Directed Good News 

by Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

sign saying good news is coming

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed.


 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

 

The late Peter Gomes wrote, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

Jesus declared that in the community he envisioned, those made last in current social structures would be first, and those presently made first, would be last. 

“When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact 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. — Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? p. 42 (emphasis added.)

Over and over within the gospel stories we see good news to some being not so good news for others. In Luke’s gospel, the pronouncement of blessing upon the poor was coupled with woe to those who were rich.

And this leads me to my point this week.

I believe that Jesus’ vision for human community is Good news for all, but not good news to all. 

Jesus’ gospel was directed to those at a certain social location.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18)

The gospel is good news to the poor, to the oppressed, and to those who are victims of mass incarceration, for example. These are the people whom our system targets, exploits, or forces to the underside of our society where benefits the rest of us take for granted are kept beyond their reach. 

These were also the people who perceived Jesus’ teachings as good news. Though, if we followed Jesus’ values, they would set us on a path toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all, those in whom those changes sparked fear did not perceive them as good news initially. It was good news for them, too, but they did not perceive it as good news to them.

A world where we embrace our interconnectedness and dependence on one another, where we learn to cooperate with each other rather than individualistically compete against others is a world that will be better for everyone. It’s a world where folks who daily face oppression reclaim their own humanity, and also those dehumanized by the act of being “oppressor” find in their removal from power a returning to their own humanity, too.

Good news to some, and good for all, but not good news to all. As Gomes says in his book:

“… Thus, in the name of fair-mindedness and egalitarianism, the gospel’s claim of a radical reordering, a redistribution, an exercise in almost Gilbertian topsy-turveydom, is an offense, a scandal, and hardly good news.” —in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 31, 42).

Today, many sectors of Christianity have abandoned changing systemic injustice here and now in our world. These Christians sing hymns that utter the words, “this world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Their focus, for better or worse, is not this life, but one they believe will come after this one. For those who suffer, these beliefs work as an opiate and leave them passive. For those who benefit from their suffering, these beliefs work as guilt alleviation, “no-condemnation,” an unconditional love that enables them to sleep better at night and believe that the gospel has little to do with anything here and now.

This type of Christianity adapts Jesus’ teachings to offer the hope of post-mortem bliss to as many people as possible. It makes Jesus’ teachings good news to all, not merely good news for all. And this has produced a myriad of problems, including allowing us to seem to follow a radical Jew like Jesus while we remain mostly moderate or even oppress others.

This “respectable middle” has almost wholly eclipsed the teachings of Jesus. You can attend entire conferences on the gospel without ever hearing the poor mentioned once. Whatever can be said of this kind of gospel, it’s not the same gospel that the Jewish Jesus taught. For the Jesus of the scriptures, the poor and that which was good news to the poor were the centerpiece of his teachings. If Jesus were present today, I can’t imagine he could give a weekend of teachings on the gospel and never mention the poor once. Is the Jesus of this type of Christianity the same as the Jesus in the stories of Mark, Matthew, and Luke?

The bottom line is that the Gospel of Jesus should be good news to the poor, exploited, incarcerated, vulnerable, marginalized, and pushed aside. Someone once warned me, “Herb,” they said, “If it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel.” But social location matters. Jesus came teaching the good news, but those benefitting from the social system perceived Jesus’ teaching as a threat and began to “hate” him, to “exclude” and “insult” him, and to “reject” him as “evil.” They labeled him dangerous. 

So before we write something off as not the gospel because it doesn’t seem good news to us, we need to check our social location. Is it good news to those on the margins? If I don’t feel that it’s good news, is that because it’s bringing attention to an area where people are being hurt and to which I’d rather turn a blind eye? Who is perceiving the gospel as good news and who is feeling threatened by it? If you are in a position of privilege and you aren’t perceiving things as good news, you’re in the right story. And if you, in a specific area of your life, are marginalized or othered, and you don’t feel like what’s being said is good news to you, then chances are, then, it’s really not the gospel.

Recently, we at RHM participated in our local, annual Race Matters summit. (You can read all about it here.) In one of the keynote addresses, Arley Johnson remarked how in the 2040’s, White Americans will be in the minority. (See http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-op-0809-minority-majority-20170808-story.html and https://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/)

Stop and consider this for a moment? Is this good news to you? Do you feel threatened by it?

