Who Lived to Raise Up the Lowly
Who lived to raise up the lowly.
In the time of Jesus there were those who had, and had a lot, and then those who had not. For the Jews there were those aristocracy who lived in Jerusalem and were part of three different political groups. Excavations of their homes in and around Jerusalem have found extreme wealth and a lifestyle of worldly extravagance.
The most elite class were those who had connections to the Temple and its wealth generating sacrificial system. Peasants came in streams to the temple to make sacrifices at festival times. The priestly class called Sadducees, offered animals for sale, then took the animals and sacrificed them and gave some of the meat back to the peasants for a special meal. Some of the meat they kept for themselves and some they resold. In doing this they became quite rich. They also had access to proceeds from a Temple tax payable by all Jews over the age of 20.
Another group of with vast wealth were the descendants of Jewish royalty called, Herodians, They had much generational wealth and land. A somewhat less wealthy group called the Pharisees studied and practiced Jewish law and in doing so had a relatively comfortable life. All three of these groups had a vested interested in keeping the status quo and did not like revolutionaries like Jesus of Nazareth, who tried to turn the natural order of things upside down.
Those who had not, were pretty much everyone else. Jesus lived in a backwater part of the Roman Empire called the Galilee region. The local government was headed up by a an underling of Tiberius Cesar, the Roman Emperor. This underlings name was, Herod Antipas. He was one of the sons of the King of the Jews, Herod the Great. There was nothing great about King Herod, but when you are the king I guess you get to choose your title. After Herod's death, Antipas was not given the title, “King of the Jews.” The Jewish territories were split up and given to Herod’s three sons. Antipas wanted desperately to receive from Tiberius the anointing as King of the Jews and to rule all three territories. Instead he was put in charge of a small territory containing the Galilee region. In a plan to garner favor with the Emperor he put in place new taxes on the peasants. Scholars estimate these taxes amounted to upwards of 80% of their income. He did this by commercializing the sea of Galilee which he renamed, “The Sea of Tiberius.” Fisherman were taxed on having boats, nets and then taxed on the fish they caught. Antipas also built fish processing factories that undercut price structures so that fisherman had no choice but to sell their catch to them.
Herod Antipas’ father Herod the Great had already done something similar to this to the inland regions of the Galilee. He commercialized the grain and grape industries. During his reign many land owners had to sell their farms and vineyards to pay their taxes. This caused them to hire themselves out as day laborers in the fields and vineyards they used to own. This may be why the sacred meal Jesus instituted in the last supper was a simple resistance meal of bread and wine. It may also be why the disciples and early followers of Jesus used the simple symbol of the fish to identify themselves. It makes it easier to see why so many of Jesus followers were from from fishing villages on the Sea of Galilee, oh yeah, sorry, Sea of Tiberius.
The ministry and message of the Kingdom of God was in direct opposition to the Kingdom of Rome. Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes which not only met the real physical needs of the people, they also symbolized a slap in the face to Antipas. This message was so popular with those who had nothing and were taxed into starvation, that their numbers and loyalty to this Jewish Rabbi named Jesus grew remarkably fast. Antipas knew he needed help to put a stop to this movement. He got the help he needed from the Jewish Aristocracy in Jerusalem.
The message of raising up the lowly doesn’t play as well today. As American Christians who are citizens and stakeholders of the greatest Empire in the history of the Earth, we don’t really get it. What can Jesus do for us that we can’t do for ourselves. I visited a church in Phoenix a few years ago that boasted that they had a water park for their members. There are four Christian Pastors in the world with a net worth of over 100 million dollars. By most of the world’s standards I too am rich. For one third of the people in the world clean drinking water is a struggle. So the message of Christianity has been repackaged from a political message to a more a spiritual one. I believe that this is why so much of modern Christianity focuses on sin and forgiveness. If we focus on our own spiritual perfection we don’t have to focus on raising up the lowly. Christianity has become much more comfortable turning this earthly focused Jesus movement into a Heavenly focused eternity movement. I thank God for all the Christian churches and ministries that still understand Jesus’ mission of raising up the lowly.