A Just Future Begins Today

Herb Montgomery | February 28, 2020

globe


“Change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others. Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.”


In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was asked when “the kingdom” or Jesus’ vision of God’s just future was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21).

What energized the early Jesus movement was that Jesus counterintuitively denied that the just future they anticipated was coming at some point in the future. No, he declared: it had arrived! A new way of shaping human society toward justice, compassion, and inclusion had come, and it was theirs for the choosing. A movement had risen around Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and they were being invited to participate in it. A movement toward the just future they longed for had arrived. The question was what they were going to do about it. Notice the following passages:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 4:17)

“As you go, proclaim the good NEWS, ‘The kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 10:7)

“ . . . the kingdom of God HAS come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“ . . . Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ARE GOING into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” (Matthew 21:31)

“And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near . . .” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus was not announcing that His kingdom would arrive soon, in the future. He proclaimed that the time had already come. He saw his purpose as traveling from one city to the next, proclaiming its arrival!

“But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)

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

Reconsider the passage we began with in Luke 17:

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God IS AMONG YOU.’” (v. 20-21, emphasis added.)

The gospel authors used the rhetoric of “kingdom” or “empire” in their own Jewish culture and Roman societal context. Today we have better language to use: the language of kingdom is now rightly seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, and rooted in patriarchy. Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom” were egalitarian, and his vision for ordering human society didn’t look anything like a kingdom. Let’s simply call it Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. This just future had actually arrived and Jesus contrasted it with the Roman Empire. Its treatment of the poor, inclusion of the marginalized, nonviolent obstruction of present systems of injustice, liberation of the incarcerated, and calls for reparations for those harmed in the present system confronted those listening to Jesus with the difference between the kind of society they were living in and the kind of society that could be, if they chose it.

Notice the contrast in these two verses:

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR.” (Luke 21:31)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God COMES.” (Luke 22:18)

Had the time come, yes. Was it near? Yes. Had the beginning already begun? Yes. Could it also be stopped and prevented from coming in its fullness? Absolutely.

The time for change had come, but, as with all movements, positive momentum could be obstructed, slowed, and even halted. The time for a just future may have come, but change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others.

Would the established elite be able to stop this movement or would the proletariat that comprised the early Jesus movement actually be able to make the changes they resonated with in the teachings of Jesus? Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.

In the gospels, Jesus announced that the beginning of God’s just future had arrived. He called his followers to enlarge this beginning, and it was obstructed almost immediately.

That obstruction is the meaning we can safely take from the cross of Jesus. The cross was the establishment’s no to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The cross interrupted Jesus’ salvific work, while the resurrection reversed the interruption and inspired Jesus’ early followers to live out his vision of a just future.

I’m reminded of how Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas phrases it in her powerfully written book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil . . . As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life affirming force.” (p. 187)

Douglas goes on to reference Audre Lorde’s phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Douglass then responds to Lorde:

“What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . [God’s resurrecting] power is nonviolent . . . God enters into this world of violence, yet God does not take [violence] into God’s self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human creation. Thus, through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world—in a nonviolent but forceful manner.”

One of the uses of the threat of a cross in Roman society was to prevent rebellion or resistance. It was used to keep oppressed communities silent or passive. To stand up to injustice was to embrace the possibility that one might also end up on a cross for doing so. This context of standing up and speaking out, fully knowing what the repercussions may be, is the context I believe it’s most life-giving to read these words in Luke’s gospel from Jesus:

“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:22–24)

Those who choose to save their life by remaining passively silent in the face of injustice are the ones who end up losing their life and humanity, even if they live on with their privilege and position untouched.

God’s just future is both future and present. The future/present paradox is not either/or, but both/and. God’s just future begins every time someone chooses justice over injustice, liberation over subjugation, equity over exploitation, and thriving over extinction. It also can be obstructed.

Every time we choose to stand with those most vulnerable to injustice, the beginning of God’s just future is here, now, obstructed though it may be. We get to choose which way the moral arc of the universe bends. The status quo either bends us, or we bend it. It shapes us, or we shape it.

And this leads me to a question I get asked a lot. But what about when we feel like our taking a stand isn’t making much of a difference? I have to admit, I too am wrestling with those feelings this week after spending Monday at my state Capital talking to our representatives. I’m reminded of the story of A.J. Muste.

