Jesus as Whistleblower

Christian churches typically present the religious mythology about Jesus, as the supernatural Son of God who was sacrificed on the cross as atonement for man’s sins. But there is a more historical Jesus who instructed the poor about the injustices they faced and died for it, writes Rev. Howard Bess.

By Rev. Howard Bess

In the John account of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, Jesus starts by calling his disciples. Philip, who had already become a follower, brought along Nathaniel and declared with great excitement: “We have found the messiah, the one of whom Moses speaks. He is Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

Nathaniel’s response was quick: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

I grew up in Fairbury, a small farm town in central Illinois that survived and thrives as a shopping and banking center with an excellent high school, the result of consolidations with surrounding school districts. But around Fairbury are a handful of dead towns.

At one time, each of these small towns had a general store, a bank, a grain elevator, a church and a one-building school that housed kids first grade through high school. These towns now consist of a few homes, but nothing more.

Nazareth of Jesus’s time can be compared to these small dead communities but much worse. At one time, Nazareth was a thriving town populated by farm families. Farmers owned and farmed their own land but did not live on the land they farmed. They lived in villages like Nazareth.

However, by the Jesus era, the area had gone through a dramatic change, much because of the heavy hand of Roman occupation. Nazareth was a dead town that was a part of an “advanced agrarian society.” Farmers had lost ownership of their land. Ownership had passed to wealthy people who lived in the big Roman-dominated cities of Sepphoris and Tiberius.

The population of villages like Nazareth was made up of former farmers, who stayed in Nazareth, having lost land ownership and were reduced to peasants trying to exist as farm laborers,  expendables who had become starving beggars, and women who had been abandoned. The poverty was beyond description.

The words ascribed to Nathaniel are understandable: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

A thinking person cannot help but ask “how did things get so bad?” The answer is very involved but is vital to the search for the historical Jesus. For now, we can say that the plight of the rural Jews in Galilee was terrible and that fact can be verified by historical research.

We also can emphatically say that these were the roots of Jesus, and Jewish peasants were his audience. The added tragedy is that the poor both then and now seldom realize what had happened to them and who it was that had put them in their lowly position.

In our own day a poor person working for minimum wage applies for food stamps, goes to a local food bank, buys clothes at a second-hand store, and lives in subsidized housing without asking why she/he cannot be paid a livable wage. She/he also shops at Walmart because the prices are so good.

I do not know how Jesus figured out what was being done to his fellow peasants. But we know that Jesus realized that the rich land owners in Sepphoris and Tiberius were crooks, their retainers were thieves, and the priests, who kept peasants in line, were spiritual thugs.

History has preserved for us very important information about Jesus. The number one source is the parables he told. Many people still think that the parables of Jesus are nice earthly stories about heavenly subjects. However, placed in the context of the dynamics of an advanced agrarian society, the stories become pointed protests against the rich, the politically powerful and the haughty religious.

This collection of stories becomes political and social commentary that the poor began to understand. They decided to rise up in protest. Jesus was the whistleblower exposing and explaining the injustices. He was put to death for his unholy activity.

I have a dear minister friend, whom I greatly admire. My friend spent many years as a hospital chaplain and loved her job. The nurses had grievances with the hospital and went on strike. My chaplain friend joined their picket line. Because she joined the picket line and would not cross the line to go to work, she lost her chaplain job. The union hired her, and she finished her ministerial career as a union executive. I have nothing but admiration for the decisions she made. She was a first-rate Jesus follower.

Jesus is my Lord. I believe he died for the sins of the world, which is the side of Jesus that we hear presented every Sunday in worship services. My protest is about the side of Jesus that ministers and churches keep side-stepping.

Jesus constantly spoke about the Kingdom of God on earth and instructed us to pray for that reality. If our religious gestalt does not include Jesus as a whistleblower on earth in life’s real situations, the picture is not complete.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? You be the judge.

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

7 comments for “Jesus as Whistleblower

  1. Iranian Expat
    January 30, 2015 at 18:30

    Lovely article.

    To us Athiests it is interesting that God and Jesus are referred to as facts, as is the so-called Big Bang.

    Just keep in perspective that Jesus is a made-up Middle Eastern figure in badly written collection of novels full of cliché which, at least, reflects the brutality of Jews and their well deserved reputation as deviants known even 1600 years ago, as today.

    • exomike
      February 1, 2015 at 13:47

      Speaking of badly written. .. Do the rest of us Atheists a favor and put a cork in it.

  2. Jim Powell
    January 25, 2015 at 22:32

    The first thing Jesus did when he got to Jerusalem, Monday of Holy Week, was to whip the moneychangers out of the Temple, which, as he told them, they had turned into a “den of thieves.” Four days later he was crucified.

  3. Morton Kurzweil
    January 25, 2015 at 13:23

    Morality is the cultural expression of a society. Good and evil are in the jaundiced eye of the beholder. Those who live by their self -interest die by their self-interest. Those who live in ignorance of their self-interest will die in ignorance.
    It is not surprising that the wealth of every tribe and nation is controlled by the morality of the majority by political-religious agreement. It is not surprising that the ideal if the poor is to become rich and the ideal if the rich is to keep the poor believing in the morality of wealth.

  4. Gregory Kruse
    January 22, 2015 at 20:08

    I was born in a small agrarian town. I worked in what was a small town but was made bigger by a corporation and then abandoned, which then became a small town again, and I will die in a small town that is dying with me. Small towns in America are like clusters of brain cells in a body that are cut off from the bloodstream by stroke or other disease. They are slowly dying, some of them are already dead. I really am afraid for the young people who live in the city and think that everything is just great.

  5. John
    January 22, 2015 at 07:43

    I’m glad that Rev. Bess has the courage to point out that the religious in government should unpack the moral principles of their youth and put them into practice. It is well to recruit those whose moral training was in the religion of their youth, which they have put in storage as adults for a journey to self-sufficiency, which for many of them becomes the amoral pursuit of wealth and power. They hate their moral superiors, who demand that they make sacrifices for the common good that they see as untenable. But the wealthy know that economic justice does not threaten their needs, only their supply of toys and vanities. They easily hire religious hypocrites to pronounce them faithful for a weekly donation, and easily silence moral critics with the threat or the fact of crucifixion.

    H.L. Mencken noted that “The truth-seeker … refuses to sanction the lie whereby the ordinary man maintains his self-respect…. Thus he is unpopular, and deserves to be.…The average man …avoids the truth as diligently as he avoids arson, regicide or piracy on the high seas, and for the same reason: because he believes that it is dangerous, that no good can come of it, that it doesn’t pay.”
    Those reasons are personal interests, true for ourselves but not for our children and the future. And they are not true if enough persons are concerned to make progress a tenable social contract.

  6. Zachary Smith
    January 21, 2015 at 20:37

    Jesus as Whistleblower

    I’d prefer the term “teacher”. Any fool could see that things were bad, but Jesus was reminding his fellow Jews that all the power and money was held by the top .1% of the day. And that there was something they could do about it. Since his solution involved overthrowing the establishment, and the Romans were part of that establishment, THEIR solution was to kill the agitator.

    Peasants have never enjoyed a comfortable life. My own upbringing was during a period when the “common people” were probably better off than any time in history. The rich bastards in the US have been working on that issue, and their Libertarian philosophy/religion has taken hold to the extent that serfdom is returning. Living on the edge, just like in the old days. The oddest feature of this is that so many of the neo-serfs applaud the situation.

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