Transforming economy of the kingdom of God
ZK Pahrü Pou
At the time of Jesus many people in Palestine were suffering economically, politically and socially. One of the main reasons of economic problem of the masses was ruthless exploitation by those who are politically and economically powerful. Jesus of Nazareth brought up the issue of economic oppression in the light of the prophetic, the legal and apocalyptic traditions in his teaching for an alternative community. He wanted to liberate people from the oppressive economic system that kept the masses in poverty and in debt. The Lord’s Prayer thus says: ‘And forgive us our debts as we have cancelled the debts of those who owe us something.’ The Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:1ff) is a reminder of Isaiah 61 that seeks to restore the rules of jubilee. Through the coming and ministry of Jesus, the hope of this jubilee has become reality today and can now apply. The tradition of the prophets and the Torah has been brought back through the story of the ‘rich young man’ (Mark 10: 17-22). He is a large landowner who probably amassed wealth through unfair mechanisms by the name of theft or robbery. He might have stolen not simply by individual wickedness but with the aid of economic mechanisms in society. Jesus told him to sell his (stolen) goods and give the proceeds to the poor. The repentance of the rich-tax-collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10) demonstrated of what Jesus wanted the rich man to do. Zaccheus returned fourfold sum of what he robbed from others through the taxation system. The challenge to systematic theft became the decisive role in Jesus’ prophetic confrontation with the temple (Mark11:15-19). Here Jesus sharpened the prophetic teaching of Amos and Hosea in attacking the temple economy amassed through exploitative means. The priestly aristocracy in collaboration with the Roman occupying power accumulate temple treasure. The sacrificial system requires everyone to pay, forcing poor people like the widow to pull out the last penny from her pocket (Mark 12:42ff). The temple became a ‘den of thieves’ and a ‘marketplace.’ Jesus demonstrated that God frees and protects the poor. He calls for justice and not sacrifice that makes people poor.
In the Hellenistic period agriculture remained the primary basis of economic prosperity. It is the most important source of income both for the villages and cities. In the villages in spite of poverty people had land as well. But in the cities due to increased population landless labourers were very high and hence poverty was felt more by city dwellers. Concentration of large estates in the hands of the few had increased the number of landless labourers. As a result free workers and small farmers become slaves. The peasants in the village communities were small landowners and had to pay a tribute to the state either by wage labourers (Mathew 20: 1-16) or by slaves.
Most of the agricultural produce was meant for the empire mediated by the market. Thus everyone was made to get their food through the market. Majority of the population were unable to get access to the market and they suffer. The resistance fighters withdrew from the society and sought a redistribution of the resources by means of a revolution.
Taxes were an important element of the administration and economic policies of the Hellenistic empires. Different taxes were imposed on the people mainly to meet the huge expenditures of the empires. There are both direct and indirect taxes that include head taxes, property taxes, and commercial taxes and so on. The bigger amount of income from taxes was used for the maintenance of the army and navy. Most of the time, the money lenders and tax collectors squeezed people to maximize their profits. This left many people indebted and with lack of daily foods. Therefore Jesus in his prayer taught them to think and pray for each other’s daily bread and also to forgive each other’s debts (Matthew 6:9-15). Jesus once again invokes the Kingdom of God-an alternative society- on earth so that no one would go hungry. This reminds us of the year of Jubilee where everyone is set free and everyone gets back their means of production for survival.
The Pharisees played an important role in matters of production, consumption, and distribution of produce in rural Palestine. The centralized tithing structure which dictated that agricultural tithes had to be brought to Jerusalem was controlled by Pharisees. They advocated local distribution to ensure that provincial priests get their due. This centralized tithing system exercised their control overproduction as well as production. Once the grain is plucked from the crops it is subjected to the purity code. The Pharisees by interpreting the law decide what is suitable for consumption and what is not. This keeps the farmers who are about to market their produce at the mercy of the Pharisees. The Law of Sabbath insists on the rest of the land on the seventh year. Practically the practice of giving rest to the land is not practicable for the small farmers. Thus injustice crept in even within the religious institutions and the poor common people paid the price.
