The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] 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.” (in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

I Do Not Know You

Two paths

by Herb Montgomery

Why is the path narrow? It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow. But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Featured Text

“Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 25:10-12: “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”

Luke 13:24-27: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”

In this week’s saying brings us the imagery of the “strait and narrow.” Typically this saying is read in relation to a post-mortem, divinely-imposed reward or punishment. I’m going to ask you to read it instead in the more immediate cultural context of the destruction in 70 C.E. that Jesus saw looming on Jerusalem’s horizon. We’ve discussed this at length previously. As the elites rejected Jesus’ call for debt cancelation and wealth distribution, exploitation of the poor increased. The poor rejected Jesus’ nonviolent forms of resistance, and they eventually initiated an uprising against the Temple and Rome’s occupation. Their uprising became the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. This eventually resulted in Rome’s violent backlash against Jerusalem.

When we recognize that context, our saying takes on a different taste. Jesus had witnessed many violent revolutions and revolutionaries come to destruction because of Rome’s backlash. History also tells us of many cultures where inequalities became so extreme through exploitation that they imploded and their societies were destroyed. This, we know, was how Rome’s empire eventually fell, too.

History teaches us:

Violent revolutions are typically embraced by the many and end in more costly consequences.

Exploitative societies, the way of domination and subjugation, have also been common—the way of the many. Such societies also have a self-created, expiration date: they will implode.

By contrast, there have been few revolutionaries throughout history, comparatively, who have chosen nonviolent forms of resistance and change.

Few societies have genuinely embraced egalitarianism or a distributive justice that produces life and peace. Few societies and communities have genuinely embraced the way of abundance and sharing, where each person contributes “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), and the resources are “distributed to anyone according to their need” (Acts 4:35; cf. 2:45)

In our saying this week, Jesus is speaking about the realities of life in this world. Once again he calls fellow impoverished Jews to the form of resistance that gave them the greatest chances of surviving attempted liberation. And he also called those at the helm of their economically oppressive society to a Torah style Jubilee where all debts would be cancelled and the wealth of their society would be radically redistributed (cf. Luke 19:1-9, cf. Luke 12:33; 18:22; Mark 10:21).

Varying Failure Costs

In Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink compares the costs of failure for violent revolutions and nonviolent ones. Both kinds have histories of success, like the violent American Revolution that many American citizens celebrate each 4th of July. There are also successful nonviolent revolutions, and some of them are documented in the film A Force More Powerful. Our saying this week is about the cost of failure for both forms of revolutionary resistance. Wink writes:

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence. [Jesus’ nonviolent form of resistance] means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution . . . We need to be very clear that it is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d’etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government. The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals- though in another sense it always ‘works’—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. I do not believe that the churches can adequately atone for their past inaction simply by baptizing revolutionary violence under the pretext of just war theory. No war today could be called just, given the inevitable level of casualties and atrocities. Nonviolent revolutions sometimes happen by accident. They are usually more effective, however, when they are carefully prepared by grassroots training, discipline, organizing, and hard work. Training, because we need to know how to deal with police riots, how to develop creative strategies, how to defuse potentially violent eruptions. Discipline, because all too often agents provocateurs are planted in peace groups, whose task is to try to stir up violence. So we need to know how to neutralize people we suspect, by their actions, to be such agents. Organize, so as to create affinity groups that can act in concert, be able to identify by name every person in their cluster, and develop esprit de corps. And all that is hard work. But also (and this is a heavily guarded secret), nonviolent action in concert can be one of the most rewarding-and sometimes fun-activities available able to human beings.” (Chapter 4)

I believe Jesus was trying to engage the work of survival and the work of liberation in creative nonviolent forms of resistance that provided the best chances for both.

Debt Forgiveness and Wealth Redistribution

At the heart of Jesus’s economic “path,” which few societies find, is the Jewish Torah’s and Hebrew prophets’ call to a distributive justice where inequality is seen as an intrinsic social harm. Debt forgiveness and support of the poor better societies, but few societies have practiced either. Yet there are a multitude of societies, much like America today, where wealth inequality became so extreme that it ultimately destroyed those societies from within. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

Aristotle also saw this same truth:

“Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves; and therefore the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then to distribute this fund in block grants to the poor.” (Aristotle’s Politics, Book VI, Chapter 5)

In his new book, Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky comments on Aristotle’s call to redistribute the wealth of the elites.

“It’s of some interest that this debate [less democracy which protects the elite vs. less poverty that protects broad democracy] has a hoary tradition. It goes back to the first work on political democracy in classical Greece. The first major book on political systems is Aristotle’s Politics— a long study that investigates many different kinds of political systems. He concludes that of all of them, the best is democracy. But then he points out exactly the flaw that Madison pointed out. He wasn’t thinking of a country, he was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and remember, his democracy was for free men. But the same was true for Madison— it was free men, no women— and of course not slaves. Aristotle observed the same thing that Madison did much later. If Athens were a democracy for free men, the poor would get together and take away the property of the rich. Well, same dilemma, but they had opposite solutions. [James] Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy— that is, to organize the system so that power would be in the hands of the wealthy, and to fragment the population in many ways so that they couldn’t get together to organize to take away the power of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was the opposite— he proposed what we would nowadays call a welfare state. He said try to   reduce inequality—reduce inequality by public meals and other measures appropriate to the city-state. Same problem—opposite solutions. One is: reduce inequality, and you won’t have this problem. The other is: reduce democracy. Well, in those conflicting aspirations you have the foundation of the [American] country.” Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Kindle Locations 152-163, emphasis added).

Nonviolence and Wealth Redistribution (including debt forgiveness) are the soil of distributive justice and equity from which the fruit of peace grows out of. This “narrow” path leads to life.

Why is the path narrow?

It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow.

But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Isaiah 40:3:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Before It’s Too Late

There is also an element of “before it’s too late” in this week’s saying:

“When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.”

There is a point of no return that violence and inequality reaches in societies when those societies cannot recover. If Jesus could see his own society getting closer and closer to that point, it would make perfect sense that he would try to warn those who would listen. Many societies don’t accept what that means; even Jesus’s did not heed the wisdom. How often throughout history have the wealthy voluntarily let go of their power and resources to share with those who have less?

Even so, Aristotle saw this vision for Athens. Some in his day decried the inequalities in Athens that Rome was facing its last days. We see Jesus, three decades before Jerusalem would be turned to Gehenna, trying to turn the tide within first-century Palestine, too.

Today the poets and prophets still cry:

Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27 cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-4)

HeartGroup Application

The last phrase in our saying this week, “you who do lawlessness,” reveals that in Jesus’s call for debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution he was calling the people to follow those sections of the Torah that called for the same. Deuteronomy 15 stated clearly that if inequality were strictly guarded against, “there need be no poor people among you” (verse 4).

This week I want you as a group to watch a short documentary together and then engage in an exercise in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts.

  1. The documentary I’d like to you watch is Requiem for the American Dream.
  2. Then I want you to find five places in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts where you see examples of either Jesus calling for the redistribution of wealth or Jesus followers heeding Jesus’ call and engaging the redistribution of their surplus wealth.
  3. This last part will be the most challenging. What do you envision wealth redistribution looking like today? Describe what forms this could possibly take within our own society. Discuss the various descriptions your group comes up with and how each of you could lean into these descriptions, like those in the book of Acts, in your daily lives.

At Renewed Heart Ministries, we believe that this first century, Jewish prophet of the poor has something to offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Each of us is called, together, to the work of making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for all.

Where this finds you this week, lean into that work, and know you are not alone.

