Houses Built on Rock or Sand

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Person standing on dock with red umbrella watching on coming storm“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Luke 6:47-49: “As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke each incorporate this saying into the climax of their accounts of Jesus’s wisdom teachings. Matthew lists it as the last teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke includes it at the end of the Sermon on the Plain. This saying is not part of the Gospel of Thomas, however. And there’s a good reason why not.

A Little Background

Stephen J. Patterson makes a pretty compelling case that the Gospel of Thomas belonged to the region of Edessa (see The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins.) The imagery in this saying referenced the geography of Jerusalem and the literal foundation on which Herod’s Temple was built. That imagery would have had no relevance for people who valued the teachings of Jesus but lived in Edessa rather than Jerusalem.

Bedrock

The temple mount (rock or “foundation stone”) was highly regarded during the time of Jesus. In the Tanchuma (a Roman-Era Midrash), we read this poem:

“As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.”
Tanchuma (Emphasis added.)

So this saying borrows from the safety and security that the culture had invested in the temple even before their exile in Babylon. If we go back to Jeremiah, we find the community using the temple for a sense of security or safety:

Jeremiah 7:3-11: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?” Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the LORD.”

In Jeremiah’s time, people were deeply violating social justice and yet believed themselves to be safe from God’s judgment simply because they possessed his temple. A “den of robbers” is not a place where robbery is committed but where robbers retreat afterwards to safely count their loot. This was how Jeremiah saw the temple: it had become a place that provided the powerful with safety and security while they continued to rob the poor.

The details were different by the time of Jesus, but the principles were very similar. Once again, the temple had become the center of a political, economic, and religious system that was exploiting the poor, and, once again, this temple was the foundation on which many built their trust and sense of security.

Josephus’s writings show just how much people valued Herod’s temple. A perpetual sacrifice kept the fire on the temple altar always burning. Even during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-69 C.E., and the siege and razing of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., priests kept the temple fire burning by maintaining a sacrifice on the altar, thus assuring Jerusalem, obstinate in the face of the city burning down around them, that they would emerge victorious in the face of the Roman siege. They kept the fire burning to honor their interpretation of Leviticus 6:13: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (see also 2 Maccabees 1:19-22). The temple’s ever-burning flame in worship to YHWH symbolized continually maintained Divine favor, even during that last war.

“The darts that were thrown by the engines came with that force, that they went over all the buildings and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests and those that were about the sacred offices; insomuch that many persons who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place, which was esteemed holy by all mankind, fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar which was venerable among all men, both Greeks and barbarians, with their own blood. The dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.” (The Lamentation of Josephus; War 5.1.4 19-20, emphasis added.)

This cultural history sheds light on why Jesus’s attempts to halt the daily sacrifices when he cleared the temple of merchants were so offensive, and it also explains why Emperor Titus didn’t just aim to subjugate Jerusalem when he ordered the city razed, but also sought to destroy the temple itself. The morale, the optimism, the assurance of Divinely affirmed victory among the Jewish people, in their revolt, had to be extinguished.

In the saying we’re considering this week, Jesus is standing in the critical tradition of the prophet Jeremiah. He is being very Jewish! As well as encouraging fidelity to YHWH, Jesus is calling his audience to prioritize practicing social justice [his ethical teachings] over mere possessing religious objects.

Today, some Christians need the same reminder. We may not have a temple, but we might have a pet doctrine that we think sets us apart from other members of the human family, a belief that makes God regard us as exceptional. Yet both Jeremiah and Jesus state that we should rather emphasize justice for the foreigners among us, those who are vulnerable in our socio-economic, political and religious order, and the innocent being exploited by privileged people. In the patriarchy of Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ culture, this focus would have meant serving the “fatherless” and the “widow.”  We must rightly discern who are the vulnerable in our order, today, and, like Jesus, stand with and work along side of them.

Jesus uses this saying to center his teachings rather than the trusted sacred temple. Perhaps Jesus also wanted us to regard his teachings as sacred as the temple and the rock beneath it that his audience revered.