A.J. Muste was an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Standing at a candlelight vigil/protest in front of the White House, a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”

A.J. Muste replied softly: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I believe that when we choose to take a stand, the beginning of God’s just future has arrived.

Will it grow to fruition? That is for us, collectively, to decide.

When we see movements toward a more just, more compassionate, safe society at work, we can oppose them, choosing a more moderate, less-threatening-to-the-establishment path, or we can come alongside those movements, pitching in our own energy and resources to work for change.

If we do that, we can confidently say with Jesus, God’s just future, though obstructed, is already “among you.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see fear of a more just society being stoked today? Discuss with your group.
  2. What movements for justice do you see being obstructed? Have your group make a list.
  3. What can your group do collectively to stand with and work alongside such movements? Pick something and put it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2020


“This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

In Part 1 we discussed what the ethic of enemy love may mean and what it most definitely does not mean.

Socially and historically, one of the most used methods for uniting a society or community has been to rally that community against a common enemy. It’s effective and it’s easy. Produce a common enemy, and people who were once enemies will join together against that enemy. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Henry gives this advice to his son, who will become Henry V after him:

“Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.”
(Henry IV Part II, Act IV, scene V)

Another example is found in Luke’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Herod and Pilate struck up a friendship, yet until Jesus appeared on the scene, they had been enemies.

“That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this, they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12, emphasis added, cf. Job 16:10)

Jesus taught a different way of living life together. One of the ethical threads in the fabric of his community was that members would no longer be united in hatred for a common enemy. Rather they’d be united in the practice of loving their enemies.

Jesus was calling his Jewish community back to its roots of enemy love when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:43)

This teaching went back centuries:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Proverbs 25:2, cf. 2 Kings 6:21-23)

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” (Exodus 23:4,5)

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17, cf. Job 31:29)

At the same time, in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, one can also find support for hating one’s enemy. What made Jesus stand out in his own time and culture was his ability to parse and interpret his community’s teachings in life-giving ways. We are called to do the same.

Jesus’ vision of a just, safe and compassionate society calls us to include those who are presently our enemies, those who oppose a more compassionate society. For Jesus, enemies were to be seen as capable of change. No person was disposable, no matter how wrong they may have been. We are all connected, all of us. And as difficult as it may be, we are in this together.

Evolutionary Survival Ethic of the Past

A few years ago, I placed my 16-year-old daughter on an airplane and she flew from West Virginia to Colorado all by herself to visit her grandmother. Because she was underage, she was assigned a flight attendant to watch over her and get her safely from our care to her grandmother’s.

Before my daughter reached her grandmother, she had to comply with everything the flight attendant asked her to do. But once she was in her grandmother’s company, it would have been foolish for her to cling to the flight attendant. The attendant would want my daughter to go with and listen to her grandmother, even if, over the course of the flight, my daughter and the attendant had become fondly attached.

It could be debated that hatred of one’s enemies has, in the past, worked toward our survival as a human species. Even if that proves true, I would offer that the time for such has passed, we have outgrown its usefulness. The future does not belong to those who hate, but to those who have found a way to love, even their enemies.

Love is Not Naive

Enemy love does not mean we accept our enemies’ behaviors and choices. It means we refuse to allow their actions to change who we are. We remain responsible for our own choices and are able to choose how we respond (response-able) to our enemies’ choices. We act, proactively, out of the kind of person we choose to be. We don”t simply react to the types of people our enemies choose to be. As we said in part one, we’re part of a humanity that also includes our enemies. Yet we choose not to be the same kinds of people our enemies are choosing to be.

James Baldwin, whom I admire greatly, wrote of this principle in his classic The Fire Next Time:

“I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (p. 83, emphasis added)

Love acknowledges the choices our enemies make. Love even obstructs enemies’ harmful actions. Yet it stops short of allowing a person to become the same type of person as their enemy. Love means choosing not to debase another person in the way they have debased us. We don’t ignore the actions of our enemies. We simply choose to be shaped by something greater than their actions.

This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them. It breaks the mimetic tendency we as humans have to simply mimic each other, even in violence. It breaks the chain and enables us to be different, to do differently than what has been done to us.

