God or Money

picture of the monopoly game board

“Jesus’s ethic is not capitalist. In a capitalist system, the goal is simply to create capital. The game is won by those who are able to create the most capital and use it to create more . . . Jesus asks us to lift all boats together, rather than lift one or a few boats while others sink.”

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“No one can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Q 16:13)

Companion Texts:

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

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

Gospel of Thomas 47:1-2: “Jesus says, ‘It is impossible for a person to mount two horses and to stretch two bows. And it is impossible for a servant to serve two masters. Else he will honor the one and insult the other.’”

Jesus taught a gospel that was “easy” to hear for laborers who were weary and heavy laden (Matthew 11:28-30). It was “hard” to hear and practice for those who were “rich” (Matthew 19:23) When it came to God and money, Jesus’s message was you can’t serve both. Why? Because the God that Jesus envisioned and asked others to envision was a God who caused the rain to fall and the sun to shine on everyone.

Jesus cast a moral vision of a world where we don’t compete with one another, but rather cooperate with and help one another. It’s a world where people are valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Jesus’s vision was of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another, and our resources are shared as we mutually aid each other. Jesus preached a radical wealth redistribution from the haves to the have-nots (Matthew 19:21). Not everyone would be poor. The goal was “equity,” for no one to have too much while there were those who did not have enough (2 Corinthians 8:13). The Jesus of Q did not teach a contemplative path toward privatized peace of mind. He taught a distributively just path toward peace on earth. On his path, we recognize the reality that we are in this together. We are not each our own. We are not alone here. We are connected. We belong to each other. We are part of one another. We not only share each other’s fate; we are each other’s fate.

A quotation often attributed to Gandhi is, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” There is truth in this. Whenever we serve money, whenever we try to hoard more than we could ever possibly need, most often someone somewhere will be going without or being exploited so we can have that surplus. You can’t serve both the accumulation of money and God too, because the God Jesus was referring to is a God who tells us to take care of people including those who would be exploited for you to accumulate. The bottom line is not our profit, but people, and taking care of people most often eats away at our profits.

Jesus’s ethic is not capitalist. In a capitalist system, the goal is simply to create capital. The game is won by those who are able to create the most capital and use it to create more, just as in Monopoly. Jesus asks us to lift all boats together, rather than lift one or a few boats while others sink. His world is not a closed end, win-lose world, but a world that is win-win. We all thrive together and no one is left out. Every person matters, and even our competitors or enemies are not disposable.

Edward Abby defines growth purely for “growth’s sake” as the “ideology of the cancer cell.” (Desert Solitaire, p. 114). If he’s right, this could mean that capitalism itself is a cancer for the global poor as well as our global environment. The wealthiest capitalist countries on the planet also have the largest disparities of wealth and inequality and all the harmful, intrinsic results for society that such inequality brings.

In this week’s saying, Jesus juxtaposed people and money. He did not teach that the way to help people is to make more money. He put the pursuit of wealth and the welfare of people in opposition: you can only pursue one or the other, but you cannot do both. This strikes at the core of differences between charity and justice.

To be clear, I think both charity and justice work are necessary. As retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson accurately stated, “There‘s an old saying that the church is pretty good at pulling drowning people out of a river. You know, we‘re good at the charity thing.

But what we need to do is to walk back upstream and figure out who‘s throwing them in, in the first place.”

Pursuing money in order to help people often leaves the system unchanged. Charity can be vital for the short term. But too often it leaves systemic injustice unchallenged. It’s easy to feed the homeless without asking why people lose their homes to begin with. Our work must go beyond charity to include justice work, the work of challenging, disrupting, and changing the systemic causes of injustice.

When Jesus says you can’t serve God and money, I hear him say you can’t put people first and keep seeking to advance in a system that pushes people down the line in your priorities. People matter. Poor and working class people matter. Black people matter. Women matter. Latinx people matter. Native people matter. Arab people matter. Asian people matter. Muslim people matter. Immigrant communities matter. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people matter. In Jesus’s social vision, it’s money or people. We must make a choice.

This month in RHM’s annual reading course, we are reading James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus. In this volume, Robinson endeavors to rediscover what could have been the first gospel that the first Jesus-followers might have heard. This passage from his book is long, but it relates to our saying this week.

“By using the ‘kingdom of God,’ Jesus put his ideal for society in an antithetical relation both to other political and social systems and to individual self-interest (‘looking out for number one’). The human dilemma is, in large part, that we are each other’s fate. We become the tool of evil that ruins another person as we look out for ourselves, having long abandoned any youthful idealism we might once have cherished. But if we each would cease and desist from pushing the other down to keep ourselves up, then the vicious cycle would be broken. Society would become mutually supportive rather than self-destructive. This is what Jesus was up to. Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them. God is somebody you can trust, so give it a try. Jesus found his role models for such godly living in the world of nature around him. Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. Sparrows are sold a dime a dozen and, one might say, who cares? God cares! Even about the tiniest things—he knows exactly how many hairs are on your head! So God will not give a stone when asked for bread or a snake when asked for fish, but can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. This utopian vision of a caring God was the core of what Jesus had to say and what he himself put into practice. It was both good news—reassurance that in your actual experience good would happen to mitigate your plight—and the call upon you to do that same good toward others in actual practice. This radical trust in and responsiveness to God is what makes society function as God’s society. This was, for Jesus, what faith and discipleship were all about. As a result, nothing else had a right to claim any functional relationship to him. Put in language derived from his sayings: I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them, ‘Theirs is the kingdom of God.'” (Robinson, James M.. The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News, Kindle Locations 64-77, emphasis added.)

