A Different Kind of Messiah

Herb Montgomery | May 29, 2020

Appalachian mountains


“Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.”


In Luke, Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God was coming. He answers:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [plural].” Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:20-37)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is warning his society about certain paths toward liberation given the violent retribution that Rome responded to uprisings with.

I believe that Jesus taught liberation, but what is clear is that he is balancing that desire with the desire for survival, too. Womanist scholars introduced me to this tension between liberation and survival, and I see it in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.

Jesus provides an alternative to liberation attempts that create devastation in verses 20-21:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Kingdom rhetoric is problematic for us today given both its non-democratic and patriarchal nature. I have struggled over the years to find other language for the gospel’s use of the term “kingdom.” I know it had meaning for the original audience of the gospels. What language might we use today? I like the language I’ve heard Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas use: “God’s just future.” God’s just future is societal justice and distributive justice. It’s a vision for a distributively just society, a way of orienting society after the golden rule.

The proclamation of God’s just future and the seeds for that future being present with us right now: that was Jesus’ gospel! It is the centerpiece of each synoptic Jesus story (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), especially Luke’s gospel.

Pervading each step through Luke’s version is this announcement of the kingdom or God’s just future:

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Luke 8:1)

“And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal.” (Luke 9:2)

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

In our original passage, the disciples are challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision,” to explain what his vision of a liberated society is. In response, Luke’s Jesus contrasts his approach with other liberation theories current at the time Luke’s gospel was written, and he issues a warning.

I’ve written on the problems of privatizing and individualizing Jesus’ response to the disciples before.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” had a social context. The 1st Century historian Josephus gives us a window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Josephus writes around 50 C.E. when revolutionary prophets led large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, viewed this as the first stage of revolt and sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the groups into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, and Smallwood, p. 147).

The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian,” who is also mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberatory uprising: a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These leaders were not lunatics but hopeful messiah figures, action prophets who contemporary scholars now see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants to exert human efforts that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. Their logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present a violent human effort for Yahweh to bless, and God would meet their efforts if they acted.

The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Today, this is called sign propaganda. When a contemporary politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following, they are doing the same. A much darker example is when White supremacists wave the Confederate flag when then they protest or rally. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-1st Century in Jerusalem used this technique of employing symbols from their own past to win over sectors of their populace that wanted liberation from Rome.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children obeying another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This leader had told the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to receive the signs of deliverance in the Temple (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate. This Samaritan prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, Pilate’s troops attacked and overwhelmed the armed crowd at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

So when Jesus says “The Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” Luke is emphatically rejecting these popular methods of leading masses of Jewish poor people to die when Roman soldiers retaliated. He warns specifically, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these would-be messiahs would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters.

Today, there is a breaking point once again. Those most deeply impacted by the injustice inherent in our present system face injustice amplified and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can Jesus’ warnings offer us anything as we work toward building the kind of world we want to live in? We often use the language at RHM of building a world that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for everyone. I also like the language Ashlee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highland Center in Tennessee, used to sign off on a Facebook post: “Sweet dreams of revolutionary change, a world where everyone has what they need, and no harm exists for any of us.”

That’s what we need right now. That’s the kind of world I want to be building. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where everyone has when they need, not just to survive but to thrive, and no systemic harm exists for anyone.

We’ll discuss the last part of Jesus’ warning in our passage next.

Jesus warns, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Following would-be messiah figures might have seemed right to them at the time, but they would lead to death, not liberation (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). The “son of man” reference here, I believe, points to the liberation work in the Hebrew apocalyptic writings of Daniel 7. In Daniel, the beast-like oppressive world empires are contrasted with the work of the humanizing messiah (“son of humanity”) who makes real God’s just future for the people. Luke’s Jesus is here saying that in following common messiah figures you may long for the fulfillment of expectations around Daniel’s “son of man,” but you will not see it and the end will not be as you hope.

Again, it’s easy for Luke’s gospel, which was written after the occurrence of the events in 70 C.E., to connect these dots for its audience. It would have been harder for those caught up in the moment/movement to foresee that outcome at the time.

In our passage, Jesus states that the son of man, or expectations of the liberation described in Daniel 7, would appear in a more obvious manner, as lightning streaming across the sky from east to west. This would not be a conspiracy or a movement where only a select few perceived what is happening. It would be more noticeable, much more.

During our stay home/safer at home executive orders here in WV, I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political & Religious Roots of European Socialism. The part that most recently spoke to me was about how theologian Karl Barth forbade students from bringing politics into his lectures and classroom discussions during the rise of Nazi-ism in Germany. He dangerously believed doctrine could be separated from politics and failed to understand that all theology is political, either in the side it takes outspokenly or the side it takes in its silence.

Barth, at a time when his voice could have done valuable good, instead believed that Nazi ideology “was too absurd to take seriously, and he respected Germans too much to believe they would fall for it” (Dorrien, p. 259). Barth did not take into account how desperate things had become for the German people in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. And desperate communities are far more dangerous than desperate individuals.

That struck me deeply and reminded me of my own feelings during the last U.S. election. I thought Trump was too absurd to take seriously. I mistakenly believed too much in many of my own Appalachian friends and neighbors, thinking they would not fall for Trump. Many in these hills who voted for Trump in 2016 now find that his failures to respond adequately to this pandemic has finally pushed them over the line. They, too, now say he is dangerous. I also know far too many whose opinion has not changed and who are planning to vote for him again.