While holding our enemies accountable, we can do so with a transformative, reparative, and restorative perspective rather than with retribution in mind. This approach holds on to our enemies’ humanity and seeks a path toward a just future that includes transformation for them too. Dr. King, who strove to understand and rightfully apply the ethic of enemy love, stated as much in his sermon Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in November 1957:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption . . . It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says, love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”

So it would seem that there really isn’t a middle ground. We either permit our enemies’ actions to shape us, to determine the kind of people we will be, or we choose a path that has the potential (without guarantee) to shape our enemies as we choose to be the kinds of people we aspire to be.

Liberation theologies today might say we can choose to remain free internally, in our own inmost being, while we work to become free outwardly.

Enemy love is difficult. But most things that are worth it are.

HeartGroup Application

1. Are there stories of enemy love that you find compelling for you, today? Share one with your group.

2. What did you learn from last week’s exercise/practice? Share with your group.

3. How can your HeartGroup deepen its practice of enemy love collectively this coming year?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week.

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | January 24, 2020


“I want to be careful with this ethic of enemy love. First, this ethic does not mean that we should expect reconciliation without change or reparations from our enemies . . . To expect the victims of violence to reconcile with their oppressors in the midst of ongoing oppression, even when the injustice is systemic, is in itself violent.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

Jesus’ “love your enemy” ethic is one of his most challenging teachings. Along with his economic teachings for the wealthy elites, it remains the dealbreaker for many who initially desire to follow him.

At the heart of Jesus’ ethical teaching about God, ourselves, and others was the principle of loving your enemies. It was as if Jesus were saying, “I know you’ve been taught to love your neighbor. Now I’m going to teach you how to love your enemies.”

This teaching of Jesus has never proven to be popular. In the gospels, many of the rich (outside of those labeled publicans or tax-collectors) could not love the poor, and the poor could not love their oppressors. We have enough evidence to say that it was the poor people’s revolt in Judea during the latter half of the 1st Century that led to the Roman-Jewish war, the razing of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E., and the almost total genocide of the Jewish people in 132-136 C.E. (the Bar Kokhba revolt).

The picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that of an itinerant teacher who had enough wisdom to see where his contemporaries’ exploitation and anger/despair would lead them. (Oh, that those who carry the name of Christian could do the same today!) The gospels were written between the Jewish Revolt of the 60s and the destruction of the 130s by Jesus-followers trying to make sense of the devastation that had taken place in Jerusalem. It makes sense that they would write of a death at Rome’s hands and a resurrection that led to a distributively just world where peace reigns in the end.

They characterize Jesus as gathering whoever will join him in a revolutionary, alternative way of living and structuring life. In the gospels, Jesus’ social vision is referred to as “the Kingdom of God,” a phrase that would have resonated deeply in the culture of the gospels’ original audience. This kingdom was not a world someplace out in the heavens that one had to die to reach. Jesus taught that another world was possible, here and now, if we would choose it. Jesus’ teachings were about our communal lives. They radically rearranged how human beings arrange their society, and they involved change by those in positions of power and privilege who were responsible for the systemic injustice they were benefiting from. They also involved some form of love from those who had been deeply hurt by those same people and systems, toward the very ones they were confronting in their calls for change.


Reconciliation Without Change

I want to be careful with this ethic of enemy love. First, this ethic does not mean that we should expect reconciliation without change or reparations from our enemies.

I’m reminded of Jacquelyn Grant’s words in her classic work, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus. In this book, she speaks of the partnership that White women expected from Black women in work that would benefit women of privilege when White women had not engaged the same kind of partnership or involvement in the causes of women disenfranchised much more.

“From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation.” (p. 191)

I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without liberation and reparations. Reconciliation follows liberation, reparation, and systemic change. To expect the victims of violence to reconcile with their oppressors in the midst of ongoing oppression, even when the injustice is systemic, is in itself violent.

Luke’s Jesus, who taught enemy love, also taught reparations by those who were considered to be “the enemy.” Consider these words in Luke’s gospel by Zacchaeus:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Here Zacchaeus is becoming a follower of Jesus. As a person who would have been considered an enemy of the poor by those he had exploited, becoming a Jesus follower meant reparations toward those he had cheated and to the poor in general. This is telling in regards to what Zacchaeus felt Jesus’ teachings expected of him.

In the face of Zacchaeus’ model, we must be suspicious of theologies of reconciliation that promote either Christian or civil unity at the price of ignoring injustice both past and present.