Weathering A Coming Storm

Jesus grew up in the wake of political insurrections by various Jewish factions after Herod’s death, and I believe he knew all too well the result of armed revolt against Rome. Josephus describes how Rome squelched liberation movements in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The most immediate example when Jesus was a child would have been the destruction of Sepphoris, a town a few miles north of Nazareth, in 4 BCE. Josephus writes:

“In Sepphoris also, a city of Galilee, there was one Judas (the son of that arch-robber Hezekias, who formerly overran the country, and had been subdued by king Herod); this man got no small multitude together, and brake open the place where the royal armor was laid up, and armed those about him, and attacked those that were so earnest to gain the dominion. (Jewish War; 2.4.1)

Rome’s action was swift. A portion of the army went to Sepphoris where they “took the city Sepphoris, and burnt it, and made slaves of its inhabitants.” (Ibid., 2.5.1)  The rest of the army moved through Samaria and on to Jerusalem, burning and plundering any town or village that posed a threat. Once at Jerusalem, they attacked those who had “been the authors of this commotion . . . they caught great numbers of them, those that appeared to have been the least concerned in these tumults [Syrian governor Varus] put into custody, but such as were the most guilty he crucified; these were in number about two thousand.” (2.5.2)

Two thousand were crucified. Stop and ponder the magnitude of that number for a moment. Two thousand. Rome’s practice in responding to revolts and insurgencies is reflected in the speech Tacitus attributed to Calgacus decades later:

“…The yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” (Agricola 29-38)

“They make a desert and call it peace.” This description adds a haunting nuance to Jesus’s saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Josephus tells that after Governor Varus put down the uprisings at Sepphoris and Jerusalem, “he returned to Antioch” (2.5.3).

So this was the political environment Jesus grew up in. Jesus wouldn’t have needed supernatural talent to listen to the spirit of Jewish, violent, anti-Roman sentiment and see where it all would lead.

I believe that Jesus was endeavoring to prevent this end by offering those around him a different course, a different “way” (see Matthew 7:12-14). Even if the end he foresaw could not be avoided, even if Jerusalem was too far gone, Jesus contrasted his teachings and alternate way with the “rock” the temple was built upon. The message to his own community was that only his teachings could intrinsically assure them of weathering the political storm ahead.

This leads me to one of the central questions of my own journey. Through everything I have experienced and learned over the years, I cannot shake the question of whether the teachings of Jesus, distilled from their first century Jewish/Roman context and applied to the social storms of our day, could liberate us as they liberated his 1st Century followers. Of course the details and contexts are different. But when I consider his teachings on nonviolence as opposed to violent revolution, his teachings on mutual aid and resource-sharing, his teachings about getting “loose” from an opponent while you are “on the way” (Q 12:58-59), all of these teachings show me a narrow path of survival on the way to the ultimate hope of a new human society, what King called A Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, the human family has learned to relate to one another in a very different fashion than was practiced in the first century or is practiced today.

First, we must understand what Jesus said in his 1st Century, Jewish, socio-political, economic, and religious context. Then comes the hard work of distilling the principles behind his statements. And lastly we must rightly apply and practice those principles today. Rightly applying the principles and teachings of Jesus may be the hardest part in this process.

So again, for all of you who believe the sayings of Jesus have intrinsic value in informing the nonviolent confrontation, liberation, and transformation of our world into a safe,

more just, more compassionate home for us all, and for all of you who are working hard in your own way toward this end, I hope our Saying this week encourages you. We have a societal storm on the horizon as Jesus’s first followers did. In our practice, let’s build on bedrock and not sand.

“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to:

  1. Pick out one of the Sayings of Jesus that you have experimented with over the past few months. (If you don’t have one, stop here, pick one, and begin experimenting.)
  2. Reflect: How has your life changed from this practice? How have others’ lives changed from your practice?
  3. Identify the impact. What have been the positive results of your practice? What have been the negative fall outs? Discuss these outcomes with your HeartGroup in the upcoming week.

To each of you out there who are endeavoring to “put into practice” the teachings of the historical Jesus, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly. Thanks for walking along side of us on this journey.

I’ll see you next week.

