Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Power players meet the peacemaker
TODAY we’re looking at the culture and society that Jesus knew – with its rules and proprieties, but also oppression and poverty, politics, privilege and influence, and a complex hierarchy of rulers, each playing their own power games.
At the time Jesus was born, Herod the Great held the title ‘king of the Jews’. A half-Jew, he had people executed on a whim including one of his wives and his three eldest sons but from Rome’s perspective, he kept the province subdued.
After his death there was greater direct rule from Rome and as vassals a number of different kings, rulers and authority figures, all representing competing ‘kingdoms’. They were rich, powerful and almost universally hated – Philip the Tetrarch, a just ruler, being a notable exception – while ordinary people struggled to pay all the taxes and still feed themselves.
Following a delegation to Rome in AD 6, the high priest became a direct Roman appointment, rotated among the same three or four families, not to direct the temple worship but to collect taxes and maintain law and order. The Herodian dynasty was hated, the high priests rivalled them in unpopularity. The first was so unpopular he was removed by the Romans and replaced with Annas and later we encounter Caiaphas, his son-in-law. This was a feudal monarchy, not a religious appointment and it created a sharp separation between them and the rural priests like John’s father Zechariah who did the day to day work in the temple.
Jesus quietly confronted the culture of power and oppression – and deep prejudice. Early on, at Jacob’s Well, near Mount Gerizim, we find Jesus talking to Samaritan – inappropriate enough – but also one who is a woman on her own: two taboos shattered. Jesus is taking forward what John the Baptist started, demonstrating that no one, not tax collectors, not soldiers, not Samaritans and not even women – he had a number of women followers – are excluded from the kingdom of God.
As the story of Jesus shifts to Capernaum, the role in society of tax collectors and toll collectors becomes prominent. This was a border town between the territory of Herod Antipas and his brother Philip. Goods crossing bridges or borders from one district to another were taxed – like an an import duty – from two to five per cent. There were other sources of state income, for example, fishing. Access to the lake was controlled by tax collectors, so fishermen such as Zebedee, father of John and James, with Jonah, father of Simon and Andrew, formed syndicates to bid for the fishing rights and to own or lease boats. Here, in AD 29, Jesus gathered his own catch of disciples which included fishermen and tax collectors together.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks right into this culture, proclaiming a kingdom which is open to any who want to find it, and addressing the problems people faced at the time such as debt, oppression – and people’s anger at the treatment meted out to them. The blessed, happy, fortunate ones are the poor and the persecuted, the mourners and the hungry. The Sermon on the Mount may be presented today as a textbook piece of speculative theology, but Jesus was teaching people how they could find a righteous way of living in this culture. Another issue in this egregiously patriarchal society was the rabbis’ teaching that a man could divorce his wife for virtually any reason. Jesus rooted this back to the Torah in his “but I say to you” retort that admitted as grounds for divorce only adultery.
Even more counter-cultural, in a violent society where fighting and execution were commonplace, was his teaching on non-retaliation and non-violent resistance. Jesus’ entire approach to changing society – changing the world – was based on non-violent resistance (turn the right cheek, allowing a litigant to take the shirt off your back, forgiving others their debts) and overturning the narrow, prejudiced understanding of who your neighbour was (the Good Samaritan).
This kind of radical submission was what made Jesus a threat. Because he refused to fight in any conventional way, the authorities did not know how to combat his ideas. It is not putting it too bluntly to say that Jesus was killed, because Jesus refused to fight.
Think of power plays and factional differences you have encountered. How might a Jesus-like non-violent confrontation have played out differently? How might you be able to bring this approach into your world?