Joyce was a lot older than I, but a close friend. It was one of those perfect spring days in New York and we were sitting in a small, European style restaurant sipping wine, waiting for our lunch, and catching up. I noticed a small bearded man in black sporting a red beret seated at a table behind Joyce. The man rose, gripping the neck of a guitar, perched himself on a nearby stool, rested his guitar on his knee, moved a nearby music stand in front of him and adjusted its height. I had returned my full attention to Joyce, who was talking about her mother’s health problems when the man began strumming a bit of Bach. “Joyce loves Bach”, I thought.
But Joyce’s face turned white and her eyes went dead at the first musical phrase. She stared straight ahead. She did not turn around to look at the musician behind her; in fact her body seemed frozen. Her mind had taken her somewhere else, and she stayed wherever she was for a very long time. Finally light began to return to her eyes, she seemed to gradually focus and look around at her surroundings; she shifted slightly in her chair, reached for her glass of wine. When I spoke her name softly, she looked at me, and when I asked her what was wrong, she looked down for several long minutes at her hands, which she had begun to twist and rub slowly, before she began to speak.
“You know we lived in Budapest during the war. First it was the Nazis who occupied the city and then the Russians”, she said, still looking down. “The German occupation was a nightmare. We knew that terrible things were happening to the Jews and we could do nothing. We had friends – they disappeared without a word – children too.” Joyce stopped, twisting her linen napkin as the guitarist continued to play, then finally raising her eyes to meet mine. “Then the Russians came and began to take the city from the Nazis. One block at a time – block after block. It took 100 days. We hid in a dark cellar for seven weeks. My husband went out one day to sell his Stradivarius violin for a dozen eggs. I was afraid I would never see him again. When he returned he had only half the eggs – a soldier saw him, he ran, fell and broke the rest.” She stopped again.
“When the Russian Red Army finally won, the soldiers began to drink celebrate. They burst into houses and seized what they wanted for their pleasures. Soon they were drinking eau de cologne, playing guitars, and raping the women. I lay on a cot with my husband on top to hide me.” She didn’t tell me whether this succeeded. I didn’t ask.
Murder, rape and pillage are almost always part of occupation. Occupation means a land is taken from its people but they still have to survive there. What is most familiar, most dear, most sacred now belongs to others – to do with as they wish. Economic and political decisions are made by the occupying force and for the occupying force. And then there are always those who betray their own people, collaborate with the oppressors, profit from the misery of their own. Each day is lived under the wary eye of the powerful who are ever ready to snuff out any signs of rebellion.
Ordinary good people must are faced with terrible questions: “How much do I ‘go along’ for the sake of survival, my children’s survival? Must I stand up at some point no matter what the price? Is there any place in between to plant my feet?” Because there are so many ways to answer these desperate questions, people become divided amongst themselves. Like any family dealing with great difficulties, there is now conflict from within.
Jesus and the New Testament writers lived in an occupied Palestine, and occupation by Caesar’s forces struck at the very heart of the people’s identity. God gave them their land, their ancestors told them. But the Roman Empire now controlled it, and Caesar claimed to be not only the Emperor but the son of God. “Filius divini” (son of the divine) proclaimed the engraving on the Roman coin. This divine sonship was celebrated particularly on his birthday which was a religious holiday. All citizens of the Empire were expected to participate this and the other rituals of the state religion. Although Jews, and only Jews, were exempted from this religious participation, they lived in its shadow.
In addition, the Jewish temple observances allowed were under Roman control. Their temple, heart of worship, symbol of hope, became a tool of the oppressors and an instrument of direct economic oppression. High Priests were now selected and appointed by Caesar. The temple became the national bank, storing valuables, collecting mandatory “temple taxes”. In the ancient world, religious institutions were dominated by political powers and used to support, maintain and justify the rule of the politically and economically powerful. Romans and very small Jewish elite controlled how God was viewed and how religious practices were carried out. The temple and the festivals, intended to symbolize God’s liberating action and care for all, had become a market profiting Rome.
All these insults to the identity and spiritual life of the people took place within the context of grinding poverty. There was no middle class. There were the small minority of very rich (about 2%) and the rest lived at a subsistence level. Rome and the few wealthy aristocrats and landowners benefited from the labor of everyone else. Ninety-eight percent were peasants, basically share croppers or fishers. At the very bottom of the economic ladder were day laborers whose lives were even more tenuous than the peasants and fishers. The Jewish people and every aspect of their work were taxed so heavily that it was impossible to rise out of poverty. The taxes about which many of us bitterly complain cannot begin to compare with those in Palestine. Perhaps the best contemporary comparison would be modern slavery – working to pay off debts that can never be paid off – or the American song: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…”
Some Jews responded to poverty, oppression and violation with anger and violence. Bandits roamed, especially in the north. Some were Jews who had lost their land because of the heavy taxation, or because it was simply seized by the wealthy or because of some infraction. The “Robin Hood” bandits stole to survive. Others were organized revolutionaries committing assassinations of the elite. Some Jews became tax collectors however, and profited from the impoverishment of their brothers and sisters – a different kind of violence.
This is the context of Jesus’ life and teaching. It is striking that he included among the twelve we now call Apostles both Matthew, a hated tax collector who collaborated with Rome to oppress his own people, and Simon, a zealot promoting violent revolution. We know little of what transpired between them and between Jesus and each of them, but it is easy to imagine it as tumultuous.
This world, where people were ruled by a powerful and often ruthless Empire, set the context for Jesus’ death. Those viewed as a threat to the Empire were eliminated, killed as enemies of the state. The instrument of this execution was the cross. It was a world not so very different from South Africa during Apartheid, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec in Mexico, the double occupation of Budapest which Joyce survived.
Palestine in the 1st century was violent, volatile, and yet bursting with hope for something better. In the midst of such evil and such hope, Jesus began his public work: “The time has come,” he said, “and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Something was going to happen. The Romans feared it. The Jews hoped for it.