In Times Square in New York City, a 56-foot billboard called the Trump Death Clock now hangs. The brain-child of Eugene Jarecki, it shows a very conservative estimate of the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths that have resulted from the president and his team’s failed response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Fauci and leading epidemiologists, if mitigation guidelines had been put into effect just one week earlier, on March 9 instead of March 16, 60% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented. During that time, Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh were still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Jarecki has received criticism of his billboard from both the left and the right: criticism from the right for obvious reasons, and from those on the left who believe his numbers are much lower than they should be. Jarecki has erected the Trump Death Clock on behalf of all those who’ve died because of failed leadership in a pandemic. It stands as a symbol, not only for accountability but also for more responsible and responsive stewardship going forward.

Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.

“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (Luke 17:20-37)

HeartGroup Application

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

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

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. How is all theology political? Please discuss this with your group. What is our political responsibility presently as followers of Jesus?
  3. What is currently taking place in your own life right now? What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to do this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well. Stay safe.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

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

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Growth For Growth’s Sake

Herb Montgomery | May 15, 2020

city scape


“The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“At that very time, there were some present that told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

As we discussed in A Gospel for the Earth, Jesus had called the elites in his audience to make reparations to exploited and marginalized people in their society before the response to their exploitation escalated out of control (see Luke 12:58). In our passage today, some in his audience respond by raising Pilate’s slaying Galilean rebels. Did they bring up this incident as a rebuttal to Jesus’ call for reparations in a society on the verge of rebellion?

Rome very carefully watched when any of its subservient people congregated, but it especially watched those with subversive tendencies leaning toward revolt. The Galilean Jews certainly fit this description. Being exploited nationally by Rome and economically by Jewish elites cooperating with Rome left some on the edge of rebellion, ready to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression by any means necessary. One of the ways the elite responded was to accuse the exploited rebels who hungered and thirsted for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6) of being “sinners” getting what they deserved. Jesus called them blessed.

The elites were victim-blaming. The oppressed class’s failure to put things right was not because they lacked moral uprightness. It was the result of an almost insurmountably heavy system that had been designed to work against them, violently if need be.

As we all respond to COVID-19 now, where do you see injustices in our society being laid bare, amplified, and pushed to a breaking point? Are you seeing those most vulnerable being blamed today? Who is defending the system now? Who is calling repeatedly for change?

There are some parallels between Jesus’ context and our own economic and political breaking point. The story in Luke invites us to ask: how can we stand in solidarity with vulnerable people who are hungering for things to be put right, right now?

Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

He goes on to say:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.

Jesus said again:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).

Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.

Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”

The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?

I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).

What does this mean for us today?

The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our food distribution chain is breaking down.

People have lost their income.

They can’t afford to feed their families.

Those who were barely surviving already now can’t pay their rent and/or mortgages.

The solution here in the U.S. so far has been to plunge those in need further into debt. Bailouts for people in the U.S. are very different than those other countries are offering to their citizens. States’ are also quickly running out of money.

The immigrant population here is especially vulnerable during all of this, and our present food chain depends on them.

The for-profit-health system is also at a breaking point, and healthcare professionals now have to place their own lives at risk.

Nonprofits that typically provide charity are also feeling the strain as they operate at significantly lower income levels than they usually do.

It’s time to dream of and work toward a system the places people over profit. Imagine the world we could create if Jesus followers insisted on following Jesus’ clear call to distributive justice.

In Luke’s gospel, the fig tree continued to grow but did not produce any life-giving fruit.

Growth for growth’s sake in capitalist economics is called profit. It’s good for business. But on a cellular level in biology, it’s called cancer.

It’s not good for creatures or for the planet. And it’s not good for those at the bottom and edges of our present economic system. It was once named a recipe for potential disaster, and today it’s proving to be just that.

In our passage, the fig tree won’t be allowed to continue to grow exponentially or indefinitely without providing fruit for the sustenance and life of those around it.

What can this say to us right now during this crisis about our own systems?

Our present system is not working. It’s not simply not working and for those our present system deems “the least of these,” it’s doing immeasurable harm.

I want to believe that another world is possible.

If it is, we will have to choose it.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

  1. How have Jesus’ social teachings spoken to you during our present pandemic? Share with your group.
  2. Our present system with its long history of placing profit above people and planet is not pivoting well now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society. What is the parable of the fig tree saying to you in this context this week? Share with your group.
  3. Thinking of those most impacted in our society by our present pandemic, a statement by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has been on my heart. In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s justice means a restoration of the dignity of all people. This begins with the crucified class of people . . . God’s peace thus requires a radical restructuring of a political, social and economic order that is sustained by and thus creates ‘crucified classes of people.’” (p. 200) This week, how can we work toward a world where crucified classes of people no longer exist. Brainstorm with your group. Then pick something from what you come up with and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Gospel for the Earth

by Herb Montgomery | May 8, 2020

sprout


“What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain, ’and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot, ’and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” —Jesus (Luke 12:54-56)

The weather-wise members of Jesus’s community could tell the weather by watching the clouds over the Mediterranean or by observing the wind changing direction, and they planned accordingly.

Here, Jesus is drawing attention to their ability to reason from cause to effect when it came to matters of weather, but their inability to do so when it came to their economic, political, and social trajectory.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues:

“As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59)

I have to confess that I have always struggled with this saying. I found it disjointed and out of place until I eventually realized its social and economic context. Jesus is talking about settling disputes and not allowing them to escalate out of control.

In Jesus’ society, the disparity and inequality between the haves and the have-nots were growing. We know that by the time the gospels were written, the poor people’s revolt of the late 60s had escalated until they overtook the Jewish temple-state in Jerusalem. From there, their conflict with the elite ruling class continued to escalate into the war with Rome itself (the Jewish-Roman war 66-69 CE), which ultimately and eventually resulted in Jerusalem being razed to the ground by Rome in 70 CE.

If ever there were a warning for privileged elites to make restitution to the masses at whose expense they had accumulated their wealth and power, this is a textbook example. In Jesus’ lifetime, a struggle was brewing, and by the time the gospels were written, that struggle had escalated into insurrection, war, and heartbreaking destruction.

