Jesus: Redistributionist-in-Chief

From the Archive: Christian conservatives are cheering Mitt Romney’s attack on a 14-year-old comment by Barack Obama endorsing a limited “redistribution” of wealth, but they ignore that Jesus called for a far more radical wealth redistribution  and it may have led to his crucifixion, as Rev. Howard Bess wrote in 2011.

By the Rev. Howard Bess (First published on Sept. 4, 2011)

According to Luke’s gospel, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as a reputational rabbi was marked by his public reading of a passage from the Isaiah scroll. His declaration was that a year special to God had arrived, a Jubilee Year that would redistribute wealth and end the economic persecution of the poor.

A key part of understanding Jesus involves his belief in this Year of Jubilee. According to Levitical Law, all land was owned by God. So, the people who controlled the land and farmed it were stewards/servants, but according to Leviticus, they never really owned the land.

Wood engraving Crucifixion of Jesus ,1866, by Gustave Doré.

Land could be bought and sold but only for a limited time. Plus, the holders of land were under some strict rules. Every seventh year the land could not be farmed, meaning the land had a Sabbath year when it rested.

At the end of the seventh seven-year cycle (i.e. 49 years), the Levitical Law required that all the people start over. Land was to be completely redistributed. This 50th year was called the Year of Jubilee. Other important things took place. All slaves were set free and all debts were canceled. The Levitical Law envisioned a new day for everyone.

Over the years the Israelites found ways of reinterpreting the law and avoided the keeping of the Year of Jubilee. People who had gained control of large land holdings were closely allied with the priests who ran the Jerusalem Temple.

The prophet Isaiah (who lived in the Eighth Century BC) despised the rich and the powerful. A recurring theme in Isaiah is a call to celebrate the Year of Jubilee honestly. Many today would call him the ultimate socialist. As far as anyone can tell, the Year of Jubilee has never been celebrated.

Jesus lived at a time of a concentration of wealth when working farmers had completely lost control of their land, which was owned by very wealthy men who lived in large cities some miles away. Under the prevailing economic system, the farmers became poorer and poorer.

Often, the farmers had to leave the farm and became day-laborers who worked at the mercy of absentee owners and their local enforcers. The greed of absentee land owners and the plight of poverty-stricken farmers form the backdrop of the entire ministry of Jesus.

When Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry as a reputational rabbi read the particular passage from Isaiah, his entire audience understood what he was saying. He was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee.

Jesus made his statement in a minor village to a group of people who had become powerless under the economic onslaught of the rich. Jesus was declaring that the new day had arrived. At last justice would be established.

It was a brash statement partly because Jesus was not a trained rabbi. His position as rabbi would not have been accepted outside of a small area in northern Palestine.  According to the passage, he made his statement in the town (Nazareth) in which he grew up.

Jesus had spent his early manhood attending the local synagogue meetings as an active participant. A small village such as Nazareth had too few people to merit a trained rabbi, so the regular Sabbath meetings were led by lay people.

At Sabbath meetings, the Scriptures (Old Testament) were read, discussed and argued. Jesus was the leader that emerged from the group. His reputation grew as he became their “reputational” rabbi. Jesus embraced the Isaiah writings, and the Isaiah perspective had become the eyes with which he read and understood the Law and will of God.

(This understanding of Jesus’s radical message, challenging the power structure on behalf of the poor, puts into context his fateful decision to take his protests to Jerusalem where the scriptures describe him riding in on a humble donkey and confronting the money changers at the Temple. It also helps explain the determination of the religious and political elites of Jerusalem to have him crucified.)

Other Injustices

This column is the arrival of new days as an intrinsic part of the Christian message. Jubilee is any and every day when justice triumphs. And the message of justice is not restricted to issues of economic injustice or the excessive power of the rich. It also applies to social justice.

It has been more than four decades since the Stonewall riots started the revolution for gay acceptance in America. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City that was regularly raided by the police. On June 28, 1969, the men at the Stonewall Inn had had enough. The resulting riots lasted several days and inspired the emergence of gay rights organizations across the country.