I agree with Robinson. Jesus vision for the world was one where people took care of people. It was a call not to rest your peace of mind about the future in hoarded wealth. Jesus called his followers to build a community where we trust God to send people who will take care of us if we come into a place of need and also trust God enough to be the one God is sending today to take care of those among us in need right now.

“No one can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Q 16:13

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to do something out of the ordinary. Monopoly is a game that was created in 1903 as a “fun” way to demonstrate the benefits of an economy that rewards wealth creation and the pursuit of capital.

  1. Get a version of this game and, as a HeartGroup, sit down and play the game for 30 minutes.
  2. At the thirty minute mark I want you to change the rules. Take Jesus’s teachings on mutual aid, resource-sharing, and wealth redistribution, and try and play the game based on these teachings.
  3. What challenges do you run into with the new rules? How do you overcome those challenges? How does the goal of the game change? Can you change the rules enough so that it’s possible for everyone to thrive?
  4. Share what jumps out most to you by this exercise with the rest of the group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Remember, we are in this together. You are not alone. We are connected. We belong to each other. We are part of one another. We not only share each other’s fate, but we are each other’s fate. It’s not just about peace of mind, it’s a distributively just path toward peace on earth.

To those who are supporting our work, I want to say a special thank you to you this week. In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Arizona for a weekend of presentations and then off to Canada for a weekend as well. Each of these events depends on your contributions to RHM. Your support enables us to keep being a positive voice for change in our world today. Thank you! Together we are making a difference.

If you’ve benefited from RHM, and you’d like to support our ongoing work, you can make a one-time gift or become one of our regular monthly supporters by going to http://bit.ly/RHMSupport

You can also mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg WV 24901

Any amount helps!

Keep living in love, and keep following Jesus in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

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

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

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

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

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

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

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

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.

A New Liberator (Part 2 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3) 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Our title this week is “A ‘New’ Liberator.” The title doesn’t imply that “new” means better or that “old” is bad. What we’ll see this week is that the “new” kind of liberation that Jesus brought varied from the approaches of the past. In Matthew’s birth-narrative, Jesus is a contemporary “Moses”: not a replacement, supersession, or denigration of the original Moses, but rather a contemporary expression of what Moses stood for in the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians.

First, let’s say a word about Matthew’s gospel itself. Matthew combines Sayings Gospel Q (Jewish copies of the Jesus Story) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile copies of the Jesus Story). As the Jewish and Gentile sectors of Christianity blended, the Jewish-Gentile gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Matthew combined the Jewish Sayings Q and the Gentile Gospel of Mark for the Jewish Christians population of Galilee. Luke/Acts combines Sayings Q (Jewish) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile) for the much larger population of Gentile Christians (see The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson).

So Matthew’s gospel is a much more “Jewish” telling of the Jesus story. This background helps us to understand Matthew’s gospel emphasis on the significance of Jesus being the renewed Moses.

Let’s look at Matthew’s parallels:

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the Greek term for the “five scrolls” of the Torah. In the first century and still in traditional Judaism, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were and are attributed to Moses.

Matthew draws our attention to these five sacred books repeatedly in his gospel. First, many scholars see the entire gospel of Matthew as framed by five discourses:

  1. The Discourse from the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
  2. Missional Discourse (Matthew 10-11)
  3. Parabolic (of the “Kingdom”) Discourse (Matthew 13)
  4. Communal (Community of Jesus Followers) Discourse (Matthew 18-19)
  5. Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25)

 

Mathew uses the number “five” in other ways as well, especially in his birth narrative. The birth narrative itself is composed of five scenes.

  1. The Conception of Jesus and Joseph’s Dilemma (Matthew 1:18-24)
  2. The Wise men and Herod (Matthew 2:1-8)
  3. Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:9-12)
  4. The Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight in Egypt to Escape (Matthew 2:13-18)
  5. Return from Egypt and Move to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-21)

And Matthew’s birth-narrative is built on five fulfillments.

  1. Conception—“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” —Matthew 1:22
  2. Birthplace—In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‚for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”” —Matthew 2:5-6
  3. Egypt—“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” —Matthew 2:14-15
  4. Infanticide—“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” —Matthew 2:17-18
  5. Nazareth—“And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” —Matthew 2:23

Lastly, Matthew outlines his birth-narrative with five dreams.

  1. To Joseph—“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .” —Matthew 1:20
  2. To the Magi—“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” —Matthew 2:12
  3. To Joseph—“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” —Matthew 2:13
  4. To Joseph— “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt . . .” —Matthew 2:19-20
  5. To Joseph—“[Having] been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.” — Matthew 2:22

In a first century context, each of these repetitions reinforce that connection to the Pentateuch and, therefore, to Moses.

Law Giver

There’s another way Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus to Moses: the gospel shows Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a “new” law for the people. As Moses gave instruction on Mt. Sinai, Jesus also ascends a “mountain side” to give instruction (Matthew 5:1). And the Torah plays a significant role in Jesus’ instruction on his contemporary “Mt. Sinai.”

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5. 21-26)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’… But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…” (Matthew 5.27-30)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” (Matthew 5.31- 32)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely.’… But I say to you, Do not swear at all…” (Matthew 5.33-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye.’… But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…” (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall… hate your enemy.’… But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Our focus this week is not merely Jesus as Lawgiver in the way of Moses, but Jesus as Liberator in the way of Moses. Matthew introduces this Jesus in his birth-narrative in such a way as to draw our imaginations to Jesus as representing Israel’s liberation from a contemporary “Egypt.”

Slaying of Innocents

There is no more obvious parallel between Matthew’s birth-narrative of Jesus and the ancient Jewish birth-narrative of Moses than the slaying of the innocents in Matthew 2.

