Declaring War Against Poverty

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November is A Shared Table 2021 month!  Find out more here.


(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)


by Herb Montgomery | November 12, 2021

“Seen through this lens and given Jesus’ love for the poor of his own society, Jesus’s criticism of the state was a criticism of a system that had both created poverty and then further exploited those forced to live in that poverty . . . In the gospels we get a picture of Jesus who, focused on sustainable (eternal) life, would have criticized any system that created luxury for a few at the expense of the many.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them: Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, I am he,and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:1-8)

By the time this week’s reading was written, the Jesus movement was living in the wake of destructions including the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 C.E.) that culminated in Rome’s razing Jerusalem and the Jewish temple to the ground. These followers of Jesus are trying to make sense of all these events.

Mark’s gospel therefore paints Jesus as critical of Jerusalem and the temple as the capital seat of the Temple State to the point of foretelling their destruction. Each gospel’s version of the Jesus story describes Jesus as critical of Jerusalem and the temple, and Mark even includes Jesus’ criticism as one of the charges brought against him in his final trials:

“Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: ‘We heard him say, I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ Yet even then their testimony did not agree.” (Mark 14:57-59)

I want us to wrestle with why Jesus, a faithful Jewish male in early 1st century Judaism, would have been critical of the temple or Jerusalem? Think of the term “Jerusalem” here in much the same way as many say “D.C.” or “Washington” when speaking of the system of government centered there.

Christians have long interpreted the events fo 70 C.E. as God punishing the Jews for rejecting Jesus, and that’s been deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. I want to offer an alternative interpretation.

The Temple was the heart of Judaism during the time of Jesus, but let’s look at this week’s passage in more than its religious context. As the seat of the Jewish Temple State, the Temple was also the heart of the banking system and the food industry (both meat and grain), and the seat of political power for Judea under Rome.

Jesus’ criticisms should not be interpreted as anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. Jesus was a faithful Jewish man debating within his own society, and his voice was one of many at the time arguing about what it meant to be a faithful Jewish follower of the Torah given the Torah’s teachings on the poor and eliminating poverty. Seen through this lens and given Jesus’ love for the poor of his own society, Jesus’s criticism of the state was a criticism of a system that had both created poverty and then further exploited those forced to live in that poverty.

Those living after the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. would have recognized the events described in this week’s passage. As we’ve discussed, the Jewish-Roman War began an initial uprising of the poor against rich Temple elites who served as conduits of the Roman Empire. The poor people’s revolt began with their overrunning the Temple and burning all the debt records held against the poor, and each stage of the takeover escalated. Once the Jewish rebels gained control and Rome was brought in, a war broke out between the rebels and Rome while the Jewish elites futilely endeavored to maintain allegiance to Rome as violent uprising erupted all around them.

Josephus corroborates Mark’s descriptions of this era. In The War of the Jews, he describes “a great number of false prophets” who with “signs and wonders” promised “deliverance” or liberation. But in the end, their movements only resulted in masses of the “miserable people” who followed them being slaughtered by Rome (Book 6.285-309). Josephus also writes of the famine in Jerusalem that resulted when the grain storehouses “which would have been sufficient for a siege of many years” were burned by various “treacherous faction in the city” (5.21-26).Finally, he describes the burning the Temple itself (6.249-266).

Many more than Jesus called the people to address the plight of the poor and to end a system that financially benefited wealthy families at the poor’s expense. The rich got richer and the poor only got poorer.

So Mark’s gospel called its audience to see the overthrowing of such economically exploitative systems not as “the end,” but as the “beginnings of birth pains” for a new world.

This makes me think of how so many living at this stage of the pandemic now long for a return to normal. I don’t want to go back to that normal, a world that disproportionally harmed certain sectors of society while giving others privilege, power, and property. I don’t want a post-pandemic world that looks like the pre-pandemic world. We can do better. And we have an opportunity to do just that now. With all the talk of “building back better,” we must continue to ask “better for whom?” Over the last year, the billionaire class has only become more wealthy despite almost 5 million lives lost globally and over 742,000 within the U.S.

So Jesus’ critique of the Temple and Jerusalem was not about being against Judaism, but rather his opposition to an economic, political, and social system that creates and worsens poverty. I wonder what Marks Jesus would say of the United States today if he were on earth?

Jesus’s path pointed us toward life, life to the full (John 10:10), specially for the poor (Luke 6:22)—life and life more abundantly for all. In the gospels we get a picture of Jesus who, focused on sustainable (eternal) life, would have criticized any system that created luxury for a few at the expense of the many. Following Jesus’ path means following him in rejecting any system that manufactures scarcity to create wealth at the expense of vulnerable people.

I’m reminded of the words of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez:

The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

Gutierrez’ words resonate with Mark’s picture of Jesus. What would a different social order look like to you? Can you imagine a world without poverty? What would we need to have in place to eliminate poverty? Jesus’ gospel spoke of a God of life who loved all and desired “life to the full” for all the objects of that love.

Are these just words? Do we who follow this Jesus really believe that a world like that is possible? Can poverty really be overcome? The child tax credit that has already lifted 40% of children out of poverty here in the U.S., and the US just approved billions of increased dollars for the U.S. military budget. I wonder what would happen if we apportioned that same money toward a war against global poverty instead?

It’s convenient for Christians to interpret Jesus’ criticism of the Temple as being about Judaism rather than being about addressing poverty. After all, poverty is a matter of human responsibility. We create it. We can change it. If we choose to interpret Jesus’ words as the latter, then we, too, are called to address poverty. That is the life-giving interpretation; the other bears the fruit of poverty being inevitable or unchangeable and therefore the fruit of death and harm.

I’ll close this week with the words of Nelson Mandela from a speech he gave in 2005 at the Make Poverty History rally in London’s Trafalgar Square:

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been discussing what life-giving sharing looks like? Are there societies that in your opinion are managing wealth disparity well.  What is it about those societies that you like? What are things in those societies that you feel still need addressed? What parts would you like to see reproduced here in the U.S.? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

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A Widow, Taxes, and Giving More Than What is Life-Giving to Give

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November is A Shared Table 2021 month!  Find out more here.


Herb Montgomery | November 5, 2021


“This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.”


(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

As he taught, Jesus said, Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widowshouses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.38-44, emphasis added.)