The Last Shall Be the Same as the First and the First the Same as the Last

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

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

12345It’s good to be back!  At the end of last month, I found myself needing to take a break for a little self-care.  I had just completed giving 27 presentations to three separate audiences within nine days.  I appreciate the patience of each of you.  I’ve missed you!  Let’s dive in this week.

I want to begin by asking you to experiment with me.  Let’s, for the sake of experimentation, just for a bit, NOT spiritualize everything Jesus said about money and economics.  Not spiritualizing Jesus’ teachings on money enable us to gain deep insights into Jesus’ new alternate society that we are simply prevented from seeing when we spiritualize it all.

I also want to define the word denounce.  To denounce means to “publicly declare to be wrong or evil” (New Oxford American Dictionary); its synonyms include condemn, criticize, attack, censure, decry, revile, vilify, discredit, damn, reject, proscribe, malign, rail against, lay into, formally castigate, expose, betray, inform on, incriminate, implicate, cite, name, and accuse (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). A denouncement can also be a public accusation or reporting (Wikipedia).

In Matthew 11:20, this version of the Jesus story tells us that “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed.”  What did this look like?  What form did Jesus’ denouncements take?  They come to us in the same form as the denouncements of the Old Testament prophets.  They come in the pronouncement of a “woe.” In the very next verse (Matthew 11:21) we find “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Eerdmans Dictionary states that “In the New Testament ‘Woe’ functions as prophetic denunciation.”  Jesus is standing in his prophetic lineage in his use of language here.

Yet what I want us to contemplate this week is another denouncement Jesus made.  This denouncement is made in Luke’s Jesus story, chapter 6:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now [as opposed to mourn over the present social order], for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26)

Let’s back up and look at the big picture.  Jesus had just pronounced a blessing (the opposite of a denouncement) on the opposite group.  Remember, Jesus is not saying that there is something “righteous” about being poor.  He is saying that for those whom the present social order has left poor, hungry and morning, the changes Jesus had come to make were especially favorable.  The alternate human society Jesus was inviting all to join would be a blessing for those who were poor under the present system and, at a bare minimum, be problematic for those benefiting from the present system.  But we will talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at the two groups first.

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now [as a result of the present system], for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20–22)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24–25)

Jesus is doing two things.  First, yes, he is proclaiming that the new social order he is teaching is good news for those who are presently in the position of being “last” and at least problematic for those who were presently “first,” benefitting from the present system.  Second, he is indicting the rich.  There is no way around it.  To understand the logic of this, this planet and its resources are not infinite.  It provides enough for every person’s needs, Gandhi once said, but not every person’s greed.  I understand the “opulence” for everyone argument, but the resources of this earth simply do not work that way.  If someone is hoarding more than he or she needs, someone else is going without what he or she needs. (Think of the truth of the Hebrew manna story; everyone had what he or she needed because those who “gathered much” shared with those who “gathered little.”)  To say that Jesus was putting forth an alternate society seeking the equal distribution of earth’s resources so that each person could have what he or she needed was good news to the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

What does this mean? At minimum, it means that if our Jesus is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor, we have to at least wonder if our Jesus is the same Jesus as the one in the story.

Jesus’ new economic teachings also have something to say about debts that had been incurred under the present system.  All debts are to be cancelled!  This, too, is good news to the debtors and problematic for creditors.  But remember, Jesus’ goal is equality, not just in opportunity, but in result.  What Jesus is announcing is the never-practiced Hebrew tradition of “Jubilee,” during which all debts were to be forgiven.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This was hard news for those economically benefiting from the present system.

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

The idea that there was a gate called a “needle” that camels had to get down on their knees to enter and was difficult to enter but not impossible has long been debunked by scholars.  That’s a made-up story.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s impossible for the rich to enter Jesus’ new alternative society here on earth because fundamental to this new society’s core is a sharing of one’s superfluous riches with those who have less.  At its core, Jesus’ new alternate society is a divestment of and a redistribution of the riches of the dominant class with the aim of equality.