Within seven years, I felt it necessary to face the issue of gay acceptance in our churches, writing my first essay about acceptance of gay people in our congregation. I shared my call for acceptance with my congregation. A new day had arrived. It was a day that demanded justice for a persecuted and down-trodden group of people. The old ways were unacceptable.

I believed it was and is the calling of our churches to declare the arrival of the new day. But I have been sorrowed that so many Christian churches have chosen darkness rather than light. I am chagrinned by my fellow Christian clergy who have kept silent about justice for our gay friends when they should have been witnessing to the new day of Jubilee.

However, I am also pleased with the large number of churches and clergy who have been declaring the arrival of the new day of acceptance for gay people in the family of God. We have come a long way.

Jesus had the courage to apply Torah (the will of God) to the vicious economic injustice that had developed in his own day. He challenged injustice and declared a new day. Challenging injustice and claiming a new day for everyone are the calling of every person who calls Jesus “Lord.”

The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].

6 comments for “Jesus: Redistributionist-in-Chief

  1. Charles Rayner Kelly
    September 23, 2012 at 12:49


    SMtE: Thanks for coming on the St. Matthew the Evangelist Show, Jesus. I know you’re a busy man so let’s get right to it. You probably know of the great income disparity in the world today. What would you tell those who call themselves ‘Christians’ to do about it?

    J : Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. 19:21

    SMtE: Gee, I don’t hear any televangelist saying that. That’s a pretty hard thing to do, give your money to the poor. No wonder there aren’t many true Christians.

    J : Many are called but few are chosen. 22:14 The harvest is rich, but laborers are few. 9:37

    SMtE: But you’re saying the opposite of what our consumer culture is telling us, that we should be as rich as we possibly can be.

    J: You can’t serve both God and money. 6:24 You must worship God and serve him alone. 4:10

    SMtE: So you’re saying we shouldn’t want to be rich, huh?

    J: I tell you truly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 19:23 It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it. 7:14 Many who are first will be last, and the last, first. 19:30

    SMtE: Yikes, it sounds like there are a lot of rich and famous people we won’t be seeing in the hereafter. What would you tell the Occupy Wall St. folks, who are protesting the inequalities of our economic and political system?

    J: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. 5:6

    SMtE: But they’re getting beat up by the police!

    J: Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness. 5:10
    Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body, but not kill the spirit. 10:28

    SMtE: But they’ll haul them off to court to face a judge. What then?

    J: Don’t worry about how to speak or what to say, because it is not you who will be speaking. The Holy Spirit will be speaking through you. 10:19, 20

    SMtE: But you’re facing a court of law.

    J: The weightier matters of the Law are justice, mercy and faithfulness. 23:23

    SMtE: Golly, I’m not sure they teach that even in Christian law schools! I gotta tell ya, the police state and all, sometimes I get scared, not for myself but for my kids and grandkids.

    J: Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. 6:34

    SMtE: Yeah, but it’s still a little scary.

    J: Why are you frightened, oh ye of little faith? 8: 26

    SMtE: Well, okay, I admit I’m a little lacking there.

    J: Don’t be afraid. 17:7 If your faith was the size of a mustard seed, nothing would be impossible. 17:20

    SMtE: Do you think we should be going to church more?

    J: When you pray, go to your private room and pray to your Father, who is in that secret place. 6:6

    SMtE: The churches are telling people to be critical of abortion, contraception, gays, and all things pubic. What would you tell them?

    J: Do not judge and you will not be judged, because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given. 7:1,2 That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart. 18:35

    SMtE: There are a lot of people making huge sacrifices for those causes. What do you want from them?

    J: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. 9:13

    SMtE: But what our priests and preachers and televangelists are saying is so opposite to that!

    J: Beware of false prophets! 7:15 The tree can be told by its fruit. 12:34 It is not those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. 7:21

    SMtE: Have you been reading about pedophiles in the clergy recently?

    J: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God. 18: 3 Never despise any of these little ones. Their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father. 18:10

    SMtE: What do you think of free speech? Does anything go?

