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THE WORLD OF JESUS PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim Jordal   
Thursday, 19 June 2014

THE WORLD OF JESUS

By Jim Jordal

 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.  If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.  Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and don't turn away him who desires to borrow from you.”                                                                                         Matthew 5:38-42 WEB

In our search to humanize, sanitize, and popularize  the real Jesus, it might be helpful to look a bit at the world he inhabited during his 33 years on earth. In technology and communication ability it was very different from our world, but in the ancient human failings of greed, lust, power-seeking, and cruelty it was very much the same---only the scenery was different.

The world of Jesus was limited to his immediate area around the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem---an area perhaps 100 miles long by 30 miles wide. Transportation was by walking, riding an animal, or by boat on the Sea of Galilee. Communication was by personal contact, word-of-mouth messages, printed signs, written letters, and a very limited number of books used by educated religious figures.

Political power in the world of Jesus was exercised by Rome at the apex, then downward through local vassal kings like Herod.  Mixed in with this ménage were the Jewish temple authorities headed by the High Priest who was appointed by Rome. They existed in a sort of symbiotic relationship where each furnished something needed by the other and received certain benefits in return. Rome had the military power, but the temple authorities had the hearts and minds of the people. Rome provided protection from external political enemies while the temple legitimized Roman power by lending it Divine authority.

Jesus never directly opposed Roman authority. His approach was oblique, yet confronting, but in a respectful manner that is difficult for us to perceive unless we know something of the culture he lived in. Rome was the most powerful political system yet seen upon earth. From Europe into Asia and Africa it dominated commerce and trade with its organizational genius and vast military power. To most of its subjects, it was irresistibly powerful. But not to Jesus.

The Scripture quoted above is one example of how Jesus resisted the authority of both power centers without threatening them openly or directly. The last portion on going two miles instead of one was aimed at Roman power in that Roman troop had the legal right to compel Jewish citizens to carry their heavy packs for no more than one mile. If a citizen should then offer to carry for another mile, he surreptitiously but effectively usurped Roman power by forcing the Roman soldier to ask for the return of his pack, placing the soldier in a psychologically subservient role.

In the case of the proffered robe, in Jewish courts of the day unpaid debts could be satisfied by the seizure of personal items such as clothing from the debtor. Jewish law limited this to one of the two main garments worn by most men. So Jesus advocated that when a debtor lost his outer garment in the court proceeding he should then surrender his only remaining undergarment, thus leaving him naked. Jewish law stated that not the naked person, but the ones viewing him were rendered unclean, so the appearance of a naked man, even in an all-male setting, was something to be carefully avoided. Again, this act threatened the moral legitimacy of the court without ever openly threatening its power.

Jesus’ advice to turn the left cheek when struck on the right cheek refers to the fact that a right-handed person could only strike someone on the right cheek in what would be seen as a back-handed slap indicating the inferior status of the person struck. For the recipient to then turn the left cheek would be for him the invitation to strike me directly like a man of equal authority and status might. Again, Jesus struck at the soft underbelly of Roman authority and their Jewish temple lap dogs.

Christians today live in another symbiotic relationship where churches, like the Jewish Temple, seldom question government power or behavior. In return government generally leaves churches alone except when they egregiously break the law. So the church voice is generally silent on matters in which government, were we to heed the prophetic imperative of the Bible, would speak on national issues of justice in the authority of God Almighty.