Today, there is a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots again. (Read From Private Helicopters To Concierge Doctors, Inequality Is A ‘Big Business’.) Experts, whether researchers or people who know how to scratch out an existence are worried about the disappearance of the middle class, which can be traced back to the economic and political policies of the 80s and has been escalating continually since.

Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). What would it mean today for us to seek a path of equity, redistribution, and/or reparations rather than continue on our present path despite where it leads?

A Gospel for the Earth

Many of us recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day here in the U.S. Environmentalism has come a long way in the last fifty years, and so has the damage to our environment.

Earth’s temperatures are higher. Our ocean chemistry has changed. More animals have gone extinct. Significant portions of Amazonian rain forests and the Great Barrier reef that we need for our survival are now lost.

We are also moving in the wrong direction with the current U.S. Administration scaling back essential environmental protections. I live in West Virginia where various industries, including coal, have caused significant damage to both our environment and our economy. We have repeatedly dealt with polluted water supplies, disappearing landscapes, and one of the worst unemployment rates in the country in areas that used to have the largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. because of the coal mining boom and bust. One more injustice that this COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare is the daily damage to our planet from our global, consumer, capitalist system. The images are stark in the recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, “As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. These before-and-after images show the change.” Check out the pictures of New Delhi’s skyline. Wow.

The Hebrew scriptures include a strong case for our duty as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). The earth is not here for us to exploit. We are in a symbiotic relationship with it. If we do not take care of it, it will cease to be home for us.

Christianity has a long and complicated history when it comes to environmentalism. Much of this history can be read in Brock and Parker’s Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Another book I recommend on the environmental and other impacts of our present economic and political system is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Patel and Moore. Both books have been on RHM’s recommended reading lists.

What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today?

Let’s read the passage again from Matthew’s sermon on the mount:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

This says to me that it is better to deal with things now, at this stage, than to deal with them later. Change is coming and there’s no way around it. Change that we choose today is always preferable to change that our environment forces upon us tomorrow. We can begin building a better world today. (Read Bill McKibben‘s article in The New Yorker How We Can Build a Hardier World After the Coronavirus.)

I’m encouraged to see signs that the financial industries are beginning to divest from their fossil fuel portfolios. I’m also alarmed at talk of bailing out industries we need to begin transitioning away from. We should instead be training workers dependent on fossil fuel industries to work in greener industries.

What causes and effects are you seeing in the present system? What changes would you like to see? Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Settle Matters Quickly

Matthew’s account (Matthew 5:25-26) is part of a section on leaving your gift at the altar when offering a sacrifice if you remember that you have an adversary. Jesus commands, “First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Twice in Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6) This is the path that leads to life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) we see Jesus calling for a change of direction, a change of action, a transition to a different social path than the one his listeners were on, and quickly! Things were escalating in his own society politically and economically, as the second half of the 1st Century in Galilee and Judea revealed.

For those paying attention today, things are escalating quickly for us, too. Jesus’ audience was faced with alternative paths and trajectories. If things did not change, if the elites did not begin listening to the exploited and marginalized, Jesus’ society would “not get out until they had paid the last penny.”

The path before them was transformation. But I do not believe that what happened to 1st Century Judaea was annihilation forced on the people by a violent God. Rather it was the intrinsic, natural result of a course of action that we have repeatedly seen through history when the haves ignore the cries of the have-nots who are barely surviving.

Luke’s Jesus laments:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

Today we plan our daily activities around listening to weather forecasts or checking our weather apps on our phones while being strangely ignorant of the clouds of our own making that are gathering on the horizon of our lives. The Jesus story is whispering to us today to take a different social and global path. Some ways seem right to those in positions of power and privilege, but their end is death (Proverbs 14:12 cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

What would happen if, instead of spending trillions of dollars supporting a military-industrial complex, we began spending trillions on feeding the world’s starving? What if we began spending trillions on repairing our earth? What if we spent trillions transitioning from unsustainable ways of living on our planet toward sustainable ways of surviving and thriving? What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?

The Jesus story found in the gospels is still whispering to Christians today. He asks us to settle these matters quickly. The end result will be much better, both in the short and long term.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Is environmentalism a part of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus? Share with your group why?

2. What does it mean for you to settle matters now rather than later in your own personal lives? What could it mean systemically for our society as a whole right now during our current pandemic? Share with the group.

3. What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020

workers


“The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.”


Happy International Worker’s Day!

Every community has its own way of relating to the rejection of leaders in whom they see hope for the future wellbeing of their society.

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:49-51)

Many scholars believe this passage in Luke to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage, the Gospel authors are trying to make sense of such devastation. Was their interpretation healthy and life-giving or not?

I want to be careful here. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of attaching punitive explanations to Jerusalem’s destruction, saying it was God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that, even if the gospel authors connected Jesus’ rejection with what later happened to Jerusalem.

Whether it was life-giving or not, though, they made this connection. I also see them making a much more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected Jesus’ teachings about wealth redistribution and restructuring the community to prioritize the poor and the poor people’s uprising and the revolt of the late 60s. The poor people’s revolt led to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 and then to Rome’s reprisal and razing Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The connection is less divinely imposed and arbitrary and much more natural about a political, economic, and social cause and effect.

Today, we as a society are witnessing resistance to a more distributively just way of organizing our society. A widening gap between haves and have-nots has been building over the last half-century here in the U.S. Do Jesus’ economic and political teachings have anything to offer our lives today? Even if we were to reduce Jesus’ teachings to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, might they be able to speak into our struggles today?

