Prophets and Priests

Herb Montgomery | April 5, 2019

Picture of woman using megaphone
Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

“Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics.”


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) 

RHM’s book of the month for April is Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic A Theology for the Social Gospel. Although Rauschenbusch writes in the language and limits of his time and social location, he and others in the early social gospel movement nonetheless broke new ground by calling Christians to return to the gospels’ teachings on social change, social justice, and social salvation. Their call contrasted with versions of Christianity that focus on private, individualistic, or personal salvation. Many who have been raised in evangelical Christianity today still are surprised when they discover the gospels’ focus on systemic injustice. This focus was accurately labelled the “social gospel” not because it focused on social salvation instead of personal salvation (as some have wrongly accused) but because it focused on social salvation alongside personal salvation.

Forty years after A Theology for the Social Gospel was published, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read it and wrote, “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 91).

This week I want to look at a juxtaposition that Rauschenbusch uses in the end of A Theology for the Social Gospel. I admit freely that it’s oversimplified in terms of what we know today. I also find Rauschenbusch’s description of the function or motivation of the ancient priestly class in this paragraph to misrepresent the priestly function in the Jewish faith tradition as a whole. I do believe Rauschenbusch’s description matches his own experience with institutionalized Christianity and the professional clergy’s push back against his call for a more socially focused gospel. I believe he is reading his own experience back into the text. I, too, can attest that it is difficult if not impossible to get professional Christian clergy to see things at times that their paychecks requires them not to see. This can happen within any faith tradition when an institution and those employed by that institution become aligned with injustice, exploitation and/or exclusion. Yet this passage from Rauschenbusch still has much to offer us as we seek to speak truth to power or call out systemic injustice despite push back from those who benefit by what Rauschenbusch named as “institutionalized sin” (whether within our faith traditions or our larger secular communities). The juxtaposition he uses is that of priest versus prophet in the Jewish faith tradition. I found his comments under what he classifies as prophetic deeply encouraging and this week I want to share them with you.

“The priest is the religious professional. He performs religious functions which others are not allowed to perform. It is therefore to his interest to deny the right of free access to God, and to interpose himself and his ceremonial between the common person and God. He has an interest in representing God as remote, liable to anger, jealous of his rights, and quick to punish, because this gives importance to the ritual methods of placating God which the priest alone can handle. It is essential to the priestly interest to establish a monopoly of rights and functions for his group. He is all for authority, and in some form or other he is always a Spokesman of that authority and shares its influence. Doctrine and history as he teaches it, establish a jure divine institution of his order, which is transmitted either by physical descent, as in the Aaronic priesthood, or by spiritual descent through some form of exclusive ordination, as in the Catholic priesthood. As history invariably contradicts his claims, he frequently tampers with history by Deuteronomic codes or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, in order to secure precedents and the weight of antiquity. He is opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which he has woven about him. He is the middle person of religion, and like other middlemen he is sincerely convinced that he is necessary for the good of humanity and that religion would perish without him. But underneath all is the selfish interest of his class, which exploits religion. 

The prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God, which henceforth is the dominant reality of his life. It creates inward convictions which become his message to men. Usually after great inward conflicts and the bursting of priest-made barriers he has discovered the way of access to God, and has found him wonderful, ‘just, merciful, free.’ As a result of his own experience he usually becomes the constitutional enemy of priestly religion, the scorner of sacrificial and ritual doings, a voice of doubt about the doctrines and the literature which shelter the priest. He too is a middle-man, but he wants no monopoly. His highest desire is to have all humans share what he has experienced. If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity. His interest is in freedom, reality, immediateness, the reverse of the priestly interest. His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice. He has a religious conviction that God is against oppression and ‘, on the side of the weak . . . The prophet is always the predestined advance agent of the Kingdom of God. His religion flings him as a fighter and protester against the Kingdom of Evil. His sense of justice, compassion, and solidarity sends him into tasks which would be too perilous for others. It connects him with oppressed social classes as their leader. He bears their risk and contempt. As he tries to rally the moral and religious forces of society, he encounters derelict and frozen religion, and the selfish and conservative interest of the classes which exploit religion. He tries to arouse institutional religion from the inside, or he pounds it from the outside. This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name. His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 274-277, emphasis added.)

Let’s take a brief look at a few of Rauschenbusch’s statements.

History Contradicting Claims

Today, both science and history can contradict long-held religious beliefs or doctrinal claims. It’s tempting to become defensive and resistant to new information rather than learning how to lean into new information. Deconstruction is naturally uncomfortable. We must be honest in parsing the difference between resistance due to personal discomfort and resistance due to threats to institutions from which we derive privilege. As Rauschenbusch states, it’s possible to be “opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which [one] has woven about [oneself].” 

Where have you seen this take place? Take some time to list examples that come to mind.

Selfish Class Interests

Religion has often been complicit in making oppressed communities passive and in exonerating or justifying one class’s exploitation of others. I agree with Rauschenbusch’s statement that when voices question the status quo, they are quickly labeled “enemy” or a “voice of doubt” or even “heretic.” We see an example of this in John’s version of the Jesus story: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about [Jesus]. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’” (John 7:12)

All Humans Share 

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, had an inclusive encounter with the Divine. His desire was egalitarian inasmuch as he wanted those being excluded to also have a seat at the table. Rauschenbusch observes, “If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity.” Those who push for a more egalitarian society transgress boundaries in their work and are often accused of not staying within the lines drawn for them and for others in society.

Social Consciousness

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many others throughout history who have stood up to institutionalized injustice, seeking change in individual hearts and social and systemic change as well, can often trace their social consciousness and the roots of their passion for social justice to the belief in a Divine Universal Love. As Rauschenbusch wrote, “His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice.” For Christians, this passion for justice is grounded in the belief that if there is a God who loves everyone, this same God stands with the oppressed and is on the side of distributive justice. It is ironic that those whose belief in Love led them to the work of justice too often come to be ostracized by the very religious communities they first learned that Love through.

Heretics

Rauschenbusch’s use of this term struck home for me. When we stand up against injustice and some of those in privileged positions in our faith communities are also in positions of privilege in our larger society, it still amazes me how efficiently religious systems label and shut out or suppress voices for justice that they deem a threat. “This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name.” I could give quite a few examples of where I have witnessed or experienced this dynamic. 

Suppression

“His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” I’ve seen those who side with Love and Justice go from having a packed speaking schedule for years in advance to almost overnight being treated as if they no longer exist. In the Jesus story itself, suppression took the form of false accusation and execution. 

I want to be very careful here. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was deeply Jewish, and most of his more inclusive interpretations of the Torah had Jewish precedents before him. Yet his interpretations threatened those who had everything to lose politically.

Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics. 

If you are in the midst of being treated this way, remember, you’re in the right story. You’re not alone. Another world is possible. If you need to take a break for self-care, do so. It’s okay to take a break; just don’t give up. We are in this together. And together we can make a difference.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)


HeartGroup Application

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Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Courage in the Face of Setbacks

Herb Montgomery | January 4, 2019


“Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, ‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.'”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

I’m sit here this morning, after the holidays, contemplating the future of Renewed Heart Ministries. This year will be our twelfth year: Renewed Heart Ministries has been sharing the message of love and inclusion for over a decade. 

But four and a half years ago, something changed. We were introduced to a precious community of people who are the objects of God’s love and who most deeply face marginalization on a daily basis. Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”

In 2014, Renewed Heart Ministries started to become a welcoming and affirming ministry. We have become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of increasing the love, compassion, action, and justice in society. This has been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we’re a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss, both of former friends and of support.

