The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

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

 

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

Purity Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

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

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

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

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Not To Use This Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

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

And

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

Then after listening,

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Blessed Are Those Who Are Poor . . .

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

128Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

It’s good to be back home! I truly loved my time in Brazil. It is a very beautiful place, and the hearts of its people are the most beautiful.

I encountered two polar contrasts during my trip: the severe poverty of so many, and the equally shocking, extreme, generous nature of their sharing with one another. I saw that sharing even among the poorest.

As many are aware, when colonialism “ended” in many of the developing countries, another form of oppression took its place: economic oppression. The Empires that had settled in many of these areas passed on their debts to these fledgling countries as they gained their independence. Starting off deeply indebted to those who had previously ruled them, these nations gained independence, but not freedom. Many of these countries then turned to the World Bank, the IMF, and other power brokers of the new global economy for help. The international banks, the IMF, took the form of loans with terms and conditions that would leave more than half of each country’s resources going to debt repayment rather than internal development.

Brazil, for example, owes $1,420,331,037,715 to so called “first world countries” today. Every year, Brazil’s debt incurs $138,250,530,000 in interest. That’s $4384 per second. This debt amounts to 56.08% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services Brazil produces in its borders in a year.

So most of Brazil’s income repays debt that it wasn’t even responsible for incurring in the first place, and doesn’t maintain the infrastructure for taking care of its 202,768,562 citizens.

Imagine what your world would look like if your municipalities were, overnight, depleted of their resources to pay for water, sewer, trash pickup, road maintenance, emergency personnel, and law enforcement.

Manaus, the place I visited first, has virtually no middle class now. The very few wealthy and affluent live alongside masses upon masses of the severely poor.

I noticed this on Friday when I arrived. But that was just the start of my adventure.

Shortly after I arrived in Brazil, I was informed that my meetings in Manaus and Novo Airão had both been cancelled at the last minute. I learned that one of the “saints,” after seeing that I would be speaking in their church, googled my name and found out I was a friend to the LGBTIQ community. Discovering my love—and I quote—“for the gays,” rumors also began to circulate that I drank, smoked, ate pork, did drugs, had multiple wives, and did not believe in the Holy Spirit. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Those of you who’re not familiar with the teetotaling, kosher nature the Adventist church, please know that just saying that someone drinks, smokes, and eats pork is enough to marginalize an Adventist. Every other rumor was gratuitous. My meetings had been scheduled to begin that first weekend, but they would at best be delayed, and at worst be permanently cancelled.

So I woke up early the next morning and attended the church where I’d been scheduled to speak. Sunday, I spent becoming familiar with the city, and then Monday afternoon, I had an appointment with the Conference President.

The president and I were not the only ones present at this meeting. Accompanying me was my host and an interpreter. It turned into a short meeting, and the president did not discuss why our meetings had been delayed. We did discuss a church policy concerning guest speakers from other countries, and so I had the opportunity to remind everyone present that I was only in the country by their prior invitation. The meetings had been approved a year previously, and we had cooperated with every stipulation they had made in that time.

After the meeting—Im still not sure what made the difference—the administration approved our meetings for the second time. They would now begin on Wednesday evening. Faced with four lost days, I started editing my presentations. I’d already edited them severely for translation, and now I had to cut the series in half. As a result of the delays, however, the Manaus series was poorly attended until the last presentation, when the house was packed.

I chose Luke 4:18-19 as my focus for the week. In these texts, we discover Jesus, the liberator of the oppressed, embracer of the outcast, and proponent of a shared table. Those who did attend repeatedly told us how thankful they were for the meetings, and they shared the different paradigm shifts they had each experienced through encountering Jesus’ teaching in a refreshing new light.

The next series was about 120 miles northwest of Manaus, in Novo Airão. Buy bus that is about a four hours distance.  This area was much more economically stressed than Manaus.

For this group, my choice to present Jesus as a first century poor Jewish teacher (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8) who came with good news for his fellow poor resonated deeply. We focused on Jesus’ words in the Synagogue in Luke 4 (emphasis added):

“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 those with prison-blindness,

to set the oppressed free.”

Never have I encountered first-hand just how important it is to couch Jesus’ ministry in the context of his liberation of the poor. The Novo Airão group showed me how much.

As we reflected on Luke 4, we explored four themes together.