Take a moment to consider Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule. What would a society that prioritizes treating others as you would like to be treated look like? Would it be a system that made the members of the community more “selfish, hypocritical, crass and violent” (see Robert Owen’s, A New View of Society: Essays on the Principles of the Formation of Human Character, 1813), or would it create people who are less competitive, less individualistic, more generous, and collectively sustainable?

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” was the small gate and narrow path that leads to life.

And in the context of the golden rule, two things have caught my attention over the past few weeks as we all respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) the criminal justice system in the U.S. and 2) the economic impact on the U.S. migrant community.

Setting Prisoners Free

Luke 4:18-19 is one of the key points of Jesus’ gospel: setting prisoners free. What would that mean for us today? Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued an emergency order calling for especially vulnerable prisoners to be released into home confinement. Because of how closely packed people are in the U.S. prison systems, physical distancing is impossible. Prisons are being revealed to be places of mass death placing all inmates, regardless of their charges, on a kind of death row. This is specifically concerning for those who have not committed violent crimes. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses don’t deserve a death penalty in the form of COVID-19.

I also think of those behind bars whose sentencing has not come up yet, who are there, guilty or innocent, simply because they cannot afford bail. Poverty in our global society already means an earlier death for too many, and this is deeply concerning.

Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to liberate the poor, to give the entire “kingdom” to the poor. Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to shape their society according to distributive justice. In our current setting, people in prison could become infected with and die of COVID-19 only because they could not afford bail or some other technicality. That is immoral.

Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers have already tested positive for the virus. It is a cruel irony that prisoners are producing hand sanitizer for the outside world, hand sanitizer that is desperately needed within prisons, and yet the very prisoners producing the sanitizer are being denied access themselves. I heard on the news last week that 20% of people infected will need hospitalization and 5% will need to be placed on ventilators. What does this mean for our prison population, mostly and disproportionately people of color? COVID-19 sharpens an already unjust system with an even sharper lethal edge.

Again, what does it mean for us today to take Jesus’ gospel seriously, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18)? What does the golden rule look like in this context? What does basic humanity look like in this context?

Migrant Workers

My second concern over the last couple of weeks has been for the population of migrant workers at the heart of the U.S.’s food supply chain. These people are among those our present system deems the “least of these.” They already go to work every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What does social distancing look like for them? They are not being provided with personal protective equipment and are working for poverty wages. They don’t receive any kind of extended sick leave or child care now that their children are not in school, nor are their work environments more sanitary or less crowded.

Thinking of our migrant community members working in these settings, I thought of a statement I read years ago now by Stephen J. Patterson:

“In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day, the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive—which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74)

The migrant farmworker community is a modern-day reflection of the original audience Jesus taught about a preferential option for positive systemic change.

Because of the U.S. food supply chain, these workers are deemed critically essential. Yet this system may break down soon if their situation doesn’t change. Many are in the U.S. working on H-2A visas. While the present administration touts stimulus packages for other kinds of workers in our society, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is presently pushing to reduce wages for H-2A workers. There has to be a better way to save farmers.

Leviticus includes a Jewish application of the golden rule to “foreigners”:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This text informed Jesus’ preaching on loving others as oneself. It is the basis of the Golden Rule.

What would a society look like if structured on the golden rule rather than profit or a corporation’s bottom line?

The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.

And depending on how we respond right now, it may also be said of the powerful and privileged elite today, “this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

HeartGroup Application

[We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?]

1. We’ve discussed two sectors of our society deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What other sectors of our society have been on your heart, lately? Share with your group.

2. Yesterday, Jim Wallis published UNEQUAL SUFFERING: HERE’S HOW CONGRESS SHOULD HELP on Sojourner’s website. Following Jesus involves taking action. Many charities are also on the front line providing care and help to those presently in need; many while operating with a lower level of contributions than is typical. What are you seeing organizations in your area doing and what can your HeartGroup do to come alongside these organizations and offer help? Discuss with your group.

3. Together, rewrite Matthew 25:35-36 in light of the present pandemic. Who would be listed if the text were to be written during our present crisis?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Pick something from your discussion in number two and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Transforming Negative Pushback To Work In Favor of Change

by Herb Montgomery | April 24, 2020

opposite knots


“We may still be a long way from our desired outcome, but we can make progress. Our efforts may be interrupted, delayed, or even halted, but that doesn’t mean we have necessarily failed.”


In Matthew’s gospel, we read:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Jesus spoke of changes that could have turned the social system he and his audience lived in on its head. Those who benefitted from the system saw his inclusion, equity, compassion, justice, and love as dangerous. If it were followed all the way out from our personal relationships to the systems that organized society, Jesus’ social vision would unsettle everything.

Jesus offered life, security, and assurance to poor, mourning, hungry, and marginalized people, and so the prioritized, privileged, and powerful labeled him as an enemy. Their fear of change quickly turned into fear of complete ruin. This is what I believe was underneath the author of John’s gospel placing these words in the mouths of the social, political, economic, and religious elites:

“You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50)

This past Easter season, this passage was on my heart a lot.

The Jesus story isn’t about dying. Jesus’ death is part of the story, but the story is much more about reversing, undoing, and overcoming his death. Jesus’ death was not natural. It was an execution, an execution plotted by the elite class who felt they had everything to lose from people following Jesus’ social vision.

The story isn’t simply about this execution though. It’s also about life-giving things that overcome death-dealing things. The teachings of Jesus, such as treating others the way you would like to be treated, loving one’s enemies, offering mutual aid, sharing, including those who are presently othered, and centering marginalized people, these are things that death could not silence!

Jesus’ execution did not stop those values. Ultimately they lived on in the stories that the early Jesus followers told in the following decades. His life-giving values are still competing with and overcoming death-dealing things today. Jesus was a conduit of change, and he called his followers to be conduits of change, as well.