This is why this week’s text spoke to me this morning. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God . . . ” (Mark 1:14)

John was Jesus’ mentor. He had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest of the Temple state. Possible reasons could have been the Temple state’s exploitation of the poor and it’s complicity with Rome as means of survival. John had chosen instead another very Jewish option. He chose to stand in the stream of actions found among the Hebrew prophets, the habitat of the wilderness, speaking truth to power. 

For every action there is a reaction. And power typically responds to those who seek to name injustice. The reaction of Herod to John’s outspoken critiques and call for change was initially to have him arrested. Herod expected the arrest to silence John. Those who have read the story know that John is eventually executed. At this point in the story, though, he is simply arrested. He is silenced by being forcefully removed from the masses.

Acts like these by those in power are purposed to intimidate others and discourage them from pursuing similar courses. They are acts of terror at worst, and acts of warning at best. 

John’s imprisonment by the political leader Herod had to have affected Jesus. It was a significant setback, and possibly also a warning. Jesus was setting out on a course for which John had cleared the way or blazed a path. In the words of Isaiah, John had been 

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Would Jesus turn back? Would Jesus abandon his solidarity with the marginalized sectors of his society? Or would he renew his purpose in the face of John’s imprisonment? 

For me, what Jesus did next shows his courage. Jesus chooses to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized of his society in the face of deeply troubling, political consequences. John had just been imprisoned, and it’s immediately afterwards that Jesus chooses to stand before the masses and resolutely say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . . 

You are the light of the world.” 

(Matthew 5:3-14)

Jesus is choosing the community of those whose “spirit” has been broken by systems of injustice. I think of those today who no longer have the spirit to keep fighting for a just world, those who have lost faith that another world is possible.

Jesus chose those who mourn because of the present structure. I think of parents like those of Trayvon Martin, or more recently, 8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose hearts have been broken by deep loss caused by our society’s systemic injustice. This is loss so deep it seems at times that it can never be repaired. 

Jesus chose the “meek,” those this world typically walks all over. He chose the community of the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness—the Hebraic idea of a societal, distributive justice, an end of violence, and an end to oppression.

He also affirms the community of the merciful. I think of those who see immigrants seeking asylum and welcome them rather than coldly stating that they deserve harsh treatment.

He names the pure in heart. In our time, I think of those who refuse to be shaped by capitalism’s priorities of profit over people. And he names peacemakers, not peacekeepers: those who are willing to disturb the peace to work for a distributive justice that will give birth to genuine peace, where everyone has enough, and no one has too much while others go without.

Finally, Jesus (I wonder if he was thinking of John at this moment) mentions those persecuted for the cause of justice: those who speak truth to power, who name bigotry, exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, and oppression and experience deep loss as a result of their outspokenness. He mentions those who are insulted by the privileged and who are falsely labeled as dangerous, evil, and heretical, or “too radical.” 

Yet it is this community of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, abused and mourning that Jesus names the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In learning to listen to those who experience is different from our own, those who are the most vulnerable to a variety of injustices that we begin to see [i.e. “light of the world”]. It is in learning to listen to the stories and the voices of communities who daily face oppression that we encounter the choice to change and the possibility of our social life, our life together as a human family, being preserved [i.e. “salt of the earth”].

I cannot help but think that Jesus might have also been afraid to stand in solidarity with those this world makes last. Would he also be arrested like John? Could choosing and modeling a preferential option for those society makes last, in one degree or another, even cost him his life?

We all know how the Jesus story ended. At the beginning of the Jesus story, though, it was still being played out. 

This year, it means everything to me that, as he pondered his future if he, like John, continued to walk alongside and advocate for the oppressed, Jesus chose to keep believing that another world was possible. Jesus chose to keep working toward a world where those are presently made “last” would then be prioritized as those presently favored as “first” (See Matthew 20:8-16).

Lastly, this contemplation of John and Jesus, also makes me think of where Renewed Heart Ministries is today and what the future may hold for us. Has Renewed Heart Ministries faced setbacks as a result of our choice to stand alongside those being marginalized? In one sense, yes.

But in another very real sense, we are in a better place today than we have ever been. Never before has the Jesus story so deeply resonated with us. I’m thankful for those who have taken the time and invested their energy to open our eyes. And I’m thankful for those who follow us who were willing to have their eyes opened, too, alongside us. 

Like Jesus, we choose to work for a world where those presently made last are treated the same as those presently prioritized as first. Today, there are so many forms of “being made last.” But our differences—race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, etc.—don’t make us less than another. Humanity is richly diverse, but we are all still family. 

And it’s for this human family that, alongside those who have gone before us, those presently making similar choices, and those who will come after us, we here at RHM dedicate 2019 to continuing the work of shaping our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate home for all, especially those Jesus might call blessed members of the kingdom of God.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, open up Matthew 5:3-12 and explore through discussion, if Jesus were to speak these words today, whom would he say were the blessed recipients of his vision for human community? Whom would he say would inherit the earth?  Whom would he say would see God?  Whom would he name?  In 2014 I was a guest speaker at my first Kinship Kampmeeting. Here is a link to how this experience impacted whom I chose in making my own list of beatitudes then. This is an example of this exercise. Look at our world today and come up with your own list.

Discuss how you, too, like Jesus, like John, can work alongside these communities to bring concrete change this year.  

And then pick something from your discussion and begin doing it. 

May 2019 bring us closer to rather than farther away from that pearl of great price, that world where everyone is safe, everyone has enough, and where compassion and love are the basis of our relating to one another.

Happy New Year to each of you. 

Thank you for checking in with us. I’m so glad you did.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hating One’s Family

by Herb Montgomery

“We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.”

Featured Text:

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” —Q 14:26

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple of mine. And whoever does not hate his brothers and his sisters (and) will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Gospel of Thomas 101:1-2: “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine.”

Of all the sayings of Jesus that I dislike and could be most easily misunderstood, misused, or abused, this week’s saying tops my list. I don’t like it at all. I’ve seen too many young people, especially LGBTQ young people, thrown out of their homes and cut off or shunned by their family on the basis of this week’s saying to have fond feelings about it. Whatever the saying, one must always judge its ethic on its fruit. What is the fruit of practicing one’s interpretation of the saying—life or death? If the fruit of your interpretation is death, I say change your interpretation!

What could Jesus have been thinking as he gave this teaching and made hate a core part of what it meant to follow him?

First, let’s understand that the socio-economic context of this saying is very different than our context today. We in the modern West belong to very individualistic societies. Socially and economically, we are individualists, not communalists. For middle-to-upper class people, there are retirement programs, insurance policies, and other programs and vehicles for one to take care of oneself rather than need a world where people take care of people.

These economic structures are designed to work as each individual seeks their own self-interest. Those at the top of society have structured the world to benefit them, and every act of those at the bottom of society does benefit those at the top. People desperate enough to become dependent on the system will work their lives away to survive, and their survival makes those at the top who benefit from their labor very wealthy.

In the 1st Century, Judea and Galilee was more communal. People in that region practiced a redistributive and reciprocal economy. Redistributive economies are economies where third parties (kings or aristocracies) collect the surplus from producers and then distribute that surplus to others who are not producers. This third party typically redistributes by directing and controlling labor, taxing people, or having officials make decisions rather than the people themselves. An example is an economy where rural producers feed urban dwellers. Redistribution can be done justly or unjustly: the book of Acts characterizes the early church as a redistribute economy based on voluntary giving, whereas the gospels characterize the Temple as a redistributive economy based on taxation and market selling.