1.  How Jesus taught the poor to survive. Jesus gave the poor a way to transcend “worry” and “fear” by combining what they did have and choosing to embrace, share with, and take care of one another. (See Luke 12:13-34; Matthew 5:25-34)

2.  How Jesus empowered the poor and oppressed to move beyond survival. Jesus taught the poor how to affirm themselves by nonviolently confronting oppressors and by staying rooted in enemy-love and enemy-transformation. John Dear, who has done a tremendous amount of work in nonviolence over the years, states: “Nonviolence is active love that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, beginning with the poor and oppressed. It is the all-encompassing love that embraces every human being on the planet, refuses to kill anyone, and works for social justice for everyone.” (See Luke 4:16-29; Matthew 5:38-42)

3.  How Jesus rejected hierarchical structures in the community of his followers. Jesus promoted equity, justice, and compassion for all. This insight resonated with the audience the most as many felt as if they were living lives at the bottom of political, economic, and religious structures. (See Matthew 20:25-28; Matthew 23:8-12)

4.  How Jesus replaced systems of oppression and exclusion with a shared table. As each one of us, along with our differences, encounter one another at Jesus’ shared table, we become enabled to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, producing a safer and more compassionate world for us all. (Luke 6:20-26; Luke 15:1, 25-32)

We ended this series with the ending of Jesus narrative. Jesus was crucified by the powers and systems that his teachings threatened, and God said “NO” to that execution in the resurrection on Sunday morning. Jürgen Moltmann defines the resurrection as a Divine protest to the domination systems of our world. The early church also perceived the resurrection as a decisive clue that a new world, like a mustard seed placed in the ground and like leaven in dough, had begun with Jesus. (See Acts 13:32-33) In overwhelming clarity, we encountered, together, a Jesus who proclaimed that the Heart of the Universe was standing with those who, as a result of the way the present world is set up, are hurting, suffering, going hungry, falling asleep many nights in tears, oppressed, marginalized and subordinated.  These are the majority of those who live in Novo Airão. And those who were present found renewed hope as decisions were made to embrace and to follow this Jesus.

On the last night of this second series, one of the more affluent members who attended shared with me this message in broken english:

“I had never looked at things this way before. Thank you so much for coming. I feel as if I cannot continue on the same way I had. If I am to embrace Jesus’ shared table, things in my life where I’m participating in ‘pyramids of oppression’ and ‘circles of exclusion’ must change.”

Over all, I view my trip to Brazil as a tremendous success for Jesus’ new world. The response of the people to the stories and teachings of Jesus was breathtaking, especially in Novo Airão, and I believe the Novo Airão church took significant strides toward Jesus’ new world of compassion and safety for everyone.

To those of you who were praying for this series here at home, thank you. Over the next two weeks the Novo Airão church will be conducting a local school building project: please keep praying for them.

And to each of you who has supported Renewed Heart Ministries, I can’t thank you enough. You made it possible for me to go to Brazil and share with the people I met.

I take Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give” very seriously. Renewed Heart Ministries is a not-for-profit ministry, and we never charge seminar fees for local work. We also make all of our resources available on the web so the people who need to hear this message can access it freely.

This means we are directly dependent on our monthly supporters as well as those who make one-time contributions: you help us to keep lifting up Jesus and his teachings in a hurting world. Jesus’ teachings have placed us on a path that leads to life rather than death, compassion rather than condemnation, and love rather than hate. Like Jesus, we believe our call is not “to condemn the world.” Instead we do this work that the world, through Jesus and his teachings, “might be healed” (John 3:17).

I witnessed the healing nature of Jesus’ teachings firsthand during my visit to Brazil. Jesus’ words to the poor and oppressed, his uplifting of women in a patriarchal society, his embrace of the outcast and excluded, and even his self-affirming nonviolence resonated so deeply with those who participated in these two series of meetings that I, too, walked away having to agree with the Samaritans of Jesus’ day: “This man [Jesus] really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)IMG_0519

Thank you for helping me to see and share that Savior. Till the only world that remains is world where love reigns, let’s keep lifting Jesus up.
And to each of you who support the ministry of RHM as we reach our around the globe, thank you.

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

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 1 of 9

Part 1 of 9

Two Definitions of Holiness

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

This week I want to begin a nine-part series leading up to this year’s Easter season. Beginning next week, we will take a look at each of the last sayings we are given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will begin with Mark and Matthew and progress from there. We will finally take a look at what relevance the narrative element of the Resurrection may have for us in our world today in the week leading up to Easter.