The whole Pax Romana is nothing more than oppression and exploitation in the name of peace. Kingdom of God (malkuth Yahweh) means literally “God becomes king.” The Kingdom of God offers an alternative society against oppressive and life-destroying kingdoms. Jesus came preaching a new way of life centering on the Kingdom of God. Most churches of today, in their preaching and interpretation have stripped the full and fundamental sense of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ message of practically all its economic and political content. The message of the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus challenges all the kingdoms which are so like beasts of prey which have no human face as represented by the totalitarian Hellenistic empire and now Roman system.
Jesus linked up the Kingdom of God with the Jewish idea that Israel should be (become) an alternative society with human face. In the ancient tradition of Israel, God’s new act of liberation and the building of the alternative society begin among the excluded, the impoverished and the oppressed. In the Jesus tradition it is no longer awarded to Israel as opposed to the Gentiles, but to fringe groups in Israel: followers of Jesus, the poor, children, women, tax-gatherers and prostitutes. Jesus raises up the powerless and lives with them as an alternative to the then existing order. They bear witness to God’s rule as a group living together in solidarity.
Jesus, who came from a poor manual worker’s background in the peripheral area of Galilee, deliberately lives among the poor and the excluded. “How happy are you who are poor; yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The word Gospel, Good News has its origin in the fact with what Jesus says he has to bring “good news to the poor.” According to Ulrich Duchrow, they are the absolutely poor, inwardly and outwardly, in Galilee in the first century-economically, socially, politically, religiously, culturally and psychologically. Jesus calls upon manual workers- women and men – and those who do not know how they and their families will get through the next day: “Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy” (Matthew 11:28). Theirs is the Kingdom of God. The socio-economic alternative Jesus has in mind can be seen from Luke 4, where, he takes up various points from the Torah: the cancellation of debts, the liberation of slaves, non-discrimination and healing of the sick.
This calls for mutual service with love for one another. That implies that with Jesus love in the socio-economic sense means precisely acting like brothers and sisters, through which there occurs in the house and between houses a completely equal form of cooperation in mutual service challenging both the oppressive and exploitative system of Pax Romana and patriarchal family. Jesus himself came to serve and as a ransom for many. He washed his disciple’s feet before the last meal together. Meals together create the heart of brotherliness-and-sisterliness. The Kingdom of God as feast that begins in Jesus’ liberating presence satisfied all (cf. John 6). The Lord’s Supper in the Christian community, when it involves real sharing, is really the core of the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus.
In our world where injustices and insecurity rule, the values of the Kingdom of God that opens way for economic and social security is once again sought forth. Sadly, the Church that preaches on the values and practice of the Kingdom of God is accumulating enormous wealth in the midst of an increasing number of poor people. In the Kingdom of God what counts is the satisfaction of basic needs: having food to eat, water to drink, clothes to wear, shelter for protection and being healed. In short, the Kingdom of God is about people having freedom to live with a human face. Whether people have helped “the least” to get their share-that is what “the Son of Man or the Human One” will ask and judge everyone on when the kingdom of God is here in its fullness (Matthew 25: 31ff). That assumes that where production is concerned, Jesus’ starting point is simply the ancient tradition of the peasant/craftsman subsistence economy. Therefore, Jesus rejects the “treasure-storing”, money-making economy of the Hellenistic-Roman system which he called it Mammon (Matthew 6:24). Just as Elijah called upon people to decide between Baal (the god of the accumulation of land and royal power) and Yahweh, so Jesus called upon them to decide between Mammon, a system for accumulating money and power, and God. When the poor take part in the Kingdom of God and the justice of its brother-and-sisterly sharing, they will lack nothing: food to eat, water to drink, things to wear and all the rest which include peace and satisfaction life will come to them (Matthew 6:33). All that is needed for life will be given to those first seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness- that is, a life in just relationships. Let us be a good Christian by not only preaching but also practicing the values of the Kingdom of God.
The writer is a resident of Liyai Khullen, Senapati