I interpret this week’s critique as aimed at the political economy of Jesus’ society, not its religions. Some of those who were deeply religious made the lives of poor people more difficult and exploited their situation. I reject any interpretation that would place Judaism itself in a poor light, because Jesus’ concern for the widow in this story is in perfect harmony with deeply held Jewish values.

Deuteronomy, for example, imagines a society where poverty is eliminated:

“There need be no poor people among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)

And the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly single out and express concern for the kind of people centered in our story this week: widows.

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)

See also Isaiah 1:23 and 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10; and Malachi 3:5.

Common interpretations of our story this week fall short. Typically they exalt the poor widow’s religious piety, her willingness to give her all rather than critique a system that would take her all. These interpretations often communicate the idea that God values the gifts of the poor more than the contributions of the affluent, and they praise the sacrificial nature of the worship of poor people.  I find these interpretations deeply harmful and oppressive to the poor.

Social location always matters. How we interpret any sacred text depends on what questions we bring to it, and those questions are determined by how we experience life. We don’t all experience life the same way. Therefore, those in different social locations bring to their sacred texts a different set of questions and get a different set of answers as they read. To get life-giving answers, we must first ask life-giving questions, and the common interpretations of this week’s story are not life-giving. They are the interpretations of those with privilege and status.

This week, I want to offer a different reading of this story, a reading grounded in Mark’s Jesus repeatedly stating that the reign of God means a great reversal: those who are presently valued as last are centered and made first and those presently privileged as first are made last.

First, Jesus accuses the pious, elite class of his society of devouring widow’s houses. Then, in the very next story, Mark offers an example. Far from praising the widow for giving all, Mark’s story condemns all systems, whether religious, political, economic, or social, that condition her to give her all and gleefully take it from her.

“Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.” (A. Wright, The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, CBQ, 44, p 256.; Quoted in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 321)

So just as Jesus warned, the widow in this story is being “devoured,” i.e., being robbed of her very means of existence.

I think of taxation systems that devour the resources of poor people today. Regressive tax systems place a greater weight of sharing space in society on the poor. Progressive taxation is rooted in the concern that the wealthy pay their fair share of the cost of sharing space in society.

Earlier this year here in WV, some legislators pushed to remove West Virginia’s income tax. It would have been a regressive move that would have further transferred society’s tax burden away from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. For now, this harmful push has failed. I want my taxes to be used for the common good, to help those in need, and I favor tax systems that do so progressively not regressively. In this week’s story, Mark’s Jesus condemns a flat, regressive tax structure that “devours the houses” of those already struggling to live through poverty.

I also don’t subscribe to an interpretation of this story that makes light of the gifts of the wealthy and places an inequitable burden on the poor. Those who see in their wealth as a call to share their superfluous “plenty” with those who have less or whose daily needs are not being met are following the principle we read elsewhere in the Christian scriptures: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14).

I think, too, of the multitude of nonprofits in the world doing good with individuals and working for systemic change .They exist solely from contributions given by people with the means to support that work. These gifts are the lifeblood of those organizations. As we work toward a day when these kinds of organizations may not be needed, we must also acknowledge how vitally necessary their work is in the meantime.

We should reject any interpretation of this week’s story that either diminishes the wealthy as they follow the ethical call of the gospel to give their wealth away or praises systems that burden those barely surviving. These interpretations contradict the overarching economic themes found in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The same Jesus that called the rich man to give his possessions to the poor also condemns any system that devours widows’ houses under the guise of something praiseworthy such as national fidelity, cultural pride, and/or religious piety. The widow’s motive in the above story could be any of these.

Ultimately, Jesus’ desire in the stories is that people would have life and have it more abundantly—“to the full” (John 10:10). This isn’t abundance in a prosperity gospel or capitalist sense but in the sense of a human community where every person in the community is thriving. Whether we call it eternal life, abundant life, or just a sustainable life, this is a community where no one has too little while others have too much. It’s an imaginative vision of a world where every person is connected to and committed to others, where every person’s needs are being met, and where no one is becoming wealthy off the exploitation of another. No matter how glorious exploitative systems of luxury may look on the outside, they are not sustainable. As Mark says of the eventual end of these systems, Not one stone here will be left on another” (Mark 13:2).

This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does a life-giving sharing the cost of shared public space, giving to causes and organizations, or sharing with those who have less than they need look like for you? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

Seeing Others As Part of Ourselves

Herb Montgomery | October 29, 2021


“The closest I will ever come to meeting God in this life is you . . . No one should be excluded from our core practice of loving our neighbor as ourself. We are, after all, connected. We are extensions of each other, and part of the same human family. What affects one, impacts all. You are part of me and I’m a part of you.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark. The Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney translates this passage in her A Woman’s Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W:

Now, one of the biblical scholars came near and heard them [the other biblical scholars, the chief priests, and the elders] discussing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scholar asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is: Hear, O Israel: The Holy One our God, the Holy is one; you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the biblical scholar said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that, ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the scholar answered wisely he said, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question. (Mark 12:28-34, page 271)

This week’s story comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges between Jesus and others (see 11:27, 12:13, 12:18). By contrast, this interaction is friendly, and I’ll explain why I think so in a moment.

First, let’s unpack what the narrative says is happening.

A scholar who overhears Jesus’ discussions is impressed with him. He then asks his own question of Jesus, and Jesus’ answer in Mark is squarely in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Rabbi Hillel reportedly once answered a similar question with the response, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole law. everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!”

So the scholar’s question was not only common among Jewish scholars by Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ responses in Mark are also the core confessions of Judaism::

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Many scholars have noticed that Mark’s Jesus replaces “all your soul” with “all your mind,” a signal that Mark’s audience was influenced by the Hellenized world.

Jesus also quotes Leviticus in his reply:

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)

This passage has an interesting context itself. It comes at the end of a list of prohibitions regarding oppression and exploitation of the poor and/or economically vulnerable:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.”

“Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.”

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.”

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:9-15)

Many today tout loving your neighbor as a religious tenet, but Leviticus shows it originally had very real world economic, social and political implications.

So, again, our story in Mark comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges, but we get a picture from this exchange of a Jesus who was challenging a system within Judaism, not Judaism itself. Jesus is faithful to Judaism’ core religious beliefs in this story, and at the same time he is also hotly engaged in calls to return to his interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to Torah as he witnessed people being harmed by the system. This is not a Christianity versus Judaism story, then. This is a story that says, yes, Jesus is challenging those in power within his society, but he is doing this as a Jewish man himself and out of concern for what it means to be a faithful Jewish follower of the Torah, not as someone who is anti-Jewish.