In a different meeting during the weekend, another speaker mentioned that the demographic shift could possibly explain why abortion is such a trigger issue among White conservatives worried about the decreasing White population. Now, political conservatism has been shown to increase when people are afraid. Also, consider that people genuinely concerned about lowering the number of abortions that take place could lower them by making birth control widely available. Making abortions illegal doesn’t lower their numbers, it only makes them more dangerous for vulnerable women. But if your concern is for the White population, then birth control is not a viable option. You’re wanting more births, not fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not to mention that many who are pro-life are also pro-war, pro-guns, and pro-capitalism. The pro-life movement has historically been more concerned with controlling women’s sex lives than preventing unwanted pregnancies. 

So why is a demographic shift so threatening? Are White people afraid that people of color will act the way White people have? Similarly, many straight, cisgender folks, so clearly in the majority of our world’s population, are threatened by those who identify as LGBTQIA. Queer folks aren’t working to take over. Their goal is not world domination where everyone is forced to be like them. They simply want a world that is safe for them: they are in the minority. But since straight, cisgender folks have historically created closets for LGBTQIA people to hide in and pretend to live like straight, cisgender people, it only makes sense that we who have benefited from the system fear that the tables will be turned. If I have learned anything from my time within marginalized communities, it’s that no fear could be more unfounded. To date, the safest I have ever felt is when I am among my LGBTQ friends. They know firsthand what it’s like to be ill-treated and repressed, and they go to great lengths to ensure they are not treating others in the same way they have been treated.

In Matthew 21, however, Jesus tells a story about power being taken away from those at the center and given to those marginalized and excluded in Judaism. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ ‘So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ . . . ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ . . . When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:31-45)

Here Jesus is referring to power being taken away from those at the center of their social structure and given back to the people, specifically the people those in power had pushed to the edges (tax collectors and others labeled as sinners.)

Would those on the margins or those disenfranchised do a better job than those who’d oppressed them? Only time could tell. If they failed to form a just society, eventually power would be wrested from them as well. But this leads me back to my point. 

Again: Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed. As it says, “they looked for a way to arrest him” for saying such things.

Jesus’ good news is directed. 

It’s good news for all.

It’s only good news to those presently held down by systemic injustice. 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group, create a list of ten sayings that could be directed good news, i.e. things that are good news to certain ones but not necessarily good news to someone else.

We began with one: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

2. Discuss how each one makes you feel. Are some of these sayings good news to you? Are there some that are threatening to you? Why? What is the correlation between your social location in each of the ten sayings and your feelings toward each of them?

3. What did this exercise help you understand? What’s the lesson in this for you? Share with your group what it is.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you may be, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


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Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

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

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

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

Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Certainty of the Answer to Prayer

(Universal or Particular?)

by Herb Montgomery

hands folded in prayer

“I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Q 11:9-13)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:7-11: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:9-13: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Gospel of Thomas 92: Jesus says, “Seek and you will find.”

Gospel of Thomas 94: Jesus says: “The one who seeks will find. The one who knocks, to that one will it be opened.”

There is so much to say in regards to this week’s saying. The passage has been touted by sincere Christians wanting to encourage others to have assurance in relation to their prayers. I believe that interpretation takes this week’s saying out of its context.

Most Q scholars believe that this saying originally appeared right after the section we call the Lord’s prayer. This means that Jesus isn’t trying to bolster up our confidence in prayer or setting us up for disappointment when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus has just called us to pray for debt cancellation, today’s bread, and freedom from testing and trials. So with this week’s saying, Jesus is trying to inspire hope in that prayer. He is pleading with his audience to lean into the risk of being the first to set in motion economic revolution and then trust that it will come back around.

Remember, as we’ve said this year, God’s reign in Q is about trusting enough that God will send people to take care of you when you are in need tomorrow that you choose to be the person God sends to take of someone else today. Jesus’s saying is not on prayer in general. It’s specially in the context of trusting that Jesus’ economic plan will really work so we can let go and share.

