In Greek and Roman religion, the gods were flawed in many ways. They were often selfish, distractible, and even childlike. If you wanted to be heard by one of the gods, it was going to cost you something. You couldn’t just pray in any location. Sure you might have a shrine in your house, as most did, but if you really needed help from on high, you’d have to go to a more sacred site. You would need to travel to a temple. Sure, there were temples in your town, but if you wanted to increase the odds of being listened to, you’d need to go somewhere that ranked higher in terms of sacred prominence. Many of the most holy places were remote. Travel was expensive and dangerous, so the cost of getting your prayers heard would begin to stack up.
Secondly, once you arrived at the temple you had to get the attention of the god whose help you wished to enlist. The best way to do this is by giving gifts. Copper is good, silver is better, gold would be even better. The more expensive the gift was the more likely you were to be heard. Bending a godly ear your way was not cheap. When you’d make your prayer, you were making a bargain. The supernatural action you were requesting wasn’t free, it was a deal. It was almost like the gods were contract labor and you could hire them out for your purposes if the price was right, except in this case the god could take payment and do nothing. If you wanted to have any hope of getting your prayer heard you would have to promise to give more good gifts if your prayers were answered. This is getting expensive.
When you prayed in a temple, you would want to be loud. After all, the god might be sleeping, or away from his office. You would need to address him by the right name and title or it wouldn’t work. The custom in Greek and Roman religion was to make your request in a way that would get the attention of the gods. This meant you better put on a show. Big gestures and a boisterous performance made it more likely that you’d be heard, although it wasn’t guaranteed.
To be good at religion, you needed to be wealthy and educated. You needed money to bribe the gods, and you needed to know the right locations, prayers, and rituals. If you weren’t wealthy enough to offer good gifts to the gods, it was a sign that the gods didn’t like you very much. Wealth is so often tied to well-being, health, and social status that religion was primarily catered for the upper class. There were religious practices that could be scaled down to the lower classes, but they hardly garnered the attention of the gods that the wealthy did. If you were not wealthy and well educated the gods ignored you even more than your fellow mortals did.
They believed that their gods were not equal opportunity blessers. Their gods did not love unconditionally, and generally only loved if they had been given nice gifts. That love would not last long and could be ruined by doing something the god didn’t like. Their gods were usually not considered a source of a consistent moral standard, especially since each god acted differently and often immorally. A god was as likely to curse you as he was to bless you.
Greek and Roman religion bolstered the practice of ignoring and oppressing the poor, uneducated, lower class population. They thought that this group was despised by the gods. A doctrine of their religions was that the lower classes, with their sickness, poverty, filthiness, and death, brought a type of pollution that the gods could not and would not stand. It was believed that the gods abandoned the living in the hour they died because they refused to be polluted by human death. The gods could do nothing for the dead and refused to even take part in funeral rituals.
Even Galilee and Judea, the Jewish provinces where Jesus did the majority of his work, had bought into the idea that religion should be catered to the rich. The poor were shown tremendous dishonor. The idea had arisen that the sick and the poor had become so because God was punishing them. They believed that the ‘sinners’ were a class of people who were born into disease, hardship, and destitution because their father or grandfather had sinned. It was also believed that you could be demoted down to the ‘sinner’ class if you committed certain sins. This didn’t just mean that you were a doer of sin, but that you were likely to become sick, and poor as a punishment from God.
Throughout ancient history, it is incredibly surprising how ignored the poor and sick were. There are almost no accounts of sick people in classical literature. That is despite the fact that sickness and disability probably plagued a huge percentage of the population. They were a group who were unimportant or uninteresting to the writers of history. It wasn’t until the 1980s that historians began to formally study what it would have been like to be a sick person in the ancient world. Much of it is speculation since there is next to nothing written about the poor, sick, and destitute.
There is an exception. The religion of their time was custom-designed for the rich, and social priorities were focused on those with health and high status. However, there was one person who challenged that entire system. There was one person, who saw it differently.
While the other religions of the time were busy discriminating against women, children, the sick, the poor, and the ignored, Jesus was saying, “Blessed are the poor… meek… those who mourn.” Jesus’ words here are unparalleled in the ancient world. To promote the plight of the poor was a synonym with anarchy. The religious system of his day was built on the suppression of the poor. Anyone who challenged that, would be challenging their way of life. Anyone who elevated the status of the sick was not only practicing insanity but breaking the religious law.
It was against Jewish law to touch those with diseases. The sick were to be isolated from their families and communities. They couldn’t take part in the synagogue services. The Jewish authorities probably figured, ‘if God is punishing them, we should too.’ So for Jesus to propose the fair treatment of the sick, poor, and marginalized was a new idea. It was radical and wild. It was dangerous.
Up until Jesus, religions did not guarantee any type of salvation, but if there was any to be had, it was only going to go to the wealthy. While the other religions of the time were ensuring that the poor would be excluded from salvation, Jesus was guaranteeing it to any who wanted it. More than just guaranteeing it, he offered it for free to anyone, regardless of their status, rank, wealth, gender, or age. He did this by saying things like, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” Notice the word, ‘whoever’ in that sentence.
He expected no rituals, no expensive sacrifices or gifts, no pilgrimages to far off temples. He stated a single condition, that by it anyone may gain eternal life regardless of their position in society. That single condition is, “believe in him” as the famous third chapter of John says.
It’s hard to explain how unique this expression was. It would be nearly impossible to overstate how much Jesus changed the world with his offer of unconditional salvation, available to all. It seems so commonplace to us now, but there is no parallel in ancient religious literature pre-dating Jesus. If it seems like an obvious conclusion to you, it probably seems that way because you were raised in a world already shaped by Jesus’ ideas. However, in the ancient world, the mindset was so different we can hardly even fathom it.
Religions that came before Jesus were built on social discrimination. Jesus defied all of the expectations of his day and turned the system on its head. Jesus broke the mold, and our culture is now bathed in the ideals that he invented. Equality for all is an idea that came from Jesus. Free salvation available to everyone was a unique idea that did not show up until Jesus appeared on the scene. The idea that the poor, sick, and ignored are unconditionally loved by God was completely new, and it changed the world.