Reciprocal economies are different. These types of economies are where those who belong to families or even communities freely give goods or services to each other. Yet as these gifts are given, community members keep an eye on the general ebb and flow of giving to make sure there is balance or fairness. People eventually become characterized as givers or takers. Those who give much are entitled to receive back, while those who are known to be takers are eventually starved out.

Families, in Jesus’ Jewish culture, especially in rural Galilee, practiced a more reciprocal economy. Jerusalem, through taxation, practiced a more redistributive economy. So when the gospels portray Jesus as saying, “The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple,” this saying involved the economic aspects of these relationships.

If following Jesus caused a person to lose economic support from their parents or their children, Jesus asks his followers to prioritize his vision for society: everyone is taken care of based on their needs, not based on their family’s, clan’s or tribe’s reciprocal system.

So perhaps Jesus’ saying was much more about communal economics than individual relationships with one’s family or tribe. Ched Myers explains the connection:

“It is important to recognize that in antiquity, much more so than today, the social fabric of the rural extend family was bound to the workplace. Thus the break demanded by Jesus is not only with economic but social security as well.” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 132)

But what if that interpretation isn’t the whole story? What if Jesus actually was telling us to hate our parents or children for not lining up with what we deem is morally appropriate? Should we hate our moms, dads, or kids because Jesus told us to?

Religiously fueled hatred or cold-hearted rejection of one’s own family has a long history in our sacred text. In Deuteronomy we find this command against daughters believed to not be virgins:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:20)

This passage reflects the authors’ unjust patriarchal economy that relegated women to the level of property. Yet we must also be clear. It would be wrong for me as a father to read Deuteronomy’s injunction and seek to apply it to my children. There is no way around it. Our interpretations of our sacred texts must be held subject to love, compassion, and their fruit in our lives. As a friend of mine, Alicia Johnston, recently shared with me, “All teachings must be harmonized with love and compassion. Teachings that are inherently damaging, unhealthy, or unloving, cannot make people’s lives better. They, inherently, are not gospel.”

As we covered in Children against Parents, Matthew’s context is telling because it’s not the Jesus follower who is rejecting their family, but the family that is rejecting the Jesus follower. It makes much more sense to interpret this week’s saying as Jesus calling his followers to prioritize participating in his revolution over the rejection of family members. Matthew borrows from the Hebrew scriptures:

“For a son dishonors his father,

a daughter rises up against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—

a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” (Micah 7.6)

The social location of the intended audience for this week’s saying really does make a difference. Is this saying telling parents to reject their children (or vice versa) who do not align with their definition of right and wrong? Or does this saying tell children who are being rejected by their parents (or vice versa) to remain committed to following Jesus’ revolution even in the face of such rejection?

Again, we don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable often creates conflict, and often it’s conflict within one’s own family. (I know something of this myself.) I don’t believe that this suffering is good and I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone.

I do believe that when those threatened by a just world do raise their swords or threaten us with a cross, we should stand up anyway, even if those opposing us are relatives. We are not to patiently submit. Rather, we are to take hold of life and, following Jesus, resist.

This is the only interpretation of this week’s saying that makes sense to me. More hate will not heal the world. Prioritizing a just, safe, and compassionate world over systems of domination and privilege, even if those at the helm of such systems are one’s own family, makes much more sense. I still would not have used the word “hate” as these translators did. But then again, I’m reading this saying two millennia and cultures away from its original time and place.

What can we glean from this week’s saying?

Reclaim your own humanity and stand alongside others who are reclaiming theirs. As we have stated so often, we are each other’s fate.

I choose to see this week’s saying as a matter, not of hate, but of priority. The difference may be subtle, but we don’t need more hate. We need compassion, justice, and equity. We don’t need more silence, even if those pressuring us to be silent are our family members. We don’t need more “submissive patience.” Take a strong position for yourself, for compassion and justice, even if that stand puts you at odds with those you still hold dear. I know it’s not easy.

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” (Q 14:26)

HeartGroup Application

On August 16, 1967, at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the address, ”Where Do We Go From Here?” In this address he made the now famous declaration:

“Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

In the excellent piece God So Loved the World?, Parker and Brown remind us, “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? ….If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.”

Next week we will discuss Jesus’ saying to take up our crosses. In Christianity, European and North American theologies have mostly interpreted this saying as calling us to passive acceptance of suffering. We’ll be discussing different ways that some oppressed communities have interpreted this saying.

In light of this week, and in preparation for next,

  1. What does it mean for you to insist on compassion and justice even when those closest to you would rather you remain silent?
  2. Share with your group an experience where you had to prioritize justice and compassion over the pressure you felt from people you cared about deeply.
  3. How can your group support each other when one of your group is experiencing pushback as a result of standing up for compassion and justice?

In a world that benefits some at the expense of others, it’s not always easy to hold up the vision of a world where justice, violence and oppression are put right. It’s even more difficult when doing so is compounded by rejection from those you care for. In moments like these, we need each other.

Wherever this finds you this week, right where you are, choose love, not hate. Choose a life of compassion and justice. Remember, you’re not alone. We are in this together, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

 

For all of you who are in or near the Asheville, N.C. area, registration for our free event this August 4-5 is now open! Find out more about this event at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville.

Space is limited. We are using Eventbrite to make it super easy for you to register and reserve your place. Our Eventbrite page is:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sayings-of-jesus-the-intersection-of-faith-and-social-justice-tickets-36048274359

The location is:

First Congregational United Church of Christ
20 Oak Street
Asheville, NC 28802

The session dates and times are:

Session 1: Friday evening, August 4 at 7 p.m.

Session 2: Saturday afternoon, August 5 at 2 p.m.

Session 3: Saturday evening, August 5 at 7 p.m.

 

Light refreshments will be served, and there will be discussion time at the end of each session.

500:24:1 LogoWe are so excited to be moving forward with our first 500:25:1 event. We’ll keep you posted on where we’ll be teaching next!

Remember we are taking requests for weekends all across the nation. You can request a weekend in your area at http://bit.ly/RHMSeminar Find out more about these events at http://bit.ly/RHM500251 and learn how you, too, can participate in making these events happen.

To fund our new events, go to http://bit.ly/RHM500Support.

Remember, if you are in the Asheville area, make sure you register at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville. Space will be filling up quickly.

I love each of you dearly.

Thanks for checking in with us.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

Karen Baker-Fletcher writes: “If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.” 

Featured Texts:

“A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, ‘Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.’” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 22:2-3: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

Matthew 22:5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”

Matthew 22:7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Luke 14:16-19: “Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”’”

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

Luke 14:23: “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”

Gospel of Thomas 64: “Jesus says: ‘A person had guests. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant, so that he might invite the guests. He came to the first and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said: “I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go and give instructions to them. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came to another and said to him: “My master has invited you.” He said to him: “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I will not have time.” He went to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: ‘My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came up to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: “I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.” The servant went away. He said to his master: “Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his servant: “Go out on the roads. Bring back whomever you find, so that they might have dinner.” Dealers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.’”

As we have stated before, even though Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free,” this week’s saying again presents one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: the normalization of slavery.

Jesus never spoke one word against slavery, in fact, as we see this week, he uses the institution in his own stories. This has been used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christians holding tight to slavery, especially in the South. (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis)

It is interesting to note what appears to be an attempt at the softening of “slave” to “servant” from the “Q” texts to the more modern translations of the gospels, including Thomas. Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order, and we must be honest about how problematic this has been and continues to be.