Lastly, the scholar talking with Jesus quotes two passages from the Hebrew scriptures that affirm Jesus’ response:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

“With what shall I come before the LORD

and bow down before the exalted God?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the LORD require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)

For these writers, love of neighbor is greater than ritual adherence and/or forms of worship.

This exchange between Jesus and the scholar brings to my mind an extended passage from Karen Armstrong that I read years ago and that I believe captures the spirit of Judaism and what early Jesus followers were trying to become. I offer this passage both to affirm Judaism and to critique more regressive and fundamentalist forms of Christianity, which seem to me to making a comeback in our culture.

In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:

It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.Then said R. Johanan, Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, I desire love and not sacrifice.’’

Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in Gods image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of Gods image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

I love this way of defining what it means to be faithful to one’s own spiritual journey. As I’ve often said, the closest I will ever come to meeting God in this life is you, whomever you are, for you, like everyone else I meet, are all unique and yet in this one way alike: you bear the image of God.

I have to ask why our story ends with Jesus saying this scholar was only close to or not far from the reign of God? Why was he deemed close yet not there? Was it because he was interpreting his scriptures in life-giving ways, but was still committed to a system Jesus felt was damaging marginalized and vulnerable people in his own society? Was his scholarship correct, but his employment or survival somehow complicit in harm? Why did Jesus say he was only close? We can’t know because the story doesn’t say. But it is something to ponder.

And that leads me back to the words of Rev. Dr. Gafney one more time. I love this statement from her lectionary comments about this week’s passage. She rightly states:

“If our gospel proclamations are not true for the most marginalized among us—women, nonbinary folk, trans folk, gender non-conforming folk, and LGBTQIA folk—then our gospel is not true.” (p. 273)

We could add more communities to Rev. Dr. Gafney’s list here. The point, though, is that no one should be excluded from our core practice of loving our neighbor as ourself. We are, after all, connected. We are extensions of each other, and part of the same human family. What affects one, impacts all. You are part of me and I’m a part of you. Together, we get to determine what kind of people (no pun intended) we will be.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How does seeing others as part of ourselves impact our work for societal justice as well as how we relate to one another within our various faith communities? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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Damage Mitigation Versus Changing the System

black and white picture of hand to illustrate article

Herb Montgomery | October 22, 2021


“It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, Call him.” So they called to the blind man, Cheer up! On your feet! Hes calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:46-52)

At the very beginning of our reflection this week, I want to say: I understand the original cultural context of this story, and I still find it deeply ableist. Gospel stories like this one have repeatedly been the seed of society perceiving people with disabilities or different abilities as either less-than or associated with evil. In stories like the one we read this week, blindness is associated with being sinful and at least is a condition that one must be saved from.

Consider the lyrics to one of Christianity’s most famous hymns, Amazing Grace:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind but now I see.”

(Italics added for emphasis)

The writer, John Newton, associates being blind with being wretched and lost. For him, being able to see is synonymous with being saved and found.

So to all my blind friends, I’m deeply sorry. To my friends who do not have disabilities but are tempted to imagine I am making too much of this connection, consider how you would feel if you had a disability that your society repeatedly attached a moral value to . How would it feel having your disability associated with being sinful, lost, and wretched?

The story’s immediate solution doesn’t resonate with me much either. This man, Bartimaeus, is trying to survive within a system that marginalizes him because of his blindness. He is nether privileged nor benefitted by the system, and he is left to scrape out his own survival.

Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem and overturn the tables of the Temple State to protest a system that leaves so many impoverished and marginalized, but on his way there, his solution is to make Bartimaeus “not blind.”

This is comparable to not changing a patriarchal system but instead making all women men, or not changing a White supremacist system but reclassifying people of color, including Black people , indigenous communities, and immigrants as White. It’s comparable to not challenging a cisheterosexist system, but transforming LGBTQ folx into straight, cisgender, and/or gender conforming. This kind of conversion therapy would really be a kind of genocide.

I don’t believe the solution to a system that treats blind people as inferior is to remove everyone’s blindness. Rather the solution is to challenge and change the system so that blind people are not marginalized or excluded.

My critique may create more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, I believe these are the questions Jesus followers today need to wrestle with. Can we follow the values we have found to be life-giving in the Jesus story while acknowledging many of the ableist ways the Jesus story is told in our sacred text?

I believe we can. We can do better.

Some of the most progressive, historical Jesus scholars see in this story a reflection of actual deeds the historical Jesus did. Jericho, where this story happens, was the last stop before the Temple State’s capital, Jerusalem, and there’s an economic thread to this story as well. As I said earlier, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to flip the tables of an economic, social, political and religious system that privileges a few at the expense of many.

Jesus meets Bartimaeus at what would have been a popular location for Jericho’s beggars to gather. With the holiday coming up, many people would making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. The holiday would have put them in the spirit of giving, and their tithes and offerings would have given them the means to give to so many of the begging people.

Bartimaeus’ name in this narrative also holds meaning. It could mean either “son of him who is honored or highly prized” or “son of the unclean or uncleanness.” In this story, he is both.

This story offers a repeated theme within the gospels: the crowd obstructs Bartimaeus’ attempts to get at Jesus and Bartimaeus’ increased efforts in response. I think of women pastors who belong to religious traditions that oppose women’s ordination, and how much harder they must work to follow their calling. I think of how hard people of color have to work to survive within historically White churches. And I think of the deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia present in most of Christianity still today, and how my LGBTQ friends who love and follow Jesus must work to stay in their faith traditions, even on the edges. Then and now, the crowd closest to Jesus is often the biggest obstacle to those on the margins of society who desire an audience with him.

I also love how our story has the poor beggar Bartimaeus “throwing his cloak aside” when he is finally able to get up and go to Jesus. This cloak, which would have been his only one, was also his most prized trade tool. He would have spread out his cloak to collect coins from those passing by: it was his own meager means to get his small livelihood, and he just tosses it aside. Consider the rich man in the last chapter who was called to make reparations and couldn’t let go of anything.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he had asked of James and John:

What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51 cf. Mark 10:36)

The disciples wanted Jesus to grant them positions of privilege and honor in their own erroneous definitions of what the reign of God would look like. They assumed the reign of God would still mean privilege some at the expense of others.