Notice how this played out in the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is EQUALITY.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–14)

The reason the rich cannot enter is not an imposed reason but an intrinsic one.  The first step for the rich in following Jesus is a divestment of their riches.  It’s making the rich un-rich.  It’s alleviating the poverty of the poor through sharing those riches, not, as some claim, making all people poor but equal.  Jesus taught the rich, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

This was not an isolated occurrence only privately applied to this specific person.  This was a staple of Jesus’ words to all who were rich:

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus’ alternate society), for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31–34)

This is exactly why the very first expression of following Jesus in the book of Acts was manifested in Jesus-followers’ selling their properties and giving to anyone who was in need.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:41–45)

When the wealthy young man heard this, it was too much.  “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven [new alternative society, here, now].’” (Matthew 19:22–23)

I want to juxtapose this statement from Jesus, that it is “hard” for those with wealth to enter into Jesus’ beautiful alternative community, with the statement of Matthew’s Jesus just eight chapters earlier:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

What can’t be missed is that Jesus is saying if the present system has caused you to not be at ease and not be surrounded by riches but to be “weary,” “heavy laden,” and in need of “rest,” you will find entering Jesus’ alternate society “easy.” It is a blessing!  But if you are one presently benefiting from the current system, Jesus unmistakably states that you’re going to have a harder time embracing Jesus’ teaching on economics.  Entering into this alternate society centered in the teachings of Jesus is impossible on your own and only possible with God (see Matthew 19:26).

Again, why is it so “hard?” It is hard because Jesus is not selling the American definition of “equality.”  Jesus is not simply offering equality as a matter of “opportunity.”  Jesus is calling for a system which creates equality in results as well.

This is the point in the story at which Jesus tells of the workers who arrived at the end of the day but were paid the same as those who had been there all day:

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

This, again, was good news to the last.  It was at least problematic for those who were first.

Gandhi is one of the many in history who have experimented with Jesus’ teachings on equal pay.  There are two books that Gandhi states had a bigger effect on his life and thinking than any other books he read.  The first was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  The second was John Ruskin’s Unto The Last.  Gandhi, in his autobiography, states that this second book crystalized for him three truths.  In the words of Gandhi himself:

1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right to earn their livelihoods from their work.

3. The life of labor, e.g., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

Gandhi embarked, from Ruskin’s book (the title of which was taken from our featured text this week: “I desire to give unto the last the same as I give to the first”), on an experiment called the Phoenix Project, in which everyone was paid the same amount regardless of the job they did.  The sense of community and mission this produced is breathtaking if one takes the time to read about it.  Everyone worked for the mission; they looked at each other as equals.

We all know how Hasbro’s Monopoly game ends.  Gehenna, in the Old Testament prophet’s sense, may be unavoidable. Jesus is offering a way to life—an alternate, beautiful community.

There are two narratives we can live by:

Narrative 1: Scarcity – Anxiety – Competitive Accumulation – Stockpiling/Hoarding – Violence

Narrative 2: Abundance – Confidence – Cooperative Sharing – Generosity – Peace

Narrative 1 involves believing that there is not enough for everyone’s needs and allowing the anxiety that belief produces to drive you to a life of accumulating stockpiles that you must protect with violence.  The other narrative involves believing that there actually is enough for everyone’s needs to be met if we share and cooperate.  We can subscribe to a narrative of confidence rather than anxiety, of generosity rather than hoarding.  And rather than producing stockpiles one needs to protect with violence, a shared mutuality that produces peace arises.

The least we can do is begin to be honest about our narratives.

I’ll close this week with the words of Leo Tolstoy.

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.

If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible.  But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so.  You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.  You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or Tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society.  You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth.  And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.

There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.”

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

HeartGroup Application

This week for our HeartGroup Application, I want to recommend to you the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy.  You can download a copy free of charge at amazon.com.

1.  Dedicate some time each day to reading and contemplating what you are reading.

2.  Journal your thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights.

3.  Spend some time in your HeartGroup this upcoming week discussing what you are reading.  In other words, process some of what you’re reading out loud with others.  Jesus’ teachings were never meant to be understood or applied in isolation but with “one another.”

Together we can make a difference.  Together we can learn to recognize and participate in Jesus’ alternate society, the beloved and beautiful community, centered around a shared table.  It is a beautiful community.

Keep living in love until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

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

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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.