Down and Out in First Century Palestine

Andante un poco Adagio (K309) W. Mozart (1756-1791) [PIANO]

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness"


Although Jesus speaks for the ages, it never ceases to amaze me how much light understanding His cultural context sheds on what He had to say. What 'poor' meant in first century Palestine is yet another example.

The economy of first century Palestine was hardly a powerhouse of the Mediterranean world: it was essentially agrarian with most land owned by a few large landholders. Small landholders were only a bad harvest away from having their lands seized by the wealthy, and themselves and their families sold into slavery for debts. So you had a small wealthy class — who got and stayed that way by collaborating with the hated Romans, versus everyone else ranging from artisans (like carpenters) who scraped by down to the literally starving. 

Rome had a 'welfare system', but that was only for Roman citizens — certainly not for non-Romans in conquered third-world boonies like Palestine. And so Palestine had no food stamps, no Section 8 housing, no free medical care, no free universal education. Religious institutions (e.g. synagogues) did what they could with their own versions of food banks and such. Nevertheless, being poor in first century Palestine was grim at best, with no prospects. 

And so, if you were poor in Jesus' Palestine, you likely begged. Thus the Greek word PTŌCHOS/πτωχός (usually translated 'poor') has a strong connotation of 'begging' which the English word 'poor' doesn't have. It's interesting to make that connotation more explicit to the English reader: the first Beatitude would thus read: "Blessed are the beggars in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens."

All cultures have a 'civil religion' — the set of beliefs they have about themselves that define who they are. It's a religion because it's a system of tenets based on faith. It's 'civil' because God is generally not a necessary part of the picture. For the Romans one of the tenets of their civil religion was "might makes right: we conquered you, therefore you're 'losers' in every sense of the word. In America one of our archetypes is the 'self-made man', that anyone who wants to succeed can do so. And America indeed has plenty of "rags to riches" stories.

Certainly Success depends on a combination of 'Nature': genetic endowments like intelligence and stamina, and 'Nurture': upbringing and available opportunities. So, in terms of 'Nature', how much control did any of us have over our luck at genetic roulette — the genetic makeup we received? Why, none! And in terms of 'Nurture', how much control did any of us have over when & where we were born (e.g. America vs. Somalia) and the upbringing we received? Why, a big fat zero once again! And attitudes like 'tenacity' and 'industriousness' which are surely requisites of success — how much of that is really 'personal choice' and how much is nature & nurture? I don't know. 

So. Certainly much, maybe most of our success is due to dumb luck in the Nature & Nurture Casino — or better, it's due to Grace. The danger arises when we start thinking our success is due entirely to our own efforts and merits, that Providence played little part. The Greeks had a word for that: 'Hubris': thinking you were equal to the gods. In Greek literature Zeus usually set the person straight with a well-placed thunderbolt or three. The Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek in the third century BCE) has the famous proverb read "HUBRIS goeth before the fall."

And so we come full circle. The beggar knows he is dependent on the grace and generosity of others, while the rich run the risk of thinking I'm not dependent on anyone — including God. That my success is due entirely to my own Wonderfulness, forgetting the profound role that good genes, time & place of birth, opportune upbringing and Providence play in whatever degree of success I enjoy.

Heck, I can't even guarantee my next breath! Here comes one: I inhale/exhale — thank You, what a blessing! I inhale/exhale again — thank You again! Rinse and repeat…