But Bartimaeus is not asking to be made greater than others. He’s asking to be placed on the same level ground with others in an ableist society that economically, socially, religiously, and politically evaluates him as “last.” He just wants to see. So many disenfranchised and underprivileged people just want to be able to live and thrive on the same level ground as those who are privileged in our present system. For my LGBTQ friends, LGBTQ Pride month doesn’t mean they desire to be better than others: pride for them is the opposite of shame, not the opposite of humility. It is to celebrate being of equal worth to everyone else in a world that continually strives to make you feel inferior.

Bartimaeus just wants to see, and experience all that his sight would enable him to have in his society.

I’m glad the story doesn’t end with Jesus just giving him the ability to see. That wouldn’t go far enough. Fortunately the story doesn’t end with “Immediately he received his sight.” It ends with “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.”

What road was it that Bartimaeus joined Jesus on?

The road to Jerusalem.

That road ended in a temple courtyard with the tables of money changers being overturned. It ended in actions that so threatened the system that they landed Jesus on a Roman cross with other political rebels within the week.

What’s my takeaway from this story?

On our way to creating another world, we are to engage in damage mitigation. While we are working toward a world that a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, we are to work to mitigate damage that our present world is doing by not being just, or safe, or compassionate for everyone. And yet, damage mitigation isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.

And we must do the same.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Damage mitigation, while necessary, doesn’t challenge nor change systems of harm.  What are the differences between charity and justice? Why are both necessary? Why does the church seem to excel at charity, but often fail at justice? What are both the risks and rewards of working for a more just world?

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

No More Slaves

broken chains illustrating no more slavery

Herb Montgomery | October 15, 2021


“These types of systems are to be eliminated, not reformed. We must not merely seek the lowest positions within hierarchical systems of domination and oppression, we are to reject those systems in their entirety. We need neither lords nor slaves. It’s time to leave both categories behind. What would our world look like with neither slaves or servants nor lords? What would it look like if we instead made commitments of mutual care for one another rather than to  more effectively or efficiently dominate each other?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. Teacher,” they said, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” You dont know what you are asking,” Jesus said. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

In this week’s narrative, two of Jesus disciples ask for precedence above the other disciples. In modern political terms, and given what they understand the reign of God to allow for, they are asking for the equivalent of the first and second cabinet positions. But before we fault them too harshly for this, they had good reasons from their sacred text for assuming what God’s just future might look like.

In the Psalms we read:

The LORD says to my lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, Rule in the midst of your enemies!’” (Psalms 110:1,2)

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s Jesus repeat this kind of language:

“Jesus said to them, Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28)

“So that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:30)

In this week’s story in Mark, Jesus replies that they are clueless as to what they are asking for and then asks them, Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

I appreciate that in this passage, Jesus looks at his future cross (“the cup”; see Mark 14:36) as participatory for his followers, just as his baptism was. Jesus had been baptized by John, who ended up beheaded by the powers for his refusal to be silent. Jesus’ options for his followers, cup or cross, are similar to John’s options.

Crucifixion was not a passive acceptance of abuse and injustice. It was Rome’s punishment for those who refused silence in the face of oppression and injustice. Jesus is here stating that leading positions were not arbitrarily awarded in the reign of God. Instead, they belonged to those who refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and abuse when threatened with consequences for speaking out.

James and John were asking for what belonged to those who choose to follow the path of resistance. But the cross for Jesus is not substitutionary or a redemptive sacrifice. It is the price of resisting a system that seeks to silence resistance to its abuses. It calls us not to be passive in response to injustice, even when resistance will bring consequences. (See Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse; Those Things Which Are Eternal; and Speaking Truth to Those in Power)

Remember that Mark’s narrative was written after Herod had executed James, the first of the two brothers: “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (Acts 12.1-2)

In the story, though, the other disciples respond in anger. We are left to assume that they are not angry because the brothers failed to understand the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ vision for human communities, but because these two disciples outflanked the others in their mutual competition to be first. They all failed to understand Jesus’ lesson of the first becoming last and the last becoming first (Mark 9:35). Jesus does not repeat the teaching in Mark 10:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

The reign of God is to be of a different order than the disciples assume. I will push back against this in a moment, but for now, the disciples are to aspire not to be “lords” but “slaves.”

The Christian scriptures later soften this tension, reducing “lords” to “shepherds”:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christs sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of Gods flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1Peter 5:1-4)

I appreciate the emphasis on not encouraging lordship, and we must also be honest that our sacred texts and narratives do endorse slavery and its hierarchy.

Jesus challenges political patriarchy and familial patriarchy (these forms are connected) from the beginning of Mark to the end. From the male disciples’ repeated blinkered leadership failures to the ways women disciples practice the vocation of service, Mark shows yet another illustration of those who are last being honored as first while those first made to be last. Some scholars now question whether the gospel of Mark could have been written by women within the early male-dominated Jesus community.

While I find that idea intriguing, today we must be clear that any effort to merely reform a system that includes slaves and lords rather than eliminating these kinds of relationships is not good enough. These types of systems are to be eliminated, not reformed. We must not merely seek the lowest positions within hierarchical systems of domination and oppression, we are to reject those systems in their entirety.

We need neither lords nor slaves. It’s time to leave both categories behind.

What would our world look like with neither slaves or servants nor lords? What would it look like if we instead made commitments of mutual care for one another rather than to  more effectively or efficiently dominate each other? At the heart of that kind of world would be respect for the dignity of every human being and understanding that we are a connected part of one another. As Valarie Kaur states, “You are a part of me I do not yet know” (in See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, p. 4). It would be a world where we chose social, political, and economic systems rooted in the ethic of loving our neighbors as a part of or as connected to ourselves (Mark 12:31).

Mark puts these words in the mouth of Jesus: “ For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Here the early Jesus movement is wrestling with efforts to redeem some meaning from Jesus’ execution. As I’ve stated before, this is one explanation in the gospels. I find a more compelling and life-giving narrative than the language of redemptive suffering and sacrifice in the parts of the gospel narratives and the book of Acts that focus on God overcoming, reversing, undoing, and triumphing over Jesus’ unjust execution through the resurrection event (see Reinterpreting the Easter Story and Imagery of a Good Shepherd). Death is not overcome in these narratives through more death. Death and death-dealing is overcome through the greater power of life—resurrection life. Everything the state accomplished by executing Jesus was undone through the resurrection.