Also, Matthew and Luke use this week’s saying differently. We’ll begin with Luke, and then look at how Matthew frames it.

Inclusivity

One of Luke’s burdens, which we see in Acts, is to explain how a community that began as a Jewish poor people’s movement came to be so populated by Gentiles. Luke places this week’s saying in the context of the “banquet in the Kingdom of God.” We discussed popular views of this banquet in 1st Century Galilee and Judea a couple of week’s ago.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus challenged the more exclusive interpretation of the eschatological banquet where purity standards in that culture prevented some from being allowed to sit at the table. Jesus had just stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-13).

Someone offended by what they interpreted as reckless inclusion and abandonment of the cultural purity taboos of the day responded by objecting, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” For those who held the more exclusive interpretation of this feast/banquet, those who would be specifically excluded from that feast would be the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” While some would have the least honorable seats at the table, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be invited at all as some believed their state was the result of their transgression. Jesus then responds by telling a story that includes this week’s saying.

Jesus’ story is of a householder who simply wants his “house to be full.” He doesn’t lower the purity standards; he completely ignores them. He invites, welcomes, and effectively affirms all those who would have been excluded under the more selective interpretation. The motive of the householder is what Luke places in the forefront. A full house is priority number one. Everyone is invited and if someone is not there, the onus is on those invited, not rumors of exclusiveness on the part of the householder. He simply wants a full house.

Connectedness and Equality

Matthew’s story includes two elements we’ll look at in turn: the king’s rage as well as the guest’s refusal to be identified with everyone else at the banquet. We’ll discuss the second item first.

Matthew’s story ends:

“‘So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:9-13)

This parable makes no sense to me if attire for the banquet was not included in the invitation. How can a host invite “all the people they could find” so that the hall could be “filled with guests” and then get upset that someone in there was not wearing the proper attire, if such attire was not also provided? Did the host really think that everyone they found on the streets, even the poor and barely-scratching-by artisans, would have fine clothing for a wedding banquet of the wealthy?

I’ll freely admits that this is taking an interpretive liberty, but let’s assume for a moment that attire was provided as an option for those who needed such, so that no matter how poor you were, you had no excuse not to attend. If that’s the case, that gives us an entirely different ending. Who is the parable being told to in Matthew? This cluster of parables is aimed at “the chief priests and Pharisees” (Matthew 21.45) and the political place of privilege they held. In the story, someone refuses to wear clothing appropriate for the event. Whether this is a wealthy person refusing to be associated with the poor, or the poor refusing to be seen along side the exploitative rich, it’s a show of arrogance or separateness. It’s possibly an expression of one’s exceptionalism in protest to the inclusion of those he feels are “Other” or beneath him. For him to don the same attire as everyone else would be to intimate that there was no difference, at least at this banquet, between himself and those he feels should not be present. He is better than the others around him here and he will not be included on their same level. For him this is a rejection of the reality that we are all interconnected, we are part of one another. We are not as separate from one another as we often think.  We share each other’s fate. In fact, we are each other’s fate. It could be because of the guest’s desire to be seen as separate, or as reluctantly participating with everyone else, that the host so angrily responds to his lack of attire.

The context is the eschatological banquet that some people in Galilee and Judea believed symbolized the distinction between this age of violence, injustice, and oppression and the coming age where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be put right. But this new age in Jesus’ world view is egalitarian: everyone receives what is distributively just. No one has too much and no one has too little, we all, together have enough. So garments could have been justly distributed, making everyone equal. But if a person has spent their life working to be “first,” few things could be worse than to be faced with a world of equity and equality and being thrown into the same group with everyone else. They believe they are better, chosen, extraordinary, or exceptional. They are not like everyone else and they refuse to embrace our connectedness. But whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already in this together.

Those who choose the path of exclusion are themselves eventually excluded from a world that’s being put right through inclusive egalitarianism. As we discussed previously, exclusionary thinking is a self-fulfilling ethic. Again, when you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from attending the same “banquet” with you, it’s going to make you so angry! This is the gnashing of teeth Jesus and Luke describe (cf. Acts 7:54) So if any end up in outer darkness, it will not be because they could not accept their own invitation. It will be because they could not accept the inclusion and equal affirmation of those they feel should be excluded.

Now about the king’s rage.

Matthew includes the historic treatment of Hebrew social prophets. As I shared last year, in the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly for those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they cast an imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right. These prophets were often rejected and executed by those in power.

Matthew’s Jesus story locates both John the Baptist and Jesus in this tradition of prophets silenced by execution. I would note that in this tradition, Jesus’ execution is not unique and not hard to explain. Execution as the response of those in power to those who critique and speak truth to power is nothing new or strange. Nor is it peculiar to one culture. It happens all the time in every culture. It was not too long in our own culture that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in five years.

And it’s this treatment of the Hebrew prophets (including John and Jesus) that I believe Matthew is using to explain to his community and perhaps even make sense to himself (like Jeremiah of old) how such a catastrophe could have befallen Jerusalem in his lifetime. People explain tragedy differently. People try to make sense of our suffering differently. Matthew’s gospel assumes that if the outcry against social injustice would have been heeded, the Jewish poor-peoples revolt, the Jewish-Roman war, and the razing of Jerusalem itself, could have possibly been avoided.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:4-7)

What I would be quick to point out is Matthew’s use of the plural “them.” Matthew was a Jewish Jesus follower trying to make sense of his entire world ending as he had known it. But even then, unlike many Christian supersessionists, he did not isolate Jesus’ rejection as the sole reason for the events of 70 C.E. Matthew wasn’t a Christian blaming “the Jews” for their “rejection” of Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew included the rejection of Jesus and John in a long list of many “servants,” from Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, all the way back. In other words, Jesus’ rejection was not unique to Matthew but part of a much longer trajectory. Ched Myers in what Walter Wink states is “quite simply the most important commentary on a book of scriptures since Barth’s Romans,” reminds us of the “prophetic script”:

“The ‘true prophets’ are not identified by ‘proof’ of miraculous signs, but by their stand on the side of the poor, pressing a ‘covenantal suit’ against the exploitative ‘shepherds’ of Israel. From Elijah to Jeremiah the result is always the same: opposition from the ruling class and a threat to the prophet’s life.”

Matthew’s use of this week’s saying seems to be indicating that, once again, in the life of Jesus, the prophetic script has been fulfilled in human society.

Today

Today we have to ask which voices are we refusing to listen to? Which voices are we not heeding? Who are we in our stubbornness ignoring; what could, by ignoring, like in 70 C.E. for Jerusalem, wipe out everything for everyone? There are many voices that come to mind for me, but at the top of my list are those seeking to raise our consciousness of the connection between corporatism and the climate changes that threaten humanity’s continued existence. Karen Baker-Fletcher, womanist theologian and co-author of My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk, writes:

“If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.”

A couple weeks ago, I caught an insightful interview of Naomi Klein on what she feels many on both sides of the political debate about climate change are refusing to acknowledge as we look to our planet’s future. Again, we have a choice of whether to refuse or embrace our connectedness. Whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already, all of us, in this together. We as a whole will survive or we will all, together, face the results.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s saying. Whose voices are you reminded to pay attention to this week?

