In the first century, Galilee and Judea were under the control of the Roman Empire and its unparalleled military might. A client king appointed by Rome ruled Galilee and a Roman governor ruled Judea. It was a time of revolution.
The traditional Hebrew culture was under pressure from the economic practices and social values of Greco-Roman civilization. The upper-class Jewish elites in Jerusalem were allured by the dazzling culture of Greece and Rome. Greco-Roman architecture was evident in newly built public facilities in the cities of Jerusalem, Sepphoris and Caesarea. Young Jewish men began participating in Greek athletics in the nude, offending traditional Hebraic values. Some Jewish youth tried to have their circumcisions reversed to appear more like young Hellenistic Gentiles.
A split was developing in the country between the value systems of the wealthy Greek-speaking Hellenic Jews (about 5% of the population) and the peasant class of traditional Aramaic-speaking Hebraic Jews (over 95% of the people). These peasants were commonly known as “am ha’ eretz,” the people of the land.
In an agricultural economy, land is the only real source of wealth. The Hebrew people considered the land of Palestine to be a gift from God. The stories of the Hebrew Torah recount the conquest and invasion of the land under the leadership of Joshua and the subsequent division of the land among all the tribes and families. The land was considered a patrimony to be passed down from generation to generation. It was not to be sold since the land belonged to God alone. However land could be lost through indebtedness.
The Roman economy of commercialized agriculture was impoverishing these peasants at an alarming rate. Small peasant farms were being consolidated into huge estates owned by a handful of wealthy families in the cities. The means of consolidation was debt and foreclosure. Debt was a major issue for first-century Jewish peasants.
the economics of empire
By the first century, global empire was transforming the economic landscape. For centuries, the Hebrews had a traditional agrarian economy, raising sustenance crops on small farms. In this type of economy, the Hebrew elites who lived in the cities and who controlled the Jerusalem Temple took about 50% of agricultural production from the peasants in the form of tithes and taxes. But when the Romans introduced commercialized agriculture, the elites took the land itself from the peasants. Commercialized agriculture depends upon consolidation of the land into large estates, so that agricultural production becomes more efficient. The benefits go to a small number of wealthy landowners in greatly increased profits.
The wealthy elites needed cash to support their lifestyles, so they converted small farms into large vineyard estates and shipped wine back to Rome. Only the rich had the means to establish large vineyards because they required tending for three years before they produced a usable crop.
Freshwater fishing was also becoming commercialized under Rome. Archeologists have discovered the ruins of fish processing plants around the Sea of Galilee. In these facilities, fish was both salted and pickled, or prepared into a kind of salsa for shipment to Roman markets. The commerce was again controlled by wealthy elites.
When we speak of the wealthy Jewish elites, we are talking about a small group of wealthy families that included the aristocratic high priests of the Jerusalem Temple. They formed a conservative political and religious group called the Sadducees. The gospels often refer to them as “the chief priests and the elders.” Although Judea was ruled by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, the day to day operations were entrusted to the wealthy oligarchy.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Sadducee families owned most of the land throughout the country. In addition, they were in charge of the Temple treasury—essentially the national bank. Thus they controlled the economy.
Members of the Sadducee party also formed the Sanhedrin, or national high court. They cooperated closely with the Roman governor and kept a tight lid on any potential liberation movements in the country that might threaten the status quo and their privileged positions.
Debt was the tool by which they consolidated their estates. Small farmers needed money for taxes collected by both Temple and state. During times of drought or poor harvests, they were often forced to borrow from the rich who loaned money to them at interest, in violation of the traditional Hebraic laws. Their land was given as collateral on these loans. When the farmers could not pay their debts, their property was taken. The debt records were kept in the Jerusalem Temple.
the downward spiral
The peasants were moving in a downward spiral from small freeholder to tenant farmer to day laborer to beggar or bandit. When they lost their land through foreclosure, they might be allowed to stay on and work for the new master. If not, they had two options.
One option was to become an artisan like a potter or weaver or carpenter. Jesus and his family fell into this group. They were dispossessed peasants. They had no land. Jesus, like his father, became a builder (in Greek, a tekton) and worked in stone and wood. For members of the artisan class, if there was a demand for their skills, they survived.