In the interest of being transparent, this series has come out of an exercise I was engaged in personally throughout 2014. As each week is composed of seven days, I took one of the last sayings of Jesus each day as the subject of contemplation—one saying, every day, for the whole year. What I’m about to share, very humbly, is simply the fruit of that year-long contemplation.

I want to begin this week by taking a look at what actually put Jesus on the cross.

Jesus’ crucifixion (and resurrection) in the gospels comes at the end of a long history of contention that began between the privileged/oppressive priesthood (Levitical) and prophets who spoke up as advocates for those the priests were oppressing. For dominating priests, holiness was defined by the purity codes attributed to Moses (sometimes referred to as holiness codes). For the prophets, holiness was defined not by ritualistic or religious “purity” but justice for the oppressed; mercy for the poor, fatherless children, and widows (within a patriarchal culture); and humility. [1]

The struggle between these two groups began, by most scholars’ reckoning, with Amos and Isaiah (Isaiah Chapters 1–39) in the eighth century BCE.

Here is just a sampling:

Amos

This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2.6–7)

There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. (Amos 5.7)

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5.11–12)

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5.21–24)

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8.4–6)

Notice the meticulous keeping of the New Moon and Sabbath (ritual purity codes) but utter disregard for justice toward the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! [2] “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.10–17)

She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! (Isaiah 1.21)

Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1.23)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10.1–2)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with justice he will govern the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Justice will be his belt and integrity the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11.1-5) [3]

LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name . . . You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress . . . (Isaiah 25.1-4)

The Maccabean Revolt

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, there was a revival in fidelity to the purity codes and the definition of holiness as fidelity to those codes. It was during this time that we see the birth of the Pharisees. This group was more liberal in their theology (angels, resurrection, etc.) yet more strict in their adherence to the purity codes. They stood in alliance with the privileged class of priests, placing the blame for their captivity and foreign oppression on ritual or religious impurity in not keeping the purity codes of Moses. Yet it must be remembered that the prophets stood in direct conflict with this explanation of Israel’s history, expressing that the captivity was rather a result of the abuses of the priestly domination culture over the poor, fatherless, and widowed—of the privileged over the oppressed.

Jesus

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the priests (along with the Pharisees) are well entrenched again within a politically and economically oppressive system consisting of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and Jerusalem/Judea at its heart. Jesus comes not as a teacher out of Judea, or the priesthood, but was rather from the northern region of Galilee, far removed. Galileans, according to the Pharisees and priestly class of Judea, were considered less faithful to the ritual purity/holiness codes as a result, not only because of their proximity to their surrounding Hellenistic culture, but also their distance from Jerusalem, the temple, and the theological leadership of the Pharisees and priestly class themselves.

When one understands this history, along with the political and economic privileges of the priestly class in Judea in the first century, the fact that Jesus takes up the heritage of the prophets in advocating for the oppressed is breathtaking.

“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)

Just like the prophets before him, in response to the privileged, priestly ruling class of his day, Jesus denounces economic oppression. [4] Just like the prophets before him, in response to the Pharisees defining of holiness as strict adherence to the ritual purity codes of Moses, Jesus stands in solidarity with those the Pharisees label as unclean and defines holiness rather as justice/mercy for those the Pharisees are marginalizing. [5] Remember, the Pharisees defined a “sinner” as a Jew who was not observing the ritual purity codes. That Jesus embraced and ate with these “sinners” infuriated the Pharisees. Holiness to a Pharisee was exclusive and punitive. Holiness to Jesus was inclusive and restorative. Holiness to a Pharisee was defined as strict adherence to ritual purity codes including the Sabbath, the New Moon, the sacrifices, etc. [6] Holiness to Jesus was justice for those the priestly class, along with the Pharisees, were oppressing based on their non-adherence to the purity codes. Jesus would offer a way of worshiping their God that completely bypassed the temple, the sacrifices, and the purity codes. [7]

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12.7)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9.13) [8]

Jesus would take his final stand against the political and economic oppression of the priests, temple tax and its rituals. His effort was not to “cleanse” the temple but to dismantle the entire system.