Today, we too can choose to be conduits of change.

Yet change never comes without pushback.

Jesus assured his followers,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Blessed Are You When People Insult You

We can learn from the Jesus story how to respond to negative pushback when we encounter it from those whose privilege and power are threatened by life-giving change.

First, we must remember that we are not alone. When we step into the stream of working toward a more just society, that river stretches far back and far ahead. We are participating in and building on the work of our ancestors in social justice and hopefully providing something for those who come after us to build upon as well.

This is why I believe Jesus called his Jewish audience to remember how Jewish prophets of old who called for social justice in their own contexts were treated, too.

Today, especially, I’m reminded of the prayer attributed to the late Oscar Romero but never prayed by him. It was written by Bishop Ken Untener for a homily given in 1979 by Cardinal John Dearden:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

(https://www.caritas.org.au/docs/default-source/primary-school-resources/be-more-romero-prayer.pdf)

A word of caution about getting pushback: sometimes it’s a good thing! Sometimes I receive pushback because I’m being a jerk about something. So how do I know when pushback is good or not? I like to ask myself which social location the person or community pushing back is from. If it’s the centered and privileged who are pushing back out of fear of losing privilege over others, then I’m likely to be in the right story: Jesus and his early followers faced this kind of pushback too.

But if I’m receiving pushback from someone whose social location is more marginalized or disenfranchised than mine, then I have to stop, listen, and ask myself whether my work is not as life-giving as I might have assumed. When this is true, I’m not in the right story at all: Jesus was embraced by the exploited, marginalized, and pushed down. Except for one example in the stories, the pushback he experienced was from those for whom his social vision was not good news but threatened their money, power, and position. The one example we have of Jesus receiving the kind of positive pushback we are discussing here is the story of the Syrian Phoenician woman who pushed back against Jesus in Mark 7:24-30 (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). In this story, Jesus models how we, too, can stop, listen and ask ourselves whether this may be a moment where we can choose to learn from those whose social location is more marginalized than our own.

Responding to Negative Pushback

What are we to learn from the Jesus story about responding to death-dealing pushback in life-giving ways?

When we take a stand for what we believe is compassionate and just alongside those most vulnerable in our society, we can expect pushback. When we call for change from those presently benefiting from the way things are right now, we can expect pushback.

We can still refuse to be silenced.

The history of movements that have practiced nonviolent resistance to unjust systems has taught us that if we refuse to remain silent, we can unveil the system itself. When pushback coming from the socially privileged combines with our refusal to allow that pushback to silence us, we can amplify our struggle before more witnesses and awaken awareness and conscience.

We may still be a long way from our desired outcome, but we can make progress. Our efforts may be interrupted, delayed, or even halted, but that doesn’t mean we have necessarily failed. We may have succeeded to some degree just by shifting the terms of debate: things that might have been unimaginable before we stirred things up are now topics of conversation. This can lead to organizing, which in turn can give birth to movements for change.

Change takes time, and negative pushback is part of the process. It can either silence us or inspire us to amplify our voice.

Think of the Jesus story for just a moment.

Had Jesus chosen to become silent when threatened by the powerful social elites of his day, we probably wouldn’t even know about him today. His work would not have only been interrupted, it would have been forgotten. Consider it.

The Jesus story is about those things that have the power to overcome negative pushback, even lethal pushback. The golden rule; treating others the way you’d like to be treated; cooperation and sharing with those who do not have enough; loving one another, even our enemies; living nonviolently and centering society on those presently most vulnerable—all of these things are the things of resurrection. These are the very things that the story tells us could undo, or reverse, or overcome the interruption of Jesus’ execution. These things that are life-giving and can overcome in the face of being threatened with negative pushback. These are the things worth holding onto.

Stop for a moment and consider how you’d like to see our world change. What is worth speaking up for, for you? If you receive negative pushback, will you allow it to silence you or will you keep speaking up using the conflict to attract others’ attention, amplifying your voice, calling for change?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

  1. What are some memories of positive pushback you have received in the past? How did you respond? What did you learn? Discuss with your group.
  2. What are some examples of negative pushback you’ve experienced? Did you respond in a positive, life-giving way? If not, how do you wish you would have responded? What did you learn? Discuss with your group.
  3. How does the Jesus story inform your own action-taking in speaking out against injustice and mitigating systemic harm in our society? What hope or encouragement do you take from the Jesus story in your speaking out? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

New Wine in Old Wineskins (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | April 17, 2020

vineyard grapes


“Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems, but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.”


In all three of the synoptic gospels, we read:

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)

Jesus called his audience to accept new wine and new wineskins to hold the new wine: he wanted us to participate in the distributively just vision he was offering human society. New wine simply won’t work in the old wineskins. New wine and old skins are incompatible, and you can’t incorporate Jesus’ new wine into our present system. They are too different from each other. We must be open to new wine, new paradigms, and new systems or skins to live out a set of ethical values that is life-giving, inclusive, safe, just, and compassionate for everyone, not just the privileged and the elite.

New skins/new wine was not the only metaphor that the gospel authors used. They also used the metaphor of a path that most people do not choose to travel:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

I’ve often been struck by how in U.S. society, a system that strives for distributive justice for all simply does not resonate with most people. Even poor people have absorbed the false hope that they are tomorrow’s next millionaire capitalist. The term socialism is used to incite fear, and most people fall for it. This past political season, what we saw competing on the Democratic debate stage was more akin to social democracy than socialism, either democratic socialism or authoritarian socialism. Yet even a social democracy that leaned toward more distributive justice proved too much for most American voters. We’ll see how this November plays out, but for now, the old skins proved they couldn’t tolerate even a hint of new wine.

