Monday, September 12, 2005

God the Beggar

Stephan J. Patterson has given us some excellent insights in his book: The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. There is a review available Here. But the strength of Patterson's book seems to have been neglected by many in the Quest. Although Patterson is a member of the Jesus Seminar, and a self-proclaimed liberal New Testament Professor, his insights are still invaluable and I am grateful to have found his book. I may quibble and disagree strongly with both his understanding of eschatology and his reliance on the results gained by the Jesus Seminar but the book offers a freshness that is insightful and not just repetitive.
In his chapter Jesus and the Empire of God: On Dirt, Shame and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus Patterson has aroused my thoughts in fresh and exciting ways. The following reflection is inspired by his section on Jesus as a carpenter in an expendable Roman society.

Isn’t this the τεκτων, the Mary's son and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren't his sisters here with us?”

And they took offence at him. Mark 6:3

In this isolated reference, Mk 6:3, Jesus is called a “builder/carpenter.” Early in Jesus’ childhood, Sepphoris, then capital of Galilee, had been destroyed by the Romans, and rebuilding had begun immediately. Thus builders were no doubt in demand in Nazareth, a village four miles from the ruins of Sepphoris; and Joseph, Jesus’ father, probably taught his son his own trade, as was common for fathers to do in those days. After Sepphoris had been rebuilt, they probably did much carpentry work from their home, as most Galilean carpenters did. If there was work that is...
Tacitus tells us that “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname Empire; they make desolation and then call it peace.” [Agricola, 30] Sepphoris had been plundered because they weren’t pulling their weight and offering to Rome an acceptable sacrifice, so the whole city was sacrificed by Rome to teach them a valuable lesson of to whom the appropriate worth-ship [worship] should be shown. Rome was a mighty power structure that no-one could challenge. And those poor souls that did courageously challenge the imperial system were systematically tortured and crushed.
But the system was also more ruthless than just that. Romans subscribed to a proprietary theory of the state. That means that the whole state was regarded as not much more than a piece of property. Everything that the empire produced and provided belonged to the emperor. He would then delegate and offer various handouts to those who supported him and his cause. In all of this the emperor controlled the means to life. Without the kindness of the Emperor, one was dropped socially and economically to a place of destitution.
In this patronage system if someone has nothing to offer the Emperor, or some other delegated benefactor, one is deemed useless and worthless, in a word: expendable. If Rome or her great emperor had no need for you, then you were of no value to Rome, the emperor or anyone else for that matter. Such an existence was ultimately futile. Marginalized and ousted from the communities of those who had something to offer, desperation for the basic needs of society cause many to turn to dirty jobs such as tax-collecting, prostitution and begging. For others a life of crime was more appealing. For others, revolt was the only possible to solution to this crisis.
What does Jesus do, as a builder, when there is no work for days, weeks or months? Does Rome care for a Jewish peasant trying to support a family with an absent father? Do they have a welfare system that provides needy families with the essentials of life when the going gets tough? Most certainly not. So what does Jesus do? Does he go down to Heavens Bank and make a hefty withdrawal from him who owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Or does he join the marginalized of society? Does he turn to begging or odd jobs just to make enough money to put some food on the table for that day? It appears Jesus knew what it felt like to be expendable…
It is a fact that Jesus identified with the marginalized in society. But why? Why associate with dirty people? Is it due to the fact that Jesus himself was marginalized and could thus fully identify with their pain and struggles? In our scriptures we see Jesus seeks after the hated, the despised, the rejected, the lonely and the outcast. Why? Could it be because that’s what Jesus experienced for a good deal of his life? Jesus probably knew what it was like to go hungry. The shame of not having a job. The disgrace of having others look down on you as a worthless object. To go home to a mother and family and say: “Sorry, no luck today.” To see the look of disappointment and sadness in their eyes…
I live in a town where every single day I drive past hundreds of people standing on road corners hoping for a job so that they could have food for that day. What do I see? Instead of seeing expendables, I now see the face of the one who loved me and gave his life for me. What do you see? Do you see God the beggar, asking for a days wages? Or do you see a worthless, useless expendable that the world could do without. What do you see, if anything
No wonder Jesus said: Επεινασα γαρ και εδωκατε μοι φαγειν εδιψησα και εποτισατε με ζενος ημην και συνηγαγετε με γυμνοσ και περιβαλετε με, ησθενησα και επεσκεψασθε με εν φυλακη ημην και ηλθατε προς με. [Ματτ 25:35-36]

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