s reaction to the film.

Lastly, spread the word. Share this film with others and have them watch it as well.

Embracing the courage to speak out, either for oneself, or in solidarity alongside others who are speaking out, is a significant step in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. To each of you who are speaking out, keep at it! You are not alone. Countless millions both now and throughout history are standing with you.

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Knowing the Father through the Son 

by Herb Montgomerypicture of a father and son
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:22)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Luke 10:22: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:3: “Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who comes from the one who is always the same. I was given some of that which is my Father’s.’”

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

Last week we discussed how the God Jesus called his followers to envision was committed to the most vulnerable ones in society. The very next saying shows Jesus appealing to direct revelation to substantiate his claim that God was a God for the vulnerable and not just the strong and well-placed. Consider the possible responses to Jesus’ saying from last week—that God had actually revealed truth to those on the margins of their society rather than to their religious sages and learned leaders. Pairing that saying with this week’s implies that the Jesus community attributed this truth to direct revealation.

How did Jesus know that God was the revealer of truth for the vulnerable? That this God belonged to the marginalized and excluded in his own society? This knowledge had been given to him directly from God and he was choosing to reveal it to his followers.

And while this defense of direct and unique revelation may have established the credibility of the Jesus community in their society in the first century, it leaves some big questions untouched in our context today.  In this saying, Jesus says that what he knows was “entrusted to him by his father” and that he also chooses to “reveal” things to the folks he chooses to.

That opens up questions like:

  •                 How do we know we’re getting insights from God or Jesus?
  •                 Are there any other possible sources?
  •                 Does direct revelation have to be validated by the authorities (in Jesus’ case, it wasn’t even though he appealed to and reinterpreted the prophets)?
  •                 How can we distinguish healthy insight/revelation from destructive insight/revelation?

Some modern people worry about whether their interpretations are valid or they are self-deceiving, especially if they’ve been taught that nothing the Holy Spirit reveals will contradict scripture. Could it be that the best way to know whether or not you’re on the right track is to actually follow what Jesus is teaching in this section of the sayings and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable and how they are affected by your “revelation?” This method, which my friend Keisha McKenzie calls Listening for God in the Othered, is a way to test “revelation” by its fruit.

Jesus’ direct revelation was not attested to by the status quo authorities, but he spoke of his father entrusting insight to him as he taught that we need to listen the revelation God has given to the lowest sector of our society: we need to listen to “the children.”

There is a danger in claiming direct revelation and ending the discussion there. Direct revelation is not a method that is reproducible and that we can use ourselves at will.  But we can lean into the truth that Jesus is attesting to in this saying. We can listen to the most vulnerable. We can hear from their experiences whether or not our “revelations” or interpretations of sacred texts produce good fruit.

It’s a hermeneutical method of testing by considering results. (See Matthew 7.16-20.)

My Father

I want to discuss for a moment Jesus’ referring to God as his “Father” because of the problematic nature of gendering Divinity. There are a number of things we must take into consideration.

First, Jesus lived and taught within two deeply patriarchal cultures: Roman and Jewish. We cannot escape the reality that Jesus and those he ministered to moved about within a patriarchal world.

Second, Jesus naming God as Father was less parental and more political. This way of naming God had a historical context in Judaism.

Referring to God as “Father” and having God referring to someone as “son” was a special relationship attributed to Judah’s king and YHWH. In the Psalms, this title was applied to David and it was also extended to Solomon.

Psalms 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me [David], ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”

Psalms 89:26: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’”

2 Samuel 7:12-14: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He [Solomon] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.

Matthew’s gospel, a very Jewish version of the Jesus story, identifies Jesus with this language. It makes perfect sense. Matthew’s gospel continually employs imagery of Jesus and God as Father and son, and it is impossible to determine whether this unique rhetoric was original to Jesus or was created by the Jewish community who loved and followed him. What is clear is that this rhetoric was part of the hope for the liberation and restoration of Israel in the first century. At minimum, the followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus’ coming marked the start of this restoration.

Luke’s Gentile community would have used this rhetoric as well, not to associate Jesus with a past Jewish leader but for the purposes of contrast with a present Roman one.

As we covered last December in Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3), this language was also used in the Roman empire to refer to Caesar’s supposed divine ancestry:

“It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, ‘The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.’