As early Jewish Jesus followers listened to Herod’s order to “kill” all the “males” in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16), they would no doubt have remembered the story of Moses’ birth:

“Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile . . .’” (Exodus 1.22)

This connection lays the foundation for the most fascinating parallel of Jesus to Moses in Matthew’s birth narrative, as we are about to see.

 

Jewish Midrash

This is where Matthew’s birth narrative becomes the most interesting to me. The primary audience for Matthew’s birth narrative would have been the Galilean Jewish Christian community. Being Jews as well as Christians, they would have been familiar with the Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth. Midrashic stories are retellings of the ancient narratives that expand on the originals or add commentaries to answer questions that intelligent listeners or readers may have asked about the ancient text.

Through the Jewish midrash on Moses’ birth, Matthew’s birth-narrative might take on a whole new understanding for you. I’m going to move very slowly so I don’t lose you.

The most significant question that intelligent Jewish listeners asked about ancient birth-narratives of Moses was, “Why did those Jewish parents continue having children if they knew their newborn males would be doomed to certain death? Why did they keep having children?”

The Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth sought to answer this question as we’ll see. But also notice that both the midrash about Moses and the gospel of Matthew share the following elements: 1) sending wives away 2) receiving a Divine revelation 3) re-uniting with wives. Matthew used these three elements from the Moses story in his own. Watch for the pattern of sending away, revelation, and reuniting:

Book of Biblical Antiquities, Pseudo-Philo, 9:1-10:

Sending Away:

Then the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning [and said]…“ Let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife… until we know what God may do.” And Amram answered and said…“ I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way.”

Revelation 1: 

And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said…“ He who will be born from him will serve me forever.”

Re-Uniting:

And Amram of the tribe of Levi went out and took a wife from his own tribe. When he had taken her, others followed him and took their own wives….

Revelation 2: 

And this man had one son and one daughter; their names were Aaron and Miriam. And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying: I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, “Go and say to your parents, ‘Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.’” And when Miriam told of her dream, her parents did not believe her.

(Quoted from our textbook, The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan)

In Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities we have a variation of the pattern, “perplexity” and “revelation”:

Perplexity:

Amaram(es), a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God….

Revelation: 

And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that…“ This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered, so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.” (2.210– 11)

In the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I, we only have the “sending away” and “re-uniting” elements:

Sending Away and Re-Uniting: 

And Amram, a man of the tribe of Levi, went and returned to live in marriage with Jochebed his wife, whom he had put away on account of the decree of Pharaoh. And she was the daughter of a hundred and thirty years when he returned to her; but a miracle was wrought in her, and she returned unto youth as she was, when in her minority she was called the daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son at the end of six months.

The last midrashic example endured as far as a Jewish medieval collection known as Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs.

Sending Away: 

When the Israelites heard this command of Pharaoh to cast their males into the river, some of the people separated from their wives, while others remained with them…. When, however, the word of the king and his decree became known respecting the casting of their males into the river, many of God’s people separated from their wives, as did Amram from his wife.

Revelation: 

After the lapse of three years the Spirit of God came upon Miriam, so that she went forth and prophesied in the house, saying, “Behold, a son shall be born to my mother and father, and he shall rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians.”

Re-Uniting: 

When Amram heard his young daughter’s prophecy he took back his wife, from whom he had separated in consequence of Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all the male line of the house of Jacob.

At the birth of Moses this midrash announces, “The whole house was at that moment filled with a great light, as the light of the sun and the moon in their splendour.”

Now, let’s look for these same elements in Matthew’s birth-narrative about Jesus.

Sending Away:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to send her away her quietly.

Divine Revelation:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Re-Uniting:

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

(Matthew 1.18-24, emphasis added.)

Notice that in the Jewish midrashic tradition about Moses, the birth-narratives focus primarily on Moses’ father, Amram. Contrary to Luke’s gospel, which focuses on Elizabeth and Mary, Matthew’s narrative does the opposite and focuses entirely on Joseph and his experience. For Matthew, Joseph is the new Amram.

Matthew’s birth-narrative is clear: Jesus is a new Moses; Herod, a tool of the Roman empire, is a new Pharaoh, and a new Exodus is dawning on the horizon with all the meaning and hope that expectation would have possessed for Matthew’s Jewish Christian listeners.

We have one more, brief, connection to Moses to compare.

The Magi and the King of the Jews

Herod’s imperial title was “King of the Jews.” Unlike Mark and John, Matthew does not refer to Jesus with the Davidic title of “King of Israel.” Matthew is very intentional in applying Herod’s Roman title, “King of the Jews,” to his Jesus.

And asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2 (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. Matthew 27:11 (Emphasis added.)

And then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. Matthew 27:29 (Emphasis added.)

Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Matthew 27:37 (Emphasis added.)

From a Jewish perspective, especially for Matthew and other Jewish Christians living in Galilee, no title for Jesus could have been more anti-Herodian and thereby also anti-Roman than King of the Jews. They were keenly aware of what it meant to live in Herod’s territory and claim his titles.

Matthew skillfully links the grinding of Roman imperialism against the hopes and dreams of first century Judaism with the ancient grinding of Egyptian imperialism against the liberation of Hebrew slaves. Matthew’s placement for Jesus is as the new Moses at the center this liberation.

Matthew’s subversive use of “Kings of the Jews” also helps us understand the role that the magi (magicians or wise men) play in Matthew’s birth-narrative.

Let’s take one more look at the Jewish midrash about Moses’s birth. The three story elements that surface in these midrash are 1) dream/revelation, 2) fear, and 3) interpretation/advice.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I on Exodus 1– 2:

Dream: 

“And Pharaoh told that he, being asleep, had seen in his dream, and, behold, all the land of Egypt was placed in one scale of a balance, and a lamb, the young of a sheep, was in the other scale; and the scale with the lamb in it overweighed.”

