Long, long ago, in the village of Nazareth in Galilee, a woman called Mary gave birth to a child and called him Jesus. This child was destined to become very famous, famous enough in his lifetime, but even more famous after his death. Today millions of Christians throughout the world recognise him, not just as man but as God.
They say that he was fully a man but also fully God. Just how he could be both is, a mystery that none of us can adequately explain. However, it means that Jesus grew and developed just like other humans in stature and wisdom.
In this chapter we want to try to understand, about the society Jesus lived in. What, from a human point of view, influenced him to commit himself to action in his world? What did he want to change? What were his values? What was his vision and how did he go about implementing this? In doing this we hope to learn about how we, as YCWs, can build and understand our own vision and methodology.
Politics in Jesus’ society
The Romans were the supreme political power in Palestine. They had won this position by conquering the country. However, the Romans were a bit like the IMF and the World Bank. They wanted to be in control, but they were willing to leave the implementation of their plans in the hands of others. So, they left Herod in charge in Galilee. They also employed Jews to gather taxes for them.
The Romans also allowed the Jews to keep their political/religious system. In Jerusalem the council of elders was called the Sanhedrin. It was a powerful body economically and so the rich fought for a place on it. Most of the members were Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sort of political party of rich merchants and landowners who only accepted part of the bible and who kept on friendly terms with the Romans.
Finally, there were the Zealots – a small group who hated Roman control and did not see that much was being done to overcome the problem. They were an underground, guerrilla movement who believed that the answer was to overthrow the powers by force. Perhaps they were a bit like many radical left-wing movements of today. People recognised that they understood and were concerned with the true problems of the people but not everyone could agree with their solution.
It seems that Palestinian politics was subject to international control, motivated by struggles for power and money, and no stranger to corruption and bribery. These are big problems for a people who claim that God is their King and ruler. Jesus grew up seeing these things and listening to the comments and arguments of the people. As a young worker, he suffered because of the political problems.
Economics in Jesus’ society
Jesus, came from Galilee, a rural region in the North of Palestine. The richest people in Galilee were the landlords who owned big properties and were often absent, living it up in Jerusalem. Next came the small landholders who lived in villages and worked on their land. Then came the fishermen who lived on the fish they caught. Finally, there were the poor: landless labourers, daily wage earners, small artisans, slaves and the unemployed. Jesus, Mary and Joseph belonged to this class.
That Jesus thought that the poor, really were poor and that they had a problem, can easily be seen by reading the Gospels. Their poverty was worsened by the taxes that they had to pay both to Rome and to the Temple. There were also many Jewish schemes used by the rich and powerful to extort money from the poor, and many of them centred around the Temple. In his years of teaching Jesus often spoke about these problems. On one occasion he overturned the merchants’ tables and drove them out of the temple with a whip. The problems of the poor concerned Jesus greatly. He identified with the poor, he lived as a poor man for so many years. He wanted to change such an unjust society.
Culture in Jesus’ society
We should not forget that many of the Jews that lived in Jesus country were people who had been taken into captivity in Babylon and had only recently returned. Though they set up the temple again and tried hard to rebuild all the old customs. It was not easy. The area was now under the influence of the Greek culture; an unrestrained, pleasure seeking culture.
The most fanatical of the reformers were the Scribes and the Pharisees who were rather well-off people from the middle class and fundamentalists. They not only demanded that every little law be fulfilled but they also added many laws that were impossible for the poor to keep. It became nearly impossible for a poor Jew to be also a faithful Jew.
Now Jesus came from a poor family. No doubt it worried him to see that so many people were forgetting God and living selfish lives, but it is certain that he did not agree with the laws and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees. We have only to read the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel to be assured of that.
the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ religious and cultural views also Oppressed some groups in the society – like the Samaritans (who were outcasts because they had married non-Jews), the sick and handicapped (they were viewed as being punished by God), and the poor (who were ‘unclean’ because they could not follow all the Pharisees’ rules).
These people were mostly materially poor, but their situation was worsened because they were alienated, degraded and excluded from society. They were people without dignity because they were abandoned. They formed a large part of the people Jesus was interested in. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.’’ I think he was talking about the people who are looked down on, culturally oppressed, and discriminated against.
How this relates to Asian societies today
I imagine that most YCWs of Asia can understand well and identify with the situations and the thoughts of Jesus when he reflected about the troubles affecting his people. Jesus’ country had been conquered by the Romans and was not allowed political freedom. Asian countries have escaped colonisation only to fall to the economic domination of other countries. The IMF and World Bank are among the powers used to deny them political freedom today.