For those who believed that holiness was defined as adherence to the ritual purity codes, with the temple and sacrifices at its heart, Jesus’ acts would invite greater foreign oppression. In their opinion, contrary to the prophets, it was laxness in adherence to the purity codes that had caused foreign captivity originally. Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and priests, along with his doing away with the temple and its rituals would surely bring the destruction of the nation at the hands of foreign enemies once again.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin . . . “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11.47–50, emphasis added)

It was the priests, along with the temple police, who arrested Jesus. [9] Their privileged way of life was at risk. And yet how twisted it was.

Their perception was thus:

  1. They defined holiness as adherence to ritual purity.
  2. The stricter the people were in following the purity codes, the more privileged their political and economic place in their society became.
  3. Failure to follow strict ritual purity would invite the punishment of their God.

Jesus proclaimed the very opposite:

  1. Holiness, like previous prophets proclaimed, is justice and equity for the marginalized,   oppressed, subordinated, and disadvantaged.
  2. The dominance system of the present social order, where some are privileged at the subordination and oppression of others, must be abandoned.
  3. Failure to advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed would be at the heart of all that would eventually result in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome.

How did the ruling class of priests along with the political party of the Pharisees respond to Jesus’ teachings?

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. (Matthew 27.1, emphasis added)

I’ll close this week with a small insight we get from John’s version of the story of Jesus.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19.31)

It’s as if, right here, we step all the way back into the days of Amos and Isaiah. Once again, there are those who are more concerned with strict adherence to the ritual purity and holiness codes of Moses than this gross act of injustice against one they had just lynched. The story does not end with the success of the Pharisees and the priests in murdering Jesus. In the narrative element of the Resurrection, Jesus’ God stands victoriously against the God of the oppressors. Jesus’ God stands in solidarity with Jesus, as well as the prophets of old, bringing him back to life and overturning and undoing the lynching of Jesus over and against the political and economic oppression of Jesus’ day. The resurrection is God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the established authority. But we will get there. I’ll save that part for Part 9. First, let’s take a look at each of the seven last sayings of Jesus on the cross and see what those statements are whispering to us today.

Marcus Borg once stated, “”Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by established authority.” As we begin, it would be good to remember that our society today holds, in principle, the same dynamics that existed in Jesus’ day. Whether we are talking about the rich subordinating the poor, the educated subordinating the uneducated, whites subordinating nonwhites, men subordinating women, white women subordinating nonwhite women, straight people subordinating and/or extirpating those who are LGBQ, or cisgender extirpating those who self-identify as transgender, we are living in the Jesus narrative every day. Therefore, if you are a theist, you have to ask yourself how your God defines holiness. Does your God look like Jesus’ God, or does your God look like the God of the priests and Pharisees?

Jesus had a definition of holiness that radically attracted and was embraced by those who were repelled by or steered clear of the definition of holiness put forth by the priestly ruling class of Jesus’ day.

I guess what I’m asking is this: If you are a theist, does your God look like Jesus?

The answer to this question is at the heart of everything. Is your theism destructive or restorative? Inclusive or exclusive? Attractive and inspiring or repulsive? One leads to annihilation and the other to a whole new world.

HeartGroup Application

1. I’d like you to go back and reread all four Gospels. They won’t take you that long. They are shorter than you think. Watch for the dynamics I’ve put forth this week and see if you see them at work in the narrative as well. Look for why the narratives themselves tell us that Jesus’ ministry ended up on a Roman cross. Then we’ll go from there next week.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you write down this upcoming week.

Until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Many voices, one new world.

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


1. Micah 6.8—He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

2. Two centuries later, Ezekiel would define the sins of Sodom (and Gomorrah) as violations of social justice. Ezekiel 16.49—“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

3. It is most interesting to read the rest of Isaiah 11 as a metaphorical description of a new social order where the present dominance order is replaced with a world where oppressors no longer oppress and victims are no longer victimized, but both, transformed, peacefully coexist.

4. Luke 6.20, 24—Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Mark 12.40—They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. Mark 12.43—Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. Luke 18.3—And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

5. Matthew 9.11—When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 11.19—The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Luke 15.1–2—Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

6. John 9.16—Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” It is interesting to read the whole of chapter 9 with the redefinition of “holiness” and “sinner” away from the ritual purity codes to the restoration of justice and mercy toward the oppressed.

