I’ve recently begun the book Jesus: A Historical Approximation by Spanish priest Jose Pagola. In it, Pagola examines Jesus’ life through different lenses, starting with “A Galilean Jew.” This first chapter lays out the Galilean context in which Jesus grew up and ministered. When read in light of my contemporary world, there are striking comparisons to be drawn between 1st century Galilee and 21st century America.
In 1st century Galilee, nearly 90% of people were peasants farming the incredibly fertile lands or fishing in the Sea nearby. Land ownership in such an agrarian society is the central question, and in Galilee most belonged to wealthy landowners. Pagola describes further:
“These large landerowners usually lived in the cities, rented out their lands to peasants in the area, and supervised them through administrators acting in their name. The leases were almost always very burdensome for the peasants. The owner demanded half or a significant portion of their production, which varied according to the results of the harvest…There are signs that in Jesus’ time, these large landowners were expanding their hldings with new lands from debt-ridden families, and coming to control a good part of Lower Galilee.”
Those farmers who owned their land desperately defended it. Indigent day laborers wandering for work became common. The producing majority provided for the ruling minority, with less and less in return to meet their own family’s needs. Through tributes, taxes, fees, and corruption hefty portions of any harvest disappeared to Rome, Jerusalem, and regional capitals — between a third and half of a given family’s production.
Debt loomed large as an inevitable result of even the most aggressive defenses against such collections, including a turn to monoculture for the most profitable crops. Pagola writes that “The Galilee Jesus knew was trapped in debt.” Losing one’s land meant losing a means of income, and many people turned to itinerancy, slavery, begging, and prostitution, or crime, which all rose in Jesus’ time.
The hallmark of Jesus’ Galilee was this massive (and growing) inequality between the peasants and the urban elite, composed of civil, economic, and religious leaders made rich by a brutal combination of exploiting the poor and violent oppression. Two new cities appeared in Galilee further straining the peasants as elites grew their wealth and prestige by appropriating more and more of the surrounding harvests. Courts ruled for the elites routinely when land foreclosures increased.
Pagola notes of all this that “…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites.”
You can see how Jesus ministered in a Galilean context similar to America today: economic inequality grows due to unjust policies set out by a ruling elite with little regard for the common good.
While not an agrarian society, recent decades have seen an increase in worker productivity for America’s industries not met with a commensurate rise in income. Wages remain stagnant, salaries low, and purchasing power dropping. Predatory lending and unaffordable higher education that is necessary for careers today has led to exorbitant debt for most Americans. Home foreclosures are similar to the land confiscations of Galilee, casting families into itinerancy and instability. Job losses and unemployment from an economy serving profit and not the common good compound all this.
Yet, for the top earners in America there are few problems. They have benefited from the economic system which favors unbelievable profits from risky investment practices while denying mothers the most basic food assistance for their hungry children.
What Pagola wrote of early 1st century Galilee, that”…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites” is similarly true of America today.
This is why Jesus message can be so powerfully proclaimed today: his ministry condemns the same excess and trends, while holding up the same people who have been marginalized and cast out. I find it helpful to quote Pagola at length here:
“Jesus’ activity in the Galilean villages and his message of the reign of God amounted to a strong critique of this state of affairs. His firm defense of the indigent and hungry, his preferential embrace of the least in that society, and his condemnation of the sumptuous life of the urban rich, were a public challenge to the socio-political program of Antipas [the ruler of Galilee]…his calls to have compassion on those who suffer and forgive their debts; and many other sayings can help us understand even today how Jesus shared the suffering of his people and how passionately he sought a new, more just and loving, world in which God would reign as Father of all.”
Having just returned from the Holy Land, the beauty of the Galilee is fresh in my mind. It is a land of unparalleled vegetation where Scriptures words of ‘a land of milk and honey’ comes vividly to life. Yet, when I meditated on all of this after reading Pagola’s chapter what came to mind was Jesus ministering in America. There is the Son of God walking down Wall Street casting out the investment bankers and perusing Congress’ halls questioning why Republicans cut food stamps. There is Jesus healing the many homeless people I pass by while walking through DC and railing outside the Treasury building against anti-Gospel policies.
Why do we make the message so distant, as if 1st century Galilee and 21st century America are more different than they are similar. Sure, 2,000 years and host of cultural nuances separate my world from Jesus’ world — but the humanity in it all remains a constant thread. The inclination to narcissism and greed, apathy and indifference, fear and isolationism.
Most pointedly in the meditation, there is Jesus sitting across the table from me, staring as he asks why I continue to obfuscate Scripture’s message to justify my own unjust excesses.