Solidarity with the poor and rejected

The character of his solidarity is made more obvious when we understand a little more about the apparent nature of first century Palestinian society and the nature of Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees. It would seem (there are difficulties with sources for reconstructing the situation at the time of Jesus, as opposed to 50 years later when the Gospels were being written) that the interest of the Pharisees in ritual purity was one major strand in contemporary belief (the Pharisees dedicating themselves to living out the ritual purity required of the Temple priesthood in their daily lives), while another element in popular belief might be termed ‘prosperity theology’ – material success being a sign of one’s standing before God.

Both strands made life hard for those who did not fit into conventional, pious society. The Am ha’aratz, “the people of the land” (or “the (ritually) great unwashed”, as we might fittingly call them) – people who could not access running water for ritual ablutions, people whose trades made them ritually impure, people who could not read the Scriptures or attend Synagogue – were inevitably looked down on. People who had dealings with the Romans (notably the ‘tax-farmers’ such as Zacchaeus and Matthew or Levi) were despised as collaborators. Women were always legally minors, under the authority first of their male relatives and then of their husbands, and lacked status outside the home in any case; but those forced into prostitution by divorce or widowhood were completely outside the bounds of acceptability. People who were deemed ritually impure because of disfigurement, leprosy, haemorrhage or insanity were shunned and forced to live apart. And of the man born blind Jesus’ own disciples could cruelly ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?” (Jn 9.2)