7. Mark 7.19—“For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

8. Remember, Jesus is using the Pharisee’s definition of sinner here as someone who was living outside the ritual purity codes of Moses. Jesus defined holiness and the term “sinner” much more like the prophets of old did, which was radically different than the Pharisees, priests, and experts in the purity codes (“experts in the law”).

9. Luke 22.52—Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?

Follow Jesus, He’ll Ruin Your Life

Fishermen fishing by fishnet

 

 

 

by Herb Montgomery

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.—Jesus (Mark 1.17)

The Downward Social Mobility of Following Jesus

I’ve chosen to begin this new year with a fresh contemplation of the Jesus story, specifically Mark’s version. And what has jumped right off the page for me right here in the beginning is the social cost for the two brothers Simon and Andrew and the two brothers James and John in their choice to accept Jesus’ offer of following him. It was typical for itinerant teachers within this culture to be sought out by would-be disciples. Yet in the Jesus story, this cultural norm is turned on its head and the teacher seeks out and chooses his disciples instead.[1]

What we find in this though is counterintuitive. Jesus does not seek out the rich to be his disciples, nor does he seek out the poor. Those whom Jesus seeks out are the very ones in motion. They are the ones who are in movement, engaged in social mobility away from those who would be classified as the poor toward those who would be classified as the rich. Both of these sets of brothers are busy at work in a family fishing business. Few people in Galilee were rich; most were relatively poor. Fishermen tended to fall somewhere in the middle (although these types of distinctions were somewhat fuzzier in Galilee). Yet these were not poor men at all as the family business run by their father was doing well enough to also have “hired help.” This family business was providing income for others, not simply their own family.[2]

These were thriving family businesses where the families involved were, by the mere economic success of their business, moving from one social level to a higher one. Jesus comes to them, in the midst of their success, and asks them to walk away from it all.

The Historically Upward Social Mobility of Christianity

The reason this caught my attention is that too often groups associated with Jesus and the Jesus story are vehicles for upward social mobility rather than downward. I’ll explain. I was born here in economically challenged Appalachia. I grew up with parents, no longer married, who belonged to two very different social classes here. I was being raised by the poorer of the two.

I know firsthand the feelings of looking at social classes above you and longing for means of upward social mobility. I know what it feels like to want to move up the social ladder.

I also was raised within a Christian tradition that here in Appalachia provided that very means of upward social mobility for many. Within two generations, I have watched my family go from uneducated, blue collar workers, to a white collar world and the possession of PhDs—all because of the benefit of being connected to “the church.” And it’s not simply my family either. I’ve witnessed it in other families here in Appalachia where grandpa was an uneducated farmer whose grandkids are well on their way to becoming high paid doctors and lawyers.

What Difference Does It Make?

I’m not attaching moral value to either social direction, but simply drawing attention to the contrast of social mobility directions between the Jesus story and my own experience and observations.

There is a danger though. There is a danger that we will excuse the religious disfunction of our “spiritual” community because our personal lives are economically and socially being improved. In other words, we will resist critiquing our religious community because we feel our lives have been benefited by belonging to that community. We will overlook things such as pragmatic racism, gender exclusion, economic bias, educational favoritism, or queer erasure because we mistakenly think our lives have been improved by being a part of something simply because we ourselves have experienced some level of upward social mobility within a system, the very validity of which following Jesus should cause us to question instead.

One example of economic bias and educational favoritism that I have always been puzzled by since I first noticed it, is that typically, with few exceptions, within many of the churches I visit, there is an unspoken hierarchy between the offices of deacon and elder. Deacons typically are composed of the lesser educated, blue collar workers, while being an elder is an office for those with higher educational as well as economic status. This is alarming to me. Something doesn’t feel right. Not just about the hierarchical nature of the structure, but how that hierarchy is expressed as well.

One has to question first off whether upward social mobility is always a blessing. If it is always a good, then why do we find Jesus calling his disciples to abandon this very thing to move in the opposite direction downward in following him?

Christianity was not always like this. Before Constantine and the making of Christianity into the official religion of the empire, Christianity was a movement among the lower classes of society. They were often (but not always) persecuted by those in power. And to become a Christian, for most within the first three hundred years of the Jesus movement, was a clearly defined decision to embrace a downward social mobility. You were letting go of something socially and economically to follow Jesus during this time, not gaining more. The Constantinian shift changed all of this.