It is this work that defines what it means to keep living in love.

Thanks for checking in this week.

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Speaking against the holy Spirit 

White dove in the cage, Pigeon locked in a cage.by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Luke 12:10: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Gospel of Thomas 44: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him. And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven.’”

Womanism and Spirit

For those unfamiliar with the womanist school of thought, Alice Walker writes, “Womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xii). Womanism’s origins are among Black women of the African diaspora. And within our context this week, I love the emphasis womanist writers place on Spirit.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, a Christian womanist, explains, “The Spirit is the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God/Creator, Jesus and all of creation are inextricably entombed.” (My Sister, My Brother, p. 31). She quotes Igbo theologian Okechukwu Ogbannaya: “[Spirit] is like the amniotic fluids—the waters of the womb—that encompasses a child before it is born, and accompany it, flowing out with it as it makes its way into the world as we know it. It surrounds the child and forms the first environment out of which it is born.”

Christian womanists view Jesus as the “human embodiment of Spirit” (ibid.). Spirit is the source of strength and courage to both survive and stand up to individual and systemic oppression. Womanists join love with justice in their discussion of Spirit. Emilie Townes, for example, reminds us that we see the evidence of the Spirit at work when we see justice as the demands of love (see In a Blaze of Glory, p. 143-144). Within a womanist understanding, whenever we see love as engagement of the world of justice for the oppressed, marginalized, or subjugated, we are seeing the Spirit at work.

So a womanist would read our saying this week assuming that the Spirit expresses love through restorative, liberative, transformative, and distributive justice.

I remember an evangelical fourth of July celebration I had to attend once in California where supporters of the Christian Right repeated quoted Paul’s statement, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [liberty]” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Too often, however, this “freedom” or “small government” rhetoric has not been freedom for the oppressed, nor liberty for those imprisoned and exploited (Luke 4:18). Rather it has been about individual freedom, or state’s freedom to oppress, segregrate, imprison, and exploit.  (For an example read here.)

In other words, for those at the top of an exploitative social pyramid who are privileged, advantaged, and benefited by the status quo, freedom and liberty means something fundamentally different than it does for those at the bottom. One is fixated on the freedom of the individual to do whatever they desire. The other sees that in nature, we are not truly free from one another. As we said last week, we are interconnected. We are part of one another. We are each other’s fate, and what one does affects others. What the individual does affects the community as much as what the community does affects the individual. We are not genuinely free from one another.

The Spirit’s work in Luke is especially helpful for us to remember now:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year for the cancelling of all debts [or “of the Lord’s favor.”]” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

The Spirit works in solidarity with those on the undersides and margins of our societies. It calls those among the elite to abandon their advantage, join the rank and file, and work for a society marked by equity, fairness, compassion, and safety for all.

This week, I want to encourage you to think of the Spirit in the context of distributive justice, justice that makes an environment where each person not only survives but also thrives. This is one of the most devastating critiques of capitalism for Jesus followers because capitalism creates wealth disparity between winners and losers.

The U.S., the wealthiest nation in history, is also home to the greatest wealth disparity in history. Today six people possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of society. Despite being so wealthy, the U.S. is still home to 43 million people who live below the poverty line. As I often say, the game Monopoly is fun for the first two rounds, but the last two rounds are only fun for one person at the table. For everyone else, it’s a slow painful death.

I want to speak for a moment to the middle class in our society. Here in the U.S., we do have a class structure. Below many of us is the lower class. Above us is the upper class, and there are large portions of the middle class of people who have drunk the upper classes’ Kool-aid. These are people who look at the upper class and long to be where they are, who subscribe to their economic philosophies and their societal “solutions.”

Even within Christianity, many people here in Appalachia think that if the poor can simply be taught how to play the upper class’s game of gaining and keeping individual wealth, this will solve poverty. (An example are churches who promote programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University).

What I want us to stop and consider is whether the game itself has moral ramifications. Is it enough to teach people how to succeed in an exploitative system? In Sayings Gospel Q we rather see a Jesus who critiques the exploitative system itself and casts before his listeners’ imagination a world that plays by a different set of values and priorities.

But I continue to bump into a certain resistance in Christian churches when I speak of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Just recently a gentleman came up to me after one of my presentations, stuck his finger on my chest, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else take my hard earned money away from me and give it to lazy poor people.”

I want to try and break down what I see happening here. First within the U.S. the higher one traverses up the class structure the more tax loopholes one can use to legally avoid paying taxes. The U.S. president admitted in the third presidential debate, “I haven’t paid taxes in nineteen years. That makes me smart.”

This legal tax avoidance means that the middle class pays most for social programs that go to alleviate the economic hardships that capitalism produces for the poor. The lower middle class—those who have worked really hard just to eek across the line from lower class to middle class—pays most. They have worked really hard to get to where they are, and I get that frustration.

But what I want us to see this week is that they, too, are being played by the upper class that doesn’t pay any taxes. They get out of paying taxes, unlike us, and they place the majority of the tax burden on others. This predisposes middle class people, even in Christian congregations, to have knee-jerk negative reactions whenever helping the poor is brought up.

Most of the Christians I have the pleasure of giving presentations to are middle class Christians. They are not exempt from what I’ve described above. When Christians hear their Jesus speak of selling everything the have and giving it to the poor, they hear it from their social location and they respond, “But then we all will be poor.”

I would like us to consider that Jesus’ message to the upper class was “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” To the middle class Jesus would instead say, “Do not be afraid little flock, it’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom, too. Seek first Jesus’s new social order,” which the gospels refer to as “the Kingdom.” This is a social order marked by no more classism, mutual-aid among those in the lower class, resource-sharing for those in the middle class, and radical wealth redistribution for those in the upper class. Jesus envisioned class structures being replaced by a shared table with enough for everyone. Every person’s needs are met in the Kingdom, and not in the sense of “just scratching by.” No, no. This is world where everyone is thriving together!

But here is the catch: How does this relate to our saying this week on “speaking against the Spirit.” The spirit Jesus spoke of is the Spirit of liberation and restoration and transformation. It calls those who are in the middle class to stop their love affair with the upper class. Stop standing in solidarity with the rich. Stop making preferential options for the wealthy. Enter instead into a love affair with the poor. Stand in solidarity with the economically exploited. Embrace Jesus’ preferential option for the poor! When we do this, “all these things will be added unto you” intrinsically, because within a community that embraces the values and priorities of Jesus’s social vision, all these things are added to everybody!

“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

And yet the upper class continually has us think, speak, feel, and act against this “Spirit” that anoints one to bring good news to the poor. Some, in an attempt to delegitimize a world that looks like Jesus’s, use as slurs such labels as “leftist,” “socialism,” “communism” because they know that many people find these words emotionally charged. Some of those who use these terms derogatorily don’t even know what they mean! And others do know and use them accurately, but genuinely want an oligarchy where the world is ruled by the elites.

Stop falling for their fear-mongering.

Stop drinking their Kool-aid!

Recently I watched two documentaries back to back. The first was The 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Then, at the request of a friend, I watched the documentary Occupy UnMasked, which is an Alt-Right spin on the Occupy Movement written by Steven Bannon and hosted by the late Andrew Breitbart.

Watching these two films back to back is what produced a spontaneous combustion in my heart. There are people today who buy hook, line, and sinker popular misrepresentations of the Occupy Movement. (The movement did have flaws, as all movements do, but was nowhere what Breitbart accuses it of being.)

