Proper 6B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • 2 Kings 5:1-14 & Psalm 30
  • 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
  • Mark 1:40-45

Jesus and the outcasts

This week's story of Jesus healing a leper assumes some appreciation of the social status of such a person at that time. This week's notes will therefore offer a brief introduction to the social stratification of ancient Palestine.

Contemporary scholars who study 1C Palestine have tended to rely very heavily on the model of ancient social structures developed by Gerhard Lenski. While it has not gone without some criticism (and we shall note some of those shortly), Lenksi does seem to offer a way of making sense of the social stratification in an ancient agrarian empire such as Roman Palestine. John Dominic Crossan observes as follows:

One can obviously debate Lenski's master model in whole or in part, but I accept it as a basic discipline to eliminate the danger of imposing presuppositions from advanced industrial experience on the world of an ancient agrarian empire. [Historical Jesus, 44]

Crossan goes on to cite the following passage from Lenski:

One fact impresses itself on almost any observer of agrarian societies, especially on one who views them in a broadly comparative perspective. This is the fact of marked social inequality. Without exception, one finds pronounced differences in power, privilege, and honor associated with mature agrarian economies. These differences surpass those found in even the most stratified horticultural societies of Africa and the New World, and far exceed those found in simple horticultural or hunting and gathering societies. [Power and Privilege, 1966:201]

Lenski social stratification model

Lenski suggested that agrarian societies typically have nine social classes, with the top five enjoying a disproportionate share of the society's wealth relative to the bottom four classes. The nine classes can be listed as follows:

  • The Ruler
  • Governing Class (1% of population)
  • Retainer Class (5%)
  • Merchant Class (5%)
  • Priestly Class (2%)
  • Peasant Class (60-70%)
  • Artisan Class (5%)
  • Unclean Class (5%)
  • Expendable Class (5-10%)

Kathleen Corley (Women and the Historical Jesus, 2002) has noted some shortcomings in the Lenski model, including its failure to account properly for the role of women and the significance of slaves (including freed slaves) in ancient societies:

... Joanna, is described as being respectably married to a steward of the court of Herod. This does not indicate that she is one of the elite, but rather a member of the "retainer class" according to Lenski's model. Retainers were dependent upon the aristocracy for their wealth. However, here Lenski's model again needs modification, since in antiquity such retainers would not necessarily number among the elite; stewards of large households like that of Herod were commonly slaves or freedmen. Lenksi's model, although helpful, fails to illustrate the complexity of ancient society -- particularly, as noted earlier, since Lenski does not factor in the institution of slavery into his analysis. (p. 30)
Antipathy between the rich and the working poor stemmed in part from their mutual competition for status. Moreover, in antiquity merchants (an upper class category according to Lenski's model) might be freeborn, but were often freedmen and women -- former slaves. Retainers (another upper class category according to Lenski's model), such as scribes, secretaries or stewards of large households, could also be slaves or freedman, men or women. Although there is little evidence for a freed class in first century Palestine, one Roman Governor of Judaea, Festus, was an ex-slave, and therefore lacked social status and prestige in spite of his Imperial appointment. (p. 41)

Corley's criticisms are a timely reminder not to elevate our models to the point where the data is forced to fit with our paradigms. The models should be helpful lenses to observe the data and gets things into a clear focus, rather than intellectual straitjackets. With that caveat, we can take Crossan's point that Lenski's model can help us avoid imposing our own experience on the data from 2,000 years ago.

Descriptions of social class in ancient agrarian societies

The nine classes proposed by Lenski can be described as follows. These classes can be assigned to two broad categories with the elite comprising around 15% of the population and the great majority of the population having little options beyond survival, and many not managing even that. Note that there was no such thing as a "middle class"—rather one finds multiple "vertical" social organisations, centred around the patronage system, and a powerful "honour/shame" social code that helped to reinforce the traditional arrangements of power and opportunity.

The Ruler

Like "the Crown" in British societies, the ruler in an ancient agrarian society enjoyed substantial rights over all land within their domain, as well as having a capacity to override individual and collective rights with respect to property, persons and transactions.

The Governing class

The Governing Class in these societies represented around 1% of the population. However, together with the Ruler, the Governing Class typically received not less than half the total "national" income of the agrarian society.


The Retainer Class included groups such as scribes and bureaucrats, philosophers and teachers, administrators and stewards, (full time) soldiers and generals. They could represent around 5% of an ancient agrarian society, and were supported by the surplus production generated by the lower classes and especially the peasants. They existed to serve the political elite. Their personal (and collective) destiny was tied to that of their masters who in turn relied upon the expertise and skill of these people to organize society in such a way that production not directly needed for minimal survival by the lower classes was available for the elite. The story of Joseph's role as a kind of vizier to the Pharaoh in Genesis is a classic example of such a retainer.


