Ez. 34: 11-16 The Corrupt Shepherds of Israel

Mth 25: 14-30 cf. Lk 19:12-27 The Good Steward and the Talents


The clash between the Empire and the alternative Kingdom of Abba

The aim of this session is to explore the political and economic context in which Jesus lived and taught. The aim is the see him as an actor is his own time and to allow his teaching and practice to emerge in context. This teaching and practice was radical and critical and it led to his death but also to the establishing of the community which keeps that teaching and practice alive in history. There are no simple answers to political and economic issues of our time to be found in the New Testament but there is a provocation to think and act in the light of Jesus teaching and practice so as to come up with our own radical and critical responses in our own time.


Palestine under the Roman Empire.

In AD 6 Judea became a Roman Province. The beginning of Luke’s Gospel (Luke. 2:1-2) starts with a census by Quirinius the Roman Governor of Syria – the Province to the north of Palestine. There is a registration and assessment of the population, closely followed by the levying of an indiscriminate new head/poll tax. New economic and political structures were being imposed which would lead to the breakdown of traditional Jewish Society and the substitution of a new means of production.


The Land, God’s gift to Israel, is effectively no longer Israel’s – the people can use it and even have their own government, the Sanhedrin, to administer it but they will never again, until the 20th century, own it. This contradicted their deepest collective beliefs and identity.


The economic effects of Roman occupation:

The Roman provinces sustained the Empire’s central administration through two forms of taxes:

  1. Direct, collected by Rome in the form of a land tax amounting to up to 25% of what the land produced and a money and property tax which varied with wealth.
  2. Indirect taxes like custom duties, import and export duties of up to 5%, road tolls and a sales tax on slaves, produce and any articles in the market.

These indirect taxes were put out to tender at auction every five years to companies who conscripted local tax collectors for the purpose. Cf. Mathew at Capernaum Mark 2:13 and Zacchaeus at Jericho Luke 19:1-10.


There were also so called voluntary taxes from every Jewish male over 20.

  1. A half shekel Temple Tax cf. Mth 17:24
  2. The Priest’s tithe amounting to one percent of the produce of the land
  3. A “”2cnd Tithe” obligation to spend a certain amount in Jerusalem to contribute to the city’s prosperity.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus these were felt to be oppressive cf. Antiquities 17, 8, 4; 17, 11, 2; 17, 11, 04.


Hardly surprising then that remission of debt becomes an image of divine grace Mth 18:23ff. Josephus speaks of Galilee being overpopulated (Jewish Wars, 3.3.2.). Archaeologists tell us that over 90% of land was under cultivation. There were serious disturbances. Acts 4: 37 speak of opposition and in particular of an uprising led by a certain Judas the Galilean who was executed.


The Palestinian economy was massively based on agriculture and ancillary industries. Poor soil and limited technology gave a limited yield sufficient for local consumption. The land was relatively densely populated and some 97% of it was under cultivation. The new tax meant that produce had to be used in payment, but this often led to peasant farmers getting into debt. To pay their debt they would mortgage their land, then falling behind on their payments they would have to sell the land to pay off the debts. This forced sale of land freed up a large cheap labour force, unorganised and insecure who were hireable for a denarii’s a day – sufficient for the bare necessities for a small family. Those that did not end up in indentured service/slavery or as beggars, became part of this growing force of day workers who waited in the market each morning to be hired by the stewards of the local estates. Cf. the parable of the workers in the vineyard Mth. 20: 1-15. This situation was not unknown in Israel’s previous history hence the need for Sabbath and Jubilee years to free the enslaved and the landless to redress the balance.


But under the Romans this was not a haphazard process. The Romans imposed “latifundia” throughout the empire. Under Roman imperial policy the land became increasingly concentrated in large estates, under wealthy landowners, who often lived distantly in the cities leaving a steward to manage local affairs. The steward would then send on the profits of the estate to fund the increasingly luxurious urban lifestyles of their masters. The basis of many of these estates was land that was originally communally owned; so here is a classic shift from public to private economic discourse. (The Gospels have plenty of references to the role of good and bad stewards cf. Luke. 12:42; 16:1-9 and too the decadence of the rich Luke 12:16-21).