Holding on to Our Enemy’s Humanity

So what does enemy-love mean?

For me, it is best expressed by Barbara Deming in her book Revolution and Equilibrium. After stating that the practitioner of nonviolent resistance obstructs an enemy’s actions, refusing to “honor the role” that enemy chooses, she then quickly adds that we also say to them:

“‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 224)

Consider the prayer Luke’s gospel places on the lips of Jesus in his closing moments on the cross:

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34)

I understand there are debates over whether this prayer was genuinely original to Jesus. Even so, I don’t want us to miss the narrative purpose it serves in Luke’s Jesus story.

What is this prayer but Jesus asking his God for his enemies not to be, in Deming’s words, “cast out of the human race.” This is a prayer for his enemies not to be destroyed and not let go of either. It assumes Jesus’ faith in his enemies’ potential to make “better choices than they are making now.”

The cross was the social elites’ violent “no” to God’s just future. The resurrection was God’s nonviolent response, enabling and empowering the hope of that just future to live on. Jesus’ community were to hold on to a vision of the future where enemies are not destroyed so we can get on with paradise, but rather where enemies are transformed and learn to evolve into better humans.

Seeking to shape the world according to distributive justice while choosing to hold the ethic of enemy love is entirely revolutionary. It is a radical break from our deepest instincts. It goes against what we’ve been taught is the way to survive. It calls us to go against how we have been indoctrinated and the narratives we have been handed.

Today, Jesus’ hope for a just future still extends an ongoing invitation. To follow Jesus on this point is most likely the most revolutionary thing a human being can do, not only to change our world but also to do so such that the inhabitants of our world are changed. Jesus offers a vision for a world where distributive justice, love, and compassion reign “on earth” as they do “in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

We are too skilled at taming revolutions and making them conventional; too skilled at turning things like the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of enemy love into complicity with society as we have known it. What if the ethic of enemy love and the energy we spend working toward survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation don’t inspire us to accept the injustice of our enemies, but instead inspire hope for genuine, lasting change?

For the next seven days, I want you to engage in a practice that will help you move toward this ethic. Each day, take a few minutes, once a day, to stop and think of the person on this planet you like the least. Then repeat these words as if you are speaking directly to them:

“What you have done or are doing is not right. I refuse to accept your actions. At the same time, I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make better choices than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you choose to do so. Like it or not, we are part of one another.”

Then find someone to share what you experienced through these seven days.

If you’re willing, I’d like to hear your stories too. Drop us a line here.


HeartGroup Application

1. Engage in the above practice throughout this next week
2. Journal what you experience.
3. Share with your HeartGroup your experience.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Equality Means Some Are Given More Than Others

Equality, Equity and Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized
by Herb Montgomery | January 17, 2020

hands together for equality


“Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this ‘more than’ is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.”


“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 6:22)

This passage in Luke’s gospel marks the beginning of what many refer to as Jesus’ sermon on the plain. When we compare Luke’s version of this sermon to Matthew’s sermon on the mount, what begins to take shape is that Jesus’ gospel was not good news for everyone. In Luke, Jesus uttered blessings on some and woes on others.

Those he spoke blessings to were the marginalized, exploited or oppressed of Jesus’ society. Those he spoke woes to were those in his society who were in positions of privilege and power.

The Poor,
The Hungry,
The Weepers,
The Hated, Excluded, and Insulted,

versus

The Rich,
The Well-Fed,
The Laughers,
The Spoken Well Of.

Some in Jesus’ own society believed that the rich, the well-fed, and those whose lives were filled with laughter had been blessed by God, while those who were poor, hungry, and mourning were being punished by God. In that worldview, they were sinners, not less fortunate and in need of compassion and justice, but rather as morally inferior.

Jesus turned that order of economics, politics, society and even religious exclusion on its head! He challenged people’s preconceived interpretations of God and what fidelity to God looked like. God was actually on the side of those whom society was pushing to the edges and undersides. God was with those who were poor, hungry, heartbroken, hated, excluded, and insulted, and the “kingdom” belonged to them.

But to those who were privileged in an unjust social and economic structure, Jesus spoke woes.

