Greed in the city and land grabs

In the beginning was a Garden, a world where the bounty of the Earth was enough for everyone to live comfortably. But once the first humans succumbed to baser instincts, the sin of greed and envy took over.

May 28, 2021

By Anil Netto

In the beginning was a Garden, a world where the bounty of the Earth was enough for everyone to live comfortably. But once the first humans succumbed to baser instincts, the sin of greed and envy took over.

Cain farmed and tilled the land and probably lived near his fields. His brother Abel worked as a nomadic shepherd, an animal herder.

Envy and conflict set in. Cain murdered Abel, which some see as symbolising a pre-historic conflict over land and resources between farming communities and animal herders.

Cain, now burdened with the mark of sin, and his descendants go on to build a city or a city-state. From this city, a certain dynamic tension emerges.

The city is the place where creative talents and innovation thrive. Early modernisation takes place. Cain’s descendants create musical instruments and basic implements.

But the city-state is also the place where sin - greed and ruthless ambition - thrive. As time passes, the city finds its surrounding natural resources insufficient to meet the insatiable desires of its residents.

Driven by greed and ambition, its leaders covet neighbouring territories and resources well beyond the city walls. They expand territories and grab fertile fields and forests and water resources where others live.

The peasants and farmers and fisherfolk in the country fall victim in this almost parasitical, extractive relationship between city and countryside.

Nations and empires suck land and other coveted resources and channel them to the centre – the capital and the major towns where the elite class live. We see a concentration of wealth taking root.

Enter Jesus, at a time when the Roman Empire was extending its tentacles across the continent, all the way to Palestine.

As Jesus ministered to fishing and farming communities, he must have observed this parasitical relationship, this greed for land and resources and the harmful impact it had on communities outside the cities and major towns.

Jesus must have noticed how the Romans and local leaders were even controlling fishing rights in the Sea of Galilee. He saw how the political leaders and the temple authorities were collaborating and enriching themselves while leaving country folk at a subsistence level, just a poor harvest away from debt and destitution.

Growing up, Jesus would have seen or heard about the beauty and wealth of the little city of Sepphoris (a few miles from Nazareth), a centre of trade, which Herod Antipas was beautifying. In this upscale city-in-the-making, the moneyed class and wealthy traders lived in comfortable villas that had frescoed rooms with private ritual baths.

Jesus was all too familiar with the hard life of the farmers and fisherfolk in the countryside, and no doubt he would have been disturbed by the contrasts between the centre and the periphery – the extraction of wealth and resources from the countryside.

As he worked the countryside, Jesus would have heard the laments over the heavy taxes the farmers and fisherfolk had to pay the Romans and the temple authorities. These peasant farmers felt so burdened by these taxes and levies. Some 30 - 40 per cent of their harvest would go to assorted taxes (compared to around 10 per cent elsewhere in the Roman Empire). No wonder they despised the tax collectors!

These taxes left little income for the peasants’ families and for the storage of seeds for the next season. If the harvest was poor, the independent farmers could land up in debt, and if they could not repay their debt in time, their land would be confiscated.

The aristocratic and landed gentry, many of them Herod’s cronies and family members, lived in cities like Jerusalem. They owned wheat fields and vineyards in the countryside and engaged stewards to manage them. Casual workers toiled in these fields.

Consider the baffling parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16. Here he speaks of casual workers at the marketplace, looking for work. A land owner hires them to work in his vineyard.

But then, why would this land owner pay some of these daily paid casual workers who had worked for only a few hours the same daily wage – one denarius – as others who had toiled for a full day?

Now, there could be religious interpretations for this parable. But from a socioeconomic perspective, another thought comes to mind. In the ancient world, all land was regarded as owned by God, and farmers were just temporal tillers of the land, earning their livelihoods.

What if the casual workers in the marketplace were once independent farmers who owned their own land — but that their land had been seized by the rapacious elite class to satisfy their greed.

Wouldn’t the God of justice be empathetic to these workers who had lost their land – their source of security?

Assuming the landowner represents God, wouldn’t he give all the casual workers - including those still idle and still looking for work at the marketplace late into the afternoon – a full day’s wages, knowing that entire families were depending on them. Wouldn’t he know that the source of the problem was that some people had grabbed land that rightfully belonged to these casual workers?

No wonder the people in the countryside rallied around Jesus when he spoke of a new kingdom where they would be first, where they would be comforted from misery and where their tears would be wiped dry.

The land grabs continue to this day.

Even the Israeli-Palestinian problem is mainly down to land-grabbing of Palestinian territory over the years – especially the occupation of East Jerusalem, the siege of Gaza and the establishment of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.

Elsewhere, we have seen entire native and aboriginal communities displaced and evicted from their ancestral lands due to colonialism in the past, land-grabbing in the present, the building of mega-projects, the search for minerals, the expansion of plantations and the logging of ancient rainforests.

Most of these land grabs are due to outright greed, with the profits concentrated in the hands of the elite in urban centres far away from native land.

Rivers are coveted for the control over water. Even the seas are not spared, as fisherfolk are now under threat due to plans for massive land reclamation.

At the root of these land grabs — this parasitic extraction of land and other resources — lies greed, whether personal greed, political greed or corporate greed. Overcoming such greed is one of the biggest problems confronting humanity to this day.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Paul Sinnappan, an inspiring soul who worked tirelessly to empower the poor and marginalised.

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