Interpretation: 

“Forthwith he sent and called all the magicians of Mizraim, and imparted to them his dream. Immediately Jannis and Jambres, the chief of the magicians, opened their mouth and answered Pharaoh: A certain child is about to be born in the congregation of Israel, by whose hand will be destruction to all the land of Egypt.”

Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities:

Revelation: 

“While they were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes— persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future— announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown.”

Fear: 

“Alarmed thereat, the king…”

Advice: 

“…on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river.” (2.205-6)

Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs:

Dream: 

“In the 130th year after the Israelites had gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh dreamt a dream. While he was sitting on the throne of his kingdom he lifted up his eyes, and beheld an old man standing before him. In his hand he held a pair of scales as used by merchants. The old man then took the scales and, holding them up before Pharaoh, he laid hold of all the elders of Egypt and its princes, together with all its great men, and, having bound them together, placed them in one pan of the scales. After that he took a milch goat, and, placing it on the other pan, it outweighed all the others. Pharaoh then awoke, and it was a dream.”

Fear:

“Rising early next morning, he called all his servants, and told them the dream. They were sorely frightened by it…”

Interpretation:

“And one of the king’s eunuchs said, “This is nothing else than the foreboding of a great evil about to fall upon Egypt.” On hearing this the king said to the eunuch, “What will it be?” And the eunuch replied, “A child will be born in Israel, who will destroy all the land of Egypt. If it is pleasing to the king, let the royal command go forth in all the land of Egypt that every male born among the Hebrews should be slain, so that this evil be averted from the land of Egypt.”

Matthew uses these three midrashic story elements (revelation/dream, fear, interpretation/advice) in his parallel birth-narrative of Jesus:

Revelation:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

Fear:

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Advice/Interpretation:

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,‘ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written….’” (Matthew 2:1-5)

Note a few things. First, Matthew’s narrative doesn’t match the dream of Pharaoh with a dream of Herod. Matthew seems to reserve all divine revelation (the five dreams) for the heroes of his story. Because Herod is playing the villainous role of Pharaoh, no divine vision is awarded him and he only receives a revelation through the arriving magi. This is why, although it seems counter-intuitive to us that the magi would need to stop and ask directions—they’ve been following a star—they must stop and meet Herod. Their announcement to Herod provides the story element of Herod’s “revelation.” The magi must initiate the narrative parallel of “fear” and “advice.”

Second, in Matthew’s stories we witness a literary reversal of the magi themselves. In the Jewish tradition, magicians (magi) and wise men provide the advice/interpretation as Pharaoh’s servants. But in Matthew’s birth-narrative, the magi aren’t the servants of the new “Pharaoh” (Herod); they have instead come to offer gifts and worship to the new “Moses” (Jesus). Why this deviation?

This is the core of what’s truly subversive about Matthew’s birth-narrative. The magi do not recognize Herod as the rightful “King of the Jews.” They have come from the east, following a westward-leading star (see Numbers 24.17), bringing gifts and to worship the rightful “King of the Jews,” a child named Jesus.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.”

The First Christmas, Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. (p. 37).

HeartGroup Application

Matthew’s birth-narrative envisions Jesus as the new Moses who initiates a new exodus out of empire and liberates his followers from injustice, violence, and oppression. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are deeply political, but not in the sense that many think of it today. The “politics” of the gospels is not a foaming-at-the-mouth pursuit of top positions in a secular government.

Rather, the Jesus narratives deeply subvert any political domination system that seeks to subjugate the many for the benefit of a few. These stories are more than personal or private: they are deeply politically subversive as well. The early Jesus community was becoming a new human society, a counter-society, and a common-wealth quite literally rooted in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. As such it not only made personal differences in the lives of Jesus followers, but it also confronted systemic injustice as well. Beginning in January, we’ll be looking at the saying/teachings (sayings Q) included in the Matthew narrative.

But for now, during this holiday season, let’s focus on our own American Empire:

1) In your HeartGroup, discuss together how understanding these parallels to Moses in Matthew affect your reading of the Christmas story.

2) Discuss what affect the reading of Mathew’s birth-narrative would have if we applied this story not only to Egypt (Moses) and Rome (Jesus and his followers), but to America today (us) and the liberation of those groups who are the subjugated in our contemporary domination system.

3) Together, begin reading Luke 1-2 as preparation for next week.

Happy holidays to each of you.  I know this week’s eSight is long.  If you made it all the way through you are amazing!

Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is a new liberator from all things that keep us from being fully human. (I feel like we should all go listen to Maddy Prior and The Carnival band’s Coventry Carol now.)

I love each of you, dearly.  I’m grateful that you are here, participating in this series.

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

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Vision for Community, Wealth Redistribution, and Closing the Inequality Gap 

By Herb Montgomery

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

First, I didn’t say the above statement! So don’t be upset with me. But it is in Mark’s version of the Jesus story, so I’d like to address it.

Most believe Mark’s gospel was written just before or just after the destruction of the Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish war. The events taking place in the Jesus community at this time help us understand re-emphasizing Jesus’ teachings on sharing our superfluous wealth with each other.

According to the book of Acts, the Jesus community practiced communal care: they took care of the needs of those within their community.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2.44-45)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis needed.)

What is so amazing about both of these passages is the result: the early Jesus community eliminated poverty in their group. “There were no needy persons among them”—this is what a world influenced by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

One of the purposes of Mark’s gospel is to encourage Jesus’s followers to continue this care-taking. Here’s how he does it. Mark dedicates a large portion of the narrative to this topic.