If we do trust that if we seek this new world of people taking care of people, we will find it. If we knock on that door, it will open. Asking for today’s bread, we won’t get stones. Asking for fish, we won’t get snakes. And if we know how to take care of our kids, how much more will we, too, as we reach out to each other, also be taken care of.

Jesus shared this saying in the context of our fear or anxiety about following Jesus in mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and praying for our and others’ debts to be cancelled.

Gospel of Thomas

That this saying ever made it out of its original Judean context to the more Platonic context in the region around Edesse, where modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas originated, suggests that this is a saying of the historical Jesus and not simply a saying attributed to him after his death. There are a few points of evidence for this.

Matthew’s versus Luke’s Version

Matthew, believed to have been written before Luke, preserves the concrete, economic language in this week’s saying, even though the author of Matthew separated it from the Lord’s prayer by a whole chapter’s* worth of instruction. Luke, on the other hand, keeps this saying in the context of the Lord’s prayer but changes the wording dramatically to petition not for bread, resources, or debt cancellation but for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a unique element in the books attributed to Luke. In both Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit plays a much more substantial role than in Mark’s, Matthew’s or John’s gospels. Luke uses this saying about prayer to prepare us for what will later happen in Acts when the Holy Spirit is “given.” We’ve witnessed this kind of change before. In last week’s saying, too, Luke changed the earliest emphasis on debts being cancelled into personal grievances being forgiven. (See The Lord’s Prayer.)

As we said last week, both versions can be true. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are different, however, and these differences should not be glossed over as we study the canonical gospels.

Why Context Matters

I feel very strongly when we remove this saying from its context and make it about generic prayer rather than prayer specifically for economic revolution, then our false expectations set us up for deep disappointments. We might pray for something important to us and place all our hopes in what seems to be a magical promise, only to watch what we pray for not materialize.

A friend of mine recently claimed this passage as he interviewed over for job after job. He “asked, sought, and knocked,” only to be told repeatedly he was not what each company was looking for. After this series of disappointments, he wrote:

“I don’t believe in prayer anymore. I’ve prayed for jobs, specific jobs, and most of the jobs I prayed for, I didn’t get; most of the jobs I ever got, came without praying. Is it easier to believe in a God that plays favoritism or that there’s no God at all? I think it’s much easier to be an atheist or an agnostic.”

His disappointment over his unanswered prayer was only worsened by the false expectations of prayer that he’d been taught. Understanding this saying as a proverb about all prayer was emotionally damaging in a disheartening situation.

So how should we understand this passage?

In light of Jesus’ “year of the Lord’ favor,” the year when all debts should be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1), imagine you are one in Jesus’ audience who both owes others money and is also owed money by others. You depend on being repaid to repay those you owe, and you have real anxiety about releasing those who owe you and the fear that those you owe will still hold you accountable is real. Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, and you won’t get snakes.”

Say you are one who barely has enough for yourself to survive from day to day. Jesus’ words on mutual aid and resource sharing activate your fear that you will go without if you share with others, and your self-preservation impulse is triggered. Jesus again encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

Or imagine you are someone very wealthy in Jesus’ audience. You have taken savvy risks with your money. You have been careful and  overcome bad turns of events. Things may not have always gone your way, but somehow, today, you have come out on top. Jesus asks even you to voluntarily redistribute your wealth to those with great needs around you. Jesus is asking you to let go of your fear of what may happen to you in the future and to prioritize taking care of people today over profit so that you can survive what may come tomorrow. The fear is real, and yet Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock, you won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

It is easier to interpret this saying as about all prayer rather than specifically about the prayer Jesus taught. But we must allow the context of this saying to confront us, to inspire us to take specific economic action, and not to give us false hope. When we minimize the economic meaning of this saying, we only set ourselves up for grief when our expectations aren’t met.

Remember, the reign of God is not God simply raining down what we pray for from some place above. God’s reign, for Jesus, is people taking care of people. People who take responsibility for people, balancing the needs of each individual with the needs of the community, the human community, and the global community, and this would today include the care of the earth itself. Trusting in our choices today, specifically our choices to be the ones who take care of each other, we will be setting in motion an awakening where tomorrow there will be those who will also take care of us.