Our goal today is not to passively give ourselves as ransoms for death, but to become channels of death-overcoming life as we relate to one another as individuals and shape social, political, and economic structures as we share space with each other here in our world. For if we take seriously Jesus’ call for no more lords, and we work for a world where there are no more, we will by that same effort create a world with no more slaves as well.

This week’s narrative is call to both imagine and work toward a different world.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. This week, we have read about being honest regarding our sacred texts rather than a posture of defensiveness and protectiveness.  What are some of the discomforts this level of honesty creates in you, if any? What long term benefit is there in lowering our defensiveness and embracing this kind of honesty? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Getting Free from Fear and Facing the Future Together

black and white picture of the road ahead to illustrate lookin toward the future

 

Herb Montgomery | October 8, 2021

 


Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. Good teacher,” he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Teacher,” he declared, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. One thing you lack,” he said. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the mans face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, We have left everything to follow you!” 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31)

Our passage this week includes a criticism on wealth and there’s a long history of those benefiting from systems that create or maintain wealth disparity and inequity trying to soften it. It will be helpful this week to hold in mind the reality that the early Jesus movement consisted almost primarily of poor peasants. In addition, multiple narratives in our sacred text indicate that wealth redistribution was a central characteristic of early Jesus communities. Consider these from the book of Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostlesteaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 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 2:42-47, italics added)

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

The Torah regulated debt in ways intended to eliminate poverty in the community. I see these narratives in Acts as having the same spirit of war against poverty, with the authors realizing that poverty is a human-made reality and not something that must always exist.

“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 LORDS 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.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-4, italics added.)

Whatever humans create can also be changed by human choices. Poverty is not a universal “way-it-has-to-be.” It presents a critique against the systems that create it, and the greater the wealth disparities within economic systems, the stronger the critique for those who have the heart to listen and understand.

The book of Acts includes another narrative that illustrates the wealth-redistributing nature of the early Jesus community.

“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wifes full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostlesfeet. Then Peter said, Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didnt it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasnt the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.” (Acts 5:1-6)

Whoever included this story in the early narratives of Acts wanted the movement’s ethics of wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and war on poverty to be taken seriously—deadly seriously!

In our narrative in Mark, Jesus recites the phrase “You shall not defraud,” and Ched Myers makes a strong case that this phrase is intended to teach the listener something:

“This is our first indication that much more is being discussed in this story than the personal failures of this one man: judgement is being passed upon the wealthy class.” (p. 273)

We read this story too individualistically in our culture today. The story is not about eliminating wealthy individuals or individual net worth, but rather eliminating an entire wealthy class. It’s a critique of the system that creates such wealth disparity, not a hate narrative against wealthy individuals.

Consider that the story even mentions that “Jesus looked at [the man] and loved him.” Rather than expressing hate against the rich, I want to try and understand them. Societal, systemic change begins with understanding.

I do believe that massive amounts of wealth (billionaire status especially) does something negative to the soul of its possessors when they are an exception in their society—when so many around them have so much less. It must be damaging to have to tranquilize one’s conscience in these cases.

Wealth exercises a stronghold on its possessor, one rooted in fear. Our society is a system of manufactured scarcity: a reality has been created where there is not enough for everyone. This leads to anxiety and a fear of going without, and this fear drives endless efforts of accumulation, too often at someone else’s expense. That drive to accumulate in turn leads to holding more than we need for fear that at some time in the future we may go without. Eventually, wealth-hoarding must be protected against  others who have much less, typically through violence. This whole system is violent.

Within such a system of manufactured scarcity, too many people solve the scarcity problem, but only for themselves: to hell with everyone else. Jesus offered an alternative in his own society that I believe we should consider today. He called people to form communities where members pooled resources and all worked to ensure everyone in the community was taken care of. From his very first call to disciples to leave their fishing nets and follow him, Jesus called people away from individualistic solutions to scarcity—whether that scarcity was natural or manipulated—toward communal solutions.

Yet it’s not easy to get free of the fear of going without that drives the hoarding of wealth. In our story, Jesus talks about camels having an easier time getting through the eyes of needles. The camel/needle illustration has a long history of being softened. Greek scribes or copyists exchanged the word camel (kamelon in the Greek) for the word rope, implying that the task wasn’t impossible if one trimmed a rope just a bit. They and the communities that followed them also created the fiction that the “needle” Jesus referenced was a narrow gate or pass in Jerusalem that was hard, but not impossible, for camels to go through. This was completely untrue, but softened the illustration.

Jesus’ point is that just as a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle, so the wealthy cannot enter the reign of God because a society under the reign of God has no wealthy class. That class has been eliminated. This is why the gospels repeatedly say one cannot serve both God and money.

But our goal isn’t universal poverty either. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

Jesus offered a community structured so that there was enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greeds. Our passage in Mark bears this out. Those who had the courage to divest from individualist wealth in favor of a genuine commonwealth would risk persecution from those benefiting from the inequities of the status quo, but they would also receive “100 times as much in this present age.” They would not receive that individually as prosperity gospel preachers teach, but communally. Under this model, no matter what the future brought, we wouldn’t face it alone. We would have each other and we could face whatever the future holds with our combined resources.

This is a community where those the present system makes last are first and those the present system makes first are last, because there is no more first or last. We are all simply humans deserving of human dignity, survival, and thriving. Jesus’ vision for human community offered a path for thriving.

But the economic teachings of the gospels are so little understood by most Christians today. Consider Christian attitudes to the Occupy Movement years ago, Christian responses to AOC’s dress with the slogan “tax the rich” a couple of weeks ago, or Christian responses to the present movement opposing an economy of billionaires. For wealthy North American Christians who prize their individual wealth and liberties over what is best for society and our collective thriving, this week’s reading offers so much to consider. Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these? What would it look like if we set our security and hope, not on wealth accumulation, but on creating the kind of communities that made wealth obsolete?

