Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Jesus the Village Organizer

I am about half-way through reading Richard Horsley's latest book Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor. Horsley does a masterful job of spelling out the economic/political/religious milieu of Jesus. He provides a forceful reminder of the fact that the Temple in Jesus' day (and previously) was very much under the control of the Roman occupiers who supported the king who built and maintained it and appointed the high priests who ran it. Taxes were collected in the temple for the empire. The Temple was indeed much more than a house of God.

Horsley depicts the scribes and the Pharisees as the intellectuals very much caught in the middle. Their livelihood depended on their service to the Roman-appointed leadership. But they were also keeping alive a religious tradition that breathed through and through with a message of liberation from oppression. They very much feared the results of active resistance and so for the most part collaborated to help put it down, but they also occasionally were moved to actual resistance as when students of the teachers Judas son of Sariphaeus and Matthias son of Margalothus tore down Herod's imperial eagle after his death. (909 Kindle)

Meanwhile out in the villages of Galilee and Judea the peasants attempted to eke out an existence that was made more and more desperate by the forced taxation that supported the temple and the Hellenization projects of Herod. Most couldn't read but they kept alive the ancient remembered traditions of resistance and liberation:
The Village communities in which the Galilean and Judean peasants lived provided the sequestered sites in which they could cultivate their popular tradition and develop their "raw" resentment into a "cooked" discourse of their desire for dignity and hopes for deliverance. It was in the "hidden transcript" of the continuing cultivation of popular Israelite tradition in the village communities that past deliverance was remembered, and hopes for a better life nurtured. This was the fertile soil from which movements could grow... (1005 Kindle)
In a period of time that spanned more than a century before and after the time of Jesus a series of peasant-led resistant movements, some messianic and some prophetic, came out of the villages and succeeded for varying periods of time in taking back village life from the Romans and their wealthy Jewish client leaders. Each, however, was eventually crushed by the overwhelming force and brutality of the Roman legions.

The Jesus movement was one of these peasant-led movements. Horsley says it differed from the other resistance movements in this way:
Yet there was a significant difference between Jesus and his movement and the (other) popular prophetic movements. Both drew on the popular memory of Moses (and Joshua or Elijah). But, whereas the other prophets led their followers out of their villages and into the wilderness or up to the Mount of Olives in anticipation of God's new acts of deliverance, Jesus focused his mission on village communities and their concerns. Throughout Mark's narrative of Jesus mission in Galilee and beyond, Jesus works in villages and synagogues (which were village assemblies, not buildings.) (1149 Kindle)
Jesus sent his envoys out to work in the villages. His renewal movement was about reclaiming covenant relations, social and economic, among the people living there. He knew well the indignities of village life under Roman role. His healing acts symbolized this:
This is perhaps nowhere more vividly expressed than in the two interwoven episodes of the twelve-year-old woman and the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Mark 5:21-43). Both women are representative of the people, as symbolized by the "twelve." In both, the power of life is ebbing away. The lifeblood of the older woman had been steadily drained from her. The younger woman, just at the age when she should be married and being reproducing life in Israel, was "at the point of death." These are the representative figures of Israel in the Galilean villages where crowds eagerly greet Jesus. (1215 Kindle)
Significantly, Horsley notes in these stories that the initiative to be healed comes from the people themselves and healing takes place in an interaction between Jesus and the people who respond to his message of hope and his genuine authority but are not merely passive recipients of Jesus power.

Interesting read so far... I see Horsley making his own way here rejecting both the wisdom Jesus who left us memorable and timeless parables and aphorisms and the failed apocalyptic prophet whose martyrdom spawned a movement. Jesus, in Horsley's treatment, created an indigenous kingdom movement that spoke to concerns of peasant/village life.

Horsley is great in the book's beginning describing the history of Israel's formation in reaction to a repeated history of imperial rule from external (Babylon, Egypt, etc.) and internal (David, Solomon, etc.) powers. As I mentioned earlier I found his treatment of the function of the temple as a seat and symbol of that imperial power to be particularly enlightening.

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