Jesus witnessed economic hardship first-hand

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on workers around the world. Many have lost their jobs as the trend towards contract workers, already happening in pre-COVID times, has sped up.

Sep 18, 2021

By Anil Netto
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on workers around the world. Many have lost their jobs as the trend towards contract workers, already happening in pre-COVID times, has sped up.

Small independent businesses have closed down. Long-term workers with steady incomes have lost their regular jobs. These groups are forced to take up work with less steady sources of income, eg food and parcel delivery, taxi driving, and working for large tech companies.

Many now struggle to feed their families and pay their bills. Some have turned to banks, money lenders, pawn shops and even loan sharks, who are doing roaring business.

Where is Jesus in all this? Does he know what people are going through during these tough economic times?

Jesus grew up during a turbulent time, laced with much economic pain. Galilee, where he lived, was under the rule of Herod’s son, Antipas.

Both Jewish and Gentile farmers cultivated the land in Galilee. For many Jewish farmers, their ancestral land was their principal asset, the source of their livelihoods. These small farmers grew a variety of crops – onions, cabbage, perhaps olive and grapes. Whatever they harvested provided a healthy diet for their family, with just enough to pay some taxes, say about 10 per cent of their harvest.

The larger estates were owned by the Jewish landed gentry and wealthy priestly aristocrats like the Sadducees, many of whom did not live in Galilee. Their estates produced cash crops like grapes, olives, dates, wheat, barley and melons.

But something had happened during the time of King Herod, before Jesus was born. King Herod pressured the large estate owners and confiscated their land, bringing it under the control of his family and his cronies. He invited priestly families from neighbouring countries to take over the religious hierarchy and buttered them up with gifts of land.

This consolidation of smaller plots of land into larger estates fell in line with the Roman practice favouring large estates. Large estates made it easier to collect taxes, apart from facilitating economies of scale, making the land more productive for monoculture.

Monoculture took hold as the large estates focused on cash crops. Surplus crops were exported to Rome and cities around the Mediterranean region. So lucrative was this trade that Herod felt compelled to build a large port city to channel such produce for export. Between 22 and 9 BC he built Caesarea Maritima, the largest artificial harbour of its time, which became the provincial capital of Judea.

When Emperor Augustus finally got rid of Herod’s son Archilaus and placed Judea under the direct rule of a Roman prefect in 6 AD, Caesarea Maritima replaced Jerusalem as the civilian and military capital, and became the residence of the Roman prefects, including, later, Pontius Pilate.

While Judea came under Archilaus’ rule and then direct Roman control, Herod’s other son, Antipas, who was ruling further north in Galilee, must have been disappointed at not becoming like his father, king of all Palestine. So, he decided his Galilee would have its own prestige project, like Judea had Jerusalem and Caesarea Maritima. He rebuilt the destroyed town of Sepphoris (near Nazareth), turning it into the “jewel of Galilee”, calling it Autocratoris.

Where did the money come from? A crippling tax burden: the effective tax rate soared to 30 – 40 per cent of the farmers’ income, made up of taxes to Rome, religious levies and Antipas’ own taxes. This was far higher than the rest of the Roman Empire, where about 10% was the usual rate.

The farmers in Galilee who had lived from hand to mouth were now squeezed. Many of them, unable to feed their families, had to borrow from those with capital, usually wealthy landowners who were already eyeing small plots to merge into larger estates. Farmers had to borrow at heavy interest rates and pledge their harvest, and even their land, as collateral to these lenders.

This led to an ever-rising spiral of debt, resulting in many farmers losing their land. The farmers had to turn to other irregular daily jobs. Many became contract workers on estates, tenant farmers on land that, perhaps, they once owned, and day labourers, skilled or unskilled, at places like Sepphoris, which was under construction.

In contrast, the top 10 per cent — the landed gentry, including their cronies and the religious aristocrats — lived in luxury in urban centres like Jerusalem. These landlords hired managers and stewards to look after their distant estates in Galilee.

In this parasitic relationship, the urban centres sucked the wealth from the countryside as farmers and daily contract workers were exploited to the hilt. Jesus witnessed this socioeconomic upheaval all around him as he grew in wisdom and stature. He felt compassion for the hungry masses, faced with heavy taxes, struggling to feed their families. His parables were peppered with words like daily bread, landowners, stewards, contract workers, debt, harvest, the poor.

It was against this backdrop that he related the parable of the rich man, who presumably owned a large estate where daily workers and former independent farmers toiled. In Luke 12, we read:

16 Then he told them a parable, “There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land,

17 thought to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.’

18 Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them,

19 and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.’

20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’

21 So it is when someone stores up treasure for himself instead of becoming rich in the sight of God.”

The consolidation of farmlands into the large estates was a forerunner of the exploitative capitalist system in many parts of the world today, where the wealthy have accumulated stupendous wealth and widened income inequalities.

It is comforting to know that the Lord was close to those suffering the most and envisaged a new Kingdom, a new banquet, where the least would be the first. * Reference: Isbouts, Jean-Pierre (2008). Young Jesus. New York: Sterling Publishing

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