Jesus and the Peasants

by Douglas Oakman

It is tempting to read the New Testament, especially the stories of Jesus, as  nice little reflections on spiritual concerns—how to get along with our neighbours, how to live respectable lives of non-threatening piety. Oakman presents the culture Jesus lived in, an agrarian, a marginalized life, of peasant economics and values. But Oakman’s approach is wider than simply casting Jesus as a peasant; Jesus’ ideology is quite worldly’ (p 3).  Ancient economics is deeply implicated in ancient politics, so Jesus’ peasant aims were both profoundly political and entirely social, which helps explain why first century scribes recorded sayings and memories of a crucified, illiterate peasant with such care and diligence.

Oakman focuses on debt as one of the keys to understanding Jesus’ concerns.  When debtors defaulted, sale of assets (land), imprisonment or slavery were the usual consequences.  Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness, the abolition of debt, was a subversive revolutionary agenda (p 39); Jesus’ vision of liberation coming with the reign of G-d attacked the principle elements of the Roman order in Galilee.  G-d’s rule was a power opposed to the social order established by Rome; Jesus spoke on behalf of a politics of liberation and compassion, not of the issues of debts and defaulting.

The two most gripping sections of Oakman’s writing are his discussion of the Lord’s Prayer (the concept of debt) and the story of the “Foolish Samaritan” that sees the story as more than simply a model for good behaviour; G-d’s reign is “revealed in the wilds of bandits and inns….  The Samaritan indebts himself and the injured Jerusamelite into the power of the innkeeper” (p 179), giving the innkeeper (a notoriously bad lot by peasant standards) a blank cheque.

Oakman helps us read the Jesus story with new cultural eyes.

—Vern Ratzlaff, pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada