In first-century Palestine, it is estimated that about 95 per cent of the people living there were peasants. Their quality of life would have been very poor. Their biggest worry would be where the next meal was coming from and whether there was enough to feed their families. Creature comforts would have been few and far between. Their biggest challenge, perhaps, was just to stay alive.
So for Jesus to have survived birth and lived to the age of 30 placed him in the very select ten per cent of the population of his time and place. A large portion of his hearers would have been considerably younger than he; they would have been severely disease-ridden; and they would have been facing ten or fewer years of life-expectancy. (source: John J Pilch, ‘The Cultural World of Jesus, 1997’)
For such people, their main preoccupation was the challenge of survival. Consequently, they would never have had the means or opportunity for the ‘debauchery and drunkenness’ as well as the ‘cares of life’ that Jesus warned about in today’s Gospel (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36(.
This warning from Jesus then was about how people should live while they waited for the end of the world and his Second Coming. At the beginning of every Church year the Church puts this warning of ‘Stay Awake’ before us, inviting us to assess how prepared we are for when it is our time to meet the Lord face to face.
St Luke describes this warning from Jesus being given in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. So it is more than likely that his words were directed not to the general (peasant) population but to the officials and elites who would have been gathered there. Only they – and not the other 95 per cent of the population – had the means and resources for the ‘drunkenness’, ‘debauchery’ and ‘cares of this world’ that Jesus mentioned. And, as we know from other texts in St Luke’s Gospel (12:13-34), these people were disliked by Jesus not for their wealth but for their unwillingness to share their resources with the needy. In fact, the Biblical commentator John J Pilch notes that ‘at every mention of the “rich” in Luke’s Gospel it is advisable to cross out that word and pencil in “greedy”’.
With all of this in mind, and as we wait for the Lord to come to us – mostly likely when we die – how might we apply Our Lord’s teaching to our lives today?
I’m personally struck by the prayer of St Paul for the Christians in Thessalonika which opens our Second Reading. As they were expecting the return of Jesus to occur in their lifetime, Paul wrote:
May the Lord be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race …
Here Paul was teaching them that as members of the Church they not only had the duty to love fellow members of their Church community but also ‘the whole human race’. They were citizens of the earth as well as of the Church and thus had a responsibility to support people – ‘the whole human race’ – outside their own immediate circles of family and friends.
Eighty percent of the world’s population lives on less than £8 a day. Many of us think nothing of spending this or more on a bottle of wine. Nearly fifty per cent – more than 3 billion people — live on less than £2 a day. That’s an hour’s charge for a city centre car park and less than a Metro trip to town. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty on less than £1 a day. That’s what we insert into a shopping trolley at Tesco, Morrison’s, Waitrose or Marks & Spencer. One billion children worldwide are living in poverty. Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it did not happen. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. (sources: The World Bank, Global Issues, UNICEF)
So we cannot escape the fact that although we individually may not count ourselves as ‘wealthy’, in global terms we are the rich and elites of our time.
This is not to ignore the fact that life is a struggle for many of us. Finding and keeping a job, meeting the needs of children and caring for dependants, paying the mortgage and other bills, sustaining a relationship, running a home and meeting all the other demands of modern-day life is not easy. Sometimes it is extremely hard to the point where life becomes a grind and not a gift.
Nevertheless, we have to ask what Our Lord expects of us.
Perhaps the first is for us to appreciate all that we have, and to be grateful for our relatively privileged lives.
The second is to respond to this by not being greedy. Remember, it was greed, not wealth, which Christ found offensive in the rich people of his time. And his antidote to greed was to love people not just with kind thoughts but in solid practical ways.
In these four weeks of Advent we might, therefore, ask: given our relative wealth and privileged lives, what more does the Lord require of me to support those in ‘the whole human race’ whose needs are truly greater than my own?
Holy Name, Jesmond
2 December 2018