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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Because of heavy Roman taxation, former land owners had become peasant farmers on lands that used to belong to their families. Their role in the economic system became especially oppressive.
“As the productive economic base of the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood and of the Herodian capital cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee, the peasants’ role was to render up produce in tithes, taxes, and tribute for the rulers’ support.” (Kindle Locations 516-517)
The placement of Herod Antipas as a client ruler of the Roman empire marked a first in the history of Roman imperialism for this region: a “king” representing Rome lived directly in Galilee. This brought an “unprecedented rigor in the collection of taxes” (Horsley).
Horsley’s research demonstrates that the political climate among the people in response to this deep economic oppression inspired their reimagining the liberation themes and stories within the Hebrew tradition and then expressed in various forms of resistance.
“Judean and Galilean peasants were cultivating their own popular version of Israelite tradition that, far more than the version accepted in Jerusalem, emphasized stories of liberation from oppressive rule . . .” (Kindle Locations 519-520)
“In order to protect their own minimal subsistence, the always marginal peasants regularly sequestered portions of their crops before the tax collectors arrived or found various ways of sabotaging the exploitative practices of their rulers.” (Kindle Locations 700-702)
Roman imperialism through economic oppression also meant that Jesus’ society began to break down:
“Roman conquest and imposition of client rulers, with the resulting multiple layers of taxes and socially disintegrative economic and cultural practices, set the conditions of and for Jesus’ mission and other, parallel movements. In generating and articulating his program, moreover, Jesus drew thoroughly on Israelite traditions of opposition to imperial and oppressive domestic rulers. There is no need to debate whether he was ‘apocalyptic,’ because both Jesus and the apocalypses produced by scribal groups shared the widespread common Israelite pattern of God’s judgment against foreign rulers as a prerequisite of restoration of the subject people, a pattern dictated by the recurrent circumstances of Israelite peoples under imperial rule. In this regard Jesus stands together with activist Pharisees and other teachers and administrators who formed resistance groups such as the Fourth Philosophy. They stand on precisely the same grounds in rejecting the tribute to Rome: they owe exclusive loyalty to God as their only ruler and lord. Surely the vast majority of Judeans and Galileans believed that, and attempted to resist Roman exploitation in whatever ways they could whenever they could.” (Kindle Locations 1339-1346)
We must read this week’s story within this context. This backdrop also gives new insights into the political, economic, and social meaning of the gospels. Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and demonstrations of the “kingdom of God,” the rule of God, or God’s just future must be understood as an answer to the people’s desire for liberation from Roman rule and imperialism.
In our story this week, conviction has come home to Zacchaeus who has participated in the empire and become personally wealthy from systems that were to blame for the disintegration of his own Jewish society. This is a story of repentance and change that manifests through economic and political change for Zacchaeus here and now, not after death. Life as usual doesn’t continue on for Zacchaeus. No: Zacchaeus choosing to embrace Jesus’ program meant him choosing to let go of his ill-gotten wealth and use it for reparations and restoration after the harm Roman imperialism had done. He is rejecting the kingdom of Rome for the rule of the God of the Torah, not just religiously, but also politically, economically, and socially in concrete ways for his community.
And how does this apply to many of us today? That is what we’ll unpack this, next, in Part 3.