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, “Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Before your group meets this next week, write down three things that speak to you in either Luke’s or Matthew’s use of our saying.
  2. Why do these things resonate with you and what do they mean to you?
  3. When you do come together, take some time to go around the room and share with each other what this week’s saying is saying to you, and what the implications could be for your HeartGroup as a whole.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where this finds you, keep engaging in the work of love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation on our way toward thriving. We are in this together.

Also don’t forget to check out the new 500:25:1 project we are launching this August. Go to http://bit.ly/RHM500251 where you can find out more about why we’re launching new 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.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

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.

Judgment over Jerusalem

grave yard with lanterns lit

by Herb Montgomery

“Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem . . . It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.”

Featured Text:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

Companion Text:

Matthew 23:37-39: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13:34-35: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In our saying this week, social location couldn’t matter more! This text has historically been at the heart of anti-Semitism (hostility to or hatred of Jews) and Christian supersessionism (the teaching that Christians replace Jews as God’s chosen people). But every Christian who reads this saying should remember that Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. A member of a subjugated community could perhaps speak to their community this way. But if you, like me, are outside that group, it would be inappropriate for us to do so.

With this saying, Jesus stood in the long Hebrew prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. Jerusalem and the temple had become the seat of the aristocracy around which a political and economically exploitative system revolved. So this week’s saying is not about pitting Christianity against Judaism: it’s not a religious discussion. It’s a socio-economic, political statement, and very much part of the world of the Jewish 1st Century community.

Jesus, remember, was a 1st Century, Jewish prophet of the poor. We can ask what his teachings might offer us today in our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and liberation. But we must first listen to what these sayings might have meant in their original context.

Prophets proclaiming the “desolation” of the Jewish nation had a long history and was often linked to social justice:

Isaiah 3:8: “Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.”

Jeremiah 1:15: “‘I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the LORD. ‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah.’”

Jeremiah 4:14: Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?”

Jeremiah 5:1: “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”

Jeremiah 8:5: “Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return.”

Ezekiel 4:7, 16: “Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her . . . He then said to me: ‘Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.’”

Ezekiel 12:19: “Say to the people of the land: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says about those living in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel: They will eat their food in anxiety and drink their water in despair, for their land will be stripped of everything in it because of the violence of all who live there.’”

Not one of these above passages by Hebrew prophets should be considered anti-Semitic. Often, after the Hebrew prophets strongly opposed injustices taking place in Jerusalem, they would offer Jerusalem words of comfort:

Isaiah 51:17: “Awake, awake! Rise up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes people stagger.”

Isaiah 52:1, 9: “Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive… Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 62:1: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”

Isaiah 64:10: “Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.”

Isaiah 65:18, 19: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

Isaiah 66:10, 13: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her… As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 66:20: “‘And they will bring all your people, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD—on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,’ says the LORD. ‘They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels.’”

These passages don’t promote supersessionism. They are part of the Hebrew tradition of Jewish prophets critiquing social injustice, and there is nothing necessarily anti-Jewish or supersessionist in Jesus’ societal critique of his own society either.

Jesus called the subjugated of his day to nonviolent forms of resistance. As we’ve seen in previous weeks, to follow the path of violent resistance under the watchful eye of Rome would invite a backlash that would wipe out everything for everyone. Jesus saw nonviolence as the only option the people had to resist and still live to enjoy the liberation their resistance had accomplished. Jesus did call his oppressed audience (Luke 4:18-19) to do something where they could, and, when they couldn’t, to make those who could deeply uncomfortable until they did (see Matthew 5:39-41).

He also called the Jewish elite to liquidate their assets in radical wealth redistribution, debt cancellation, and resource sharing that would have been economically healing to the poor. (Luke 19; Matthew 19:21) Had the people been dedicated to nonviolent forms of resistance and power- and resource-sharing as Jesus taught, they could have prevented Jerusalem’s poor people’s revolt, the Jewish Roman war of 66-69 C.E., and Jerusalem’s utter destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I believe Jesus saw a coming crisis, and his love for his own society moved him to warn them and work to set them on a different path. This is what I see happening in this week’s saying.

Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem from the Roman Eagle the way a hen covers her chicks to prevent birds of prey from attacking them. The elites are unwilling to listen. If only the aristocracy had led the way in the reparations Jesus was calling for (Luke 19:8 cf. 12:33), the poor might have never have had to make a decision between violent or nonviolent revolt three decades later. Who knows where those difference choices might have led Jesus’ society.

Last we see Jesus planning to leave and not return until the people affirm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Nothing in this text requires us to interpret Jesus as meaning, “I’m going to heaven and you won’t see me until I return in vengeance.” No. Jesus is actually quoting Psalms 118:25-26:

“YHWH, save us! [Hosanna!] YHWH, grant us success! [Hosanna!] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”

Traditionally, Jews recite this passage during the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles. They do not quote it during Passover, the festival underway at this point in the Jesus story. Sukkot is six months after Passover. So Jesus could have simply been planning to leave Jerusalem (desolate) and not return to the city until the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. He never got to fulfill that promise: instead of returning during Sukkot, Jesus completes his temple protest and is arrested and crucified six days later.

Stoning the prophets is nothing new. Every society, culture, and community has a long history of removing those who choose to speak up, stand in solidarity with those pushed to the edges, and call for change.

I know something of this myself.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent hours talking with pastors whose churches have invited me to speak around the US. These pastors have had to cancel my seminars at the last minute, even though, in some cases, they’ve been waiting for me to speak for years! One head elder’s congregation had been on the waiting list for three years before they were forced to cancel. The elder told me, “The journey to know God is not always easy.”

My seminars are being cancelled by church gatekeepers who are afraid. They’re afraid of conversations that might challenge or change their members. Pastors and congregations across the country want our ministry and message to come to them: they’ve invited me to speak and they want to learn. But gatekeepers are standing in the way.

In one town this year, when a pastor refused to cancel an invitation to me, a few well-funded critics used their conference ministerial department, which employed their pastor, to strong-arm that pastor. These people threatened to stop tithing to their conference if I was allowed to speak in their church! The conference president told me that they wanted to have me, but couldn’t risk losing their members’ tithes and would have to hope for another opportunity in the future.

Change is scary for some people. But changes that help us to make our communities a safer, just, more compassionate home for everyone should be leaned into, not run from, even if they’re scary.

So this fall we’re taking our educational weekends on the road! We’ll hold weekend seminars in areas where we’re desperately wanted and we’ll do it without having to go through gatekeepers.

We’ll be hosting face-to-face weekend events all across the nation starting this August in Asheville, NC. We’re really excited!

You can find out more about this new project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re making this change, how you can help to make these new events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come to your area for a weekend.

A friend of Renewed Heart Ministries signed up to be one of the first 500 supporters. Last week, he was lamenting that I was finally going to be teaching in the next state over from him during the very week he and his wife were going on their family vacation. I wish you could have seen the lights turn on for him when I said, “Well let’s look at what it would take to have a weekend event in your town, too! All we need to find is a place to rent for the weekend.” He’s considering possible venues now!

Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem. It can also address any community where exploitation and inequity forces those on the undersides and margins to feel as if violent revolt is their only hope. It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.

It’s a solemn and sad saying that should give each of us pause.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, write down three ways that HeartGroups have been a safe place for you to grow, learn, practice community, and deepen your understanding of how Jesus’s teachings can inform our work today of survival, resistance, and liberation.
  2. Share your list with your HeartGroup. Let the other members know what they’ve meant to you!
  3. Discuss how else your group can be formed by your desire to make this space available to others, too. What would it look like to make your HeartGroup a safe space for someone not like you?