Today we are in danger of drinking the Kool-Aid of white, male-dominated, colonial, imperial, Christianity rooted in a theology defined by those at the top of our social pyramids. Jesus, instead, is offering us the opportunity of drinking the “living water” of critiquing these pyramids themselves.[3]

Jesus did not come offering his disciples a means of upward social mobility from disadvantaged to privileged within the current structure. Jesus came announcing the beginning of an entirely different world where the present structure of privilege and advantage are dismantled, where all injustice, oppression, and violence is put right, a world marked by equity and justice for those oppressed by the current structure.[4]

And this new world began with Jesus interrupting twelve men in their endeavors to climb their respective social and economic ladders and inviting them to rethink everything, to abandon the structuring of the world as they knew it, to embrace a cross rather than a throne, and to follow him.

They would not gain the world they were hoping for, they would lose it. For them, following Jesus would not mean upward social mobility, but a downward one.

It would change everything for these twelve.

And it should be the same for us as well.

Follow Jesus, he’ll ruin your life.[5] Yet it’s a life worth ruining for the sake of others. It’s a life worth throwing away for, as some have labelled it, a life of “holy mischief.” There are greater things to live for than mere upward social mobility within the present structures. Following Jesus today doesn’t mean to simply offer upward mobility to those who are presently being held down within the system. Following Jesus means to abandon the entire social structure itself that privileges some at the cost of disadvantaging and subordinating others.  For those of us who are privileged in the present system at the cost of those less privileged, this will mean downward social mobility to an egalitarian new world.  And each of us who are presently in the process of moving even further upwards are going to have to answer for ourselves whether or not we will accept that ancient invitation: “Follow me.”

HeartGroup Application

Spend some time this week contemplating what downward social mobility for the sake of others, the Jesus narrative might inspire in you this new year as 2015 begins.

Write down what you discover.

Share with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns, keep living in love and loving like Jesus.

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

1.  John 15:16—You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

2.  Mark 1:20—Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

3.  John 4:10—Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

4.  Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Is. 1:17)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Is. 42:3–4)

He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. (Matt. 12:20)

Justice is understood as fairness, correct treatment, or equitable distribution of resources. The Hebrew prophets (including Jesus) speak of justice as a chief attribute of their God. The Hebrew people were given ethical instructions (to the degree that they could comprehend in expanding stages, which also need to be expanded even more inclusively today) about their treatment of widows, orphans, and strangers; the practice of justice was tied to their mission.

The Hebrew tradition is alive with examples of men and women who brought justice to situations of oppression and injustice. From Deborah, the prophet and judge who administered justice, to the 8th-century prophets who called Israel and Judah to act justly toward the poor and oppressed, to Jesus who demonstrated the centrality of justice through his words and actions.

In the Hebrew tradition, justice is the undoing of situations of oppression or injustice. Justice is rooted in the prophets’ descriptions of their God’s character (Isa. 5:16), which Jesus too made central to his teachings and healing ministry. A central concept for the prophets was that the justice of a community is measured by their treatment of the oppressed (Isa. 1:16–17; 3:15). The prophets continually issued a strong call for the covenant community to recognize their God as the God of justice and to repent of their injustice. Their primary message can be summarized in the words of Mic. 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

If one goes all the way back to ancient Hebrew lore, their Jubilee tradition in Lev. 25 reflected their God’s demands for justice in the midst of an unjust society. Intended to be observed every 50 years, the Jubilee provided for land to lie fallow (ecological justice) and indentured servants to be set free every seven years (social justice). During the Jubilee Year, debts would be forgiven and lands sold because of indebtedness would be returned to the original owners (economic justice). For agrarian societies like Israel, return of land and forgiveness of debts amounted to economic restructuring of society. Undergirding the Jubilee Year is the principle of redress that corrects past wrongs to approximate equality and restores the human community to wholeness. [We have no record of this even once being practiced but that it was part of their ancient stories is interesting to say the least.]

(Gleaned from B. C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down; S. C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change; D. N. Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible)

5.  I’ve used this phrase for the past four years and my intention is that for most of us, we belong to either a middle or upper class. Following Jesus, for us, is not going to move us further up the pyramid of privilege, but be characterized by throwing all of that away. It was the oppressed who would be “blessed” by Jesus’ new world. For those presently benefited by the present structure the new world that had arrived in Jesus would be problematic, to say the least. (See Luke 6:20–26)