The Parable of the Talents revisited

Our Gospel relates how a rich landowner/king goes off to a foreign land (just as Herod’s sons rushed off to Rome after their Father died to claim the land). He leaves three stewards with considerable finances and on return seeks an account. Two have made stupendous profit on interest one has kept the talents safe. The productive two are rewarded and the third loses all and is brutally punished. You all know the traditional interpretation of this. We have God-given talents and we must use them for the good or we will be judged. But put this in the economic context of the time. Given the vast amounts we are talking about what would the stewards have to do the gain such profit? The ordinary people would have rejoiced only in the third steward who alone has refused to extort money from them. The story is told just as Jesus goes to Jerusalem to face his death and refuses to use force to bring about the Kingdom. He is the steward who will not abuse the mikroi and ptochoi not the greedy King.


The discontent of the mass of the people grew throughout Jesus lifetime and exploded in the war of rebellion of 66 AD. But the popular unrest was initially unfocused because the source of the oppression – Roman Imperial policy – was effectively disguised by what seemed to be local Jewish Government.  While Rome was creaming off surplus production through its custom houses, Caesarea Philippi in the North and Jericho in the South, organised by Pilate the Jerusalem based procurator or imperial Finance Officer – the actual collecting of taxes was sublet every few years to Jewish tax-collectors. They bid for the right to collect the taxes, of course levying their own percentage at the same time. They were figures of hate in the popular mind and embodied the whole system of exploitation.


The Jerusalem based local government, the Sanhedrin, made up of Aristocratic Landowners and Priests, Merchants and some Scholars acted as intermediary between the Imperial Authorities and the Masses. It effectively hid the occupation behind a seemingly autonomous government. The Sanhedrin effectively assured the people’s loyalty and submission to the empire. Screening the exploited from their exploiters.


Throughout the Gospels Jesus is presented as being aware of this. The people are “Sheep without Shepherds.” They are betrayed by their own leaders who he calls hirelings and yet the mass of the people are unaware of it cf. Jn. 10:11-13. They are unaware that they are slaves. But their leaders know yet they keep quiet, profiting by their silence. In the amazing trial scene in John’s Gospel when Pilate presents Jesus saying “Behold your King!”(Jn 19:15) the Leaders cry out “We have no King but Caesar!” And even when the masses show signs of recognising the real situation their response is to replace one absolute authority with another. In Jn 6:15 after the feeding of the 5000 they propose Jesus as a messiah King who would take over power in Jerusalem. Jesus had faced this temptation to use the power of force at the outset of his ministry cf. Luke 4:6

“The devil said: “I will give you all this power and the glory of these Kingdoms, for it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose.”

But such a change of figurehead would change nothing. In Jesus teaching power, the power embodied in the structures, motivated by an unconstrained desire for wealth, what he calls mammon, is a social or institutional evil, the realm of Satan. God’s Kingdom and Caesars’ are incompatible. Jesus teaching about the Kingdom or rule of God establishes a different concept of power. This no longer domination that degrades, enslaves, dehumanises, but rather service, primarily service of the powerless ones the mikroi.


In developing this line of reflection Jesus was taking up and making more radical a tradition in the prophets (Cf. Jer. 2; 5:26-31; Is. 56: 10ff – “greedy dogs!”; Ez. 34:7-16; Ps. 53) emphasising solidarity with the masses as the only place from which to build true power.


Jesus Developing Practice


Jesus gradual response was to take up a critical stance against the Temple. And the High Priestly families, the  Nobles and Sadducees who saw their wealth and power as a sign of God’s favour and to be poor as a sign of God’s disfavour. In the society of the time with its rigid social hierarchy and its politics of holiness to be poor and to be a sinner were often seen as the same, and so in some way to be poor was to be guilty.  Deliberately provocative Jesus says “Blessed/Happy are the poor/ptochoi for theirs is the kingdom of God”. These are not the poor but the utterly destitute, the nobodies, the living dead. The Kingdom of Abba starts from those utterly outside the bounds of acceptable society.