Our new HeartGroups page is finally on our website at http://www.rhmheartgroups.com. Feel free to check it out and let us know what you think! Also keep those testimonies of how your HeartGroup has impacted you coming in. We’ll be adding them to the page soon.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation, and thriving!

Together we are making a difference.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love you all.

I’ll see you next week.

The Reversal of the Last and the First 

 

by Herb Montgomery

“Economies that keeps workers desperate are structured that way by design . . . Just this past week it was published that there is not one state in the US where a 40 hours a week (full-time), minimum-wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment. Let that sink in.  Not one.”

Featured Text:

“The last will be first and the first last.” Q 13:·30

Companion Texts:

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

Luke 13:28-30: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

Gospel of Thomas 4:2-3: “For many who are first will become last, and they will become a single one.”

Our saying this week is found in two separate settings in Matthew and Luke. Luke shares this saying in the context of the sayings we’ve looked at over the last two weeks. Matthew’s context is different and comes at the end of the parable of the landowner who choose to pay all of that day’s workers the same full day’s wage regardless of how many hours they had worked:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16, emphasis added.)

In Matthew, “the last will be first and the first will be last” is not a reversal of fortunes as in Luke 6 where the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed. It’s not a revolution that only proves to create a new hegemony with a new status quo someone’s still dominating and someone else is still being subjugated. This week’s saying instead describes a movement toward equality and equity. Everyone is paid based on their need, not whether they were able to find work. In Jesus’ story, those who came last did not arrive late because they did not want to work, but because “no one hired us.” They could not find any work. Nonetheless, the landowner paid every worker the same wage regardless of how many hours they had labored: payment rooted in compassion and not the dispassionate capitalism of some winning because others lose. In this parable, the owner’s compassion was proportionate to every person’s ability and need.

That part of the saying seems to contrast with the “rule” quoted later in the New Testament: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Many often miss the word “unwilling,” and misquote the statement as “those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” However, youth, elderly people, people with disabilities, and those who simply can’t find work aren’t addressed by the saying in Thessalonians. They are included in the story Jesus told, where people are paid according to their need and each contributes what they are able. Also, not every disability is visible and some people are too often grouped in with the “unwilling to work” when in fact those who can work are called to take care of them as well. Peter Kropotokin describes in the book Mutual Aid what we see among the “fittest” societies in nature. He also unknowingly described the world Jesus was inviting us to create.

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.” (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter 1)

As Kropotkin did years later, Jesus described a society where members could “learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.” These are communities where those who are able support and care for those who are not.

This week’s saying also confronts us with something more familiar: an economy where there are more people who are willing to work than there is work available. Economies that keeps workers desperate are structured that way by design. The supply of jobs is low so that workers don’t get too picky or organize into labor unions. They don’t ask for better wages. They are simply desperately happy to find anything. They are just happy to have a job, like the people in the Hebrew story of Joseph: We’ll sell ourselves into slavery if need be, we just need to eat/survive. (See Genesis 47:25)

Testifying before the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, in February 26, 1997, Alan Greenspan described that state of job desperation in the US as good for the economy [rather than an evil]. It was good for the corporate elites and created an imbalance of power where elites could control the working masses and expect greater passivity regarding low wages and poor working conditions.

“A typical restraint on compensation increases has been evident for a few years now and appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity. In 1991, at the bottom of the recession, a survey of workers at large firms by International Survey Research Corporation indicated that 25 percent feared being laid off. In 1996 . . . the same survey organization found that 46 percent were fearful of a job layoff. The reluctance of workers to leave their jobs to seek other employment as the labor market tightened has provided further evidence of such concern, as has the tendency toward longer labor union contracts. For many decades, contracts rarely exceeded three years. Today, one can point to five-and six-year contracts—contracts that are commonly characterized by an emphasis on job security and that involve only modest wage increases. The low level of work stoppages of recent years also attests to concern about job security. Thus, the willingness of workers in recent years to trade off smaller increases in wages for greater job security seems to be reasonably well documented.”

Make laborers’ situation desperate enough and they will work forty or more hours a week and still not be able to feed their families, all while not organizing for higher wages and being content to have one of the few jobs available. Just this past week it was published that there is not one state in the US where a 40 hours a week (full-time), minimum-wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment. Let that sink in.  Not one.  There are people working full time who cannot even afford a place to sleep. And a one bedroom apartment can only be afforded in 12 counties located in Arizona, Oregon and Washington states.

The late Peter Gomes calls us to see the unfairness of these rules and to make instead a world characterized by distributive justice among those who, in our story, are first or last in our economic status quo. In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes writes:

“It is interesting to note that those who most frequently call for fair play are those who are advantaged by the play as it currently is, and that only when that position of privilege is endangered are they likely to benefit from the change required to ‘play by the rules.’ What if the ‘rules’ are inherently unfair or simply wrong, or a greater good is to be accomplished by changing them? When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. This problem of perception is at the heart of a serious hearing of what Jesus has to say, and most people are smart enough to recognize that their immediate self-interest is served not so much by Jesus and his teaching as by the church and its preaching. Thus, it is no accident that although Jesus came preaching a disturbing and redistributive gospel, we do not preach what Jesus preached. Instead, we preach Jesus. Desmond Tutu is fond of the African proverb that says that when the white Christians came to Africa they had the Bible and the Africans had the land. “Then,” he says, “the Africans were given the Bible and the white Christians took the land.” The legacy of worldwide colonialism is in many cases the pacification of a culture by the Bible, and the misappropriation of that culture by those who use the Bible as an instrument of control. For the Bible to be seen as an instrument of control rather than as one of liberation is to do violence to the substance of the Bible, but it is reassuring to those in whose interests the status quo stands. Why? Because the risk of displacement and transformation is too great. If the first shall be last and the last first, what happens to all of us who have spent every waking hour devising stratagems either to remain first or to become first?” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 42-44)

Since 1978, the salaries of those at the top have risen over 937% while workers’ wages have only increased an average of 10.2%. The labor of the working class has been exploited to make those at the top incredibly wealthy in the name of efficiency and customer satisfaction. There are now few protections against making the masses fully dependent on corporations for their survival. Those who know their labor history resonate deeply with this week’s saying.

What would it look like for us to work toward a world where those presently earning minimum wage earn as much as CEOs and those who are now CEOs earn the same as who once earned only a minimum wage?

As Jesus said, “The last will be first and the first last.” Q 13:·30

HeartGroup Application

Jesus gave this week’s saying in the context of 1st Century Jewish economic disparity and exploitation. John Ruskin addressed this saying in Unto the Last, and his treatment was life changing for Gandhi, who not only translated Ruskin’s work but also began experimenting with the principles of wage equity in India (see Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth).

But not all disparities are purely economic. There are other types of disparities of resources and power too: among people of different genders, races, sexes, heritages, religions, and sexualities. And these are just to name a few.

  1. Can you imagine a world where those who are presently last experience the same equity as those who are presently first and vice versa? Make a list of those you feel are presently treated as “first” and those who are treated as “last?”
  2. Brain storm together practices that your HeartGroup can engage in to foster a community characterized by equity. How can you as a group reach out to and connect with those outside of your HeartGroup, as well?
  3. How can your HeartGroup put things right where you can? How can you also speak truth to power, making those who can change things uncomfortable until they do? Pick an item from your lists and put it into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation, and thriving!