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive ‘kingdom.’ Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, “lord”’ (p. 349).

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

‘When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.’ (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)”

Our Father

Gendering God as Father creates negative problems in human society but we must also consider the positive shift in Jesus’ teachings. God as Father was no longer an isolated privilege of one king at the top of a hierarchical societal structure. Jesus stands in his own prophetic tradition in affirming the communal nature of this title. The prophets had also shifted away from calling only the king the “son” of YHWH, and spoke of the entire nation as equal claimants to the parentage of YHWH.

Isaiah 63:16: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

Isaiah 64:8: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Jeremiah 31:9: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Malachi 2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?”

And Jesus, when asked in Matthew to give instruction about prayer, like the prophets before him, taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9, emphasis added)

Jesus’s teaching affirmed within a deeply patriarchal society that being able to refer to God as a parent was not the privilege of an isolated hero or king, but an egalitarian privilege that the entire community could enjoy. We are all children of Jesus’ God. We are all siblings (cf. Luke 19:9). We are all bearers of the image of God.

Luke also includes some evidence that Jesus used some feminine images for the Sacred Divine. For our time, some think it problematic that these images are domestic, but for Jesus to associate this imagery with God in his society would have been very provocative.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, emphasis added)

Jesus is accessing portions of his own Jewish tradition in using these feminine images for God. As Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher so aptly points out in the book My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, within the Torah, God is likened to a Mother Eagle:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deuteronomy 32:11)

This imagery is both earthy and transcendent, nurturing and independent; it is strong, powerful, and compassionate. The motherly love of the eagle as an image of the Divine holds much promise, specifically for women. (For further discussion, please see My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, pp. 49-51, 64-65.)

Jesus also used the Mother Hen image as well. Yet, as Karen Baker-Fletcher points out in the same volume, this image reemphasizes in patriarchal cultures negative stereotypes of women as “old hens,” “hen pecking,” and overprotectiveness.

I would strongly argue, though, that in the Jesus stories, we do not see Jesus applying the mother hen imagery to God, but to himself. He states “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added.) For a man in Jesus’ context to have embraced using the mother hen language for himself could deeply affirm men as they strive to abandon harmful stereotypes of masculinity and strive toward becoming more nurturing and tender, as men, just as Jesus was.

We don’t always remember that Jesus grew up with a mother who was likely a widow for most of his adulthood. Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the struggles that women in his society faced. I think it is also telling that Luke includes a statement that women were supporting Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). As the director of a nonprofit, I can attest that folks don’t financially support you unless they resonate with something you are saying or doing. In Jesus’ teachings, these women must have seen something that liberated them, too.

So what we see this week is Jesus gendering God. We must pair with his references to God as Father examples of him using female imagery for God as well. Jesus used imagery that affirmed patriarchal structure and stereotypes as well as imagery that challenged patriarchal structures and stereotypes. He did both. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus enlarged the image of the divine as parent and saw the whole community having the same equal relationship. And lastly, his reference to his Father in this week’s saying substantiates a relationship where, through direct revelation, YHWH had revealed that to him that YHWH is a God who possesses a preferential option for the most vulnerable, not the “sages” and “leaders” of their society. This could have been deeply subversive in his time.

We’re considering all of these things as we contemplate this week’s saying and its possible application to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation and restoration. Jesus claimed that God, in the patriarchal terms of his own place and time, is a “Father to the fatherless,” and we could add a “Mother to the motherless.” God parents the most vulnerable among us. Jesus calls us to imagine this “God” ourselves, and begin centering the most vulnerable as we seek to understand societal truths from their experiences. I’ll place both last week’s and this week’s saying together for your meditation, as we close. The title that the Q scholars give this section is Knowing the Father through the Son. What does the son reveal to us about the Father? That God is the God of the most vulnerable among us.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:2122, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, contemplate on your own and as a group the implications of affirming God as both Mother and Father. According to Genesis 1, God made us all in God’s image. How does this shift to a more inclusive image of God challenge the boundaries our culture has created? What does God as both Mother and Father say to you about the value of men and women?
  2. For the next seven days, try something new in your prayer time. If you address the Divine in your prayers, simply try using the phrase “Mother-Father God.” See what this does inside of you. What of your own prejudices and stereotypes does it push against? What might it begin to free you from?
  3. Lastly, journal your experiments with praying like this and share what positive and negative things you discover with your HeartGroup next week for discussion.