When the masses have been made solely dependent on corporate elites for survival, this has been massively detrimental to them. And yet, I have family and friends who think that documentaries like Unmasked represent the truth, while documentaries like The 13th are spin. It is calling evil good and good evil. The Hebrew prophets pointed out the same phenomena within their societies:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

The term “fake news” was originally used to call out conspiracists whose reporting was without foundation. I have family now who calls news agencies like The Washington Post “fake news.” They are saying things like “I’m simply choosing to believe in the alternative facts.”

Each of these family members also claims to be Christian. And though they might not realize it today, their Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed. He taught a gospel that did have a preference, for the poor, the outcast, those forced to live on the edges of society.

Stop standing with those who once were in the driver seat of abuse and want to be restored to that place of power over others once again. Stand in solidarity with and be informed by the voices of those who historically have been abused. Equity will always feel oppressive to those with privilege. Their privilege over others is being removed. Their advantage over others is being removed. But we are making a world that is safe for everyone, including them. They rarely perceive it this way.

Wherever the liberating, holy Spirit is believed to be evil, where it is accused of being dangerous, as it was by Jesus’ enemies among the elite in his own society, these words call us to reconsider:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

HeartGroup Application

Who is telling the truth? Which side should one listen to in the uphill work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for us all? Jesus’ gospel calls us to make a preferential option for the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed, all of them. We cannot afford to make a world that solves the human dilemma at the expense of any group.

Sit down with your HeartGroup this week and

  1. Discuss what difference it makes to define Jesus’ holy Spirit as liberation for the poor, marginalized, and disinherited?
  2. Those in positions of privilege within the status quo will always have a different side to the story. Of course they will, because even if only subconsciously, they want to preserve their social location. What difference will it make to base your preferential option on the perspectives of underprivileged people in our society?
  3. This week choose some well respected news outlets to read and begin asking yourself which side is this person’s perspective making a preferential option for: those with privilege or the underprivileged? Then come back to your group next week and discuss any changes in the “Spirit’s work” that you began to perceive this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and following the gospel Jesus modeled for us by making a preferential option for the least of these. Wherever this finds you this week, keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. We are in this together.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Knowing the Father through the Son 

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

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

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

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

That opens up questions like:

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

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

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

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

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

My Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Herb Montgomery

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

Luke 6:39: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?’

Matthew 15:14: “Leave  them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Gospel of Thomas 34: Jesus says: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”

The earliest record of a saying like the one we’re considering today is more than 200 years older than the time of Jesus:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. (Katha Upanishad; The Upanishads written between 800 BCE-200 BCE.) [1]

Two other early references to this metaphor appear in North India and Rome during the first century BCE. In North India, the Buddhist Pali Canon recorded an oral tradition story in 29 BCE:

Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. (Canki Sutta) [2]

In Rome, a similar phrase is found in the writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE:

Caecus caeco dux” [“the blind leader of the blind”]. Epistles 1.17.3-4

The Jewish community that treasured the sayings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q included this metaphor as one Jesus used. We’ll look at Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this saying in just a moment.

First, Jesus wasn’t talking about physical vision.  He was talking about perception, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn, and the danger this becomes when one is in a position of influence. I’ve experienced this personally this year. In my small town of Lewisburg and statewide here in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed ignorant leaders influencing the masses that follow them, inciting them to be afraid of those they are unwilling to genuinely “see” for who they are.

At the end of last year, our local city council began the process of updating the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Lewisburg’s nondiscrimination ordinance already included discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion. The city felt the need to also include gender identification and sexual orientation, to broaden the current nondiscrimination ordinance to include members of the LGBTQ community. This effort came when a coal miner with over a decade of employment was hazed, vehicle vandalized, and fired after getting married when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer. In West Virginia, a person can be evicted from their housing or fired from their job because of their orientation.

During the campaign to change this ordinance, one of the council members asked my wife and me, “Every person is somebody’s child. How would you like your child to be treated?” Regardless of what differences may exist among people, everyone should have a fair chance to qualify for work, to provide for themselves, and have a safe roof over their head at night. My family believes that, and not just for our own children.

Not long after that conversation, a local minister of the largest Baptist church in Lewisburg began to incite his congregation to fear. Choosing not to perceive members of the LGBTQ community for who they are, he began a campaign of dehumanization and mischaracterization. Out-of-town lobbyists we invited, rallies were held, signs were placed all over town. The message, like Seth Brundle’s in the 1986 horror film The Fly was, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.” Some of the most moral, ethically upstanding people I know belong to our local LGBTQ community, so the minister’s campaign was nothing short of slander. But the folks here in small town West Virginia don’t have the exposure or education to be able to “see” people unlike them for themselves. This was a classic example of the blind leading the blind.”

Despite that rampant misinformation, in February of this year, our city council unanimously voted to update our city’s nondiscrimination policy. I’m also happy to say that it has been over a month now in our sleepy little town and the world has not come to an end.

After this decision though, many of the people who were working locally to incite fear and misinformation moved their effort to thestate level to try to undo the local vote. Lobbyists got legislators to introduce a new bill that was a West Virginia version of the “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up all over the U.S. Over and over again, those responsible for this bill denied their bill was connected to the discrimination ordinance but was simply designed to “restore” religious freedom they claimed had been lost (yet they could not show where or how).

This new bill passed in the state House but was voted down in the Senate. What made the difference? The Senate amended the bill to state that its provisions could not be used to undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in the name of religious liberty. Legislators then dropped the bill, proving that it had nothing to do with religious liberty, but was rather designed to give people a legal loop hole for continuing discrimination against others in the name of their  “sincerely held religious belief.”

Yes, each person should be free in matters between themselves and their God, with at least one exception. When one’s sincerely held religious beliefs endanger another human being, one is never free to practice those beliefs. Once, child sacrifice was a sincerely held religious belief. For some people, racism is still a sincerely held religious belief. Subjugation of women is a sincerely held religious belief, and homophobia and heterosexism are also sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religion has done good. And religion has done great harm. We must encourage the good while we limit the harm. The freedom to practice what one believes is a value that must be held subject to the greater value of “do no harm to one’s neighbor.” Anyone our religious beliefs would endanger has the right to be protected from our sincerely held religious beliefs. While we possess freedom of religion, they also possess the right to live in freedom from our religion.

So what does this have to do with the blind leading the blind?

I took a day to go and visit my state capitol and speak directly with my local representatives in both the House and the Senate about our religious freedom bill. What I was overwhelmed with as I left that day, beside disillusionment of the system, was how “blind” two of my three local representatives had been to understanding what was really behind this bill. Only one of the three understood. The truth did eventually come out, but in the meantime, the depth of ignorance and lack of exposure of my local and state leaders left me speechless.

In both secular civil governance and religious faith and worship, the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is, at times, overwhelmingly appropriate.

Now, there are plenty of instances in first-century Palestine where Jesus could have applied this metaphor.

  • The faithful, radical Zealots who felt the only way to liberate Palestine from Roman domination was through violence.
  • The Jerusalem-centered aristocracy who, in order to preserve their own place in society, copted the Temple to add religious legitimacy to Rome’s imperialism.
  • The wealthy elite who failed to share their surplus with the poor and instead used their capital to exploit the poor and make greater wealth.
  • The group of Pharisees and Sanhedrin members who subscribed to the teachings of the school of Shammai, and who not only drew strict lines between Jew and Gentile but also drew lines between themselves and other Jewish people they perceived as not orthodox enough.

How do Matthew and Luke show Jesus using this parable?

Luke includes this as one of Jesus’s sayings in the body of teachings scholars call The Sermon on the Plain.