This week, too, I want to let you know about a new way that you can participate in the RHM community.  It our 500:25:1 project.  Beginning this August, we’ll begin hosting face-to-face weekend events all across the nation, and we’re so excited! You can find out more about our new project at https://renewedheartministries.com/news/500251. There you can find out why were are making this change, how you can have us come to your area, and how you can join in to assist us making these new events happen.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

For those of you supporting our work thank you. Together we are making a difference.

I’m so glad you’re engaging the work of making the world a safe, just, compassionate home for all, with us.

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.

 Jesus—Liberator of the Oppressed, Physician of the Sick

IMG_0283BY HERB MONTGOMERY

As Jesus was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:14-17

I want to begin this week by thanking you for your patience over the last couple weeks. We’ve been moving our oldest daughter into college. She is our first-born child, and we’ve felt a mixture of bittersweet emotions: business, grief, excitement, joy and sorrow. I was not prepared for what I’ve been feeling about her leaving home. Please pray for me and for us as family.

We started by reading from Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. Let’s take a look at Jesus and the dinner he attended at Levi’s house.

In Mark’s gospel, salvation is defined as Jesus’ liberation from all that oppresses. Mark’s Jesus is not preoccupied with getting people through life in moral condition so their post-mortem, disembodied soul is eligible for the pearly gates. Mark’s Jesus is busy liberating those he encounters from whatever oppresses them today, right now.

Mark’s gospel also draws from the apocalyptic, dualistic world view that connects everything here on earth with a fight between good cosmic forces and evil cosmic forces. In other words, if someone is being oppressed, their oppressors are the puppets of cosmic evil. Jesus envisioned himself as a conduit of cosmic good, here to liberate those oppressed on earth. This is why Mark jumps into supernatural acts of liberation this early in the Jesus story.

Mark shows us that Jesus possessed a preferential option for the poor. Jesus wasn’t working for the equal opportunity of all to compete in a system of winners and losers. He aimed instead at a radical restructuring of human communities where there are no more winners and losers. Jesus pointed us toward communities of mutual aid, where we each strove to take care of one another rather than competing against each other. In Mark 10, Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” He envisioned community not rooted in win/lose survival, but win/win cooperation.

In the second chapter of Mark, we see the wealthy tax collectors and “sinners” responding to Jesus’ call to wealth redistribution and the wealthy Pharisees not responding well. We begin here to see in Mark’s gospel a Jesus who prioritizes liberating the oppressed over religiously defined purity and fidelity to religious ritual.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes his mission clear:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those with prison-blindness,
to let the oppressed go free.”
Jesus, Luke 4:18

The Pharisees in Mark are upset that Jesus is eating with “tax-collectors and sinners.”  Jewish tax-collectors were viewed as unfaithful to the national interests of their own people and collaborators with the oppressive political and economic power of Rome. A sinner in the gospels was someone perceived to be living contrary to the Pharisees’ and teachers’ interpretation of the Torah.

Notice that those who were thought to be guilty of nationally infidelity and/or religiously disobedient were responding to Jesus’ economic teachings, yet the Pharisees, who valued national faithfulness and strict obedience to the Torah’s ritual and purity laws, were not.

Mark offers another clue to understanding what’s happening in Mark 2. In the next two stories in his gospel, Mark focuses on the Pharisees and the rituals of fasting and the Sabbath. Asked about the Sabbath, Jesus responds, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food” (Mark 2:25). The Torah declared it was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat the bread of the Presence. But when it came to feeding the hungry and strict adhering to the ritual laws, Jesus chose to labor for the oppressed and to prioritize feeding the hungry over the Torah rule. The people were a weightier matter than the law.

Jesus’ teaching matches something that Judaism refers to as pikuach nefesh, the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other religious considerations. The Pharisees in our story this week subscribed to a different way of interpreting the Torah; their principle was that ritual and purity laws may not be violated, even when a life is in danger. (You can see this principle at work in Mark 3 as well. Some members of every religion still argue for this approach to religious obedience today.)

Mark’s Jesus prioritizes the lives of those who are being economically oppressed.

Following Jesus is not about greater patriotism to nationalistic interests, nor is it primarily about religious observances. Following Jesus means defining salvation not as getting to heaven but as liberating humanity today from all things that oppress and using the principles Jesus taught himself.

Those who participate in this liberation work are, by definition, following Jesus in his work. Those who don’t may be very religious, yet are not following him in the way he walked while here on earth.

Our story ends with Jesus responding, “Those that are well don’t need a physician. I came to call not the righteous, but the sinners.”

I believe Jesus was using the religious leaders’ own paradigm here. They felt they were “righteous,” and called those Jesus embraced “sinners.” Yet Jesus took on the role of a liberating physician, and those labeled “sinners” and “sick” were responding to him. They were the ones seeing the sickness of the system they’d participated in. They were the ones choosing to move in a different direction. Jesus hadn’t come to affirm or reward those who were “righteous.” He had come to heal the sick, to liberate the oppressed.

Jesus suggests to the religious leaders that even if they were more politically “righteous” than the tax collectors and more ritually “righteous” than those they referred to as “sinners,” they were just as much economic “sinners” as the wealthy tax-collectors, and just as much in need of liberation as the people they condemned. As long as they refused to consider this reality, they could have no part in and no understanding of Jesus’ work for the poor and oppressed.

This week, don’t ask yourself how successful you are in the merely religious aspects of your life. Ask yourself what you and those around you need to be liberated from so you can be fully human. Ask what you are doing in your own sphere to live out Jesus’ liberation.

Just recently, someone responded to one of my critiques of social political and economic abuses.  “What are you, Herb,” they asked me. “A minister or a politician?” My response is that I’m neither. I am simply a human being endeavoring to obediently follow Jesus. And it is that obedience that dictates that I must concern myself with more than the afterlife. I must also concern myself with whatever people need liberation from today in order to be what the great Heart at the center of the universe brought them into existence to be.

To the degree that we’re living out Jesus’ ministry of liberation from all things that oppress, to that same degree we’re working alongside Jesus. Unless we live out the wisdom of the Jesus story, we may still possess some assurance that helps us sleep at night, but we’re not following Jesus’ way.

If our Jesus today is not first and foremost a liberator of the oppressed as he declared in Luke 4:18, then we must at least ask whether our Jesus is the same one the gospels describe.

HeartGroup Application

The Jesus story calls us to fundamentally rethink theology from the standpoint of the poor and oppressed, to envision a God who is on the side of the poor and the oppressed of our world. The Jesus story calls us away from being preoccupied with getting people through life in good religious or moral condition so that when they die they can be admitted into heaven. Hope of a post-mortem Heaven, dear as it may be, cannot be our cause for excluding or ignoring the basic conditions anyone lives in today. The Jesus story calls us to ask, “What do we need to be fully liberated from in order to be fully human?”—and that liberation is physical, economic, political, religious, and social.

What do we and those around us need to be fully liberated from?

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and take inventory: what in your everyday lives do each of you need to be liberated from? List the issues, experiences, or needs.
  1. Brainstorm ways the group can come together along side of those needs, and live out the liberation values of the Jesus story. Write them down.
  1. Pick three things you have written down in number 2, and coordinate the carrying out of the actions previously discussed.

Charity addresses our immediate needs, but justice gets at the root of what is causing the oppression. Again, the Jesus story defines salvation as liberation from all things that oppress. Within the teachings of Jesus are the seeds of how we can embody Jesus’ work of healing in this world (see John 3:17). His teachings are where a Jesus follower begins to discover how we live out this gospel in our community and incarnate the values of this story which we hold dear.

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

Here’s to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate home for us all. I wish each of you much love, peace and liberation this week.

