The founding of a new social reality is not a threat when it is only a vision in the head of one person. Jesus knew that his call for Jubilee economic redistribution would threaten the rich and powerful, and would likely result in a violent reaction. He also knew that it would be relatively easy to silence a single voice. But a movement empowered by such a vision is much more difficult to stop. When a movement galvanizes the hopes and aspirations of a larger community, authorities begin to worry. Movements can quickly get out of control.
Jesus set about forming a small but effective movement to welcome in the reign of God. To do so, Jesus called people into tight-knit communities. Jim Wallis says that the purpose of Jesus was the creation of community. A true community is a safe place where people are cared for, where they find acceptance, and where differences are celebrated. In community, people can communicate openly and honestly. They can speak the truth, listen for understanding, and fight gracefully. Through it all, they can experience love and compassion, growth and healing. In true community, grace happens. This is the kind of community we all long for. This is the kind of community many Christians seek in small support groups, prayer groups and study groups.
For Jesus, the beginning of community was the shared meal. But Jesus emphasized that the sharing of meals was intended to go beyond family and friends. His table fellowship was for the least, the lost and the lonely. It was to include the outsider and the marginalized, the despised and socially- defined enemies. So Jesus modeled inclusive table fellowship by publicly accepting invitations to dinner by sinful people.
banqueting with sinners
Jesus was frequently criticized for his radically inclusive table fellowship. Pharisees complained that he ate with tax collectors and “sinners.” By doing so, Jesus was publicly communicating a stance of uncritical acceptance. Some viewed it as a validation of clearly sinful lifestyles or unclean behavior. The Pharisees believed in maintaining a life of purity, which often meant separation from things and people they viewed as defiling or unclean. Jesus, on the other hand readily embraced people who were seen as sinful and unclean.
His actions were incomprehensible to his critics for two reasons. Eating with sinful or dishonest people would contaminate a good and righteous person. Second, sharing a meal implies acceptance of a person—just as they are. The Pharisees believed that a truly righteous person should hold a much higher standard and refuse to deal with such a sinner unless there is clear evidence of repentance and reformation. Jesus, however, readily accepts invitations to dinner from openly sinful people. He enters their houses as a guest and reclines to feast with them.
In looking at Jesus’ behavior, it’s important to understand what the term sinners meant in first-century Jewish life. It was a term defined by the religious establishment. The “sinners” were social outcasts. Some translations of the gospels put the word sinners in quotes to indicate that the term did not refer to sinful individuals, but more broadly to a well‑defined social class that included a variety immoral people and, interestingly, most of the poor.
The term “sinners” included people with immoral occupations like prostitutes, thieves, swindlers, gamblers and usurers. It also included people with “suspect” occupations, where the people were believed to engage in questionable practices like tax collectors, toll collectors, and money changers. Herdsman, including shepherds, fell into this category because they were often believed to take their flocks onto other people’s land for grazing. The category also included people with occupations that were considered ritually unclean, like butchers and physicians, who would come into contact with blood. These and other professions therefore carried with them a social stigma. People classified as sinners could not give testimony in court or hold public office.
the rabble who know nothing of the law
The sinners would also have included those who did not pay their tithes (one tenth of their income) to the priests, and those who were negligent about the Sabbath rest and about ritual cleanliness. Some scholars believe that the laws and customs on these matters were so complicated that the uneducated masses were quite incapable of understanding what was expected of them. Education in those days was a matter of knowing the scriptures, the law and all its ramifications. The illiterate and uneducated (over 95% of the population) were inevitably lawless and immoral. The uneducated peasants, “the rabble who know nothing of the law” according to John 7:49, were regarded by even the most enlightened Pharisees, like Hillel, as incapable of virtue and piety.
To be a sinner was therefore one’s lot. It was believed that one had been predestined to inferiority by fate or the will of God. In this sense the sinners were captives or prisoners. There was no practical way out for the sinner. Theoretically, the prostitute could be made clean again by an elaborate process of repentance, purification and atonement. But this would cost money and her ill‑gotten gains could not be used for the purpose. Her money was considered tainted and unclean. The tax collector would be expected to give up his profession and then make restitution plus one‑fifth to everyone he had wronged. The likelihood that he could remember everyone he had cheated and how much he had overcharged was slim to none.
tax and toll collectors
Tax collectors seem to be a unique and often-mentioned category in the gospels. They were seen as so disreputable that their title is almost synonymous with “wicked.” The phrase “tax collectors and sinners” is a constant pairing. Tax collectors were thought to be traitors, because they collaborated with the Roman power in order to become wealthy.
