The grim world Jesus was born into

It’s been a tough year, and we have been through a lot in our households and in our churches, and also as a nation.

Dec 17, 2021

By Anil Netto
It’s been a tough year, and we have been through a lot in our households and in our churches, and also as a nation.

When we look around us, much seems to be wrong: a concentration of wealth, powerful corporations extending their tentacles, climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare, inadequate healthcare, and a trend towards authoritarianism and bigotry.

In our own nation, sometimes it is easy to sink into despair. Think of the suspension of Parliament, the crippling lockdowns, political manoeuvring, the rampant corruption, and the use of religious and racial rhetoric for political ends. The lockdowns have taken a toll on workers and businesses alike. Many have lost their jobs and have joined the ranks of the struggling. The poverty rate has risen, and so many have found their retirement savings depleted.

But Christmas is nearing, reminding us of the time when Jesus entered the world.

It was a time when the world around Him was utterly bleak and grim, the contrasts so stark.

When we gaze at the manger scenes, we may transport ourselves to those times and imagine what it was like.

This was a time when the Roman Empire, one of the most powerful and influential empires of all time, was nearing its zenith.

In Rome, Emperor Augustus Caesar, regarded as a son of God, reigned supreme, his wealth estimated at a staggering US$4.6 trillion (RM19.37 trillion). That makes him among the top two wealthiest persons of all time (the other being Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire, which had almost unlimited access to gold).

In a distant outpost 2,300km southeast of Rome (or about 4,000km by land), on a stone watering trough for animals, surrounded by humble peasants and their livestock, a child is born.

Jesus peers out from His swaddling clothes and looks at the world around Him for the first time. He sees humble people, their weary faces etched with suffering. Many are losing their inherited farmlands through debt. As larger estates gobble up their farms, peasant farmers lose their financial security. Once independent farmers, many of them now had to resort to working as casual workers at some of these larger estates, while others fall into destitution.

Others turn to construction work, as artisans and labourers at construction sites for mega-projects that King Herod indulges in: fortresses, palaces, theatres, harbours. The glittering jewel among his mega-projects is the massive renovation of the Temple complex, the never-ending work which was ongoing when Jesus was born.

King Herod is not a local like the Jews in Judah and Galilee. He was born in Idumea, south of Judah. Son of Antipater ‘the Idumaean’ and Cypros, a Nabatian Arab princess, he had come to power on the back of Roman support.

Now, the peasants of Galilee groan under the weight of three layers of taxation: funds for Herod’s government (and to finance his lavish lifestyle and mega-projects), the tributes to Rome, and the tithes and offerings to the Temple (and to finance its grandiose reconstruction).

They also have to bear assorted taxes such as a salt tax, customs taxes to transfer goods from one region to another, and a tax on salted fish production.

All these add up to about 30 to 40 per cent of the average Galilean farmer’s harvest – a heavy burden for the average peasant. Many ordinary people are hard-pressed to even put enough food on the table for their families.

The quality of life nosedives as the lack of a nutritious and balanced diet takes its toll on the health of the peasants.

Meanwhile, the land is seething with ferment as ‘messiahs’ and rebel leaders occasionally pop up, taking advantage of the people’s despair.

The brutal Roman military reprisals against these uprisings have left many families emotionally scarred or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because of the pressures of imperial occupation of their land, the people’s mental health also suffers.

Meanwhile, the religious aristocracy controls the Temple and increasingly, they emphasise the religious obligation of animal sacrifice. As this turns into a lucrative ‘business’, the Temple accumulates and stores great wealth in its vaults and even profits from giving out loans like a bank.

Ancient religious texts suggest up to 1.2 million animals may have been slaughtered in a day.

Six centuries earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had warned of the trend of trying to appease God by burning meat as sacrifice. In Jeremiah 7, the prophet does not sound impressed with all this:

22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I said nothing to them, gave them no orders about burnt offerings or sacrifices.

23 My one command to them was this: Listen to my voice, then I will be your God and you shall be my people. In everything, follow the way that I mark out for you, and you shall prosper.

And yet, here we have the Temple elite taking animal slaughtering to a new level, so much so the entire business powers the Jerusalem economy and makes some merchants wealthy, off the backs of the peasant pilgrims.

In short, the political-religious elite at the Temple, with the blessings of the Roman occupiers, are extracting great sums of money from the pilgrims who are already burdened by taxes and living a tough life.

This is the violent, oppressive world into which Jesus is born. His mission: to point a different way and to incubate a new kingdom that would be unleashed into the world.

From Judah and Galilee, this new kingdom will span out in all directions, the values spreading rapidly across the world, taking advantage of the infrastructure and reach of the very empire that once tried to suppress it.

Where once there was darkness, hope and light and love will be born and spread like wildfire.

Today, that Christmas story is by no means over. In every time and era, every time we shine a light in the darkness, we continue the work which began when that little one was born among peasants and animals.

We cannot lose hope when all around us the world crumbles in despair. For we have seen a great light – a light that we know will overcome all darkness.

Total Comments:0