He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Matthew does something quite different, and his use of the saying begins with Mark’s underlying narrative.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts physical “defilement” with ritual “defilement.” The author of text mistakenly claims that “all the Jews” do not eat without first washing their hands. This is historically untrue, and the later Matthew and Luke, knowing this to be untrue, correct the error by leaving it out. (Compare Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Luke 11:37-41) In fact, among the Pharisees, only Pharisees of the school of Shammai would have washed their hands before eating, and only the priests (according to both Hillel and Shammai) were required to wash their hands before eat their food. That is, the rest of the people who were not priests were not legally required to wash their hands. But the stricter Pharisees chose to conduct themselves like the priests, believing that they also held a scholarly position in Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy. So it was not a requirement for all Jews during Jesus’s time.

By refusing to wash his hands in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus was making a political statement. I believe he was aligning himself with the “common” people of his day as opposed to the religious “elite.” In all three gospels, Jesus turns the discussion from washing hands to the religiously-justified oppression of the poor by the wealthy, religious elite of his day. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the religious elite included the priests and some wealthy Pharisees.

This is where our saying from Matthew comes in this week:

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15.12-14)

The context of this saying in our most Jewish gospel is Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, the common people, and even those judged as unorthodox.

We can pair this week’s metaphor, “blindness,” to the one we discussed last week, “deafness.” The inability or unwillingness to listen to the stories of those whose experience is different than your own is what these metaphors are describing. Could it be that the cure for socio-political “blindness” is using our ears to listen to the stories of those unlike ourselves? By listening, our eyes can be opened and we can begin to “hear with our ears” “see with our eyes” and “understand with our hearts” and our blindness can be “healed.” (Compare Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14-17; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40.)

I believe that those who desire to follow the teachings of the 1st century Jewish Jesus of Nazareth must learn to listen to each other. Especially, we must learn to listen to those who, as in Jesus’s time, are presently being marginalized and subjugated by social structures of privilege.

We must learn to stop debating about people who are being oppressed by the status quo, and begin listening to them instead. Those interested in leaning into this exercise of listening, consider beginning with listening to the experience of people of color. There are other demographics that you could start with, but this would be an excellent first step. Three books that I can recommend to get you started on your journey of listening are:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone

A Black Liberation Theology (Fortieth Anniversary Edition) by James H. Cone

As we use our ears, our eyes become opened. The cure for healing our eyes is in letting others have our ears and thereby access our hearts.

In the words of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q:

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

HeartGroup Application

One of the purposes of HeartGroups is to facilitate a space where we can begin to learn how to listen to each other. Yet even this is not enough. Too often the groups we listen to are the ones we most identify with. In other words, we listen to people who are most like ourselves. This can create a ideological feedback loop that becomes precious little more than philosophical inbreeding. The type of listening that cures our blindness is when we listen to those who are unlike us, especially those harmed by the way things are.

This week, I invite your HeartGroups to:

  1. Together, watch the recently released film Enough Room at the Table. You can access the film here. It will only cost your group $0.99 to watch together. That’s unbelievably affordable.
  2. Discuss with your group, after watching the film, how your group could begin taking steps to become more diverse. List the steps you discuss.
  3. Pick one item on your list to practice.

Thank you for joining us this week. We’ll continue with Sayings Gospel Q next week.

Until then, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

  1. Juan Mascaró. The Upanishads (Penguin Classics, 1965) p. 58
  2. Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Being Full of Pity 

by Herb Montgomery

Rainbow in mountain valley during sunset. Beautiful natural landscape

“Be full of pity, just as your Father is full of pity.” (Q 6:36)

Luke 6:36: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We can split this week’s saying into two parts. The first portion is obvious: the call to adopt God’s “pity” and apply it to the way we relate to each other. The second portion of the saying involves Jesus naming God our “Father.” Let’s begin with this second part first.

Many have described Jesus as progressive for his era in his estimation of and relation to women. Eliel Cruz’s piece 7 Reasons Why Jesus Would Have Been a Proud Feminist highlights some of the evidence for this. Yet Jesus still taught in the gender inequality of his culture.

In a presentation I gave in the summer of 2015, The Radically Inclusive Jesus, I argued that Jesus taught that women also bore the image of the Divine. In the Gospels, Jesus uses feminine images to represent God and God’s reign. (See Matthew 13:33; Luke 15:8; Luke 13:34; and Matthew 23:37.) Writers also argue that including feminine images for God as Jesus did was perfectly in harmony with the Hebrew scriptures (see “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture).

There is more to the affirmation of women in the Jesus story than egalitarianism however. Marcella Althaus Reid (Indecent Theology) is just one theologian who has pointed out the problems created for women because both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives begin with a virgin birth. Matthew also centers male perspectives and voices in sections of his gospel, including the Sermon on the Mount. Delores Williams (Sisters in the Wilderness), Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse), and Rita Nakashima Brock (Journeys of the Heart) all critique traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death and how those interpretations have contributed to the abuse of women. This week’s saying presents another challenge to the treatment of women within Judaism and Christianity, and that challenge is Jesus’ gendered term for God, “Father.”

Karen Armstrong makes a helpful statement in her book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions about the patriarchy of Axial Age cultures like Judaism:

“The Axial Age was not perfect. A major failing was its indifference to women. These spiritualities nearly all developed in an urban environment, dominated by military power and aggressive commercial activity, where women tended to lose the status they had enjoyed in a more rural economy. There are no female Axial sages, and even when women were allowed to take an active role in the new faith, they were usually sidelined. It was not that the Axial sages hated women; most of the time, they simply did not notice them. When they spoke about the “great” or “enlightened man,” they did not mean “men and women”—though most, if challenged, would probably have admitted that women were capable of this liberation too . . . It is not as though the Axial sages were out-and-out misogynists, like some of the fathers of the church, for example. They were men of their time, and so preoccupied with the aggressive behavior of their own sex that they rarely gave women a second thought. We cannot follow the Axial reformers slavishly; indeed, to do so would fundamentally violate the spirit of the Axial Age, which insisted that this kind of conformity trapped people in an inferior and immature version of themselves. What we can do is extend the Axial ideal of universal concern to everybody, including the female sex. When we try to re-create the Axial vision, we must bring the best insights of modernity to the table.” (p. xxii)

I agree with Karen here. In the New Testament we witness a push and pull in the stories of women for liberation from male-dominated oppression in the early churches. That these stories survived means that at least some women in the early church felt Jesus’ teachings set them on a trajectory of egalitarianism. One book that made a strong case for the beginnings of equality for women in the Jesus story is Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee. (Unfortunately this book assumes firm gender binaries.) Elaine Pagels also acknowledges this struggle in her book The Gnostic Gospels. She writes that one of the differences between those who won and those who lost the power struggle for control in the church of the second and third centuries was their difference of opinion on whether women and men were equal.

So again, I agree with Karen’s statement above. The trajectory of the Jesus story can inspire us to bring to our reading of the gospels the “best insights of modernity.” As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the Pharisees eventually embrace recognizing every person as bearing the image of God, regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. That same trajectory eventually allowed people to recognize the image of God in women as well as men, too. We see this trajectory acknowledged in the writings of the controversial New Testament Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) James V. Brownson (Bible, Gender and Sexuality) pointedly states that within the New Testament there are two streams.  One is egalitarianism and the other patriarchy.  The question we have to answer for ourselves is whether we perceive Jesus as pointing the way from the stream of egalitarianism toward patriarchy or from patriarchy toward egalitarianism.

So today, as we recognize the equality of “male” and “female,” it is just as appropriate to speak of God as a parent, to refer to God as both mother and father, or “Mother-Father” God. We could just as accurately say, “Be full of pity, just as your Mother-Father God is full of pity.” [1]

Pity Versus Compassion

The saying for this week follows Jesus’s reference to a God who causes the sun to “rise” and the rain to fall on all indiscriminately and Jesus calls us to imitate this.