In the Roman system, the tax collector or “tax farmer” was a central element for gathering taxes in countries under indirect rule. Local leading citizens were given complete charge of taxation. They raised a crop of taxes for Rome. They bid for their job, based on the amount of taxes they thought they could collect. Any additional money was theirs to keep. These tax collectors often became wealthy at the expense of everyone else. These tax farmers employed others to do the actual tax collection. They too wanted to skim a little off of the top.
In addition to these direct taxes there were indirect taxes or tolls that were collected on various goods. The collectors of these taxes called toll collectors or publicans. They stood at the city gates, along major roads, and at other toll collection sites. Publicans were thought to be deceivers and thieves because their profession gave them the right to declare how much toll had to be paid, and the right to include some commission for themselves. Many of them were no doubt dishonest. They were therefore considered as vile as robbers and murderers.
When, in Luke 3:12, tax collectors approached John the Baptist and asked him what they must do to be saved, he told them not to collect more money than the amount prescribed or appointed.
Jesus is criticized for having table fellowship with some of these toll collectors. In Mark 2:14 we meet Levi the toll collector at Capernaum. And in Luke 19:2 we hear about Zacchaeus the head toll collector at Jericho. As Jesus entered Zacchaeus’ house Luke tells us “when the Pharisees saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’” (Luke 19:7-8)
Beyond shared meals with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus invited people into closer community with one another. His movement was creating a replacement for the traditional family. Some have referred to the groups of the Jesus movement as “fictive” families. These close communities were not based on blood relationships and traditional family ties, but instead on relationships created by a shared vision and mutual support. His followers were taught to refer to each other as brothers and sisters.
No one in a Jesus community had the role of father. This was because in the traditional patriarchal family in a deeply patriarchal society, the father had all of the power. He had total control over the lives of his wife and children. Women and children were powerless because they were considered property. (The traditional marriage ceremony still reflects this patriarchal ownership relationship when the father “gives away” the bride—his property—to her new owner, the groom.) In the Jesus community, all family members were equal—both men and women. Power was to be shared. The Apostle Paul later confirmed this relationship when he stated that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The communities of Jesus were not just for mutual support. They had a greater purpose—modeling the in-breaking reign of God. They were to be truly counter-cultural. In addition to rejecting patriarchal society, the communities practiced shared economics.
Jesus invited people to live counter-culturally, but he warned that the lifestyle carried risks. Because a movement that embodied radical social change threatened the status quo, Jesus’ followers would likely be shunned by family members and ultimately killed by those who benefited from the wealth and power bestowed by the status quo.
Jesus invited people into a new community based on a voluntary commitment. Everything about the reign of God was voluntary. Entry was not required or forced. God’s reign was not intended to be a new form of domination that would seek to impose its will on people.
communities of solidarity and compassion
I believe that there was also another dimension of the disciples’ work in the villages of Galilee. The gospels don’t overtly describe this activity, but the teachings of Jesus clearly point to it. Jesus and his followers began to organize the peasants, encouraging them to form communities of solidarity and compassion, by graciously sharing their food and freely lending to help neighbors in economic distress. We might refer to these as Hebrew Base Communities. They represented the methodology for societal change—the essential building blocks of the coming reign of God.
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is an example of how Jesus taught these values. Faced with a large hungry crowd, Jesus had his followers pass around the five fish and two loaves of bread that they had brought for their own meal. They shared everything that they had. And they gave it to others first, not knowing if they themselves would eat. Embarrassed and inspired by this radical act of generosity, others in the crowd began passing around their own supplies of bread and fish. There was more than enough to go around. All were fed and some food was left over. Jesus taught a lesson that in sharing there is sufficiency. In hoarding, many will go hungry. If people are radically generous with one another, no one has to worry about tomorrow—what to eat, drink or wear. Anxiety about the future stems from rugged individualism, the need to look out for number one.