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)

 

HeartGroup Application

 

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

2. What could a community that makes wealth obsolete look like? Would this community have to be religious, or could it be secular, as well? What safeguards would have to be in place for both? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 



 

 

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

 


Social Justice, Jesus and Hell

flames

Herb Montgomery | September 24, 2021


“I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem ‘hell’ that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other. So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Teacher,” said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:38-50)

There is a lot in this week’s reading to unpack.

First, this week’s passage is connected to the debate among Jesus scholars about whether or not the historical Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah and ways Christians have long used that title for Jesus in damaging and destructive ways toward the Jewish community.

Second, the passage references a curse against those who cause “little ones” to stumble. This title could apply to children, the most subjugated and marginalized population in many of our social systems. And yet limiting this phrase only to children enables those who benefit by oppressive systems to escape the scrutiny of this passage as well. In truth, children in 1st Century Mediterranean societies lived at the bottom of the political, economic, and social hierarchical system. We have to ask whether Jesus simply loved children and thus spoke in their defense, or whether he stood in solidarity with all who were at the bottom of their social structures and all those pushed to the edges or margins of his society, of which children were the foremost. If this second option is right, then this passage warns everyone who structures society to push some people to the bottom or edges, and those who make life even more difficult for those on the bottom or edges after they have been pushed there. Much to ponder here.

Third, the passage uses the deeply ableist language about entering into the kingdom “maimed,” “crippled,” or having “one eye.” This is more than a translation problem, and more than language that was once acceptable falling out of vogue. It has always been damaging to deem people with disabilities as less than abled people. Jesus’ overt argument is that righteous disabled people are better off than unrighteous abled people. Passages that provide a subtext of a hierarchy lead us into territory of interpretations that are ableist. We can do better than this today. We don’t have to repeat ableist language as we tell the Jesus story and we can also find better ways to tell the story than to imply anyone is inferior because of their differences.

Lastly there are the verses about being “thrown into” or “going to hell.”

I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem “hell” that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other.

So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.

First, the language that the gospels used here would not have conjured a vision of post-mortem, eternal torment for the original Jewish audience. The word translated into English as “hell” is the Greek word, gehenna. That word already had a history and association for Mark’s original Jewish audience. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Aramaic valley of Gehinnom, or Ge Ben (son of) Hinnom. It named a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch” (Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. American Book Company, 1889; read stories about Gehenna in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 2 Chronicles 33:1, and Jeremiah 7:31-32).

In the Hebrew scriptures, Gehenna evolves from the location of horrific atrocities to the symbol of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of foreign, Gentile powers. Consider these examples:

Thus said the LORD: Go and buy a potters earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place, I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 19:1-7)

But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17:27)

Edoms streams will be turned into pitch,

her dust into burning sulfur;

her land will become blazing pitch!

It will not be quenched night or day;

its smoke will rise forever.

From generation to generation it will lie desolate;

no one will ever pass through it again.” (Isaiah 34:9-10)

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;

with his rod he will strike them down.

Every stroke the LORD lays on them

with his punishing club

will be to the music of timbrels and harps,

as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.

His Topheth [the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna] has long been prepared;

it has been made ready for the king.

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,

with an abundance of fire and wood;

the breath of the LORD,

like a stream of burning sulfur,

sets it ablaze.” (Isaiah 30:31-33)

“‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,declares the LORD, so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,says the LORD. And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’” (Isaiah 66:22-24)

Jeremiah uses the phrase unquenchable fire” to refer to destruction by an outside empire. In Isaiah, the language of Assyrias Topheth” focuses on events happening in this life. In light of this, both Jeremiah’s language of eternally burning fire and Isaiah’s language of worms not dying (quoted in this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel) are highly metaphorical and to be taken seriously, not literally.

These prophetic warnings about Gehenna pointed to Gentile empires destroying people in this life, not after death. This destruction was consistently threatened as punishment for systemic injustice, oppression and violence done to the vulnerable and marginalized.

No wonder it was to be taken seriously.

It makes sense that Jesus would use this language taken from his Hebrew scriptures to speak to those who cause “little ones” to stumble. It is also quite possible that the author of Mark used this language to be connected to the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Again, Jerusalem was being destroyed by a foreign, Gentile power.

I’ll end this week with some thoughts on Jesus’ command not to forbid people outside of his own disciples and followers from doing things in his name. Just because they were not part of the community of Jesus’ disciples didn’t mean they were to be stopped. I want to go a step further, though.

Within the Jesus story we find universal values that have proven life-giving. These values and ethics are in many more cultures and religions than mere Christianity—including those with no connection to the historical Jesus whatsoever. I encourage Christians to honor those traditions and values because of their intrinsic, life-giving quality. I’m reminded of a statement we at RHM shared as a meme a few weeks ago now:

“There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.” (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Kindle Location 767) (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17)

For me, it’s not about making sure that we attach “Jesus” as a label to things, but that I value those things the Jesus of the Jesus story has taught me in my life. These things are valuable to me, and not merely because Jesus taught them but because I’ve experienced their intrinsic fruit for myself. Again, I don’t believe these things are valuable simply because Jesus taught them. Instead, I believe Jesus taught them because they were intrinsically valuable. We can honor these values when we see them in others without trying to make them somehow “Christian” and so worthy of our approval. We can simply honor the good they do in our world.

Something is good, remember, based on the kind of fruit it produces, whether it is life-giving or death-dealing. And that fruit is either enough of an argument in its favor, or a sign of something it’s time for us to leave behind.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. However one interprets Jesus’ words on Gehenna, how does Jesus’ teachings on social justice impact your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse

rosary with cross

Herb Montgomery | September 10, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 388:Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse]


“Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of ‘taking up one’s cross’ to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist . . . This story is, on the other hand, encouraging Jesus’ followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, Who do people say I am?” They replied, Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan!” he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Fathers glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27-38)

In this week’s reading, we encounter Jesus’ admonition to his followers that they also “take up their cross.” This saying has a long history of religious abuse, so I want to give a word of caution about it.

Years ago now, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on the violence of interpreting the cross event itself as salvific—how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific have borne death dealing fruit to oppressed communities and/or those who belong to marginalized communities. I explained how the atonement theory of penal substitution has historically produced various forms of social abuse, and how abuse has also been the fruit of alternative atonement theories such as moral influence theory and Christus Victor.

Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of taking up ones cross” to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist. This interpretation has proven very convenient for oppressors and those who dont want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo. It also impacts intimate relationships as well. When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to bear their cross,” be like Jesus,” and simply turn the other cheek”? I have written at length on other ways to interpret Jesus’ turning of the other cheek as a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest, and resistance (see A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence Parts 1-10). I interpret the turn-the-other-cheek passages as did the late Walter Wink, who understood them to give those pushed to the undersides and edges of Jesus’ society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized.

This week, alongside the feminist and womanist scholars who have deeply influenced my thinking, I want to suggest that taking up ones cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure the violence of systemic or relational oppression and abuse, but rather is a call to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a threat for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering if you speak out.

The implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. I have often repeated Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement in their essay God So Loved The World?:

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

So what did Jesus mean, then, when he said take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesuss Final Days in Jerusalem; Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan about the theme of participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that suffering on a cross was intrinsic to following Jesus, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor to triumph or success. Suffering only enters the story of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make, and threaten his followers with a cross. Being willing to take up ones cross is not a call to be passive in the face of suffering, but a call to protest and resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross.

“Taking up one’s cross” in this context means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross in the Jesus story is a symbol of the state violence that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, as Carlson Brown and Parker wrote, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then and only then it becomes necessary for you to “take up a cross” and stand up against injustice. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway!

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life.

How one interprets taking up one’s cross has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed cross,” this week’s reading calls us to count the cost and refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced! Though it may sound like an oxymoron on the surface, speaking out in the face of a threat is a form of rejecting death.

Let’s take relational violence as an example. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

illustration

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross is interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

illustration

But the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice, and the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

Illustration

Jesus is encouraging his followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.

If a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before oppressors send a cross. At other times, change happens after the cross. In both cases, suffering may come, but it is not redemptive.

Jesus emerged in his Jewish society as someone calling for the just distribution of food and land and the inclusion of those presently marginalized. His way of structuring human community threatened imperial Roman society and those who most benefited from the Roman system. And the early Jesus movement that grew out of an encounter with this Jesus resulted in a way of doing life together that was also seen as a threat to those in positions of power and privilege.

When those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, dont let go. Keep holding on to the hope of change even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life! For, Jesus says, what does it profit if you gain the whole world by your silence and yet lose your humanity?

Whoever wants to save their life through remaining silent in the face of injustice will actually be letting go of life. But whoever is willing to fight for life, for equity and equality, for love and compassion, for inclusion, for a just and safe world that is home for everyone, even if you’re threatened with death and death-dealing for doing so—all who refuse to let go of life and those things that are life-giving are the ones through whom life is saved, life is found, and another world is not only seen as possible but created in those moments of refusal.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What difference does it make for you to define ‘taking up your cross’ as a possible response to your speaking out and resistance, rather than passively bearing abuse and injustice? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Openness to Change

sunset

Herb Montgomery | September 3, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 387: Openness to Change]


“In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like. We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, for it is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.” Then he told her, For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the mans ears. Then he spit and touched the mans tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, Ephphatha!” (which means Be opened!”). At this, the mans ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. He has done everything well,” they said. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)

This week we read one of my favorite stories in the gospels of Mark—the Syrophoenician woman. I love this story because it paints a very human view of Jesus. This woman is the hero in the story who points out Jesus’ limited way of viewing Gentiles and the scope of his liberation. I believe this story was specifically aimed at early Jesus followers who suffered from the same limitations as Mark’s Jesus did.

The story illustrates what we would call intersectionality today. Intersectionality is a way of describing the relationships between systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes oppression as an interlocking matrix and helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality. The woman in this story experienced multiple social oppressions that also connected to the oppression of Jewish people under Rome: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.”

Jesus questions her using the worst language: Is it right to give the childrens bread to the dogs?”

No human should be called a dog, especially a woman of another race or ethnicity than one’s own.

Two of the most popular interpretations of this story explain that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach onlooking disciples an important lesson in generosity. I find this interpretation lacking, motivated not by honesty about the narrative but by a desire to protect Jesus from anything that might make him look bad. While I sympathize with this protectiveness, it is unconvincing.

The other more plausible and valuable explanation is that, in real time, Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

This woman belonged to a people group that had once oppressed the Jewish people (i.e. Greeks), yet there is absolutely no indication she felt superior to Jewish people herself. She was also a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal culture. The patriarchal setting of this story begs the question, where is her husband? Why is her husband or the girl’s father not making this request of Jesus as other fathers do in Mark (cf. 5:22)? Is she a single mother? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to speak for herself and her daughter?

The author of Mark has Jesus wrestling out loud: is it right for a Jewish male to help her, a Gentile and a woman?

Intersectionality helps us that every person has a complex identity. Just as the Greeks had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews, the ancient Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews also participated in cultural patriarchy similar to that in Hellenistic Tyre and Sidon, and though they suffered economic poverty under Romes high taxes during Jesus’ time, the Hebrews had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Greek woman belonged to a people who had once oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she needed liberation. Did Jesus have enough mercy for her as well?

What I appreciate about this story is that this woman has the courage to push back against Jesus’ harmful language to get him to see her humanity and the ugliness of his language. In the end, Jesus does understand and his compassion for her wins out. But we must not fail to see the depth of his struggle between genuinely questioning what was right, and allowing his questions to give way, not to rightness,” but to compassion itself.

I think of Christians who still need the permission of their own sacred text to tell them that compassion is allowed or “right.” In this story, Jesus doesn’t wait for permission. He allowed compassion to govern his thinking, and ultimately arrived at the right choice.

Im thankful for a woman who didnt give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her shared humanity and immediate need despite their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was the teacher of the teacher.

Im also thankful for a Jesus who was willing to listen to her, a Jesus open to being shown a larger view even of his own world. Had Jesus sent her away, one could have argued, he would have done the right” thing according to some of his peers, yet a great injustice would have been committed and therefore it would have been wrong. Instead he listened to her, and he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethical teachings of love and justice that day, thanks to this woman.

Jesus models for us how we, too, can grow in the way we understand our world by being open to listening to the experiences and stories of those who are unlike ourselves. We are not all the same. We are all of the same worth. Yet there is vast diversity within humanity, and these differences should not only be celebrated, they should also be heard, attended to, and learned from.

In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like.

We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.