The other option for landless peasants was to become a day laborer—to stand at the village square or town gate and hope for a day’s employment, a day’s wages, and one more day’s bread to eat. Because work was sporadic, only the strong survived this occupation. Starvation and illness quickly took their toll. (The next time you hear the parable about the day laborers in the vineyard, pay closer attention. And don’t assume that these peasants associated God with the wealthy vineyard owner. Peasants found nothing good, righteous or holy about rich land barons.)
The final stage in the spiral was to become a beggar or bandit. Beggars were completely destitute. Widows, orphans, lepers, and those too ill to work fell into this category.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” he wasn’t talking about the working poor. He used the Aramaic word meaning completely and utterly destitute, those who had no means of support and survived only through the mercy of others. The destitute would be blessed when the reign of God arrived, because the reign of God creates a great leveling of society in which the poor are lifted up and the rich are brought low to meet in the middle. Jesus saw it as his task to plant the seeds for its coming.
the politics of Jesus
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; transform your lives, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
The years during which Jesus preached—perhaps 28-30 CE—were moments of relative calm at the eye of a political hurricane. Two hundred years earlier, the Maccabee brothers had revolted against Syrian domination of Judea, and after a long struggle, the Jewish people had won a brief hiatus of independence from foreign domination (142-63 BCE). Those years of political freedom ended with Pompeii’s conquest of Palestine, and thereafter the country lived under the cloud of an uneasy Pax Romana that held until 66 CE. In that year Jewish revolutionaries, called Zealots, rebelled against the empire. But Roman legions led by Titus crushed the insurrection and destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. In 135 CE a second Jewish revolt against Rome ended with the razing of Jerusalem itself.
John, the prophet of justice and doom
Jesus was profoundly moved by the message of Yochanan (John) the Baptizer. John’s prophetic message was a simple one. God was angry with the chosen people and God planned to punish them, unless a change took place.
God’s anger was not due to individual sins, or even over a nation that had turned away from the worship of God. Instead, John declared that the issue was a lack of social justice.
Peasants were losing their land. Poor people were going hungry. They were suffering from illness and deprivation and many were without adequate clothing. People were not helping one another in the face of desperate circumstances. Individuals were left on their own to suffer from an oppressive and unjust system.
John warned that God would intervene in history to condemn and destroy Israel, bringing an end the present state of affairs. God would do this through a foreign agent—the empire of Rome and Roman legions—just as God had done centuries earlier to Israel and Judah with the armies of Assyria and Babylon.
In John’s vision, God’s judgment would bring massive destruction. John pictured these events as a great forest fire before which the snakes of the forest flee (Matthew 3:8), in which trees and chaff are burnt (Matthew 3:10,12), and in which people will be engulfed in a baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11). He also made use of the metaphors of the ax and the winnowing fan used to separate wheat from chaff.
There is no reason to think that John was referring to a burning hell in the afterlife. The forest fire he described is an image of hell on earth. He foresaw not the end of the world, but the Roman destruction of Jewish life, culture, and political hopes in Palestine.
John employed the metaphors of a prophet. The prophets dealt with the concrete actions of God in history. A prophecy is not a prediction; it is a warning or a promise. The prophet warns Israel about God’s judgment and promises God’s salvation. Both the warning and the promise are conditional. They depend upon the free response of the people of Israel. If Israel does not change, the consequences will be disastrous. If Israel does change, there will be an abundance of blessings. The practical purpose of a prophecy is to persuade the people to change or repent. Every prophet appealed for a conversion.
It didn’t take special insight to see that the Jewish people were on the verge of a suicidal uprising against the Roman Empire. Recurring episodes of violence were leading toward a dramatic confrontation with the most powerful military force on earth. The shadow of catastrophe hung over the land and the signs could be clearly seen for those who paused long enough to read them.
Change or be destroyed, John cried. When confronted with John’s dramatic words of impending doom and a call to personal conversion, the people asked, “What then shall we do?” John’s response was that religious rituals could not save them. Only acts of charity and justice could avert God’s anger and wrath.
“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.'” (Luke 3:10-14)
Jesus, the prophet of justice and hope
After John’s arrest and execution, Jesus picked up the mantle of leadership from his mentor. But as he carried on John’s work, Jesus began to form a new vision. John was right, of course. If the situation did not change drastically, many people would lose their lives in a futile struggle against the power of Rome. The suffering of poor and oppressed peasants would only increase. The institutions and culture of the Jewish people would be wiped out and replaced with Greek culture and Roman institutions. And the worship of Yahweh would be replaced by the pantheon of Roman Gods.