First, we have the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, with twelve baskets of leftovers in chapter 6:34-44. Then, two chapters later, we have another feeding a multitude (Mark 8:1-10). This time it’s four thousand fed, and seven basketfuls left over.

Just one of these stories would be expected; it’s the repetition of the elements that should cause us to sit up and ask “Why.”

Mark answers this question in verses 14-21 of chapter 8:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’

Let’s begin to unpack this exchange: “Are your hearts hardened?,” Jesus asks. In Hebrew folklore, the quintessential hardened heart was Pharaoh’s in Exodus. Within that story, Egypt symbolizes a world empire built on scarcity, accumulation, and storage that over time grew into a domination system rooted in greed, oppression, and ruthless brick-production. The story climaxes with a stand off between Moses the liberator and Pharaoh the oppressor; the story says Pharaoh’s heart was “hard,” meaning that he would not let the Israelites go.”

Jesus emerged within 1st Century Judaism as a liberator of the poor and oppressed. To the degree that Jesus’ disciples would not participate in this liberation, they, like the Pharaoh in the story, choose the way of a hardened heart. Jesus called for his followers to radically embrace one another to the degree that even the wealthy would embrace the poor and liquidate superfluous assets to eradicate need. Two chapters after the conversation in chapter 8, we see Jesus telling a rich questioner, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Mark 10:18-25).

There are two obstacles to this level of radical sharing. One is feeling like you don’t have enough to share; the other is having enough today but being so afraid of not having enough in the future that you refuse to share now. The stories of the feedding of the multitudes address the first obstacle, whereas the rich man in Mark 10 represents the second.

In each of the “multitude” stories, there is not enough to go around. But in these stories, each person brings what they have and “miraculously” there is somehow enough with more to spare.

In Mark 8, in the boat, the disciples are bumping up against a “scarcity” mentality once again. There is only one loaf to be divided among them, and their temptation is to revert to the narrative of hoarding or “competing” for what there is. Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of Herod and the wealthy Pharisees. The leaven Jesus is referring to here is that fear of future scarcity that leads to accumulation, hoarding, greed, and a hard heart that ignores the needs of others today. The hard heart makes you a mini “pharaoh,” one who refuses to liberate those around you from whatever prevents them from being fully human.

Jesus’ solution to the oppression of the poor is not charity, but community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with charity. Charity is vital! Charity takes care of hungry stomachs right now. Certainly following Jesus includes no less than sharing charitably with the needy, but it also includes more. Following Jesus means community, where each person, rich and poor alike, brings what they have to the shared table. Even though we may be tempted to think that we only have two loaves and a few fish to feed an entire community, when we come together, something magical happens. As each person contributes what they have, somehow every person’s needs are met.

A couple weekends ago, I encountered an organization in Glendale, CA, called Communitas. Communitas is a Latin noun referring to an unstructured community in which people are equal or to the very spirit of community. The philosophy is that we can choose to network together in a community where each one of us has something that someone else needs. Our needs put us in touch with one another. As we choose to take care of each other, each ability connecting with each need, we can eliminate need by applying the abilities we already possess. Even those who are “in need” have abilities and talents they can bring to the shared table. Communitas is an amazing organization that does more than offer bandaid solutions to poverty. It’s an organization subversively casts a vision of systemic change.

In Mark, Jesus’ solution to “need” or poverty is to close the inequality gap by inviting each person into community where every need is supplied by another person’s shared ability. Some of the wealthy responded well: think of those among the wealthy tax collectors who had chosen to follow Jesus. Others did not: think of those among the Pharisees who viewed Jesus’ teaching with contempt and dismissal.

Mark finishes his story in chapter 10 with these words:

“Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Notice that he does not say it was impossible. He did say it was hard. Jesus was simply being honest about the difficulty. In the words of Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” But for those who felt as if they had much to lose, choosing the way of compassion and bringing what they possessed to the shared table was, at best, a challenge.

An aside: there actually wasn’t a camel gate in Jerusalem that camels had to get down on their knees to enter. This is a myth that began in the 16th Century to allow the wealthy to follow Jesus and still hold on to their wealth. The phrase “eye of the needle” is beautiful Hebrew hyperbole, and also appears in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Mezi’a 38b. Jesus is also using an Aramaic play on words. The Aramaic word gamla can be translated as “rope” as well as camel, because most ropes were made of camel hair. And so the phrase can be read as “getting a rope through the eye of a needle.” The pun holds as Mark’s gospel is translated from Greek into Latin: The Latin word for rope is kamilos, and the Latin word for camel is kamelos.

So what does the pun mean? For a rope to go through an eye of a needle, it must undergo a change: it must be pared down significantly. The rope must become thread. Jesus is saying that the way the wealthy are saved is through choosing to let go of their fear of the future, their trust in the safety of what they have accumulated, and to accept instead the way of compassion that values fellow humans more than wealth. Jesus calls the wealthy to place their wealth on the shared table alongside everything that others bring to the shared table. No hoarding allowed.

The emphasis is not about reducing individual wealth; it’s about making wealthy communities. Jesus is casting the vision of sharing communities that create shared wealth. In these communities, as it states in Acts, there will no longer be a needy person among us.

“A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” — Solomon Ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (Spanish Jew and Collector of Jewish Aphorisms; Spain, c. 1021 – c.1069; see Geary’s Guide to the Worlds Great Aphorists)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — attributed to Margaret Mead

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a special activity for each HeartGroup.

  1. Before you meet as a group make time to personally watch Richard Wilkonson’s 16 minute Ted talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. Write down any thoughts, questions, or insights you get as you watch.
  2. When you meet together for your HeartGroup this upcoming week, watch the short presentation again as a group and then spend some time sharing with each other your response.
  3. As a group, write down ways you could close the gaps that exist within your own HeartGroup. Then pick one of these ways to experiment with over the next few weeks. Schedule a time a month from now when you can, as a group, discuss what you have discovered through this exercise.