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Houses Built on Rock or Sand

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Person standing on dock with red umbrella watching on coming storm“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Luke 6:47-49: “As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke each incorporate this saying into the climax of their accounts of Jesus’s wisdom teachings. Matthew lists it as the last teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke includes it at the end of the Sermon on the Plain. This saying is not part of the Gospel of Thomas, however. And there’s a good reason why not.

A Little Background

Stephen J. Patterson makes a pretty compelling case that the Gospel of Thomas belonged to the region of Edessa (see The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins.) The imagery in this saying referenced the geography of Jerusalem and the literal foundation on which Herod’s Temple was built. That imagery would have had no relevance for people who valued the teachings of Jesus but lived in Edessa rather than Jerusalem.

Bedrock

The temple mount (rock or “foundation stone”) was highly regarded during the time of Jesus. In the Tanchuma (a Roman-Era Midrash), we read this poem:

“As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.”
Tanchuma (Emphasis added.)

So this saying borrows from the safety and security that the culture had invested in the temple even before their exile in Babylon. If we go back to Jeremiah, we find the community using the temple for a sense of security or safety:

Jeremiah 7:3-11: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?” Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the LORD.”

In Jeremiah’s time, people were deeply violating social justice and yet believed themselves to be safe from God’s judgment simply because they possessed his temple. A “den of robbers” is not a place where robbery is committed but where robbers retreat afterwards to safely count their loot. This was how Jeremiah saw the temple: it had become a place that provided the powerful with safety and security while they continued to rob the poor.

The details were different by the time of Jesus, but the principles were very similar. Once again, the temple had become the center of a political, economic, and religious system that was exploiting the poor, and, once again, this temple was the foundation on which many built their trust and sense of security.

Josephus’s writings show just how much people valued Herod’s temple. A perpetual sacrifice kept the fire on the temple altar always burning. Even during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-69 C.E., and the siege and razing of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., priests kept the temple fire burning by maintaining a sacrifice on the altar, thus assuring Jerusalem, obstinate in the face of the city burning down around them, that they would emerge victorious in the face of the Roman siege. They kept the fire burning to honor their interpretation of Leviticus 6:13: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (see also 2 Maccabees 1:19-22). The temple’s ever-burning flame in worship to YHWH symbolized continually maintained Divine favor, even during that last war.

“The darts that were thrown by the engines came with that force, that they went over all the buildings and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests and those that were about the sacred offices; insomuch that many persons who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place, which was esteemed holy by all mankind, fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar which was venerable among all men, both Greeks and barbarians, with their own blood. The dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.” (The Lamentation of Josephus; War 5.1.4 19-20, emphasis added.)

This cultural history sheds light on why Jesus’s attempts to halt the daily sacrifices when he cleared the temple of merchants were so offensive, and it also explains why Emperor Titus didn’t just aim to subjugate Jerusalem when he ordered the city razed, but also sought to destroy the temple itself. The morale, the optimism, the assurance of Divinely affirmed victory among the Jewish people, in their revolt, had to be extinguished.

In the saying we’re considering this week, Jesus is standing in the critical tradition of the prophet Jeremiah. He is being very Jewish! As well as encouraging fidelity to YHWH, Jesus is calling his audience to prioritize practicing social justice [his ethical teachings] over mere possessing religious objects.

Today, some Christians need the same reminder. We may not have a temple, but we might have a pet doctrine that we think sets us apart from other members of the human family, a belief that makes God regard us as exceptional. Yet both Jeremiah and Jesus state that we should rather emphasize justice for the foreigners among us, those who are vulnerable in our socio-economic, political and religious order, and the innocent being exploited by privileged people. In the patriarchy of Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ culture, this focus would have meant serving the “fatherless” and the “widow.”  We must rightly discern who are the vulnerable in our order, today, and, like Jesus, stand with and work along side of them.

Jesus uses this saying to center his teachings rather than the trusted sacred temple. Perhaps Jesus also wanted us to regard his teachings as sacred as the temple and the rock beneath it that his audience revered.