Recently, in an announcement that she would become a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminar in New York City, Michelle Alexander states, “Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”

It is by understanding this week’s saying in its original context that we might be able to recapture a Jesus who called for an awakening in his own society. Two thousand years ago, he hoped for liberation that included being freed from “fear, greed, and the hunger for power.”

So, in this context, let’s consider the courage we’re called to take hold of in these words:

I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Q 11:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, go back to the Lord’s prayer from last week and look at all three sections:

a. Enough Bread for Today (Resource Sharing)

b. Cancelling/Forgiving all Debts

c. Choosing Life rather than Death

  1. Discuss what each of these look like to you personally and as a group when you apply them to your lives today.
  2. How can you help each other practice these three?
  3. Pick one of the ways you come up with to help each other this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

However you choose to apply the values we are considering this week, do so in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*Chapter and verse delineation did not exist in the original documents but were added between the 13th and 16th centuries.

The Lord’s Prayer 

Shared Economy Sign

by Herb Montgomery

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:9-12: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Luke 11:2-4: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation. ’ ”

This week, we’re looking at a saying in Q that many now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Last week, we looked at the problematic nature of gendering God and Jesus’ naming God as our Father. This week, we’ll consider the tangible, concrete, economic nature of the rest of this prayer.

Jesus’ “reign of God,” as we have learned this year, can be defined simply as people helping people, taking responsibility for one another, living in centered relationships and community with a focus on quality of life for those whose lives and value as human beings has been denied, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Daily Bread

This prayer purposefully focuses on today: not tomorrow, but today. Gandhi is believed to have said that every day the earth produces enough for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. Greed can be defined as the exploitation of others and the hoarding of more than one needs for today (from fear of what may come tomorrow) while ignoring the basic daily needs of those being exploited.

In this prayer, Jesus doesn’t ask for tomorrow’s needs to be assured. He asks for our needs be met today. As we let go of our fear of the future, relinquish the exploitation of others, and choose instead a community of mutual aid, resource sharing, and mutual responsibility and care, we enter a path of trust. We trust that someone will take care of us if something should befall us tomorrow; we trust enough to be the ones who take care of those trouble has befallen today.

This is a path of abandonment and embrace. We’re abandoning values such as individualism and independence, and embracing our reality as humans who are interdependent. So we choose to balance each individual’s needs and the community where all of those needs can be met.

We take care of each other today, and leave tomorrow to worry about itself. As long as we have each other, we can together face what may come tomorrow. We don’t put our trust or hope in accumulated wealth but rather in each other as we live out the faith that Jesus modeled and the love that God shows us (see Psalms 62:10 cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).

Cancel All Debts

Next, this saying refers to debt cancellation. Some Q scholars believe that the phrase “cancel all debts” was part of the earliest form of this prayer. It’s interesting how the versions of this saying progressed from Jesus’ and the Torah’s concerns about economic liberation to a more “spiritual” language for debt that left the economic plight of the poor unaddressed. That’s convenient!

Let me explain.

It’s believed that the earliest form of the Q source text said “cancel our debts for us as we have cancelled those in debt to us.” In the spirit of the Torah’s sabbatical year (jubilee), this represented a community that had literally cancelled the debts of those who owed them, and now prayed that, like dominoes, their creditors would cancel their debts as well. They were setting something in motion and praying for its end: all debts forgiven!

When Matthew’s gospel adds this saying to Mark’s narrative, it becomes “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This still means essentially the same thing, but notice the word “forgive.” This change sets up the phrasing in Luke.

Luke’s gospel phrases this saying, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” This final step enlarges the prayer and makes it relational rather than economic. Any sin is now included and the Torah/sabbatical year connection is lost. Now the prayer becomes a matter of forgiving wrongs other have committed in hopes that one’s own wrongs will also be forgiven.

All three versions of the prayer are valid. It’s also important to know their origins as well. We often focus on Jesus’s relational teachings today, and with good reason. Jesus’s economic teachings are challenging, and it can seem preferable to avert one’s gaze. Yet they are there in his teachings nonetheless, along with the teachings of the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” (Deuteronomy 15:1)

Luke’s gospel also affirms the centrality of “all debts cancelled” in a unique way. Luke begins Jesus’ ministry with Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah in a Sabbath synagogue service and reading:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18)

This “year of the Lord’s favor” is the sabbatical year Deuteronomy 15:1 refers to, a year when the people were to cancel all debts.