Economically Jesus’ country was oppressed by foreign rulers and foreign taxes and at home by unscrupulous, greedy landowners and absentee landlords. Asian countries also know the terrible consequences of crippling international debts. And, on the home front they know the power and damage done by landholders, landlords and by the unscrupulous village money lenders.
Jesus and his friends knew also the humiliating and demeaning power of the Scribes and Pharisees who used their power to discriminate and oppress. Asian countries know the problems of caste, dowry, bonded labour, discrimination against women etc.
These were the problems that Jesus knew, had experienced and had heard people talking about all his life. When he thought about the things that he would like to see changed, the things that he would like to commit his life to achieving, then he recalled these problems of his people.
That is why, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus came to the synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown and proclaimed what he was about to do:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty
to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Luke 4:18–19
Jesus’ solution and methodology
We know from the Gospels the problems that affected Jesus and made him angry. We know that he worked to bring about change in these matters. The next important questions to ask are:
What was his solution to such problems?
What was his method of organising to achieve this solution?
We must remember Jesus’ astonishing birth. His mother was a virgin who was told of her pregnancy by an angel. The angel also mentioned that Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth would have a son. It seemed that these two young men, Jesus and John the Baptist, were destined to have an important role in the liberation of God’s people No doubt Mary and Elizabeth, often discussed what this would mean and in time they must also have told their sons about what the angel had said.
I imagine Jesus and John, as teenagers, discussed what this meant and what they should do. They came, anyway, to two very different conclusions. John went off into the wilderness to a monastery to spend time alone with God. Jesus stayed on in the village, living as a young worker, a daily wage earner and so one of the poor.
Eventually John knew that the time had come to begin his mission. Probably he would have talked to Jesus about it. How different these two were. John was a fireball and an enthusiast. He wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. He came out of the wilderness of the desert as an ascetic and the people regarded him with awe and respect.
He came with a message that a time of judgement was coming, and that people had to prepare by repenting their sins and be baptised to a new life. They were to stop hoarding their riches and share with the poor and they had to stop unjust practices in their work. He said that one mightier than him “one whose sandal I am not worthy to carry” would follow him. The people flocked to him to be baptised.
And then Jesus also came. He came as one of the sinners to be baptised. Matthew’s Gospel tells us: “John would have prevented him saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now.’...” (Mt 3, 14-15) When Jesus came up from that baptism the heavens opened and he heard God’s voice. He went immediately to the desert to make final preparations for his mission.
For forty days he prayed and fasted. He had already spent 30 years preparing for his mission by living and experiencing the situations of his people. His mission would be a response to what he had seen He would be a liberator and saviour for his people. But, how would he go about this work?
The devil came with temptations. He offered Jesus three means –money, power and prestige. He said in effect: “You can liberate your people by giving them material things, or by using power or popularity.” These, of course were not Jesus’ values or the values of his Kingdom but, equally importantly, the use of such means was not his method.
Let us reflect on this more. When Jesus came, he could have come as a member of a rich family, a king or powerful man. He could have chosen to be a highly popular figure. Instead he came as a defenceless child, to the poorest of families, in a very small and troubled country. For 30 years he lived as one of us, a young worker in a daily wage job. His cousin John chose to join a monastery and prepare for his mission there, Jesus remained an ordinary worker.
When he began his mission, many would not listen to him because he was so ordinary. “Is not this the carpenter?” they said, “Where did he get all this?” He continued to identify with the people. People murmured, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Even John, in prison, sent a message asking, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
It is very clear, from everything he did, that Jesus did not aim to liberate the people on his own by some sudden miracle. It doesn’t work that way. Liberation is also a personal thing. It has to be accepted into your life. Jesus worked by calling people to choose to follow him and he would call them to assist him in the work.
YCW leaders, and especially those involved in the work of initiation, should read and reflect often on the mission of Jesus. Jesus’ mission was centred in the problems and daily secular reality of the poor people who were his neighbours and co-workers. His mission was defined as a call to take up action to bring justice, dignity and liberation from the oppression they were suffering. He believed that there had to be an answer and that the answer like the problem, began in the lives of ordinary people.
Jesus went through the Study Stage and Contact Stage and when he got his community, he went through the formation process of Forming a Community – then Getting Organised and finally Moving out into the World.