Article 32: Society At The Time Of Jesus

Matthew gives us the parable of the Talents.  (Mt 25: 14 – 30)  Luke narrates a similar story.  (Lk 19; 12 – 27)  In both of these stories we hear about servants / stewards who are given money to trade with and produce a profit. Unfortunately some translations use “servants” to describe these people.  The correct translation is “slaves”.  To understand these two parables correctly, we need to understand the society in which Jesus lived and worked.

At the top of the social ladder was the ruler.  There were three principal rulers in Palestine. Pilate, the Roman procurator, controlled Judea, Samaria and Idumea.  Galilee and Perea were ruled by Herod Antipas while Herod Philip ruled over the territories north and east of Galilee.

Next came the ruling class who owned much of the land which was the primary source of wealth. They made up about 2 % of the population. The chief priests would have been in this very wealthy and influential group.  There was no way they could manage and rule the country on their own.

This brings us to a very important group of administrators. We can best describe these people as the stewards and lower priests (clergy).  These are the people referred to in the two parables mentioned above. We will have a lot more to say about them later.

About 80% of the population were peasant farmers who worked their own small holdings or who leased land from wealthy landlords. Others hired themselves out as labourers.  They worked very hard to make ends meet. Before they put food on the table they had to pay the rent, taxes and tithes.  And of course, if they had to borrow money they would have to approach the local landlord’s steward, for help.  If they defaulted on payments they were certain to lose their land to the landlord or even the steward.

Almost at the bottom of the social ladder were the artisans, carpenters, stonemasons, potters.   Jesus fell into this category.   Their only security was their trade and they needed employment.  It might be worth mentioning that about an hours’ walk from Nazareth a new town, Sepphoris was being built.  Quite possibly, Joseph worked there, Sunday to Friday and went home to Nazareth for the Sabbath.  Perhaps Jesus found employment there during the fifteen years of his working life before he began his mission of teaching about the age of thirty.

At the bottom of the pile were those whose work made them ‘unclean’; prostitutes, anyone in the transport business, shepherds, donkey salesmen (equivalent of today’s second hand car salesmen).  Beggars, itinerant labourers and criminals had no standing at all.

“It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another two; to a third, one.  (Mt 25: 14-15)

Who were these slaves?  How is it possible that the master was so trusting in them?  Slavery at the time of Jesus was quite different to our understanding of slavery. We think of the slave trade of the 17th – 19th centuries. Black people being captured, transported to foreign lands and treated with terrible cruelty.

This is not true of the time of Jesus.  The supply of slaves came from the children of salve women; people who sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts.  Slavery could also be the route to improving your standing in society.  Owners were prepared to invest in the education of bright slaves.  The better educated they were the more money they could earn.  The majority of these slaves could expect to be freed by the time they were 30 years old.  Not only that, if the master was a Roman citizen he could confer citizenship on a freed slave.  Slaves could earn for themselves, own property and also their own slaves. By selling oneself into slavery the poor could get themselves a good education, a secure job and if they rose to the post of steward make a lot of money for themselves.  Paul warns, “You have been purchased at a price.  Do not become slaves to human beings.” (1 Cor 7: 23)

Stewards were expected to make their masters richer.  Anything over and above what their master expected went into their own pockets and no questions would be asked as to where it came from.  The peasants were exploited by master and steward.

It is interesting to note that stewards could not be prosecuted.  The reason is obvious. If a steward was brought to court there was a danger that he might disclose some of the ruthless ways his master got rich. Better to keep them out of court, they knew too much.

This new information about the society of Jesus’ time will help us to see the parables of the Talents in a clearer light.  Next month we will deal with these parables.

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