Our context could help us to understand the social context of the gospel stories: the Jesus in these stories was calling for a more compassionate, just and inclusive society in his own culture and time.

Is it time today for a reformation where we try to infuse old skins with new wine or is it time for the life-giving, healthy transformation of the systems we’re trying to make a more distributively just society fit? Change can be scary if you feel you have too much to lose. But in a distributively just society, the goal is not to have someone lose so you can win. The goal is a world where we all win together.

I believe it’s time to dream up new skins that are capable of expanding with new wine.

As we often say at RHM, another world is possible, if we collectively choose it.

One Example of New Wine

The gospel author critiques the legal concept of lex talionis. Lex talionis is Latin for the “law of retaliation” and encompasses the formulaic severe penalties for specific crimes found in many ancient cultures. Some propose that these penalties were intended, at least in part, to prevent excessive punishment from either an avenging party or unjust ruling elites. The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye,” however, lex talionis does not refer to exclusively literal eye-for- eye codes of justice but to an entire penal, punitive legal system.

The Jesus story’s new wine pushes us beyond the skins of a system that only punishes to systems that restore and transform.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not use retaliation, even if it has been authorized by your law, against an evil person. Instead, if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your Chiton, hand over your Himation as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you [even if you are on the verge of the Jubilee] You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your fellow Israelite and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies too! And pray for those who even persecute you, that you may be children of your Parent in heaven. God causes God’s sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 5:38-45)

Jesus sought to lead us away from doing life through lex talionis and towards the “Golden Rule” that many traditions evolved into teaching.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you [The Golden Rule]; for this was the intended goal of where the law and the prophets were always headed. Enter then through the narrow gate of the golden rule; for the gate of lex talionis is wide and the road of lex talionis is easy, but it leads to the whole world being blind, toothless and annihilated, and there are many who are presently on that path. For the gate of the Golden Rule is narrow and this road is hard but it leads to life, and there are so few presently who have discovered it and are traveling on it.” (Personal paraphrase of Matthew 7:12-14)

Other great people have made similar statements:

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” (Mohandas Gandhi)

“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

“And then the whole world would be blind and toothless.” (Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof)

There are other examples in the gospel stories. For today, how can you see our present system bursting through a new embrace of more life-giving values?

Take a moment and list them.

Present Crisis

There have always been voices calling for new wine and new wineskins here in the United States. The present system is in crisis and amplifying these voices. Two weeks ago, states competed with each other and even with FEMA, driving up the price of life-saving equipment and PPE for medical personal across the country. This is not simply inefficient as some have described it. It is immoral.

The crisis has shown that our system is a well-oiled machine that profits a global few at the expense of the rest of the masses. But there must be higher values than profit, capital, and production. If not, then people become disposable. Lives lost become collateral damage and our economy becomes our highest concern.

This is not to say that our economy cannot be one of many competing concerns. What we are discussing here is our innermost, prioritized values. What do we value most: people’s lives? Or something else?

This is a call for those within a system that has steadily valued profit over people, over the last forty years especially. It’s a call to reclaim our humanity. Even as Congress provided some aid, there was also talk of ensuring whatever aid was provided didn’t prevent people from wanting to return to the endless cycle of production so that others may profit from their labor. Even our elders have been on the chopping block. Our entire system, from groceries and mortgages to rent and health insurance, is built to keep large swathes of people in our society desperate and motivated to be the cogs in the machine producing capital for the richest 1% of the world. Crises like our present one bring that low-level desperation to the surface and amplify it.

Moments like these not only call us to reassess our systems but also our own personal values and the values our societies have been built on: the systems we are accustomed to and our own personal action and behaviors are connected.

While you are at home during this time, if you can be at home, take a moment to pull away from endless production and dream. What would a society whose members take care of each another look like?

Pick up the Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew or the sermon on the plain in Luke, and with pen and paper, brainstorm what a society that prioritized equity, justice, love, compassion, and people, especially the presently marginalized ones, would look like.

Life is cyclical. It’s time not just for new wine, but for new wineskins with it.

HeartGroup Application

It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.

  1. List examples of how our society would be different if we structured our systems after the Golden Rule? Discuss with your group.
  2. Taking the example of lex talionis, how would the U.S.’s criminal justice system be different if its purpose was not mere punishment, but restoration and transformation. Discuss with your group.
  3. Can you dream of any other life-giving differences our present systems need, whether in our education systems, or medical systems, or any of our other industries/systems that our present crisis has made apparent? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And if possible stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Enoughism

by Herb Montgomery | November 22, 2019

green corn field under sunrise
Photo by AK¥N Cakiner on Unsplash

“Some will say, ‘This sounds like socialism!’ I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, ‘Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is, if you need an -ism, . . . Enoughism . . . Enoughism would be a more accurate description.’”


This passage in Luke has been on my mind this week:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18:29, 30)

Many Christians today read these words and hear Jesus saying that if we give up something for Christianity, we will somehow have more materially in this life than we could possibly imagine. This has led some to embrace what others have labeled a “prosperity gospel”: if someone follows Jesus and becomes a Christians they will have the best life now. I believe these interpretations are mistaken.

First, this passage is not about embracing Jesus in name. Nor is it about things, including religions, that have Jesus’ name attached to them. In Luke, Jesus’s gospel is about embracing “the kingdom,” Jesus’s vision for human society. This was a human community founded on the golden rule and love of others as connected and part of oneself. It also involved material, distributive justice, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid or resource-sharing. This society’s members committed to care for one another, to make sure everyone had what they needed to thrive.

This passage is not a magic formula: sending a TV preacher money does not mean that you will be materially successful. Jesus’s assurance is that if following Jesus’ vision for human community causes one to lose privilege, power, security, and family affirmation, then the intrinsic return of belonging to a society rooted in love and caring cooperation rather than survivalist competition is distributive justice. No one has too much while others don’t have enough, and we all gain a better human society or community.