I’d love to hear what your group discovers. Shoot me an email and let me know what has happened.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world, through the means of a shared table, for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Last Shall Be the Same as the First and the First the Same as the Last

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

But he answered one of them, I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didnt you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Dont I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:13-16)   

12345It’s good to be back!  At the end of last month, I found myself needing to take a break for a little self-care.  I had just completed giving 27 presentations to three separate audiences within nine days.  I appreciate the patience of each of you.  I’ve missed you!  Let’s dive in this week.

I want to begin by asking you to experiment with me.  Let’s, for the sake of experimentation, just for a bit, NOT spiritualize everything Jesus said about money and economics.  Not spiritualizing Jesus’ teachings on money enable us to gain deep insights into Jesus’ new alternate society that we are simply prevented from seeing when we spiritualize it all.

I also want to define the word denounce.  To denounce means to “publicly declare to be wrong or evil” (New Oxford American Dictionary); its synonyms include condemn, criticize, attack, censure, decry, revile, vilify, discredit, damn, reject, proscribe, malign, rail against, lay into, formally castigate, expose, betray, inform on, incriminate, implicate, cite, name, and accuse (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). A denouncement can also be a public accusation or reporting (Wikipedia).

In Matthew 11:20, this version of the Jesus story tells us that “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed.”  What did this look like?  What form did Jesus’ denouncements take?  They come to us in the same form as the denouncements of the Old Testament prophets.  They come in the pronouncement of a “woe.” In the very next verse (Matthew 11:21) we find “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Eerdmans Dictionary states that “In the New Testament ‘Woe’ functions as prophetic denunciation.”  Jesus is standing in his prophetic lineage in his use of language here.

Yet what I want us to contemplate this week is another denouncement Jesus made.  This denouncement is made in Luke’s Jesus story, chapter 6:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now [as opposed to mourn over the present social order], for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26)

Let’s back up and look at the big picture.  Jesus had just pronounced a blessing (the opposite of a denouncement) on the opposite group.  Remember, Jesus is not saying that there is something “righteous” about being poor.  He is saying that for those whom the present social order has left poor, hungry and morning, the changes Jesus had come to make were especially favorable.  The alternate human society Jesus was inviting all to join would be a blessing for those who were poor under the present system and, at a bare minimum, be problematic for those benefiting from the present system.  But we will talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at the two groups first.

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now [as a result of the present system], for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20–22)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24–25)

Jesus is doing two things.  First, yes, he is proclaiming that the new social order he is teaching is good news for those who are presently in the position of being “last” and at least problematic for those who were presently “first,” benefitting from the present system.  Second, he is indicting the rich.  There is no way around it.  To understand the logic of this, this planet and its resources are not infinite.  It provides enough for every person’s needs, Gandhi once said, but not every person’s greed.  I understand the “opulence” for everyone argument, but the resources of this earth simply do not work that way.  If someone is hoarding more than he or she needs, someone else is going without what he or she needs. (Think of the truth of the Hebrew manna story; everyone had what he or she needed because those who “gathered much” shared with those who “gathered little.”)  To say that Jesus was putting forth an alternate society seeking the equal distribution of earth’s resources so that each person could have what he or she needed was good news to the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

What does this mean? At minimum, it means that if our Jesus is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor, we have to at least wonder if our Jesus is the same Jesus as the one in the story.

Jesus’ new economic teachings also have something to say about debts that had been incurred under the present system.  All debts are to be cancelled!  This, too, is good news to the debtors and problematic for creditors.  But remember, Jesus’ goal is equality, not just in opportunity, but in result.  What Jesus is announcing is the never-practiced Hebrew tradition of “Jubilee,” during which all debts were to be forgiven.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This was hard news for those economically benefiting from the present system.

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

The idea that there was a gate called a “needle” that camels had to get down on their knees to enter and was difficult to enter but not impossible has long been debunked by scholars.  That’s a made-up story.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s impossible for the rich to enter Jesus’ new alternative society here on earth because fundamental to this new society’s core is a sharing of one’s superfluous riches with those who have less.  At its core, Jesus’ new alternate society is a divestment of and a redistribution of the riches of the dominant class with the aim of equality.

Notice how this played out in the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is EQUALITY.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–14)

The reason the rich cannot enter is not an imposed reason but an intrinsic one.  The first step for the rich in following Jesus is a divestment of their riches.  It’s making the rich un-rich.  It’s alleviating the poverty of the poor through sharing those riches, not, as some claim, making all people poor but equal.  Jesus taught the rich, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

This was not an isolated occurrence only privately applied to this specific person.  This was a staple of Jesus’ words to all who were rich:

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus’ alternate society), for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31–34)

This is exactly why the very first expression of following Jesus in the book of Acts was manifested in Jesus-followers’ selling their properties and giving to anyone who was in need.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:41–45)

When the wealthy young man heard this, it was too much.  “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven [new alternative society, here, now].’” (Matthew 19:22–23)

I want to juxtapose this statement from Jesus, that it is “hard” for those with wealth to enter into Jesus’ beautiful alternative community, with the statement of Matthew’s Jesus just eight chapters earlier:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

What can’t be missed is that Jesus is saying if the present system has caused you to not be at ease and not be surrounded by riches but to be “weary,” “heavy laden,” and in need of “rest,” you will find entering Jesus’ alternate society “easy.” It is a blessing!  But if you are one presently benefiting from the current system, Jesus unmistakably states that you’re going to have a harder time embracing Jesus’ teaching on economics.  Entering into this alternate society centered in the teachings of Jesus is impossible on your own and only possible with God (see Matthew 19:26).