In contrast to the Jerusalem elite he will say (Luke. 6: 24) “Woe/cursed are you who are rich, you have your consolation now.” They are the class responsible for his death. They opposed his view of God and they differed in how they exercised power. Jesus sees them as representatives of the reign of Satan. He proposes from the outset of his public ministry an alternative vision: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22: 25-27) He opposes service to domination. The service of the mikroi/ the little ones is the opposite of the existing order. This depended on his view of the Kingdom of God where the deployment of power is in favour of the poor and powerless. Jesus speaks of one of the signs of the coming of the Kingdom as “The poor have the good news preached to them” Luke 7:18ff.

This choice of Jesus inevitably meant conflict with the system which he revealed as being complicit in lies, the system whose God is the father of lies. Whereas the Kingdom of Abba is of justice and truth. Oppressive power is always precarious. Consistently Jesus critiques the power of domination and the amassing of wealth at the cost of others, usually the weakest. Mammon is acquired at the expense of others and its accumulation meant that those involved inevitably became impoverished in their relationship with God. The misuse of power here is nearly always linked to the uncontrolled desire for riches. Cf. Luke 12:21-33, Mth 6:19-20 “So it is when someone stores up treasure for himself instead of becoming rich in the sight of God.”

And so to heighten this contrast (the community of Jesus is always a contrast society) Jesus chooses collaborators from among the poor, or if they are wealthy demands they divest themselves of wealth in favour of the poor (Cf. The story of Zacchaeus Lk. 19:1-9). The rich have no share in the Kingdom unless they make the poor part of their life. (It’s important to recognise that Jesus had rich friends and supporters. Martha Mary and Lazarus lived in wealthy Bethany, Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin but they all used their wealth and influence for the Kingdom.) These very public gestures of solidarity with the poor and compassion towards them made the Jerusalem wealthy see Jesus as a threat to their power.


It is perhaps worth noting that the Gospels depict Jesus family as having a typical uncritical reverence for the Temple. He gradually puts his critique together during his ministry. This can perhaps inspire our own stumbling attempts to put together a more critical perception of our world. No-one is born a prophet!


So does the project of Jesus have a structural unity?

There are two main themes in Jesus ministry:

  1. the coming of Abba’s Kingdom
  2. the call to conversion and acceptance of that Kingdom

The key to interpreting them is Jesus emphasis on God’s sovereignty in history identified with the weakest. The Scribes tended to look to a perfect past. Unlike them he emphasises the possibility of growth toward the Kingdom and its potentially different future starting even from a tiny seed. The sign of its coming into being was his radical open table-fellowship. The God he revealed was an eccentric who calls his guests in from the highways and byways. Unlike the apocalyptic Essenes, removed from the reality of everyday life in their elite desert fortress, Jesus renewed the expectations of Deuteronomy and the Jewish Prophets for the ordinary stranger, widow and orphan – the powerless, summarised in Luke. 4; while the Pharisees sought to prepare for the Kingdom through a personal moral struggle for ritual purity in the midst of a corrupt world Jesus engages with the unclean and alienated, with the causes of the present situation and seeks to transform them by a new practice. Again, in contrast to the Essenes who saw the present age as hostile to God, for Jesus the present can be the place of a new transforming encounter. Jesus teaching of the Kingdom revealed an accessible God in the here and now.


To do this he takes the offensive and to reveal the presence of the Kingdom he chooses to share the day by day the living conditions of the mass of the people and takes part in ongoing dialogue with them. He attends to basic needs. This closeness to the oppressed masses will play a key role in his condemnation by the establishment. His proclamation will inevitably be seen as opposed to the status quo.


So the disciples of Jesus are provoked into having a different point of view and the criterion for their being chosen is their willingness to enter into a radical solidarity with their poorer brothers and sisters. The Kingdom was to be located among the nobodies, the children, the ignorant, the suffering, the disorientated and the destitute.