The word for “pity” in Luke, which the International Q Project most believes reflects the Q document, is oiktirmones. Oiktirmones can be translated as compassion, pity, or mercy, and each of these translations has subtle differences, so let’s discuss each of them.

Compassion is sympathy for those who are suffering and a desire to alleviate their suffering and work toward their liberation. Pity can imply a feeling of superiority; whereas mercy is compassion shown toward someone who deserves punishment or harm.

Most can more easily embrace the ethic of compassion toward the suffering than they can muster the ethic of compassion on those who deserve punishment (mercy). And pity is even easier than both.

The teachings and example of Jesus do affirm compassion toward the suffering and oppressed. Yet the sayings of Jesus we’ve explored over the last few weeks also teach us how to relate to our enemies, those who persecute and oppress other people.

When we apply pity or compassion to our persecutors, enemies, or oppressors, the differences become clearer. Pity contains the temptation to believe that we are superior and disconnected from oppressors. But our goal is interconnectedness, not superiority. All humanity is connected, and Jesus sets the radical transformation of oppressors as the goal we should strive for.

As Howard Thurman relates in Jesus and the Disinherited, the slave participating in slave masters’ Christian worship services could easily reason, “I’m having hell now. When I die, I shall have my heaven. The master’s having his heaven now. When he dies, he will have his hell.” And the following day, speaking of the master, that slave could say “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven, ain’t going there!” (p. 60)

But the deep human desire is not to merely survive this life’s oppression, but to thrive through liberation. Compassion will get us closer to liberation than superiority ever will. Perhaps, oppressors should be pitied for being captive to a system of injustice that is broader than them, but compassion in the form of mercy can lift us above mere pity to work toward the transformation of our oppressors.

Let’s also note that Matthew uses the term teleios, usually translated as “perfect.” Teleios is the Greek word from which we get our modern word telos. A telos is an ultimate goal or aim. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains that he had come not to abolish the Torah but to bring it to completeness (pleroo). He is in agreement with Hillel in seeing the Torah as the beginning of a trajectory that is not complete until it ends in compassion. Whether someone is our peer and able to reciprocate, lower on the social pyramid and without the ability to reciprocate, or an enemy, higher on that pyramid, we follow Jesus by treating them with the compassion and mercy we would want to receive. For Jesus, the reign of God is people taking care of people. And that was the aim that the Torah always pointed to.

In this, we come back to our original points this week. The Jesus story is part of that Jewish trajectory that ends with egalitarianism not only between men and women, but among everyone. At the end of that trajectory, no one dominates or subjugates another. We have a world where we learn to serve one another rather than create more efficient means of depriving others. In that world, we choose the way of compassion for everyone, a compassion as indiscriminate as the shining sun and falling rain. In acknowledging that our world is a shared table, we wake up, nonviolently confront evil, and transform our world into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

The way of compassion is rooted in being “full of pity, just as your Mother/Father is full of pity.” (Q 6:36)

HeartGroup Application 

1. This week, write out what compassion looks like, in your view, for the three groups we mentioned above.

a. Those presently suffering from whom you will not receive anything in return.

b. Those you consider your peers who have the ability to reciprocate when you give.

c. Those with whom you believe you have a negative relationship.

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup what each expression of compassion looks like and which of these three you feel would most transform your world.

3. Choose one of these three compassionate actions to practice this week.

Thank you for joining us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 


 

1. I did not get to choose the title of my first book, Finding the Father. The publishers chose that title.

Impartial Love 

by Herb Montgomery

Dominoes lined up and falling“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” —(Q 6:32, 34)

Luke 6:32: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”

Luke 6:34: “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.”

Matthew 5:46-47: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Gospel of Thomas 95: “Jesus says, ‘If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.’”

Our saying this week builds on the sayings we’ve discussed over the last three weeks: Loving Your Enemies, Renouncing One’s Rights, and The Golden Rule.

This week’s saying addresses those in Jesus’s audience who might have accepted his teaching on the Golden Rule, but only for those who would do the same for them.

These audience members would have reduced the Golden Rule to reciprocity: an exchange between equals for one’s own advancement and benefit. For them, the Golden Rule could have been co-opted to mean only “getting ahead” and not a way to make the world a safer, more compassionate world for us all.

James Robinson, in his book The Gospel of Jesus, describes what this limited interpretation could have looked like in the Roman patronage system and can look in our political systems today:

“In the Roman Empire, [self-interest] was called the patronage system and was even codified in the Latin expression Do ut des, “I give so that you give”; in the animal world, it is “I scratch your back so you scratch mine.” In modern politics, it is called euphemistically “special interests.” Lobbyists get elected officials to vote for the legislation that favors the firms whose “generous” campaign gifts made it possible for the officials to get elected in the first place. This is how elections are “bought”: our firm treated you well in your last election campaign, so you treat our firm well in the way you vote, and our firm will treat you equally well in your next election campaign. . . . Self-serving favoritism does not deserve the term “love,” for love shows itself to be real by being directed toward persons who have nothing they can do for us by way of return. So Jesus called for love to go far beyond one’s kinsfolk, neighbors, peer group, patron, and campaign contributors. As a result, his new love commandment is much less known, not to speak of being much less practiced.”

This quality of reciprocity is quite different from the ethic we are considering this week. The Sayings Gospel Q teaching is about loving those who cannot offer us anything in return. There is no quid pro quo here.

As we’ll see in the weeks to come, Jesus uses the Golden Rule to inspire a domino-effect in those who receive love to then turn and practice that love in their relations with others. The Golden Rule wasn’t designed to establish private relationships of mutual benefit between two individuals, but to produce a whole new world where everyone treats everyone as they’d like to be treated even when there’s nothing gained in return. Love was to be reciprocated, but more importantly, love was to be shared with other people.

This distinction is foundational to the rest of Jesus’s teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. The Golden Rule is not merely or exclusively between a loving person and a loved person. It’s between the loved person and another person in need of love, as well. The person who receives this kind of impartial love is called upon to reciprocate by indiscriminately loving a third person, and through their love, what Jesus calls “God’s reign” transforms the world and enlarges continuously from each person to the next.

In Sayings Gospel Q, the reign or kingdom of God begins with love even when we have nothing to gain.

Jewish Pride; Jewish Power

I need to say a word about the comparisons in this week’s texts and the text references to Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, and pagans. As we covered last week, when these texts were written, the school of Shammai dominated both the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. In an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and culture, the School of the Shammai drew a sharp line between Jews and Gentiles, and prohibited the people from crossing that line.

But it’s in the soil of human disconnectedness that the weeds of supremacy and superiority take root. It doesn’t matter whether a group is in the dominant position within a society, as the Romans were, or forced into a subordinate position, as the Jews were. Supremacist beliefs for those at the top of domination systems justify and protect their position of privilege, power and control, whereas supremacist beliefs for those at the bottom are, as Howard Thurman taught, a useful fiction that oppressed people use to survive domination. (For a discussion on techniques of survival used historically by oppressed peoples that end up being self-destructive in the long term, please see Thurman’s excellent volume Jesus and the Disinherited.)

