Many on the American Right define themselves as Christians and angrily defend the religion’s symbols and myths, but this Christian Right ignores a core reality about Jesus, that he spoke to and for the poor, decried the rich, and demanded social justice for all, as Rev. Howard Bess recounts.
By Rev. Howard Bess
Jesus spent nearly all his life with poor people, and these were the truly poor, eking out a subsistence living, struggling just to survive. In Nazareth where Jesus grew up, there were no people of wealth; there was no middle class; the people were rural and illiterate.
These people of Galilee were not simply poor, they were expendable as far as the ruling elites were concerned. As such, they were not a happy, contented lot. They lived at wits end, which is why Galilee gave rise to the Zealot movement of violent rebellion.
It was from this population that Jesus drew his disciples and found the audiences for his sermons. His relationship with the poor people of rural Galilee became the context in which he advocated for justice or what he called the kingdom of God on earth.
Somewhere in my theological/religious journey, I found a truth in reading and interpreting the Bible. It was that a text without context is a pretext. As applied to Jesus, that means that if the reader does not understand the context in which Jesus taught, his stories can be twisted to mean whatever the reader wants.
It is the knowledge of the context of the life of Jesus that ought to keep every Christian minister honest. That seldom happens, however. Hiding from the context of the ministry of Jesus – i.e. ignoring that he spoke to and for the poor and oppressed – is a safe harbor from which Christian ministers and leaders are hesitant to depart, because it is much riskier to venture out onto the sea of Jesus’s advocacy for the downtrodden and disdain for the rich.
Yet, when the parables of Jesus are examined and placed into his historical context, we find that the issue of wealth and poverty (what we would call “income inequality”) was one of his favorite topics – and the messages were not comfortable for the rich. Jesus spoke about the unfair relationship between employer and employee, about inequitable wages, about the absurd excesses of wealth and the terrible consequences of poverty.
Recently I reread the parable of the dishonest steward as recorded in Luke 16:1-9, in which a rich man prepares to fire his manager who then – to gain the favor with the rich man’s debtors – lets them reduce what they owe the rich man, such as slashing a debt of 900 gallons of olive oil to 450 gallons.
There are long-standing disagreements about the ending of the parable as it was first told by Jesus. Some scholars insist that the story actually ends with verse 7 and that verses 8 and 9 – in which the rich man commends the manager for his deceit – were tacked on by Luke in a lame effort to make sense of the story two generations after the death of Jesus.
Yet, when the story is placed into the context of Jesus’s ministry among the poor, it becomes a different kind of story about dishonesty, one about a corrupt system. To Jesus’s audience of peasants in Galilee, the rich owner would be understood to be the crook who stole property with the help of the Roman rulers. He would have lived in luxury in one of two large cities in northern Galilee and would have hired thugs to extract all the money they could from the peasants who tilled the land.
The steward would be one of those thugs who did the dirty work oppressing the peasants, while stealing as much for himself as he could. The poor peasants, who were trying to survive, would not be concerned about the difficulties of the two men nor with the laws prescribed by the rich rulers or, for that matter, the religious rules set by priests and other religious leaders who collaborated with the wealthy and the powerful.
In the ears of Jesus’s listeners, the story takes on an ambiguity, even an irony, as the corrupt steward betrays the corrupt absentee landlord by seeking to gain favor with the people in the landlord’s debt, though the volumes cited in the parable suggest that these are debts far beyond what peasants would be allowed to accumulate. So the debtors may be viewed as part of the corrupt scheme, too.
Thus, the parable becomes a great cartoon portrayed by exaggerated characters and inflated numbers, with a critical message roughly parallel to “no honor among thieves.” Jesus probably told the story as a discussion starter among his poverty-stricken friends who surely found themselves in difficult predicaments confronting the rich, the powerful and their “stewards.”
Surviving in Poverty
In an attempt to understand the poor, scholar James Scott has looked at the weapons that they use to survive, including foot-dragging, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, lies and half-truths. In real life, when people are truly impoverished and oppressed, they will participate in any of the listed activities to get by without feelings of guilt, sensing the injustice inherent in the economic and political structure that surrounds them — and the imperative to survive. It was surely the same in Jesus’s time.
(You might think also of the scenes in the movie, “12 Years a Slave,” when the African-Americans find themselves with no choice but to deceive their white slave masters in order to avoid brutal punishments and even lynching, actions that were tolerated by the legal system of the American South at that time.)
Survival ethics are very powerful, the laws of political and religious rulers notwithstanding. But Jesus was not a law keeper or an enforcer. He was an advocate of a justice that demanded dignity for everyone and insisted that their basic human needs be met, heaven on earth.
Since my youth, I have tried to take Jesus and his teachings seriously. That has meant friendship with the poor. I found a lot of them in jail. In the past, very intentionally, I was a regular visitor of those who found themselves locked up.
I have welcomed them when they left jail. My wife and I have hosted and befriended thieves, rapists, prostitutes, drug users, alcoholics and drug dealers. I have spent a good bit of time in courtrooms and have taken legal actions on behalf of the guilty poor. Some have become long-term friends. Some have stolen from me.
I have found that what James Scott said about poor people is true: Poor people will do most anything to survive and do so with a clean conscience.
What every Christian must realize is that poor people with seemingly dishonest ways are the people of Jesus. The “weapons” used by these poor to survive often clash with the priorities of nice society, which then responds by putting the poor into jail. During my trips to jail, I never met a rich person or even a middle-class person who was incarcerated.
I suspect the simplest way to reduce our jail population is to make friends of poor people, invite them into our homes and churches, share our food with them, and help them meet their human needs through social programs, such as raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
Being a disciple of Jesus begins by placing him in the context in which he lived and taught. When we do that, we find lots of poor people surrounding him. To understand the message of Jesus, we need to know and understand the poor people whom he was addressing. Until then, most Christians will remain frauds in the kingdom of God.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.