The prophet Amos warned those in power against mistreating people at the margins of society. Business as usual in the Northern Kingdom entailed oppressing the poor so the rich could prosper. Members of the wealthy class lived a life of opulence and self-indulgence. They trampled the poor and stole their gran through unfair taxes and rents (Amos 5:11). Consequently, the people were starving. They suffered from a lack of respect, compassion, and material provision as those in power oppressed them. Although the prophet warned them about the harsh consequence, they continued to disobey the Covenant God struck with them when he freed them from bondage in Egypt. God warned them repeatedly to repent, but they would not return to him (Amos 4:6-9). The prophet informed the people of God’s desire to see a mighty flood of justice and an endless river of righteous living (Amos 5:24). So, God sent a Messiah with a mission to provide abundant life for all who believed. In the New Testament, under a New Covenant, Jesus administered justice to the faithful and set an example of social justice for all to emulate. Jesus came as the fulfillment of the prophecy of mercy for those who chose to follow him.
Following Jesus involved feeding his sheep, as he directed his disciple Peter to do (John 21:15-17) when they met one morning near the Sea of Tiberias. Most of us know this body of water as the Sea of Galilee. In many respects, the sea is legendary. It is the place where Jesus called his first disciples (Luke 5:1-11), walked on water (Matthew 14:22-33), healed the sick (Mark 6:53-56), taught his disciples to pray (Matthew 6:9-13) and told them not to worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). John 6:1 and John 21:1 are the only two places in the whole Bible where the body of water in question is referred to as the Sea of Tiberias.
John’s reference to the Sea of Tiberias here draws our attention to the one after whom the sea is named: Tiberias Caesar, the second Emperor of Rome. Tiberius succeeded Caesar Augustus in 14 CE and ruled until 37 CE. The gospel of Luke (Luke 3:1-2) makes reference to this emperor: “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee.” During this period also, Caiaphas was the high priest.
The Roman Empire cast a giant shadow over the world back then. The Roman government had several building campaigns around the Empire, including great amphitheaters, aqueducts, and many other projects that benefited the elite. Somebody had to pay for all that luxury. So, the poor people in the provinces were taxed. Historical accounts tell us there were grain taxes, produce taxes, sales taxes, temple taxes, occupational taxes, customs taxes, transit taxes, and many others. This tax burden created a massive divide between the rich and the poor. One biblical historian named Friesen developed a poverty scale that provides seven categories for describing economic resources at the time. According to Friesen, the wealthy elites formed only 1% – 3% of the whole population of the Empire, while more than 90% of the population was living in severe or extreme poverty.
The gospels point out that Jesus was born into a world where most people fell prey to the opulence of the elite and the greed of the ruling class. Poverty was widespread both in rural and urban areas. The people were weary, and they were hungry in more ways than one. Jesus came so they would have abundant life and demonstrate the true meaning of justice.