In this 1st Century context, Hillel taught that every person bore the image of the Divine, and worshipping God was revealed in how one treated another regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. But Shammai sharply distinguished between Jew and Gentile—we could call it “Jewish pride” or “Jewish Power”—and his school framed it as a matter of Jewish survival while the Jewish self was being denied by Roman oppression.  In our time, James H. Cone in his book Black Theology and Black Power, within the context of his own experience, rightly rejects defining Black Power as an effort to “assert their right to dominance over others because of a belief in black superiority . . . Black Power is an affirmation of the humanity of blacks in spite of white racism.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p.14-16, emphasis added.) The same could be said regarding LGBTQ Pride as a necessary expression of affirming the humanity of those whose humanity has been denied by the dominant sector of society.  Protesting Jewish subjugation in the context of the Jesus story could very easily be seen as a Jewish Lives Matter movement within early first century Palestine.

Jesus does not condemn the School of Shammai’s survival technique in our saying this week. His Jewish listeners did not need to have their self further denied: their oppressors were already doing that. They needed their self affirmed and liberated from oppression. While supremacy anywhere in society opposes egalitarianism, feelings of supremacy in the hearts of oppressors are of a markedly different quality than claims of superiority oppressed people might make.

Jesus does push back on his audience’s claim to be superior while using the oppressor’s ethics. When they loved only those who loved them, Jesus said, their morality was no greater than their oppressors’ morality. For Jesus, failing to love people who might never give anything in return negated any claim to moral superiority.  If the “Jewish Pride” and “Jewish Power” movements of his day would enter into the new human society they were seeking to establish, it would not be through more disconnectedness, but through endeavoring to embrace humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence.  In other words, in response to a “Jewish Lives Matter” statement, Jesus as a fellow Jew is not disregarding their daily struggle to survive by responding, “No, All Lives Matter.”  To the contrary, he is saying, “Yes, Jewish lives DO matter! And if our liberation is going to made a reality, we must live by set of ethical teachings greater than those presently adhered to by our oppressors!”  The teaching we are looking at this week asks us to live from the truth of interconnectedness by taking care of those from whom we will never receive anything in return.

As Howard Thurman also states in his book The Luminous Darkness, “[A] strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all [people] are members of one another.”

Remember: according to Jesus, the reign of God was shown in people taking care of people.

The Prozbul

We have spoken about Hillel’s prozbul enough over the last few weeks that I won’t detail it this week. Where Jesus mirrors the school of Hillel in their broader interpretation of Torah, Jesus pushes them even further on economics.

Jesus’s economics, in harmony with the Deuteronomic code (Deuteronomy 15:9), called the wealthy elite to lend even if the sabbatical year was approaching and to expect their loans not to be repaid.

To lend knowing that all debts would be cancelled in the Sabbatical year and your money would never repaid was a pathway toward wealth redistribution and a way to eliminate poverty among the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 15:4). Today, some fear “socialism” or “communism” yet wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the poor was central to Jesus’s economic teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. He taught his followers to lend even if they would never get their capital back.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we are called to love indiscriminately and impartially. Jesus calls us to love in a way that mimics a God who “raises the sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d). Any partiality perpetuates the disconnectedness that pervades our planet.

The answer is to see that we are all interconnected and to love based on that, even if there is no immediate return on our relational investment. The goal is what Jesus called “the reign of God” where people, rather than dominating one another, learn to take care of and provide for one another.

So for all those in whom this week’s saying resonates as true:

“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:32, 34)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time contemplating the nature of impartial love.

  1. What does it look like for you to love impartially? What does it look like to help others in need when there is no hope of them ever returning the favor? What does it look like to love in moments when the cost of that love will never be repaid?  And just because the love is not reciprocally repaid does that mean that the world created by the act has no overall reciprocal value in return?
  2. If you were part of the wealthy elite of Jesus’s day, how would you have felt about loaning your wealth even if your loan would be cancelled and never repaid?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup relational and economic ways to apply impartial love toward others. Choose to practice one of those applications.

Again, I’m so thankful that you are joining us for this series.

Until next week, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

See you next week.

The Golden Rule 

by Herb Montgomery

Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus

Left to right: Confucius, Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth

“And the way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Q 6:31)

Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Gospel of Thomas 6:3: “And do not do what you hate.”

This week, our focus in Sayings Gospel Q is almost universally referred to as the “the Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule has a broad and lengthy history, beginning, to our best understanding, in 5th Century BCE China.

Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions that “Confucius was the first to promulgate the Golden Rule. For Confucius [the rule] had transcendent value” (p. 248). Armstrong explains, “Confucius saw the ‘ego principle’ as the source of human pettiness and cruelty. If people could lose their selfishness and submit to the altruistic demands of the li [courtly rites similar to medieval European etiquette and courtesy] at every moment of their lives, they would be transformed by the beauty of holiness. They would conform to the archetypal ideal of the junzi, the superior human being.” Unlike isolated monks who seek virtue by separating from all of society including family, Confucius also saw “family” differently:

“Instead of seeing family life as an impediment to enlightenment, like the renouncers of India, Confucius saw it as the theater of the religious quest, because it taught every family member to live for others. This altruism was essential to the self-cultivation of a junzi: ‘In order to establish oneself, one should try to establish others,’ Confucius explained. ‘In order to enlarge oneself, one should try to enlarge others.’ . . . Confucius saw each person as the center of a constantly growing series of concentric circles, to which he or she must relate . . .The lessons he had learned by caring for his parents, spouse, and siblings made his heart larger, so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his immediate community, then with the state in which he lived, and finally with the entire world (Armstrong, p. 207).

Mozi, in the fourth century BCE, extended the Golden Rule in China. Isocrates promoted the Golden Rule in Greece in the 3rd Century BCE, and it appeared in India and Persia as well.

These centuries are what Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong describe as the Axial Age, the beginning of an awakening among several human cultures when most of them (except for Greece) moved away from the violence and tribalism that had characterized them before. This somewhat simultaneous transition among these cultures is fascinating.

Due to the diaspora and the continual upheaval within Judea during this time (which was not in the least conducive to the quietness that, Armstrong argues, often yields spiritual awakenings, though some would disagree), the Golden Rule does not appear clearly in Judaism until the late first century BCE. The first clear record we have of it in Judaism is the teaching of the Pharisee rabbi Hillel in the 1st Century BCE. Last week we told the story of Hillel summarizing the Torah with the line: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and learn it.” [1] For Hillel, the Torah was best expressed not in the legal letter, but in the law’s spirit—the Golden Rule.

For the 1st Century Jewish Christians to include the Golden Rule among their record of Jesus’s teachings indicates that this early, original Jesus community believed Jesus’s teachings represented a more compassionate, inclusive interpretation of the Torah. Let’s look at the history around Hillel and that early community.

Hillel, in the later years of his life, served as president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin handled both the legislative and judicial functions of Jewish government. When Hillel died, Shammai, then vice-president, became president and passed eighteen ordinances that reflected his own ideas more than Hillel’s. The Talmud’s redactors describe this act “as grievous to Israel as the day when the calf was made” by Aaron at the base of Mt. Sinai (See Shabbat, 17a). Shammai’s ordinances, believed to have been intended to build up Jewish identity, included harsh, divisive, antisocial separation between Jews and Gentiles. As such, a folk story developed that mimicked the story of Hillel summarizing the law for a would-be convert. When someone promised to convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai rebuked him and sent him away, believing this to be impossible. Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel became president of the Sanhedrin after Shammai (30 CE), but those who subscribed to Shammai’s interpretation of Torah remained the dominant Sanhedrin party until about 70 CE. Today, Rabbinical Judaism follows Hillel’s interpretations, believing that a “Voice from Heaven” made the rulings of the house of Shammai null and void.

It is in the context of this conflict between the compassionate school of Hillel and the strict school of Shammai that Jesus’s teachings were given.