Weathering A Coming Storm

Jesus grew up in the wake of political insurrections by various Jewish factions after Herod’s death, and I believe he knew all too well the result of armed revolt against Rome. Josephus describes how Rome squelched liberation movements in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The most immediate example when Jesus was a child would have been the destruction of Sepphoris, a town a few miles north of Nazareth, in 4 BCE. Josephus writes:

“In Sepphoris also, a city of Galilee, there was one Judas (the son of that arch-robber Hezekias, who formerly overran the country, and had been subdued by king Herod); this man got no small multitude together, and brake open the place where the royal armor was laid up, and armed those about him, and attacked those that were so earnest to gain the dominion. (Jewish War; 2.4.1)

Rome’s action was swift. A portion of the army went to Sepphoris where they “took the city Sepphoris, and burnt it, and made slaves of its inhabitants.” (Ibid., 2.5.1)  The rest of the army moved through Samaria and on to Jerusalem, burning and plundering any town or village that posed a threat. Once at Jerusalem, they attacked those who had “been the authors of this commotion . . . they caught great numbers of them, those that appeared to have been the least concerned in these tumults [Syrian governor Varus] put into custody, but such as were the most guilty he crucified; these were in number about two thousand.” (2.5.2)

Two thousand were crucified. Stop and ponder the magnitude of that number for a moment. Two thousand. Rome’s practice in responding to revolts and insurgencies is reflected in the speech Tacitus attributed to Calgacus decades later:

“…The yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” (Agricola 29-38)

“They make a desert and call it peace.” This description adds a haunting nuance to Jesus’s saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Josephus tells that after Governor Varus put down the uprisings at Sepphoris and Jerusalem, “he returned to Antioch” (2.5.3).

So this was the political environment Jesus grew up in. Jesus wouldn’t have needed supernatural talent to listen to the spirit of Jewish, violent, anti-Roman sentiment and see where it all would lead.

I believe that Jesus was endeavoring to prevent this end by offering those around him a different course, a different “way” (see Matthew 7:12-14). Even if the end he foresaw could not be avoided, even if Jerusalem was too far gone, Jesus contrasted his teachings and alternate way with the “rock” the temple was built upon. The message to his own community was that only his teachings could intrinsically assure them of weathering the political storm ahead.

This leads me to one of the central questions of my own journey. Through everything I have experienced and learned over the years, I cannot shake the question of whether the teachings of Jesus, distilled from their first century Jewish/Roman context and applied to the social storms of our day, could liberate us as they liberated his 1st Century followers. Of course the details and contexts are different. But when I consider his teachings on nonviolence as opposed to violent revolution, his teachings on mutual aid and resource-sharing, his teachings about getting “loose” from an opponent while you are “on the way” (Q 12:58-59), all of these teachings show me a narrow path of survival on the way to the ultimate hope of a new human society, what King called A Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, the human family has learned to relate to one another in a very different fashion than was practiced in the first century or is practiced today.

First, we must understand what Jesus said in his 1st Century, Jewish, socio-political, economic, and religious context. Then comes the hard work of distilling the principles behind his statements. And lastly we must rightly apply and practice those principles today. Rightly applying the principles and teachings of Jesus may be the hardest part in this process.

So again, for all of you who believe the sayings of Jesus have intrinsic value in informing the nonviolent confrontation, liberation, and transformation of our world into a safe,

more just, more compassionate home for us all, and for all of you who are working hard in your own way toward this end, I hope our Saying this week encourages you. We have a societal storm on the horizon as Jesus’s first followers did. In our practice, let’s build on bedrock and not sand.

“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to:

  1. Pick out one of the Sayings of Jesus that you have experimented with over the past few months. (If you don’t have one, stop here, pick one, and begin experimenting.)
  2. Reflect: How has your life changed from this practice? How have others’ lives changed from your practice?
  3. Identify the impact. What have been the positive results of your practice? What have been the negative fall outs? Discuss these outcomes with your HeartGroup in the upcoming week.

To each of you out there who are endeavoring to “put into practice” the teachings of the historical Jesus, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly. Thanks for walking along side of us on this journey.

I’ll see you next week.