Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who owns the goods?

The scholars have generally agreed that Luke has presented us with a group of parables and sayings dealing with possession and wealth one of which is the Parable of the Unjust Steward. For the most part, these scholars have assumed the steward was a slave and the master a rich man and that the transaction was one involving the extension of credit, perhaps involving usury.

In these academic writings, there has been no discussion about the ownership of property. After the exodus, sacred history records that the people wandered in the desert for forty years. Early Judaism was influenced both by its experiences in Egypt and by nomad concepts of property, individual rights and essential equality for all members of the community.

The people of the exodus left a land which experienced numerous extravagant building projects and great wealth where the oppression of foreign slaves was the norm. The priests of the land participated in this increase of power and wealth, with a third of the land coming under their ownership, and with temple slaves constituting 20 percent of the total population. This experience influenced the community and its social structures established in the Promised Land. Hanson notes “Even the economic system of the new community was drawn consistently out of this norm, for according to the institution of the nahala, each family received from Yahweh as a trust in perpetuity a piece of land (its inheritance or patrimony) sufficient for its sustenance. Since there was no absolute authority save Yahweh, no one was allowed to dispossess another, for to do so would violate the norm upon which the entire society was based, the norm of righteous compassion and equality, the norm drawn from the heart of a loving God.” When the land was divided among the tribes “no portion was given to the Levites in the land, but only cities to dwell in, with their pasture lands for their cattle and their substance.” The purpose of the jubilee law was ultimately to protect basic individual property and to guard against unlimited accumulation, thus preventing the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few individuals.

Notwithstanding these extensive provisions throughout the Torah, power and wealth did become concentrated in the hands of a few by the first century. Stern suggests that the statement of Hecataeus (Diodorus Siculus 40.3.7) that Moses gave the priests a larger share of land than other Israelites reflects the social condition in Palestine in the Second Temple period. Certainly Hecataeus did not base his observation on the Torah since, according to the Law, (Dt. 10:9, 12:12, 18:1, Num. 18:24) the priests and Levites did not own any land. As Stern also notes, it is doubtful that the priests could have become wealthy from the tithes alone since the Mishnah indicates that many peasants did not always pay them.

Jeremias, Marshall and more recently, Bock have each viewed the Lucan Jesus in the 'temple cleansing' episode as criticizing the excessive profiteering of the trade, controlled by the high priest's family, and not the sacrificial system itself. This may explain how certain groups of priests became wealthy. Luke's criticism focuses on the use of these temple resources by the religious aristocracy for their own selfish purpose. Thus the power and authority of Temple leadership was also expressed in the control of the people's resources. Another aspect of this control is the role of the Temple as a large landowner.

Linnemann has asserted that “a firmly established result of recent parable interpretation is that the parables of Jesus refer to the historical situation in which they are told.” Several Lucan parables also give clear indications both of the precarious situation of tenants and of the built-up antagonisms and criticism against landlords (16:1-8; 19:12-27; 20:9-16). Gerd Theissen makes this comment: “A progressive concentration of possession probably heightened the struggle over the distribution of wealth in the first century A.D.” Sean Freyne stated: “The Galilian Jewish peasant found himself in the rather strange position that those very people to whom he felt bound by ties of national and religious loyalty, the priestly aristocracy, were in fact his social oppressors.” There was considerable popular resentment against the High Priest because the high-priestly families of the Annas, Boethus, Phiabi and Kamith, who dominated the office of the high priest from 35 B.C.E. to 66 C.E. and possessed considerable economic, religious and political influence, had abused the sacred trust.

Copyrighted 2006


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