I love each one of you and I’ll see you next week.

Women and the Cheek Defiance of Jesus

Self-Affirming, Nonviolent Resistance and the Cheek Defiance of Jesus for Women. 

ampersandBY HERB MONTGOMERY

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. —Matthew 5:39

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been confronted by yet another reminder of Christianity’s failure to participate in Jesus’ mission of liberation. Christians cannot participate in the liberation work of our Christ while we continue to empower oppression.

What brought this reality most painfully to my attention recently was the failure of my faith tradition to recognize and reject the evils of sexism and veiled misogyny.

The most appropriate place I know to turn this week is Jesus. For Jesus and the stories about Jesus have much to say to women being subjugated by men.

In his own culture, Jesus taught Jewish women how to respond to the evils of sexism around them. Jesus saw these women being made to believe they were “less than,” and taught them responses including seizing the moral initiative, asserting and affirming their human dignity, refusing to submit and accept an inferior position, and exposing the injustice of systems who perpetuate such evils. Because of how much we’ve domesticated the teachings of Jesus, we rarely see the full scope of his message.

In order to help you see it now, I want to recommend the extraordinary work of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. It relates to women in a very specific way.

In this volume, Wink pulls back the veil of centuries of misunderstanding about nonviolence and highlights the cultural context of Jesus’ teachings. Wink shows that Jesus taught his followers to assume moral authority and choose to take on the consequences of resistance—assume moral authority and choose .

In Matthew 5, Jesus taught:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

As we have seen before, this phrase is often construed to mean that the slapped party submits to the person who strikes them. Nothing could be further from the original intent of the passage. The Jesus in Matthew abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. And so he offers instead a third alternative to the oppressed of his day (cf. Luke 4.18).

“In that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of exclusion and ten days’ penance (The Dead Sea Scrolls, I QS 7).” (Wink, ibid.)

The scenario Jesus is describing in Matthew 5 is not a fistfight. It is a slap meant as an insult, and the intention is not to injure, but to humiliate: it was a back-handed slap given with the right hand and landing on the recipient’s right cheek. As Wink explains, men used this kind of slap against women to remind them to get back in their place. He goes on to say:

One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant (4 zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatsoever (Mishnah, Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8:1-6).” (Wink, ibid.)

In that time, a backhanded slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors, and women were considered admonish-able and women were considered underlings. Husbands would backhand wives who  got out of line.” So Jesus is describing unequal relations within that society. He’s also describing interactions, such as public stoning, where retaliation would be suicidal. The obvious option for many women in Jesus’ day to this relational culture was “cowering submission.”

Wink continues:

“Why then does [Jesus] counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’” (Wink, ibid.)

Remember: to strike someone with a closed fist on the left cheek was how men in that era struck their peers. A man striking a woman on the left cheek would be forced to recognize the woman as his peer, equal, and equivalent.

I encourage you this week to actually pick up a copy of Wink’s excellent volume and read it for yourself. When you understand the context in which Jesus told his followers to engage in what I call “cheek defiance,” it becomes clear that he was empowering them to

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert [their] own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycle of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand [their] ground
  • Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize [their] own power
  • Force the oppressor to see [them] in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective (Wink, pp. 186-187)

This option would also require women to make serious choices and do so freely for themselves. Each of us must decide whether we are:

  • Willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
  • Willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws [or policies]; and
  • Die to fear of the old order and its rules.
  • Seek the oppressors’ transformation

Wink closes with this profound statement.

“Nonviolence is not the final objective. Nonviolence is a lifestyle. The final objective is humanity. It is life.”

As a friend of mine recently wrote, “Healing the world is hard work.” If you think it’s going to be easy then just reread how in Matthew 10 Jesus prepares his twelve to be misunderstood, feared, accused, and ultimately extirpated by the present status quo.

After teaching cheek defiance in Matthew 5, Jesus addresses two more scenarios: the poor interacting with the rich (public nudity) and Jewish relations with Roman soldiers (civil disobedience). But the very first example Jesus gave is one where women could be empowered to affirm their worth and dignity, to affirm themselves and stand up to patriarchy and its abuses.

In Jesus’ new world, there are no more hierarchies. We are all siblings, offspring of the same Heart at the center of the Universe. We are going to have to learn how to sit together around the same shared table, as equals, once again. But first we must make a choice. Do we really want a world that is a shared table, or will we keep striving to subordinate others or submit to others’ dominance.

Understand this: When we value peace more than we value other people, the result is oppression. Peace (or unity) is not the fruit of submission. It is the presence of equity.

Jesus’ ultimate goal was “peace on earth,” yet he also spoke of being willing to stand up to the uplifted “sword” of our oppressors in creative ways that exposed the domination systems and awakened even those who empowered and drove those systems to also choose an alternative way. Yes, some of us may end up on a cross for shutting down the temples of our day as a result of following Jesus, but we are people of the resurrection and not only of the cross. The hope of the empty tomb is that subordination will yield to equity, condemnation will give way to compassion, fear to hope, and hate to love. But this change will never happen by itself. Each one of us, both men and women, must choose this new world.

I want to be clear. As a man, I am not telling women how they should respond to sexism or patriarchy in the world or in the church. Women within Christianity must be free to self-determine how they respond. I’m concerned by what I’ve witnessed: men telling women to simply “submit.” And I’m offering the alternative I believe Christ offered: the way of self-affirming, empowered, nonviolent resistance.

I’ll close this week with the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

“Nonviolence is not to be used ever as a shield of the coward. It is the weapon of the brave.”

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss with your HeartGroup ways you can apply Jesus’ methods of nonviolent resistance to participate in Christ’s work of liberation from oppression. (cf. Luke 4.18)

  1. Take time with your HeartGroup to name the forms of oppression each of you see around you.
  2. Make time to sit and think of what Jesus’ nonviolent resistance might look like if practiced in each of those oppressive contexts today.
  3. Make a decision: Will you only sit and talk about oppression and resistance, or will you choose to embrace the options you’ll have just come up with?

If you are struggling with this week’s reading, reread Matthew 10. This is the chapter I turn to when I’m afraid, and I recommend it to you in hopes that it will empower you as well.

I recently received an email from a medical doctor friend of mine who works around the globe to make a difference in the lives of the less privileged. He said to me:

“There are always dark nights of the soul and Gethsemanes. But stand strong. From what I’ve experienced in the last 11 years, monetary resources are no problem for God. It’s human resources that are hard to come by. The harvest is ripe but the workers are few. The financial support will come, just keep going. The message you are bringing of non-violence, of the real Jesus, of love for the [marginalized] (the “least of these”), is prophetic and needed in our time. But most prophets in the Bible got pretty rough treatment most of the time…and of course, like I just mentioned, Jesus had a pretty hard time of it too…

“Everyone is always so worried about whether things are safe or not. Newsflash: following Jesus is not safe! What you’re doing is not “safe.” It’s dangerous. But that is also a part of following the Lamb… You may question: was it worth it to stand up for the few and lose the many who could’ve heard the message? But you have to put your money where your mouth is, Herb. And in the end, you’ll have no regrets. Keep going. Don’t quit.”

As we each choose to participate in the hard work of aligning our stories with the Jesus story itself, may the prayer of our hearts be, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” He promised he would be with us till the end of the present age and until the dawning of the new world. As some Adventist women are saying this week, “You can’t hold back the dawn.”

Till the only world that remains is a world free from oppression, a world where only love reigns.

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