It may be helpful to look at Mark’s record of these words:

“Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Mark 10:29,30, emphasis added.)

Did you catch it?

“Along with persecutions!”

This isn’t a promise that the road to the equitable society Jesus imagined will be smooth, but that the end quality of community we’re creating is worth the struggle and difficulty to get there. Whenever we begin to critique the status quo, those who benefit from wealth, power and privilege inequalities will fight back. Those who mistakenly feel they have the most to lose will be the most threatened. At the end of the beatitudes in Matthew where Jesus calls us to envision what human society could look like, he encourages those who reach out to begin shaping these communities with the words:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-11)

Consider how the book of Acts describes the early Jesus community beginning to take shape:

“All the believers were together and HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON. They sold property and possessions TO GIVE TO ANYONE WHO HAD NEED. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOMES AND ATE TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

Jesus’s followers formed tightly knit communities where people took care of each other. If someone suffered great material or relational losses for following Jesus, they became part of a community that cared for them in this life.

This is hard for many today to visualize because our culture is so individualistic. First-Century followers of Jesus held all things in common. If someone suffered loss for following Jesus, within their own Jesus community they would be cared for.

It is vital that we break out of our individualism to see this.

Consider these words from Matthew:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

If we remain individualistic in our thinking and living, taking care of ourselves is a matter of survival. What if we were to actually begin to create communities where we committed to taking care of each other? Our current means of surviving would become obsolete.

Some will say, “This sounds like socialism!”

I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan:

“Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3)

It would also be wise to remember Paul’s words to 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, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, emphasis added.)

Helping someone pushed to the edges of society today means creating the type of world I’d prefer to live in for tomorrow. I agree with Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren who recently wrote, “Most of us would rather not live in a kill-or-be-killed world, an enslave-or-be-enslaved world, a dominate-or-be-dominated world, an impoverish-or-be-impoverished world. If we had the chance to build a live-and-let-live world, a world of generosity and justice and neighborliness where we do to others as we’d have them do to us . . . we would gladly choose that option . . . A less violent future is available. It’s within reach.” (The Seventh Story: Us, Them, & the End of Violence, p. 61)

Stop for a moment and dream with me. What would a society shaped by “enoughism” look like? Would a few have more than they could ever need while a majority of others barely scratch out enough to exist? What would a world where everyone has enough to thrive be like? What would most of our collective resources or taxes be spent on? How would we choose to use our personal resources? How would power and responsibility be distributed, and how would we structure our communities?

Where we can begin today is creating communities where we abandon staunch, individualistic survival and begin viewing each other, with our differences, as connected, as part of one another. We aren’t simply passing through. Another world is possible, here and now, if we choose it.

I’ll end with these words from James Robinson in his classic volume The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News:

“[Jesus’] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on.” (Kindle Locations 138-142)

The world we live in presently doesn’t have to look the way it does.

We can do better.

We may not be able to change the entire world overnight, but we can, right now, today, and in our lives, begin with displaying the beauty of what a world shaped by Jesus’ teachings could look like.

And in the end, isn’t the world of “enough” the kind of world we really want?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group the difference between equality and equity. If this is a new discussion for you, a quick Google search will give you plenty of places to start. Why is it that in our striving for equitable equality some folks must be treated with a preferential option or differently than others?
  2. How does this difference impact your personal life in how you relate to others who may also be less privileged or marginalized?
  3. Does this difference also impact the way your HeartGroup is structured and operates? How does this impact how your HeartGroup relates to your larger community and society?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations for the months of November and December are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your support go twice as far during these final two months of 2019. Also, we’d like you to consider becoming one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You can find out more about this special offer to our supporters by going to renewedheartministries.com.

I love each of you dearly.

Have a wonderful weekend.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Entrusted Money

 Picture of money

by Herb Montgomery | February 1, 2018


“In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.”


Featured Text: 

 “A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas and said to them: Do business until I come. After a long time‚ the master of those slaves comes and settles accounts with them. And the first came‚ saying: Master, your mina has produced ten more minas. And he said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the second‚ came saying: Master, your mina has earned five minas. He said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the other came saying: Master, I knew you, that you are a hard person, reaping where you did not sow and gathering from where you did not winnow; and scared, I went and hid your mina in the ground. Here, you have what belongs to you. He said to him: Wicked slave! You knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather from where I have not winnowed? Then you had to invest my money with the money changers! And at my coming I would have received what belongs to me plus interest. So take from him the mina and give to the one who has the ten minas. For to everyone who has will be given; but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. . . .  After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’”

Luke 19:12-13, 15-24, 26: “He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.” . . . He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.” “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”  His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.” Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?” Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.” . . . He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”’”

Gospel of Thomas 41: “Jesus says, ’Whoever has something in his hand, something more will be given to him. And whoever has nothing, even the little he has will be taken from him.’”

Sometimes I have trouble with the stories Jesus chose to use, and I don’t like the story in this week’s saying. Scholars tell us that Jesus chose the stories that would have been familiar to his audience. Our society today is two millennia removed from that world today and sometimes Jesus’s stories seem problematic to us. Before I explain that, let me share an experience I had recently that relates to this week’s saying.

I was listening to an interview of a college economics professor who was critiquing the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. At the core of capitalism is the drive to produce more capital or profit from a product or service. One of many ways owners can achieve this profit is keeping their expenses as low as possible. “Expenses” include the cost of labor, the wages owners pay their employees. The less workers are paid, the more profit one has left in the end.

But here is the contradiction: The wages being kept low are the same funds that most workers will need to buy the product or service they produce. So if wages are too low, no one can afford to buy and owners won’t make any profit at all.