That commandment brought hope to indentured farmers, who used to own the farms they now worked on, and the day laborers who worked with them earning day wages. And what fear, objection, and threat it must have brought to Herod’s economy in Galilee and the wealthy aristocracy centered in Jerusalem. The economic elite in Galilee and Jerusalem would no doubt have been anxious to rid their societies of this itinerant teacher stirring up the hopes of the poor. (See The Jesus Story.)

There is a contrast, too, between the way Herod and Jesus approached politics. Politics is the subject of power and resources (wealth). Herod sought to hoard and then wield power and resources as the means whereby his Jewish people would be liberated, with him at the helm as hero, and liberation flowing unilaterally from him to the people.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught that both power and resources should be shared. Rather than the unilateral hero deliverance that we have transformed Jesus’ salvation into, Jesus taught the shared power of community where debts are cancelled, resources are shared, wealth is redistributed, and mutual aid becomes the order of the day. Jesus wanted his followers to be the source of a liberation that not only benefitted the Jewish people but would spread to and change the Roman world as well.

It is a misunderstanding to say that a community informed by Jesus’ teachings today should be relegated to spiritual matters and matters of politics should be left to the state. Jesus had much to say that was political—about power and resources. The community of Jesus followers is just as political as the state; we simply choose to go about politics differently.

Not Being Put To the Test 

Lastly this week I want to discuss the difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross as pushback from the death dealers, and thinking that a cross or suffering is in itself the goal. Choosing a cross doesn’t bring life. Choosing life brings life. And sometimes we have to choose life even when a cross is being threatened against us, but choose life and thus a cross we must.

There is a subtle difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross and choosing a cross for the cross’s sake. If we can avoid suffering without sacrificing justice or our hold on life, then that is the better choice. In Jesus’ time, the cross was state execution. When you’re dead, whatever your reasons, you’re dead. In following Jesus, we should choose life even if threatened with death from the death dealers, and we should also not go around looking to get killed. This is why, I believe, we are taught to pray:

“Do not put us to the test!”

Because Jesus followers seek to emulate Jesus, how we define “being like Jesus” is vital. Jesus chose the way of life even when being threatened with a cross; he did not choose a cross. In cases of domestic violence, many women are counseled to “be like Jesus,” though they have sacrificed their selves by remaining in environments that are destructive to their entire being. We must be careful not to glorify suffering in contexts like these, and careful as we reject redemptive violence not to teach redemptive suffering.

To be like Jesus means to choose life, even with all the risks, threats, and dangers that taking hold of life and not being willing to let go of it entails, all the while praying that we will not be brought to what the gospel writers call the time of testing.

We choose life regardless of risk, knowing there may be a cross as a result, and keeping our focus on the life found in Jesus, not the death found in Jesus. When Jesus calls a person to follow him, he does not call that person to die, he calls that person to live! It is the threats of the powers that be that overshadow our choice of life with the cross. It’s not an intrinsic connection, but an imposed one. We’ll cover this again and in much more detail when we get to Jesus’ sayings about taking up the cross.

Today, my intuition tells me we must allow ourselves to face the economic elements of the Lord’s prayer in its original form. In a dog-eat-dog world, what could be changed if we chose to strike a more radical balance between individualism and what is best for our community?

Debt cancellation is a large task. Some are doing this task well, but not all of us are creditors. I would assume that many more of us are on the “debtor” side of the coin, and so an easier entry point may be a simple choice to follow Jesus’ teachings on mutual aid and sharing.

Regardless of where we pick up Jesus’ economic teachings, we can make a choice to subvert our culture’s tendency to value property over people or even treat people as property, and instead place people before both profit and property. The power of this choice should not be underestimated. It is the very stuff that has the potential to change our world.

And so we too pray,

“Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

HeartGroup Application 

Too often, the church has only embraced social change once outside forces have given it no other option. We have taught that the gospel story teaches values that can create change more intrinsically. But this has never been how it has taken place, not yet. Whether we are talking about slavery, equality for the sexes, economic change, or, today, justice for our LGBT siblings, the church has seemed to lag.