    J: By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words condemned. 12:37 The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is these that make a person unclean. 15:18

    SMtE: You probably know what’s happening between the US and Iran today. What words of wisdom would you give Americans to meet this crisis?

    J: Always treat others as you would like them to treat you. 7:12 Do not be afraid. 14:28

    SMtE: Fair enough, but what will we tell the Zionists who are goading us into a war?

    J: Hypocrites! It was you Isaiah meant when he so rightly prophesied: This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. 15: 7,8

    SMtE: Is there anything you’d like to say to us to wrap things up?

    J: O, faithless and perverse generation! 17:17 You are all brothers and sisters. 23:8 What does it gain for a person to win the world and lose his soul? 16:26

    SMtE: Gosh, why is it that humans just can’t seem to get things straight?

    J: The worries of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word. 13:22

    SMtE: Hey, I gotta tell ya that this has been great, and probably wonderful for the show’s ratings. Thanks a lot.

    J: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 6:21

    Charles Rayner Kelly is a retired educator, a philosopher and a novelist. Among his novels is LITTLE POOR MAN The Story of St. Francis of Assisi

  2. Hillary
    September 21, 2012 at 21:11

    “The catholic Church was established by the collusion of bishops with Constantine.”
    ” To seek continuity of religious teaching is to create a myth on which to base an authority for a system of behavior control.”

    So true.

    Alas the 80% of Americans who have become religious wackos “care what their mythical Jesus figure in a nonexistent past supposedly said as quoted in a completely unreliable book.”

    They voted for US president G.W.Bush because he claimed to be in contact with this mythical Jesus figure who told him to bring a Biblical Gog MayGog holocaust ( crusade) to a country called Iraq.

    Christianity,Islam and Judaism are man made “cults” to explain their respective concepts of their God what their God wants etc etc.

    Christians in the US the UK Canada and Australia hypocritically supported the Invasion and occupation of Iraq ,the bombing of Lebanon with over a 1,000,000 Cluster Bombs and bombing Gaza back to the Stone Age.

  3. Donovan Baker
    September 21, 2012 at 19:50

    This is all so ridiculous. Who cares what some mythical figure in a nonexistent past supposedly said as quoted in a completely unreliable book. It make zero difference in this real world. Get a life people.

  4. Morton Kurzweil
    September 21, 2012 at 00:04

    The Reverend Howard Bess makes no mention of actual rulers in Palestine, the Romans. The influence of the Jewish law was limited to the influence of Roman law. The catholic Church was established by the collusion of bishops with Constantine. Teachings based on Torah or Christian sects was allowed to influence the authority of the established religion. “The new day” is a modern interpretation of ancient law to adapt to the circumstances of a different culture. It is not the actual values of another time in another place. To seek continuity of religious teaching is to create a myth on which to base an authority for a system of behavior control. The inequities of religious bigotry, the criminal acts of mass murder and slavery in the name of a prophet are the expression of the true faith.
    Peace on earth might be possible if it did not have to be the peace of one belief or another.

  5. David Graber
    September 20, 2012 at 23:42

    The Jubilee was celebrated, in fact the practice was more common in surrounding nation states than among the Hebrews in the first millennium BC. And Jesus was right in zeroing in on the major social problem of his time of land redistribution, where loss of ownership by subsistence farmers into the hands of speculators for the Roman world market led to dramatic wealth concentration among only a few, both Jewish and Gentile. Jesus clearly considered this part of his salvation package. Read this well-researched book: The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life: An Invitation to Personal Ecclesial and Social Transformation.
    Ross Kinsler (Author), Gloria Kinsler (Author)

    • rosemerry
      September 21, 2012 at 14:28

      It is interesting to see the vicious reaction the USA had for so long in its “backyard” when anyone tried to redistribute land (eg Guatemala under Arbenz, removed 1954). Hugo Chavez is considered a dictator and extremist by US governments for the wicked way he has returned resources to the people,even “natives”!!! and removed illiteracy, greatly reduced poverty, stopped being a US puppet. Perhaps a real Christian!

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