Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Parables and Their Social Contexts: "Peasant" Readings/Hearings (Douglas Oakman)


More excerpts from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded edition of What are They Saying about the Parables? 

Ancient Economies: 
"Peasant" Readings/Hearings of the Parables 

Douglas Oakman argues that Jesus’ words and actions articulate a coherent response to first-century economic realities. In antiquity, economic exchanges within and between villages were based on reciprocity (exchange by gift or barter). The larger “political economy,” however, was characterized by redistribution—the extraction of a percentage of local production from the powerless to the powerful (e.g., taxes, tithes, or rents). The exploitative political-economic system instituted throughout the Roman Empire, including under the Herods, redistributed wealth from the non-elites to the elites, impoverished the (rural) peasant population, and that heightened tensions between elites and nonelites. Peasants (an apparently anachronistic term that Oakman argues is accurate) provided the labor and generated the wealth on which agrarian societies were based, but because peasants were left struggling to maintain their lives at a subsistence level, they were often forced to curtail consumption or enter into a hopeless, downward spiral of debt. One rationale for this deprivation (besides greed) was that if the vast majority of the agrarian population (i.e., those not in the major cities) were kept struggling to survive, they would not have the strength or resources to mount a revolt against the rulers. Such oppression disturbed the reciprocal economic relations within villages and promoted what Oakman calls a “survivalist mentality” (78–80) because of the narrow margin between subsistence and starvation. 

A peasant’s view of “the good life” revolved around three interrelated values: a reverent attitude toward the land, strenuous agricultural work as good (but commerce as bad), and productive industry as a virtue (whereas elites such as Roman senators would consider such labor shameful). Jesus created his parables within the context of these peasant realities (100–102). Yet Jesus—because he was an artisan (a building laborer who worked with both wood and stone)—also had social contacts and familiarity with the social circumstances of the wealthy. Many parables thus demonstrate detailed knowledge of large estates, behavior of slaves and overseers, and other economic aspects of the elite. 

The parable of the Sower, for example, agrees with the peasant view of the primary producer in an immediate relationship with God. The sower is not negligent, as some modern interpreters suggest; instead God provides the harvest in spite of all the natural, inimical forces that threaten the crop. But through this parable Jesus critiques the peasant values of frugality and strenuous labor by declaring that God will provide the harvest (107–9). The providence of God is also clearly seen in the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat (Matt 13:24–30), which invites nonelites to stop “hoeing” and to wait for the imminent reign of God (129). This advice, once again, undermines the values of Jesus’ peasant audience, which focuses on frugality and hard work. 

In the face of the exploitative urban elite, the concentration of land holdings in the hands of a few, rising debt, and other destabilizing forces, Jesus responded by calling for a reversal of the centralization of political power and economic goods. In addition, Jesus advocated exchanges built on “general reciprocity”—giving without expecting anything in return (e.g., the remission of debts; 168). Such general reciprocity fosters unity and propitiates potential enemies, but for Jesus it also fosters the reestablishment of kinship among all peoples. Love for enemies is a corollary of this general reciprocity, which profoundly expresses human dependence on God’s graciousness and willingness to provide for material human needs.

Next up: Doug Oakman's important and innovative reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

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Parables and Their Social Contexts: "Peasant" Readings/Hearings (Douglas Oakman)

  More excerpts from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded edition of  What are They Saying about the Parables?   Ancient Economies:  "...