Again, why is it so “hard?” It is hard because Jesus is not selling the American definition of “equality.”  Jesus is not simply offering equality as a matter of “opportunity.”  Jesus is calling for a system which creates equality in results as well.

This is the point in the story at which Jesus tells of the workers who arrived at the end of the day but were paid the same as those who had been there all day:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’” (Matthew 20:13–16)

This, again, was good news to the last.  It was at least problematic for those who were first.

Gandhi is one of the many in history who have experimented with Jesus’ teachings on equal pay.  There are two books that Gandhi states had a bigger effect on his life and thinking than any other books he read.  The first was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  The second was John Ruskin’s Unto The Last.  Gandhi, in his autobiography, states that this second book crystalized for him three truths.  In the words of Gandhi himself:

1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right to earn their livelihoods from their work.

3. The life of labor, e.g., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

Gandhi embarked, from Ruskin’s book (the title of which was taken from our featured text this week: “I desire to give unto the last the same as I give to the first”), on an experiment called the Phoenix Project, in which everyone was paid the same amount regardless of the job they did.  The sense of community and mission this produced is breathtaking if one takes the time to read about it.  Everyone worked for the mission; they looked at each other as equals.

We all know how Hasbro’s Monopoly game ends.  Gehenna, in the Old Testament prophet’s sense, may be unavoidable. Jesus is offering a way to life—an alternate, beautiful community.

There are two narratives we can live by:

Narrative 1: Scarcity – Anxiety – Competitive Accumulation – Stockpiling/Hoarding – Violence

Narrative 2: Abundance – Confidence – Cooperative Sharing – Generosity – Peace

Narrative 1 involves believing that there is not enough for everyone’s needs and allowing the anxiety that belief produces to drive you to a life of accumulating stockpiles that you must protect with violence.  The other narrative involves believing that there actually is enough for everyone’s needs to be met if we share and cooperate.  We can subscribe to a narrative of confidence rather than anxiety, of generosity rather than hoarding.  And rather than producing stockpiles one needs to protect with violence, a shared mutuality that produces peace arises.

The least we can do is begin to be honest about our narratives.

I’ll close this week with the words of Leo Tolstoy.

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.

If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible.  But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so.  You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.  You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or Tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society.  You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth.  And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.

There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.”

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

HeartGroup Application

This week for our HeartGroup Application, I want to recommend to you the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy.  You can download a copy free of charge at amazon.com.

1.  Dedicate some time each day to reading and contemplating what you are reading.

2.  Journal your thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights.

3.  Spend some time in your HeartGroup this upcoming week discussing what you are reading.  In other words, process some of what you’re reading out loud with others.  Jesus’ teachings were never meant to be understood or applied in isolation but with “one another.”

Together we can make a difference.  Together we can learn to recognize and participate in Jesus’ alternate society, the beloved and beautiful community, centered around a shared table.  It is a beautiful community.

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

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

IMG_0332

 

Follow Jesus, He’ll Ruin Your Life

Fishermen fishing by fishnet

 

 

 

by Herb Montgomery

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.—Jesus (Mark 1.17)

The Downward Social Mobility of Following Jesus

I’ve chosen to begin this new year with a fresh contemplation of the Jesus story, specifically Mark’s version. And what has jumped right off the page for me right here in the beginning is the social cost for the two brothers Simon and Andrew and the two brothers James and John in their choice to accept Jesus’ offer of following him. It was typical for itinerant teachers within this culture to be sought out by would-be disciples. Yet in the Jesus story, this cultural norm is turned on its head and the teacher seeks out and chooses his disciples instead.[1]

What we find in this though is counterintuitive. Jesus does not seek out the rich to be his disciples, nor does he seek out the poor. Those whom Jesus seeks out are the very ones in motion. They are the ones who are in movement, engaged in social mobility away from those who would be classified as the poor toward those who would be classified as the rich. Both of these sets of brothers are busy at work in a family fishing business. Few people in Galilee were rich; most were relatively poor. Fishermen tended to fall somewhere in the middle (although these types of distinctions were somewhat fuzzier in Galilee). Yet these were not poor men at all as the family business run by their father was doing well enough to also have “hired help.” This family business was providing income for others, not simply their own family.[2]

These were thriving family businesses where the families involved were, by the mere economic success of their business, moving from one social level to a higher one. Jesus comes to them, in the midst of their success, and asks them to walk away from it all.

The Historically Upward Social Mobility of Christianity

The reason this caught my attention is that too often groups associated with Jesus and the Jesus story are vehicles for upward social mobility rather than downward. I’ll explain. I was born here in economically challenged Appalachia. I grew up with parents, no longer married, who belonged to two very different social classes here. I was being raised by the poorer of the two.

I know firsthand the feelings of looking at social classes above you and longing for means of upward social mobility. I know what it feels like to want to move up the social ladder.

I also was raised within a Christian tradition that here in Appalachia provided that very means of upward social mobility for many. Within two generations, I have watched my family go from uneducated, blue collar workers, to a white collar world and the possession of PhDs—all because of the benefit of being connected to “the church.” And it’s not simply my family either. I’ve witnessed it in other families here in Appalachia where grandpa was an uneducated farmer whose grandkids are well on their way to becoming high paid doctors and lawyers.

What Difference Does It Make?

I’m not attaching moral value to either social direction, but simply drawing attention to the contrast of social mobility directions between the Jesus story and my own experience and observations.