As a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class male, I’m reminded of the times those who are different from me have called me to understand the world in much larger ways. I’m thankful for my feminist, womanist, LGBTQ, Black, and Brown friends, and many others who, like the woman in this story, cared about me enough to push back on my limited way of perceiving the world. They expended energy to help me understand how hurtful my behavior was, and they not only called me to be better, but also believed I could be. For each of them, I am deeply grateful. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just left me as ignorant as they found me, but instead, like the Syrophoenician woman, they engaged a labor of love on my behalf. I’m also glad I chose to listen.

This story also calls me to continue this process. It calls me to look out for places I still need to grow in my understanding of others and our work of making our world a safe, just home for everyone.

In a way, the Jesus of this story in Mark faced the same dilemma we each face when navigating social realities, and so Im thankful to see this side of Jesus. Im just as thankful for the woman who helped him grow in compassion and justice.

I wish we had more time to discuss the second story in this week’s reading, but we’ll get to it another time. It’s a story with a long history of ableist interpretations that have done much damage to disabled people.

For now, may we show the same willingness to perceive the world in much larger ways that we see in the Jesus of our story this week. If Christians would follow Jesus in just this one thing alone, what a difference it would make!

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an experience of where you choose in a difficult moment, not to get defensive, but to apologize when your own faults were pointed out, and chose to be humble and willing to embrace change. Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Worshiping in Vain

Herb Montgomery | August 27, 2021

worship service

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 386: Worshiping in Vain)


I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, Why dont your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” For it is from within, out of a persons heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

There is a lot in this week’s reading. Let’s jump right in.

First, the text names the “Pharisees and some teachers of the law.” It is possible that Jesus himself had training in the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Yet those who were in power in Mark’s gospel were the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. I’ve written at length on the distinctions between these two schools of thought and Torah interpretation in The Golden Rule, Woes against the Pharisees, Woes against the Exegetes of the Law, and Renouncing Ones Rights, so I won’t repeat all of that information here. It’s enough to say that this week’s passage could have been attributed to Hillel the Pharisee as much as we attribute it to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The language and emphasis is very Hillelian.

I share this because throughout history Christians have used the label of Pharisee as a disparaging or derogatory title very carelessly and in very antisemitic ways. Some Christians continue to do so today. We can do better. I want to offer an alternative to these common, anti-Jewish interpretations, and shed some light on why the gospel of Mark speaks so disparagingly of “Pharisees,” I believe, particularly those of the school of Shammai. The following interpretation is not my own but found in Ched Myers’ excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.

Myers argues that the gospel of Mark uses the characters of Pharisees and teachers of the law not to pit Christians against Jews, but to help us understand classism within the Jesus stories and the conflict between upper classes (the elites) and the lower classes (the marginalized).

In Mark’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus’ society was shaped like a cone, with the Sadducees at the center and top of the cone. Right below them were the Pharisees, competing for power. This society also used faithfulness to the traditions of ritual purity and “cleanliness” to determine who were insiders and who were outsiders, who would be centered in that society and who would be pushed to the margins, and who was at the top of the pyramid and who was at the bottom.

The Sadducees were much more conservative in interpreting which behaviors enabled someone to be pure or “clean.” The Pharisees, by contrast, used a more liberal, “progressive” interpretation of purity standards. This enabled more people from the masses to claim cleanliness and therefore avoid being socially disenfranchised. If we were to look at this anachronistically, the Pharisees could be called the blue-collar, working person’s religious leaders, whereas the Sadducees were the religious leaders of the elite and the wealthy who could afford to live up to the Sadducees’ strict standards and their interpretations of who was pure and in or impure and out.

Myers uses the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ differing interpretations of Leviticus 11:38 and of eating domesticated, unirrigated grain versus imported grain from Egypt, which was irrigated but also much cheaper and so affordable for those with less means. Follow closely:

According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees had a more inclusive interpretation than the Sadducees, but even their broader understanding still left some excluded and outcast. Most of all, their interpretation used the needs of the working class as leverage in their power competition with the Sadducees. In Mark’s stories, Jesus sees through this. Though the Pharisees were relevatively more inclusive, they still benefitted from a classist system that left others on the margins.

Jesus emerges in the story as the prophet of the outcasts, whether they are outcast by Sadducees or by Pharisees.

This is the dynamic we are bumping into in this week’s passage. Handwashing was another tradition used to determine who was in and who was out, who was centered and who was pushed to the margins, who was closer to the top of their society and who was closer to the bottom.

But it was classist and elitist. To put it in terms used by Karl Marx, handwashing was bourgeois. Remember this was way before the discovery of germ theory: it was not about cleanliness as we now understand it. Handwashing in this week’s passage was about one’s dedication to Torah observance or rather their interpretations of and adherence to society’s definition of purity.

And Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is not unwashed hands that are harmful in a society, he says, but “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Today, in certain sectors of Christianity, we could apply these same principles. It’s not church attendance, offering size, worship music tastes, watching Fox News as your news media of choice, wearing the political label of “pro-life” or the claim of being a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” that makes you an insider. Jesus could just as accurately say to us: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

What truly threatens a person’s, a community’s, or a society’s wellbeing are greed, classism, scapegoating immigrants, a distrust of science, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacist ways of thinking and viewing the world. These are all things that come from within and are intrinsically harmful and destructive of our human communities—our life together. Jesus’ teaching could be broadened here to parallel contemporary analysis of systemic-isms or kyriarchy. Racism isn’t only internal to individuals, for example; it’s embedded in social policy and custom and culture as well as internal bias and socialization. I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.

Lastly, I don’t interpret Jesus here as simply giving his followers a new list of rules that allowed them to go on practicing the ways of marginalizing others, just with a more internalized standard. I see him doing something much different. By naming the things his new list, I see him calling the very ones who are marginalizing others based on something as silly as washing their hands to do a little introspection and see if there were things within themselves, practices that they themselves engaged in that harmed others or themselves.

What are the things that matter? Why do they matter? What are the things that are genuinely, intrinsically harmful?

And how are we as Christians today worshipping Jesus in vain, holding up elements of Christian culture as the test of who is in and who is out in the midst of our political culture-war, all the while engaging in practices that quite literally in this time of pandemic harm people around us.

What would the Jesus of our story this week say to us today?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. At RHM, we’ve often said that activism is a spiritual discipline. It can also be an act of worship. In what other ways can our justice work, informed by the Jesus story, also be an act of worship? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


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