These woes pronounced future sorrow or distress. Jesus spoke to the people of loss, for equity and equality will always feel like threat, loss, or distress to those who have everything to lose within a more just society. They do not understand change as the good news of liberation but as something being taken away from them. Today, some have more than they could ever possibly need. For the wealthiest among us, being less wealthy won’t really affect their daily lives. But someone whose net worth is hundreds of millions of dollars may still feel losing a million of it so that others can eat is still a loss. Is supporting our interconnectedness worth more than our bottom line or net worth?

Jesus began standing in the shadow of the cross as soon as he began to teach this gospel of blessings and woes. Those he blessed were the opposite of those the elites blessed, and those he warned were the opposite of those the powerful thought deserved woes. Jesus called his listeners to look at their society and those within their society in the opposite way they had been taught to.

Nothing destroys one’s empathy for others more completely than seeing them as “less than.” Jesus challenged his listeners’ most cherished assumptions about others. This different lens would cause deep upheaval for people, economically, politically, socially, and even religiously. The vision for human society that Jesus was seeking to inspire would require a paradigm shift after paradigm shift. It would not be a time of blessing for some of them, and they would face deep questioning and change as things turned on their head.

I’m reminded of the words of the late Rev. Peter Gomes:

“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.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 42)

Equity threatens those who spend their energy striving to have more than others. But it is good news to those who work for a just, compassionate, safe world for everyone. A world becoming more equitable will bless some and be felt as a woe by others.

I want to add a word of clarification:

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus speaks these words:

“[God] causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

In Jesus’ theology, God loves all equally and gives to all the things they need to thrive. We as humans have designed ways for more of these resources to get to some people to the detriment of others. So why in Jesus’ gospel are some blessed, while others receive woes? Why, unlike the rain and sunshine, is the blessing of kingdom pronounced upon certain ones while woes are the only thing promised to others?

A more current conversation of the differences between equity and equality can help us here. (Everyday Feminism had a good article on these differences back in 2014 at https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/)

picture of different people looking over a fenceEquality is often understood as everyone getting exactly the same. But because everyone has a different social, economic, or political starting point, simply giving everyone the same thing would not necessarily create the goal of everyone having enough to thrive. Some would still have more than they need, while others would not. When everyone is different, fairness and success also differ. The image to the right illustrates these points. Equity means making sure each person has enough to thrive, and that may look different for different people.

Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this “more than” is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.

In liberation theology, scholars refer to the deference given to those on the margins as a “preferential option for the oppressed.” It is a choice to center those who are pushed to the edges and undersides of our society, and to place these people and their communities on equal ground with others. The preferential option is required to bring about equality.

In our small group discussions at Renewed Heart Ministries, we often say that whenever we speak of oppression or marginalization, those who are the most affected or most vulnerable are those who get to share their experiences. To the degree that others are less affected by such personal and systemic injustices, they can listen in solidarity. When it comes to discussions on gender inequity, for example, men, especially cisgender men, take a posture of listening. When it comes to racial inequity, those who are White listen to those who are not White. In discussions on immigration justice here in the U.S., those who are documented citizens listen. In discussions of Indigenous people’s lives and equitable treatment, non-Indigenous people listen; and when we speak of LGBTQ justice, those who identify as straight, cisgender, or gender normative listen.

Those most negatively impacted by societal injustice receive the “blessing,” while others in our present society, it could be said, “have already received” theirs (see Luke 6:24).

Go back now and reread the entirety of Luke’s sermon on the plain by Jesus and see if you don’t begin to get a feel for what Jesus in this story is doing:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”
(Luke 6:20-26)

Equity doesn’t have to feel like inequality if we choose to see our differences and how these differences are treated. Equality doesn’t have to feel like oppression even if you are used to privilege. We are all in this together. What lessens one, lessens us all. We are connected to one another. As the adage goes, equality doesn’t mean less for you: it’s not pie. Whether we choose to view it that way or not, is another discussion.

HeartGroup Application

1. Thoughtfully read through Matthew 5.1-11 and Luke 6.17-26. Share with your group anything the engages your attention.

2. Discuss whom these words would be directed toward in our social context today.

3. Share at least one community you would like your group to focus on working alongside with for greater system equity in our larger society.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, choose love, compassion, take action.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

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

We here at RHM have something special for our readers and listeners this month.

From now through April 22, we’ll be offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

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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.