For discussion this week:

  1. Discuss examples of where, historically, change did not come for the church from internal causes, but from outside pressures.
  2. Discuss why you feel this is typical, and what your group may be able to do to change that order for you.
  3. Pick one of those things and implement it this coming week.

The Lord’s Prayer could produce radical socioeconomic change for those who have the courage not just to pray it, but also to step out and implement it in the world. Let’s not just pray it. Let’s put it into action.

Thanks again for checking in this week.

Wherever you are and whatever you may find yourself in the midst of, our hope is that your heart has been renewed and inspired to continue following the salvific teachings of Jesus in your life and community.

Keep living in love, daily choosing love above all else, 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.

Humanizing the Monsters 

by Herb Montgomery

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

Tomorrow is Halloween so let’s talk about that first. Halloween has roots in the Western Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day or All Hallows. In the Eastern Orthodox community, Christians celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost during the spring, not the fall. But the West has observed it on November 1 since the 8th Century CE, which makes October 31 its eve and thus All Saints’ Day Eve, All Hallows Eve, or “Halloween” as pronounced by the Scots. Over time, Halloween became influenced by Gaelic and Welsh harvest festival traditions and folklore. It is important to keep Celtic Fall Festivals and the Christian roots of Halloween separate in our thinking. They are related; they are not the same.

In these festivals, humanity’s fascination with and fear of death is invoked. Whether we are memorializing the lives of “saints” who have died (in the spring or the fall), or Celtic fall festivals marking the transition from summer to winter, we’re tracing the transitions from light to darkness, plenty to paucity, life to death.

Humanity and Death

Death is at the heart of all our discussions about morality and ethics. That which leads to life is seen as good and right, and that which leads to death is seen as evil or wrong. Our entire moral compass as a race is dictated by how certain behaviors relate to life and death, the continuance of humanity or its end.

Historically, religion has held out hope for some type of existence beyond death (e.g. Egyptian religion, Christianity, Islam) or a more mystical resignation with death (e.g. Buddhism and Ancient Judaism).

The Jesus Story and the Resurrection

The resurrection is the most potent force in the early Jesus movement. The original followers believed they had witnessed Jesus, whom the status quo had executed, alive again, and it was his resurrection event that liberated them from the fear of death. Because of that event, they could stand up to domination systems and threats of execution if they stepped out of line, because death had become a conquered enemy.

Notice how the letter to the Hebrews, in true apocalyptic fashion, states this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15, emphasis added.)

These early Jesus followers could stand against the violence, injustice and oppression of earthly principalities and powers whom they viewed as conduits of cosmic evil Powers, because they no longer feared death and no longer feared what these earthly powers could do to them.

Through Jesus, death had been overthrown and so if his followers were executed by the domination systems as their Jesus had been, they believed they would also follow him in being resurrected at the time of universal restoration (see Acts 3.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, 1 Corinthians 15.22-23)

As a side note, I find it fascinating when humanists and secularists who do not believe in life after death but are resigned about death are still willing to lay down their lives unselfishly for those who may come after them. The gift of their life is genuinely selfless but is given purely for betterment of others. (Some researchers think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been such a humanist in his later years.)

Humanizing Monsters

Regardless of how we arrive at that point, from my own experience, being liberated from one’s fear of dying is a breathtakingly beautiful thing, especially when it has the potential to change how we relate to each other.

Morality rooted in our fear of dying influences the way in which we view one another: those who threaten our lives are viewed, too often, as evil. And those who significantly threaten our lives in ways that terrify us the most—those people we deem monsters.

The first step in ridding someone from society is to villainize them. If we can cease to see someone or a group as human and begin to see them as monsters, then we are well on our way to imagining an existence without them. These people must be seen to threaten the “good” —the life—of a society. And if they are, then fear drives out compassion, just as perfect love drives out all fear.

Tomorrow, millions of children will don masks and costumes, and go from door to door asking for cheap chocolate and industrially produced sweets. But underneath each mask is a child. I wonder if there is a deeper lesson in this.