So this contradiction morphs into a balancing act between too much profit for the 1% and not enough money for the masses to survive or not enough profit to keep the 1% happy and more surplus among the masses than the 1% feel they should have. It’s a tug-o-war between the wealthy’s desire to profit and the masses desire to survive with a good quality of life.

In our system here in the U.S., this balance is achieved through government regulations and taxes. Theoretically, as the masses gain too much surplus, those who have profit to lose call for less business regulation and less taxation of their corporations, or more profit. On the flip side, when corporations and the 1% are gaining too much profit, the masses begin to call for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to redistribute wealth or regulate earnings another way (raising minimum wage for example) so that the masses aren’t crushed by the drive to produce profit.

Wagers are kept low enough to produce profit AND people need higher wages to purchase products and services that also produce this profit. Capitalism never will escape this contradiction and the cycle of struggle between the workers and those who profit from their labor and thus this tug-of-war it produces. In the 1960-70s we saw capitalists feeling like society was moving too far toward favoring workers. And they went to work! They wanted more profit and with it the exclusion of people of color from public services. Since Nixon and Regan we’ve seen a steady move toward benefits for wall street and the 1% in our society and now we are experiencing reawakening toward concern for the working class, again.

And this cycle will repeat over and over and over. Many believe there has to be another alternative that produces a safe, more just, more compassionate society for everyone.

As I was listening, the interviewer asked the professor, “How does capitalism exploit workers or employees?” “It’s quite simple,” he responded. “Let’s say an employer agrees to pay a worker $20 an hour. For that employer to be willing to pay that $20 an hour, they have to believe that that person’s labor will actually be worth more than $20 an hour. Once all business expenses have been paid, there has to be a profit to it. The labor which costs $20 has to produce a value that will cover the expenses of the business plus a profit on top. Unless it is an employee owned business, the worker never receives the value of their labor but only a portion of it. This, by definition, is what those opposed to capitalism have called ‘the exploitation of the laborers.’ Workers never receive the full value of their labor.”

Problematic Stories

Again, Jesus sometimes uses stories familiar to his audience, stories that are horrendous when compared to today’s ethical standards.

One example is the story of the righteous rich man and Lazarus the poor sinner found in Luke’s gospel. Postmortem, the expected roles are reversed. The rich man ends up in eternal, flaming, torment while Lazarus resides in Abraham’s bosom. But let it register. Although the story truth is relevant, using the image of eternal torment in the flames of the afterlife is a horrible choice. Only a few sectors of evangelical Christianity even subscribe to belief in eternal torment today because of the pure inhumanity of it. Torment is not reconcilable with Jesus’ new vision for humanity, and so.many within Christianity today see this story as teaching an economic truth rather than literally explaining what happens in the afterlife.

Luke 16:22-24: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”

Another terrible story is that of the manager who falsified customers’ bills behind the back of the business owner, making customers owe significantly less and hoping to gain favor with these costumers. I don’t see anyone recommending this story today as a way for managers to manage the businesses they work for. The story is problematic, but it was a familiar story to Jesus’ audience and therefore he used it to make a point about “the kingdom.”

Luke 16:3-6: “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’”

Another problem in stories Jesus told is the repeated references to slavery. Before the US Civil War, these references were used by Christians in the South to say that Jesus actually approved of slavery.

I would argue that elsewhere Jesus taught a gospel of debts being forgiven and slaves being set free. But that fact that Jesus used stories that on the surface seem to say that slavery was a part of his vision for human society is deeply problematic. One must look deeper at the story truths of these familiar stories to arrive a different conclusion.

I share all of this to illustrate that Jesus’ stories are at times problematic while the truths they teach can be timeless.  Our saying this week is one of those stories.

What is the horrendous backdrop of this story?

As I shared in the above interview with the professor, it’s the exploitation of labor through slavery. Here a master leaves money with ten slaves for them to labor to earn more profit for the master. I often hear from those who oppose social safety nets in society saying, “Those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” This was a slogan not only in the New Testament, and some hyper capitalists today, but also of Lenin. Lenin saw wealthy capitalists who’d invested their money have others labor to earn the investors profits yet be tagged with those who “aren’t working.” This is the kind of master we find in this week’s story:

“You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?”

Karl Marx critiqued taking out what someone does not put in and reaping where they have not sown:

“The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. I, Ch. 13, pg. 363)

If one uses this story to say that Jesus approved of capitalism’s exploitation of labor it would be almost irreconcilable with Jesus’ other teachings that teach a preferential option for the poor and exploited laborers.

So what was the point Jesus was trying to make?

As we will see in next week’s final saying, Sayings Gospel Q ends with the promise of Jesus’s followers receiving stewardship or governing roles over a liberated and restored “twelve tribes of Israel.” Those who demonstrated they understood and practiced what Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was all about would theoretically receive larger roles in that new humanity.

Is there any application in this saying for us today?

Maybe.

Just as each slave was left with funds that they were expected to use to create more, so too each of us today is called to take whatever we have and invest it in transforming our world into a safe, just, more compassionate home for everyone. But there are significant differences between the story and the world Jesus’ envisioned.

In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.

We are called to invest our lives (including our money) in the survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation of people’s lives. We invest our own lives in liberating human lives and reclaiming our own humanity by working with those who daily face some form of oppression and suffering. Jesus’ vision is of a world where the hungry are fed, those who weep now laugh, and the poor receive it all (see Luke 6:20-26) It’s a world whose coming into being is good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the exploited, and the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus’ “reign of God” was about people, not money. It was about life for every person, not the exploitation of the masses for the benefit of the few.

We’re called to use what we have been given to create a world of life.

“A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Remember, another world is possible.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

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“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.