Jesus did not feel called to save Israel by bringing everyone to a baptism of repentance in the Jordan. He decided that something else was necessary, something that had to do with the poor, the sinners and the sick—the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Jesus and John saw God differently. John saw God as an angry judge. Jesus saw God as a compassionate and nurturing parent. As a result, Jesus modified John’s message. Jesus began to find a new way to address the coming catastrophe. He developed an alternative vision, a way out, a way to avert violent confrontation.
John preached actions of justice, but with his emphasis on the coming catastrophe, these were actions would have been motivated by fear. Jesus no longer preached John’s message of doom. Instead he preached a vision of the way things could be, the way they would be when God established God’s rule on earth. Like John’s message, it had to do with acts of compassion and justice. But the way of Jesus was based on hope, not fear. The reign of God operates by invitation, not coercion.
If people would begin living out the just and peaceful values of God’s in-breaking reign today, the inevitable destruction could be avoided. Jesus believed that time to establish God’s rule on earth was now, not at some future date. Jesus now saw clearly the way God would act in history, and it was through him.
Jesus gathered the timeless hopes of humanity for a world of peace, justice, and equality. In words and actions he demonstrated that the time had come for a new way of living. The mission Jesus now embarked on was to make his vision of God’s new reign clearly visible to the people of his day, and to invite them to enter in.
John relied upon a baptism of conversion; Jesus set out to liberate people from lives of suffering and anguish—present and future.
After Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, the gospels tell us that Jesus traveled to the Judean wilderness for a 40-day fast, a time of preparation. Here, we are told, he was tempted by Satan.
Satan offers Jesus three avenues of greatness, three options that would establish him as the messiah that the people were looking for. The Jewish people in the first century wanted three things—full bellies, power and glory for their nation, and a charismatic leader. They were not unlike us in the 21st century.
The temptation story tells us that Satan is the spiritual power that lies behind all earthly empires and is the ruler of their institutions of domination—political, economic, and religious. in the temptation story, each of these arenas is depicted by a different symbol.
a welfare king
First, Satan pursues the economic arena. Economics is symbolized by bread, the fundamental satisfaction of people’s material needs. Turn stones into bread, offers the Devil. Be a prophet like Moses who provided his people miraculous food in the wilderness. Become a popular leader by feeding the people. Feed the peasants’ bellies and they will support you in a revolutionary uprising against Rome and its Jewish collaborators. Be a welfare king.
a wizard king
Second, Satan entices Jesus with the religious arena. Religion is epitomized by the Temple in Jerusalem. Perform a miracle in the Temple in Jerusalem, suggests the tempter. Become a high priest like Aaron, the brother of Moses. Take control of the religious structures of the nation. Prove your messiahship by supernatural showmanship at the center of religious faith. Give the people miracles and magic. That will make them follow you. Be a charismatic religious leader—a wizard king.
a warrior king
Third is the political arena. Politics is represented by a mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. I can give you all the kingdoms of the world, says Satan. Jesus is tempted by political power. And the greatest political temptation of any leader is to lead the nation to war. Become a military leader like David, says Satan. Be a conquering hero, a new Alexander or a new Augustus. Rule the world by force and violence as a political messiah. Reestablish the power and glory of Israel. Be a warrior king.
the kind of messiah people always want
Best of all, tantalizes Satan, do all three. Perform all of these roles for the people. Give them what they want. Give people what they hope and dream for. Become a charismatic leader—a king like David, a prophet like Moses, a priest like Aaron. Be the messiah they are waiting for.
Jesus forcefully rejects all of these temptations. Unlike the messiah that was awaited and expected, Jesus would not be a conquering hero. He would not lead the people to war with Rome. Instead, he would lead them to peace. His peace would not be a Pax Romana—enforced at the point of a sword—but one based on justice and nonviolence. Jesus would not provide manna or free bread for the hungry multitude, but not because he was indifferent to their suffering. Instead, he would encourage them to feed one another, to share generously all that they had. Jesus would not perform miraculous stunts to inspire belief. Instead, he would preach an alternative wisdom and model a subversive behavior that held the power to transform individuals and societies. He would call ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That would be the real miracle. Finally, Jesus had no intention of creating a new religion or leading a religious institution of any kind.