In all of this Jesus’ God is

God/Abba’s Kingdom is:

Jesus parables speak in a variety of ways of the generosity of the Kingdom:

This generosity expresses concern for what most requires attention now. To accept this image of God is to stand alongside the weak and the powerless in solidarity as children of one Abba.


The logic of the Kingdom is a movement of communion, starting with the poor, accepting the criterion of truthfulness and so facing the real, and underpinned by ties of giving which provide consistency and stability. The sign of the Kingdom is the naming of God as Abba. The awesome Lord of history, the Creator, whose name cannot be uttered, is now to be encountered in the everyday, in the everyday struggles of history.


Jesus life did not offer an alternative based on abstract ethical demands. It is not a worked put system. But it does provide some basic principles for an alternative critical practice - the practice of the reign of Abba, based on an engaged, shared life of mutual compassion, forgiveness and engagement. His life inspired his disciples to prolong the logic of his practice in the new historical situations they would have face. The only reason for the Church to exist is to bear witness to the possibility of this practice of Jesus continuing in the world.


At the economic level of production and the circulation of goods the logic of the Kingdom is one of gift and communion with the poor, in direct opposition to the logic of systematic and exclusive accumulation of wealth. Luke 6: 38 “Give and there will be gifts for you, a full measure, pressed into your lap; because the amount you measure out, is the amount you will be given back.” Communion must be material if it is to be genuinely spiritual. It is a logic of cultivated and shared abundance versus a logic of debt, which subjects and humiliates, attributing guilt to the poor even though it is the system which keeps them that way. The Kingdom speaks of accumulation for all at the expense of no-one.

At the political level the Kingdom is about a particular exercise of authority, an enabling power in service of the masses; implying a basic equality based on justice and compassion. The Roman Empire was built on the domination, exploitation and manipulation of the masses and the acceptance of abuses based on lack of truth. Power based on lies or subterfuge. In the Kingdom power is for service, not for exploitation or personal profit.( Luke. 22: 24f). The corrupt power of the Empire alienates through wealth accumulation and greed and leads to arbitrary violence. It denies equality and promotes division through rigidly stratified social categories.


At the level of social behaviour Jesus practice provoked a collective spirituality with relationships based on ethical ties and a logic of freedom and compassion. In contradistinction the Empire promoted generalised fear through engineered debt and cultivated selfishness. It accepted inequality as normal and necessary. The Kingdom calls for decisiveness, tenacity and faithfulness. The practice focused around Jesus preaching of the Kingdom is dominated by a logic that interweaves the economic, political and social and contradicts the logic of the Empire as:

The practice of Jesus founded a new community that initiates a historical, social and spiritual tradition in opposition to the inertia of the Empire. It provokes a dialectical tension that can’t be suppressed after the first Easter and it points to an as yet unrealised fullness of the Kingdom of God. It opposed the alternative practices that promote death and scorn of the poor. It offered a space where men and women could be reconciled with themselves and with others. It offered the possibility of forgiveness, that radical free act where we go beyond the evil of our enemy in a creative act making it possible for the evil-doer to re-enter social relationships from which they had excluded themselves. It gives each of us the opportunity to be different from our past.


The logic of the Kingdom is a logic of divine love. It is a dialectic of life that takes us through struggle, denunciation and criticism but not to retaliation. Rather to new justice establishing reconciliation among individuals and groups building communion and peace.


In every age the disciples of Jesus are challenged to discover concrete ways of maintaining this dialectic of forgiveness and judgement.



Useful Further Reading

Borg, M. (1993) Jesus a New Vision, London: SPCK

Crossan, J. D. (1994) Jesus: A Revolutionary biography, San Francisco:

Harper Collins

Rousseau, J. J. & Arav, R. (1995) Jesus and His world, London: SCM

Theissen, G. & Merz, A. (1998) The Historical Jesus: A Guide, London: SCM

Theide, C.P. (2004) The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus, London: SPCK