By including the Golden Rule in the teachings of Jesus, the early Jewish community believed to have been the source of Sayings Gospel Q place Jesus alongside Hillel’s more inclusive, more compassionate interpretation of the Torah and in contrast to the school of Shammai. There are only two exceptions: the prozbul that we talked about last week and divorce.

We discussed last week how Jesus parted ways with Hillel on economics and the prozbul that carved out exceptions for lenders against the interests of the poor. And he parted ways with Hillel on the subject of divorce as well. The school of Hillel believed that a man could send his wife away for almost any displeasure. Jesus’s teachings on divorce in the gospel of Matthew and Luke are more in harmony with the more stringent school of Shammai who taught that one could only send one’s wife away for infidelity.

This is not the case in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus’ teachings on divorce are even more stringent than Shammai’s and give no justification for divorce. However, I would argue that whereas Shammai’s teaching on divorce was more stringent, Jesus’ teachings were more centered in concerns of social justice for subjugated women in a patriarchal society. They increased justice in that society, as did the Deuteronomy instruction about remarriage in its era. (See Deuteronomy 24.1-4)

But please notice the political effect of Jesus’s mixed alignment with the schools of his time. The members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees who subscribed to the school of Shammai, would have seen Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard who violated the standards they believed would strengthen their culture. There would have also been members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees of the school of Hillel who would have loved much of what Jesus taught, yet because of his teachings on the prozbul and divorce, would have simply been “on the fence” about him. They would not have been able to fully embrace the teachings of Jesus. They would have been able to embrace Jesus on some matters, but not for everything. With the school of Shammai in the influential majority during Jesus’s teaching ministry, this would’ve been a dangerous political position. Any allies he would have had on the Sanhedrin would have been in the minority.

I believe the gospels tell a historically incomplete picture of the Pharisees. Certainly Jesus would have run into problems with the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. But I think it’s important to note that Matthew uses the phrase “some Pharisees,” and not “[all] the Pharisees” (Matthew 19:1). This is a subtle but important difference. The School of Hillel won out, eventually, over the school of Shammai within Rabbinic Judaism.

Armstrong, in the same book, backs this up. She writes:

“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . The Pharisees [of the school of Hillel] wanted no part in the violence that was erupting destructively around them. At the time of the rebellion against Rome [65-70], their leader was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Hillel’s greatest student. He realized that the Jews could not possibly defeat the Roman empire, and argued against the war, because the preservation of religion was more important than national independence. When his advice was rejected, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin in order to get past the Jewish Zealots who were guarding the city gates. He then made his way to the Roman camp and asked Vespasian for permission to live with his scholars in Javne, on the coast of southern Palestine. After the destruction of the temple, Javne became the new capital of Jewish religion. 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

What does all of this mean for the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q? It means several things.

  1. It means that the early Jewish followers of Jesus perceived Jesus and his teachings to be a part of this compassionate stream of thought represented by Hillel. That stream eventually won out in Rabbinic Judaism.
  2. Jesus’s execution was more politico-economic than religious. It was not Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, and the golden rule that got him crucified. The school of Hillel was already teaching these values and Jesus came alongside of that stream and taught them as well. What created the greatest difficulty for Jesus was his solidarity with the poor and his critique of the wealthy elite and their exploitative economic system that centered in Temple and its aristocracy. In our time, it wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings on racial integration and inclusion that inspired his assassination. King was assassinated when he began to threaten the military and economic system of America.
  3. The anti-Semitism created by Christianity and that produced the Holocaust is based on a deeply flawed interpretation of the history of Jesus and the Jewish people. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And to a large degree he was a Jew who subscribed in most things to the school of the greatest Jewish rabbi of all time, Rabbi Hillel.
  4. There is much about Rabbinic Judaism that flows from Hillel’s teachings and is in perfect harmony with the ethical teachings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q. And this harmony provides much common ground for a healthy and positive interfaith discussion that needs to continue.

To believe that Jesus taught the Golden Rule is to harmonize us with the transition away from violence, tribalism, and oppression toward peace, justice, inclusivity, and egalitarianism within all of the major faith traditions. There are exceptions, but Christianity is still moving toward this transition. Just as Hillel influenced Rabbinic Judaism, it is my prayer that the Jesus revealed in Sayings Gospel Q can also influence modern Christianity.

Whether we attribute the Golden Rule to Confucius, Hillel, or the sayings of Jesus, it’s a better way than the eye-for-an-eye principle of treating people the way they have treated you. With the Golden Rule, we have the power to not only be the change we want to see but to also set those changes in motion with the principle of reciprocity. For all those who are striving toward a safer, more compassionate world for us all, in the words of the Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q:

“The way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:31)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, set aside ten minutes every day for quiet contemplation. I want you to contemplate only one thing for these ten minutes—the principle of the Golden Rule. Meditate on the interconnectedness of us all, and what it looks like to live this principle in your daily life.
  2. At the end of the ten minutes each day I want you to write down the key insights you gained from the experience.
  3. Share what you discovered this week with your HeartGroup for discussion and action.

Thanks, once again, for joining us this week. I’m so glad you did.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Shabbat 31a, in A. Cohen, ed., Everyman’s Talmud (New York, 1975), p. 65.

Love Your Enemies

by Herb Montgomery

Woman holding protest sign which reads "love your enemies."“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

The saying we’ll look at today from Sayings Gospel Q builds on the passage we looked at last week. The last saying blessed those being persecuted while working toward the social changes Jesus imagined and invited us to imagine as well. This week’s saying goes one step further and addresses how we are to respond to our persecutors.

Let’s look at how this saying is written in our companion gospel texts.

Luke 6.27-28: But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Luke 6.35: But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Matthew 5.44-45: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Arguably, the most prominent American champion of enemy love in a context of working toward social change in the last century was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On November 17, 1957, King stood before the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and delivered an sermon titled Loving Your Enemies. In that sermon, he said:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Last summer, I spoke at a convention, and sat in the audience during another speaker’s session. At the end of that session, a participant asked the speaker the question, “What is it that prevents the present hegemony from simply being replaced by another hegemony when it is overthrown?”

(As we’ve shared before, a hegemony is another word for a domination system in which one group holds hierarchical dominance over a group it has subjugated.)

Jesus’ vision is not a hegemony. It is a world where there is no more domination, and no more subjugation, a world where every person has treated with the same indiscriminate egalitarianism that is expressed in the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.

But the audience member’s question about replacing one hegemony with another is a serious and important one. The challenge with most revolutions is that the revolution’s “enemy” is framed as someone to be defeated and then subjugated as they had subjugated others. This approach doesn’t remove pyramids of oppression but simply replaces them with a different pyramid of oppression founded on a different set of values. And this is not the vision of either Martin Luther King or the Jesus of the gospels.

The answer to the problem is in King’s concept of “double victory.” Not only can we win liberation from oppression, but we can also win our oppressors to join us in this liberation work. The goal, again, is that everyone gets to enjoy the sunshine: everyone is equal.

And this paradigm of a double victory is rooted in Jesus’s enemy love. Rather than seeking retributive justice against the revolution’s enemies, which too often becomes an attempt to extract an eye-for-an-eye, Jesus’s enemy love is rooted in restorative, transformative, liberative justice, justice that frees all parties involved.

Enemy love requires us to see our enemies as in need of liberation from a system of injustice as much as we are. Their liberation is of a different character than ours, yet they still have a need.