Strangely, the church soon reversed the stance of Jesus in the wilderness. What he rejected, the church has superimposed. Christianity has created an image of Jesus as a miracle worker who feeds the multitudes and performs amazing stunts. It’s all there in the Bible. Christianity has made Jesus the head of the church, a hierarchical position he never wanted. To make matters worse, the church has been waiting for the day when Jesus will return as a conquering hero to violently defeat his enemies and establish his own kingdom, a global empire. But for Jesus, It was always God’s kingdom that he proclaimed, never his own.
The historic images of the messiah were so powerfully ingrained in the Jewish mindset of the early church, that they simply remolded Jesus to conform. They changed him to one who would perform the messianic roles he so clearly rejected. And, they gave him the title of Christ—christos, the messiah. First it was a title (Jesus the Christ), then it became part of his name (Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus). Over the centuries, the Christ who is worshiped by the church has driven out the human Jesus who has been largely ignored, domesticated, or even rejected.
the anointed one
The term messiah comes from a Hebrew word meaning anointed. The Greek word for anointed is christos. Kings, priests and prophets were all anointed with oil for their tasks. Jesus clearly rejected the roles of king or priest, because he wanted no part in being a militaristic ruler or the leader of a hierarchical religious institution.
However, Jesus did not withdraw from politics, hungry people or religion. He fully engaged his society in each of these arenas, but he did it on his own terms. If Jesus accepted any messianic role, it was that of the social prophet—one who is called by God to voice God’s demand for justice to those who hold political, economic and religious power. As such, a social prophet deals in politics. Therefore, Jesus developed a political platform, one which would lead to a more just and equitable society. This platform was the foundation of everything that followed in his mission. It marked the beginning of a radical social movement that threatened the status quo of the rich and the powerful and led directly to his death.
the political platform of Jesus
The gospel of Luke tells us that after his 40-day fast in the wilderness, Jesus arrived back home in Nazareth to begin his messianic mission as a prophet of God’s kingdom.
Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and before family, friends, and neighbors he declared that God had anointed him to the prophetic task of proclaiming a Jubilee year in Roman Palestine. He loosely quoted the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the dispossessed and destitute. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners of debt and recovery of sight for the blind oppressors—to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In The Politics of Jesus, Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder proposes that this was Jesus’ inauguration speech as a prophetic messiah and the announcement of his political platform. By using this quote from Isaiah, Jesus proclaims the kind of messianic role he is taking on—to preach good news to the dispossessed and destitute.
So what was the content of this good news that Jesus would proclaim to the poor? That their sins were forgiven? That life would be better in heaven? Hardly! Jesus was announcing that the year of God’s favor—the Jubilee year—was arriving. For the destitute this meant that their debts would soon be forgiven and for the dispossessed that their land would soon be returned. For the poor masses of first-century Roman Palestine this was good news indeed.
the sabbatical laws
Most biblical scholars recognize “the year of the Lord’s favor” as a clear reference to the unique Hebrew concept of the Jubilee year. It was spelled out in three books of the Hebrew bible—Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. They describe three increasingly larger sabbatical cycles as part of agrarian life.
The number seven had magical power for the Hebrews. They believed that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. At the end of every week was a sabbath day, a day of rest from labor that included slaves and livestock. The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word shabath, meaning, “to rest”. The Hebrew people were unique among ancient peoples in mandating that people and animals should rest one day a week.
But the Hebrew calendar didn’t stop with the weekly cycle. The Hebrew people believed that the land itself should be allowed to rest from agricultural production every seventh year. During that year, the land was allowed to lie fallow. They called it the sabbath or sabbatical year. But it was also a time to enact social justice—a time of freedom and release. On this year all debts were to be forgiven and all Hebrew slaves were to be released. Hebrews became slaves to other Hebrews through indebtedness, so forgiveness of debts and release of debt-slaves were related concepts. The sabbatical year was a primitive form of bankruptcy law. It grew out of the Hebrew people’s covenant with God.