One of these compassionate communities of the Jesus Movement—the post-resurrection Jerusalem community—is described in the book of Acts. “The whole group of the believers were of one heart and soul. No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone who had need. Those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. There was not a needy person among them. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and generous hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-35)
Many Christians believe that Jesus had a purely spiritual message, that his objective was to save people from their sins. Still, every Sunday we are reminded that Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming reign of God’s justice on the earth, to pray for sufficient food for one more day, and to pray for the forgiveness of economic debts. (Although we find the words “sins” or “trespasses” more palatable.)
proclaiming, healing, eating
According to the gospels, Jesus attracted 72 dedicated followers, both men and women, and appointed twelve to a key leadership role. Most were illiterate fishermen and farmers from the peasant class.
Jesus sent these disciples in pairs into the villages and towns of Galilee to announce the coming reign of God’s justice, to heal the sick, and to share meals in solidarity with the peasants. The disciples took no food with them. They were taught to depend entirely on the generosity of poor strangers.
healing the sick
Jesus was known as a great healer and he encouraged his followers to become healers also.
The poor and the oppressed have always been especially prone to disease. This was particularly true in the time of Jesus, not only because of the physical conditions in which they lived, but also and more significantly because of the psychological conditions of poverty which gave rise to psychosomatic conditions like paralysis and speech impediments. Others suffered from mental illness.
For many ancient peoples, the body housed a spirit. In the Hebrew Bible, this spirit was not a soul, but rather the very breath of life. In one of the creation stories, God breathed into a human to give him life. At death, the ancients observed that this spirit leaves the body. (In Greek, pneuma means both spirit and breath.)
Ancient peoples also believed that during life, other spirits could also inhabit a person’s body. This condition could be observed in the person’s behavior. Whenever a person was not himself—when he was beside himself and appeared to have lost control of himself—then it was quite obvious that some kind of spirit had entered the body. As the ancients would see it, the person’s own spirit was not now now operating. He or she was obviously possessed by some other spirit. (We still ask the question, “What’s got into him?”’) Depending on the unusual behavior, it could be seen as a good or an evil spirit.
Thus the extraordinary behavior and unusual flashes of insight on the part of a prophet (especially if he went into a trance) would be conceptualized as possession by the spirit of God; whereas the pathological behavior of the mentally ill would be conceptualized as possession by an evil spirit.
When the ancients observed epilepsy—convulsions, writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and the inability to speak or hear—it is not difficult to understand how the epileptic person could be thought of as being in the grip of some evil spirit.
Other physical or psychosomatic illnesses were also thought of as the work of an evil spirit. Luke tells us of a weak and crippled woman who was ‘possessed by a spirit of weakness’, that is to say, a spirit that enfeebled her body. ‘She was bent double’ and is therefore described as having been ‘bound by Satan’, that is to say, held in that position by the evil spirit dwelling in her (Luke 13:10-17). There were also spirits of deafness and dumbness who close the ears of the deaf and tie the tongues of the dumb (Mark 9:18, 25; 7:35). The high fever or delirium of Simon’s mother-in-law is not explicitly called an evil spirit but it is personified in much the same way: ‘Jesus rebuked the fever and it left her’ (Luke 4:39).
The paralytic who had his sins forgiven (Mark 2:1-12) would appear to have been suffering from the psychosomatic effects of a severe guilt complex. He too might have been described as having a spirit of lameness although the gospels do not actually use that description.
It will be noticed that all these illnesses are what we would call dysfunctional. Diseases which appear outwardly on the skin would not have been described in this manner. They were defects of the body rather than of the spirit inhabiting the body. A person who had any kind of disease which made him or her outwardly unclean was known as a leper. In ancient times leprosy was a generic term covering all skin diseases including sores and rashes. A leper was not possessed by an unclean spirit; nevertheless his bodily uncleanness was also seen as the result of sin.
We have here a fertile field for superstition, and many of the poor and uneducated were decidedly superstitious. Both the Jews and the Gentiles of Palestine made use of witch doctors and sin diviners who were thought to be able to divine the sinful source of any affliction.
healing societal ills
In addition to the illness of individuals, healing took on added dimensions in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus sought to heal broken relationships between individuals and to heal the societal rift between rich and poor. He saw the pursuit of wealth as a social and spiritual illness—a danger to society and a danger to one’s soul.
When we read the gospels, we have to admit that Jesus had a lot to say about money. In fact, he talked about it more often than any other topic, except for the coming reign of God. He repeatedly warned about the seductiveness of wealth and the difficulty facing the rich in participating in the reign of God.