Could the masks we see over the faces of those we fear simply hide children of a divine being, children just like you and I? Whether it’s fear of someone of a different culture or race than you, fear of someone from a different economic status than you, fear of a person with a different gender than you, or fear of someone whose orientation and sexuality is different than yours, our challenge is to pull back the mask that we have fixed upon them in our own hearts, and see that person as the genuine human being that they are. They are a child, just like you, of God, a sibling of yours within the divine/human family. It takes effort to humanize our monsters. Yet it’s only by doing so that we can fully to embody the value of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our choices are fear or compassion, death or life.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take inventory of the people on this planet that you are afraid of. They can be specific people or simply types of people. I want you actually write down a list. I want you to name your fear this week.

2. Secondly I want you to do some research on your similarities with those you fear. This may be difficult for some, but it will be well worth it. Write down ten ways that those you are afraid of are like you: where do you not differ from them?

3. Journal the insights you gain from this exercise and share your results with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

We are all children of divinity. We are all siblings of the same divine/human family. Our hope lies in learning how to sit beside one another at the same family table once again. There are no monsters! There are only people, who feel, who love, who hurt, who, like us, are scared. Everyone has a story, and it’s time we give those we are afraid of an opportunity to share theirs.

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

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

Letting Go of Three Types of Fear

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

sunny road

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

I have recently gone through a paradigm shift in the way I look at Jesus and I believe this shift is significant. In short, Jesus and his message were not outside the economically disadvantaged and subordinated in his society. Jesus’ teachings emerged from within this community. Jesus was not speaking to people whose daily experience he did not share first-hand. Jesus was speaking to and with his own peers. In Howard Thurman’s privately published volume of poems, The Greatest of These, he wrote:

“His days were nurtured in great hostilities

Focused upon his kind, the sons of Israel.

There was no moment in all his years

When he was free.”

Jesus was a poor Jew. He was oppressed on two counts: being from the community of “the poor” and being part of the politically subordinated Jewish people ruled by the Romans, he understood first-hand the implications of his teachings. Although he was a Jewish male within a Jewish patriarchal society, he choose to stand in solidarity with Jewish women (see Matthew 9.22; John 8.10; Luke 15.8; Luke 10.42; Mark 10.11; Mark 15.40), and he also also voluntarily chose a life of solidarity with people who were socially marginalized, including the eunuchs of Matthew 19:12, saying there was room in his new world for them, even though many in his day considered them “unclean.” (Deuteronomy 23.1; Acts 8.36-39; cf. Isaiah 56.3)

It is as one of the “least of these” that Jesus spoke to his peers about the topic we’re looking at this week: the continual war carried out on the nerves of the oppressed people that causes them to live in a perpetual state of fear.

There are three types of fear that we will consider this week:

  1. the fear of going without
  2. the fear of violence
  3. and the fear of isolation, helplessness, and insignificance.

Fear of Going Without

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)

I want to point out here that Jesus was not teaching the economically oppressed to sit back and do nothing. Notice the phrase, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” Jesus was speaking to a people who had precious little: security was one of their chief concerns. Jesus is here inspiring them to risks even their own temporary security to make active advancements toward the new world (“the kingdom”). He was casting a vision in their imagination of a just world (“his righteousness”), and assuring them that if they would pursue a world that is just, safe, and compassionate for all, then in the end result, they would see a world where everyone’s needs would be met.

This passage directly refers to the mentality so many downtrodden people have: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Those in control use present security, even when it is a facade, to dissuade people from questioning or threatening the status quo.

Fear of Violence

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who destroy your external well being but cannot touch your inner well being. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy your entire well being, both your outer as well as your inner wellbeing in Gehenna [(Annihilation of 70 C.E. by following militaristic messiahs)] Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:26-30 (Personal translation.)

Here, Jesus is speaking with those whose internalized fear of their oppressors (the Romans) had driven them to also internalize hatred of the Romans and the wealthy Jewish aristocrats who had “sold out” to complicity with the Empire. The Zealots would have only been at one end of the spectrum of those Jesus is speaking to. All across the spectrum of those disgruntled with the system, there were those who believed they could overthrow Rome by taking up the “sword” like Judah Maccabee during the Maccabean revolt. In Matthew 5.38-41, Jesus offers this audience another way. Jesus foresaw that if his people chose the way of violence toward their violent oppressors, that choice would only end in Rome’s annihilation of the Jewish people. This is exactly what transpired in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. that climaxed in Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. Jesus offered his peers a force more powerful than violence, a force rooted not in hatred of one’s enemies and a desire to defeat them but in love and a desire to transform them. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were not passive. They did involve noncooperation in some scenarios and they also included nonviolent direct action, risk, and creative imagination. Both noncooperation and direct action have their appropriate use in nonviolently “seeking” Jesus’ new world (“the kingdom”) and its justice (“righteousness”) for all.