I do want to say a word of caution though, about this teaching. Jesus was a poor Jewish teacher in first century Palestine and lived under Roman rule. He was not, as many of us are, a citizen of any of the most powerful nations in the world. To illustrate this difference, Howard Thurman once wrote, “Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected [like Paul] by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as Paul did]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch . . . Unless one lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 33)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was not part of the Jewish wealthy elite. Jesus belonged to the community of the poor (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8). Jesus did not tell wealthy people, “Listen, we need to be charitable toward the poor impoverished people around.” No, when Jesus spoke of generosity, he was speaking to his fellow poor craftsmen and rural peasant farmers in Galilee, giving them teachings on how we can create an alternate society where each of us trusts God to send people to take care of us to the degree that we let go of what we may be hoarding out of insecurity, and instead listen to the God that sends us to go and take care of them. Jesus called this alternate society “the rule of God”.

In the same way, when Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, just as he was not part of the wealthy elite speaking about the poor, he was also not part of the wealthy Jewish elite telling the oppressed and poor Jewish craftsmen and rural farmers they needed to love wealthy oppressors in spite of the hardship and injustice the elite had caused them. Let me explain why this is important.

First, Jesus was speaking to his fellow impoverished Jews, inspiring them with an approach that, rather than destroying their enemies, had the potential to transform their enemies. And although Jesus did not use the language King used two thousand years later, what he taught was in essence, King’s “double victory.”

Recently, a police officer who was attending one of my presentations objected to my support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His objection was based on his perception that a sector of that movement sees using more violent means, in order to be heard, as a viable option.  (Being a police officer, the irony of his concern over the use of violence was lost on him.)

The important difference I want you to consider is that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to be a man of color telling other Black men to work toward transforming their White enemies. Gandhi had to be a brown-skinned Indian inspiring his fellow Indian citizens to seek the transformation of their British oppressors. Had King been White, or Gandhi been a British Colonialist, a message of enemy love would have been a subtle form of self-preservation and violence toward the oppressed and served to continue their oppression.  The exceptions to this are when there are internal variations, within the larger groups, that we must consider.  King was Black speaking to Black people, but he was also a middle-class, highly educated Black male from the clergy class.  Gandhi was an Indian speaking to Indians, but he was also light-skinned, a Kshatriya (as opposed to the so-called “untouchables”), and a lawyer (from the 2nd top caste in their social pyramid.)  Sometimes there are intra-group variations who (within the same community) can speak to these matters less oppressively.  They may look different in other words, but they share other facets of the oppressed people’s experience more than those whose appearance is the same. For example, I am in community with a person of color who upon hearing Justice Clarence Thomas speaking on race, she would not respect him, but equally feels that Jane Elliot could credibly speak on the matter.  There are ways for people who look the same to sustain the same oppression that the mainstream sustains.  The point is that commonality and solidarity can’t be assessed on the basis of one characteristic alone. Intersectionality as a theory highlights these intra-group distinctions and they are important. (If you would like to explore these ideas further please read We’re not all alike, and that’s not a problem by my dear friend Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD.)

An Accompanying Call For Restoration

Jesus spoke powerfully and convincingly to the poorer class of Jews of his time, yet Jesus’s message of enemy love to the oppressed was accompanied with a strong requirement that oppressors restore justice toward the oppressed. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he did not call this charity. He called it justice.

Luke 12.33: Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Luke 19.8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Luke 7.29: All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right . . .

To only call the oppressed to love their enemies without calling for oppressors to make reparations and restore justice is a subtle form of violence to those who have been wronged. If enemy love is going to be taught, it must, with the same breath, be taught alongside emphatic calls for justice to be restored.

The goal is not to replace one hegemony with another, to place the oppressed on top instead. The goal is rather a world where every person participates in equity, where each can share abundance, enjoying the sun and rain side by side, and where there is enough for all.

One last word: loving your enemies is not “letting them off the hook.” It is not ignoring what they have done, lessening its value, or pretending that it’s nothing. It takes their offense seriously and also desires their transformation. Loving your enemies is the desire that they don’t face mere retribution but rather encounter a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is the desire for them to experience healing and to choose to reject their place in great machines of injustice. And who knows, they might just join you in trying to transform the very ones who they used to resemble.

The question we must wrestle with is whether the radical transformation of the Zacchaeuses in our lives is enough. Do we need them to pay as a form of penance for what they have done? If they should be brought to a place where they desire to give out of a sincere wish to restore, would that be enough?

It really does come down to asking the question of intent. What do you desire for your enemies? Is it a world where now you are on top, dominating those who once wronged you? Or do you desire a “double victory,” a world where your enemies have undergone radical transformation? Is your desire a world where there is no more domination, no more oppression, no more subjugation, discrimination, or injustice?. A world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike? Could you share a world with those who have wronged you if they were “won” rather than just defeated, transformed rather than just destroyed? Could you live in a world alongside them if they, too, were radically changed?

If your answer is yes, you are moving toward the heart of the message of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q as he admonishes us to love our enemies.

As we progress through  Sayings Gospel Q, we will encounter Jesus’ strong words to those who need to restore the justice they have violated. That part of the message is as vital is the part we looked at today. Both messages are what we must wrestle with if we want a world that is truly safe and compassionate for everyone:

“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

HeartGroup Application

Is transformation enough or do we want retribution?

  1. This week I want you to begin with an private exercise. Picture the person on this planet that you like the least. When you have them in your mind’s eye, ask yourself: Would it be enough for you if that person came to understand what they have done to you, if they were more than sorry, and if they actively sought to repair the wrong they have done to you? Not all wrongs can be undone, but if that person was transformed, could you forgive?
  2. Jesus, in Sayings Gospel Q, calls us to pre-empt this transformation by initiating the process with enemy love. This does not mean that you accept what they have done. It means that as you imagine and interact with them, you have in view the end result of their transformation. As you ponder these questions, write down the questions, emotions, struggles, and challenges these questions present to you.
  3. If you feel comfortable, share what you learn with your HeartGroup. Discuss with each other how, whether we belong to the party of the oppressed or the oppressors or to both parties in different ways, we can move toward a safer more compassionate world for all, where equity is as indiscriminate as the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.  Then make some choices to act in the way of forgiveness and reparation. These steps don’t have to be huge at all. You can take small steps, but take a step. Step toward either transformative forgiveness, or restorative reparation in one of the ways you discussed with you group.

Enemy love and enemy transformation was at the heart of Jesus teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. It was at the heart of Gandhi’s ahimsa (love or compassion), as well as King’s struggles for racial equity and his final movements in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Yes, if you take these steps, there will be push back. When you call for change, there will be pushback from those ill-treating you. Keep calling, all the while, learning to love transformationally those who oppose you. And remember, as the Dalai Lama has said, “It is the enemy who can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance.”

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A New Liberator (Part 2 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3) 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at Matthew’s parallels:

The Pentateuch

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law Giver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slaying of Innocents

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

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

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

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

 

Jewish Midrash

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

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

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

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

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

Sending Away:

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

Revelation 1: 

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

Re-Uniting:

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

Revelation 2: 

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

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

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

Perplexity:

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

Revelation: 

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

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

Sending Away and Re-Uniting: 

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

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

Sending Away: 

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

Revelation: 

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

Re-Uniting: 

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

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

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

Sending Away:

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

Divine Revelation:

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

Re-Uniting:

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

(Matthew 1.18-24, emphasis added.)

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

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

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

The Magi and the King of the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream: 

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

Interpretation: 

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

Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities:

Revelation: 

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

Fear: 

“Alarmed thereat, the king…”

Advice: 

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

Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs:

Dream: 

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

Fear:

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

Interpretation:

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

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

Revelation:

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

Fear:

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

Advice/Interpretation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you next week.