The third sabbatical cycle was even larger in scope. At the end of seven, seven‑year periods of time, a Jubilee year was celebrated. (Scholars are not sure if the Jubilee year fell on the forty‑ninth year and coincided with the seventh sabbatical year or whether it actually was the fiftieth year.) The Jubilee year included four prescriptions: (1) leaving the soil fallow, (2) forgiving economic debts, (3) freeing Jewish slaves, and (4) returning to each family their historic property. This pattern was an attempt to level the economic playing field every fifty years.
the fallow year
The sabbath year was commanded in Leviticus (25:1-7):
“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.”
Sabbaticals require planning and preparation. If one is to rest on the sabbath day, meals must be prepared in advance. But no amount of planning can adequately prepare for the sabbath year. If the harvests of the preceding years were plentiful, perhaps there would be enough food to carry one’s family, slaves and livestock through the sabbatical year when the land could not be worked and nothing could be grown. But if one encountered drought or other natural disasters during the preceding years, one could starve during a sabbatical year and the year following.
It took great courage for the Jews to leave their fields fallow every seven years. Many people obviously worried. Leviticus 25:20‑21, responding to such concern, has God assure the people: “Should you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop? I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years.” A crop lasting three years was necessary to cover years six, seven and eight. In the eighth year, when the land could be worked again, harvests wouldn’t be reaped until the latter part of the year.
Some people simply ignored the requirement to observe a sabbath year. Others looked for ways around this law. Some creatively transferred the title to their the land for one year to a non-Jewish family who would work the land in return for a share of the crop. Still others tried to faithfully observe the law, but found themselves getting into debt to feed their families and livestock.
the remission of debts
Debt is a big deal to the poor. People could become indebted through their own fault (laziness, drunkenness or ineptitude) but they could also become indebted by things beyond their control (like illness, drought, or systemic exploitation). Small farmers are always at the mercy of the weather to make a living. If the land fails to produce bountifully, they are forced to borrow. The only real collateral they have is their land. If indebtedness proceeds too far, they risk losing their freedom, their land, and their livelihood.
The remission of debts every seven years had the unfortunate consequence of freezing credit near the end of the sabbath year cycle. The wealthy were unwilling to loan money if it would not be repaid. Here, too, they discovered a legal work-around called the prosboul. They essentaily turned the loan over to a court, which sought repayment on their behalf and freed them remitting the debt. Desperate borrowers had no choice but to accept these conditions.
The prayer Jesus taught his followers demonstrates the importance of indebtedness to first-century peasants: “Forgive our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”
the liberation of debt-slaves
When families fell on hard times and could not repay their debts, they offer themselves or their children into servitude in payment. But the sabbatical laws made sure that debt-slavery was temporary and was ended every sabbath year.
Deuteronomy (15:12-15) described the release of debt-slaves:
“If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.”
the restitution of land
The Hebrews believed that their covenant with God required them to create a just society. God had rescued them from oppression in Egypt; God refused to let them oppress one another. Therefore they could not allow social inequality to become prolonged or endemic.
Therefore, the Torah made one final sabbatical provision. After a cycle of seven sabbatical years, the fiftieth year was declared a Jubilee year. An additional feature marked this event—all land was to revert to the original owner. This was the ultimate stroke to level the economic and social playing field. It was a form of economic grace – unmerited forgiveness for all who had experienced failure or loss, and a chance to start over.
The return of land was spelled out in Leviticus (25:8-12):
“You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.”
The Jubilee Year was a call to the wealthy to give up land they had accumulated and to return it to the landless. They were invited to be like the God they worshiped—compassionate, gracious and just. Although Jubilee was part of the Hebrew law, we have no evidence that it was ever implemented or that the wealthy of any generation ever returned land to the dispossessed.
You can imaging the response of the wealthy and powerful landowners to an upstart peasant who dared to call on them to give up their land and their wealth. They set out so stop him in his tracks; to squash him like a bug.
the kingdom of God
The kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Jesus, was clearly political. Its very name implies the intersection of theology and politics. So at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus launched a political movement to bring relief to the suffering peasants and to re-establish God’s justice in Roman Palestine.
In spite of this, most people believe that Jesus was primarily a religious figure, concerned with the spiritual nature of humanity rather than the physical means of life and sustenance. Indeed, religion was a part of the package. So just what kind of religion would a social prophet proclaim? Let’s examine that next.