But where all of this must begin is deliverance from fear of those in control of the present “dirty, rotten, system” (Dorothy Day). Jesus is offering a way for us to transcend fear of what others can do to our external realities and be internally immunized against the fear that so often leads to a loss of integrity and an embrace of hatred. This is what Jesus means by destroying one’s body and their “soul” as well. Fear, falsehood, and hate have the power to kill you, internally as well as externally. They produce what I would call a living and enduring hell.

Take a moment and reread the above passage in Matthew 10 with this in mind. We’ll consider Jesus’ words through the works of Thurman in just a moment.

Fear of Isolation, Helplessness, and Insignificance

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32)

The adjective here for “little” is mikros. It refers not just to size but also to one’s dignity. By comparing the oppressed to a flock, Jesus is purposely drawing attention to the way that, like sheep, they have been objectified and dehumanized, and are simply part of someone’s else’s net worth. And by referring to them as little flock, he addresses the dignity they lack even among others who are objectified and dehumanized. Little flocks were worth far less than large flocks. Jesus was speaking to the least among the disadvantaged, the lowest among the community of the low.

And Jesus says, “It is to YOU, the little flock among the flocks, that the Heart of the Universe is pleased to give this new world.” 

These words of assurance are especially for those who are multiply oppressed in the community of the oppressed. (Modern examples of this would be women of color among White feminists, or transgender people in the LGBT community.)

There is something deeply humiliating and foundationally damaging to the self-respect and personal dignity of those who cannot appeal to anyone for protection from their oppressors.

I want to share three passages from Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited that are relevant: I cannot say it better than Thurman did! I’ll simply share his insight here and have only edited Thurman’s words to make them more gender inclusive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person . . . A person’s conviction that they are God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of their relationship with all their fellows. They recognize at once that to fear another person, whatever may be that person’s power over them, is a basic denial of the integrity of their very life. It lifts that mere person to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone. Those who fear are literally delivered to destruction.

“To the child of God, a scale of values becomes available by which people are measured and their true significance determined. Even the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, is recognized for what it is— merely the threat of violence with a death potential. Such a person recognizes that death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death. To deny one’s own integrity of personality in the presence of the human challenge is one of those things . . .

“The core of the analysis of Jesus is that every person is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a person’s head, would exclude from God’s concern the life, the vital spirit, of the persons themselves. This idea—that God is mindful of the individual—is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. In this world the socially disadvantaged person is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: ‘Who am I? What am I?’  The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a person feels that he does not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls an inferiority complex. It is for a person to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.” (Adapted from Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited)

Dr. King spoke on fear and faith this way:

“Now it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight-year-old child asking a daddy, ‘Why do you have to go to jail so much?’ And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it—bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination.

“And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because Carlyle was right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: ‘Truth pressed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.’ Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall overcome because the bible is right: ‘You shall reap what you sow.’

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!’ With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more.” (Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967)

Jesus’ new world of compassion and justice for all is possible. We must, just like Jesus, not lose faith in humanity. Jesus spoke as one who himself belonged to the community of the oppressed, and his way to this new world begins with the call to abandon fear.

All that might follow begins with this. For as perfect love drives out fear, fear also drives out perfect love. And it is love for all, and only love, that compels us to sit at Jesus’ shared table and opens the way to that world where the Heart of the Universe has become the Heart of us all.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back and spend some time each day contemplating Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.25-34; Matthew 10.26-30; Luke 12.32.
  2. Journal your thoughts, your questions, your insights, and your breakthroughs as you engage with these passages every day this week.
  3. Share your journal insights with your HeartGroup, your shared table, for discussion and feedback.

Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world for us all: many voices, one shared table, one new world. Wherever this finds you this week, keep letting go of fear, living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

carouselesight

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.