There is a danger though. There is a danger that we will excuse the religious disfunction of our “spiritual” community because our personal lives are economically and socially being improved. In other words, we will resist critiquing our religious community because we feel our lives have been benefited by belonging to that community. We will overlook things such as pragmatic racism, gender exclusion, economic bias, educational favoritism, or queer erasure because we mistakenly think our lives have been improved by being a part of something simply because we ourselves have experienced some level of upward social mobility within a system, the very validity of which following Jesus should cause us to question instead.

One example of economic bias and educational favoritism that I have always been puzzled by since I first noticed it, is that typically, with few exceptions, within many of the churches I visit, there is an unspoken hierarchy between the offices of deacon and elder. Deacons typically are composed of the lesser educated, blue collar workers, while being an elder is an office for those with higher educational as well as economic status. This is alarming to me. Something doesn’t feel right. Not just about the hierarchical nature of the structure, but how that hierarchy is expressed as well.

One has to question first off whether upward social mobility is always a blessing. If it is always a good, then why do we find Jesus calling his disciples to abandon this very thing to move in the opposite direction downward in following him?

Christianity was not always like this. Before Constantine and the making of Christianity into the official religion of the empire, Christianity was a movement among the lower classes of society. They were often (but not always) persecuted by those in power. And to become a Christian, for most within the first three hundred years of the Jesus movement, was a clearly defined decision to embrace a downward social mobility. You were letting go of something socially and economically to follow Jesus during this time, not gaining more. The Constantinian shift changed all of this.

Today we are in danger of drinking the Kool-Aid of white, male-dominated, colonial, imperial, Christianity rooted in a theology defined by those at the top of our social pyramids. Jesus, instead, is offering us the opportunity of drinking the “living water” of critiquing these pyramids themselves.[3]

Jesus did not come offering his disciples a means of upward social mobility from disadvantaged to privileged within the current structure. Jesus came announcing the beginning of an entirely different world where the present structure of privilege and advantage are dismantled, where all injustice, oppression, and violence is put right, a world marked by equity and justice for those oppressed by the current structure.[4]

And this new world began with Jesus interrupting twelve men in their endeavors to climb their respective social and economic ladders and inviting them to rethink everything, to abandon the structuring of the world as they knew it, to embrace a cross rather than a throne, and to follow him.

They would not gain the world they were hoping for, they would lose it. For them, following Jesus would not mean upward social mobility, but a downward one.

It would change everything for these twelve.

And it should be the same for us as well.

Follow Jesus, he’ll ruin your life.[5] Yet it’s a life worth ruining for the sake of others. It’s a life worth throwing away for, as some have labelled it, a life of “holy mischief.” There are greater things to live for than mere upward social mobility within the present structures. Following Jesus today doesn’t mean to simply offer upward mobility to those who are presently being held down within the system. Following Jesus means to abandon the entire social structure itself that privileges some at the cost of disadvantaging and subordinating others.  For those of us who are privileged in the present system at the cost of those less privileged, this will mean downward social mobility to an egalitarian new world.  And each of us who are presently in the process of moving even further upwards are going to have to answer for ourselves whether or not we will accept that ancient invitation: “Follow me.”

HeartGroup Application

Spend some time this week contemplating what downward social mobility for the sake of others, the Jesus narrative might inspire in you this new year as 2015 begins.

Write down what you discover.

Share with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns, keep living in love and loving like Jesus.

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

1.  John 15:16—You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

2.  Mark 1:20—Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

3.  John 4:10—Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

4.  Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Is. 1:17)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Is. 42:3–4)

He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. (Matt. 12:20)

Justice is understood as fairness, correct treatment, or equitable distribution of resources. The Hebrew prophets (including Jesus) speak of justice as a chief attribute of their God. The Hebrew people were given ethical instructions (to the degree that they could comprehend in expanding stages, which also need to be expanded even more inclusively today) about their treatment of widows, orphans, and strangers; the practice of justice was tied to their mission.

The Hebrew tradition is alive with examples of men and women who brought justice to situations of oppression and injustice. From Deborah, the prophet and judge who administered justice, to the 8th-century prophets who called Israel and Judah to act justly toward the poor and oppressed, to Jesus who demonstrated the centrality of justice through his words and actions.

In the Hebrew tradition, justice is the undoing of situations of oppression or injustice. Justice is rooted in the prophets’ descriptions of their God’s character (Isa. 5:16), which Jesus too made central to his teachings and healing ministry. A central concept for the prophets was that the justice of a community is measured by their treatment of the oppressed (Isa. 1:16–17; 3:15). The prophets continually issued a strong call for the covenant community to recognize their God as the God of justice and to repent of their injustice. Their primary message can be summarized in the words of Mic. 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

If one goes all the way back to ancient Hebrew lore, their Jubilee tradition in Lev. 25 reflected their God’s demands for justice in the midst of an unjust society. Intended to be observed every 50 years, the Jubilee provided for land to lie fallow (ecological justice) and indentured servants to be set free every seven years (social justice). During the Jubilee Year, debts would be forgiven and lands sold because of indebtedness would be returned to the original owners (economic justice). For agrarian societies like Israel, return of land and forgiveness of debts amounted to economic restructuring of society. Undergirding the Jubilee Year is the principle of redress that corrects past wrongs to approximate equality and restores the human community to wholeness. [We have no record of this even once being practiced but that it was part of their ancient stories is interesting to say the least.]

(Gleaned from B. C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down; S. C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change; D. N. Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible)

5.  I’ve used this phrase for the past four years and my intention is that for most of us, we belong to either a middle or upper class. Following Jesus, for us, is not going to move us further up the pyramid of privilege, but be characterized by throwing all of that away. It was the oppressed who would be “blessed” by Jesus’ new world. For those presently benefited by the present structure the new world that had arrived in Jesus would be problematic, to say the least. (See Luke 6:20–26)