The Merchant Class was around the same size as the Retainer Class and in some ways it fulfilled a similar role. However, the merchant differed from the retainer in a number of respects. The Merchant Class seems to have evolved upward from the lower classes (when social mobility was mostly in a downward direction), but "in virtually every mature agrarian society merchants managed to acquire a considerable proportion of the wealth, and in a few instances a measure of political power as well" (Lenski, Power and Privilege, 250). While a truly successful merchant would convert his wealth into land, as the traditional form of wealth that an agrarian society most deeply valued, their financial assets made them both rivals and allies of the Ruler.


Like merchants, the Priestly Class was a specific and significant variation within the Retainer Class. Lenski notes the extensive land holdings typically enjoyed by the religious establishment, although these were usually not personal assets as might be expected among the Governing Class, the Retainer Class or even the Merchant Class. It is interesting to see that the temples of Egypt owned 15% of the land in the 12C BCE and that the Roman Catholic Church owned 15% of France in the 18C CE (p. 256f). Crossan (p. 45) cites, with a mild disclaimer, the following comment by Lenski on the traditional social ethic that could be preserved by such a Priestly Class:

At some times, in some places, and with some religions more than others, the priestly class tended to function as the preserver of the ancient Redistributive Ethic of primitive societies, where the accumulation of goods in private hands had served as a form of communal insurance rather than as private property (266).

These various elements within the elite comprised less than 15% of the total population but enjoyed around two-thirds of the economic production of the society. Their "share" of the wealth was indeed disproportionate, and they enjoyed a quality of life far higher than the remaining 85% of the population.


This group comprised between 60% and 70% of the population, and they produced the agricultural surplus on which the wealth of the society was constructed. Failure of the crop, or a refusal of the peasants to bring in the harvest, would represent a serious challenge to the authority and survival of the Ruler and the privileged elite. By means of various taxes and other imposts, the peasants were deprived of two-thirds of their produce, leaving them with little more than the barest necessities for life.


The Artisan Class averaged around 5% of the population, but should not be confused with modern categories such as tradesmen. They ranked lower than the peasants and their economic prospects were typically worse even than the peasants:

In most agrarian societies, the artisan class was originally recruited from the ranks of the dispossessed peasantry and their noninheriting sons and was continually replenished from these sources ... despite the substantial overlap between the wealth and income of the peasant and artisan classes, the median income of artisans was not so great as peasants. (Lenski, Power and Privilege, 278)

The Unclean

Moving further down the ancient social order we come to the Unclean Class, representing another 5% of the population. These were people forced (or born) into situations where their only options were to engage in undesirable occupations that offered little status and were most likely inimical to their survival prospects. This included miners, prostitutes and porters.


Beyond even the Unclean Class there was a further group, representing between 5% and 10% of the population, who were effectively surplus to the needs of the society and who carved out a fragile existence on its margins. In this class we find groups such as bandits and outlaws, beggars, the disabled and diseased (especially infectious diseases such as leprosy) and under-employed itinerant workers. These are described by Lenski as "all those forced to live solely by their wits or by charity" (p. 281).

As Kathleen Corley has reminded us, the system was more complex and subtle than this description might suggest. There was some movement between the classes, but the general tendency was to lose status and wealth over time and to slide down the scale rather than to rise up to higher levels. Some of the variants included the role of women and slaves who could at times enjoy opportunities different from their original class location.

Jesus and the class system of his day

It is interesting to note that Jesus seems to have appealed mostly to the lower classes, and perhaps less to the peasants than to those in more desperate straits.

One of the deepest fears of a peasant, or even an artisan householder, would be to lose their precarious grip on the limited resources at their disposal. Yet Jesus seems to lived (whether by choice or destiny) the life of an expendable person, and to have called on others to embrace that most undesirable of life experiences. His death by crucifixion in a garbage dump outside the walls of the Temple city, a victim of the elite's hostility, was entirely fitting for someone in that category and would have occasioned little surprise.

Jesus challenged the core values of his own culture with his message of a divine empire (the "kingdom of God") that belonged especially to the beggars and the nobodies; people in desperate straits, like the leper in this week's Gospel. His practice of an open table where everyone and anyone is welcome, challenged the assumptions of his own time (as well as our own) and also offered meaning and hope to those who embraced his message. They found healing, forgiveness and a new status as children of God.

Perhaps the "miracle" was not so much their healing by Jesus as the existence of an inclusive community in whose healing and restorative dynamics they could find acceptance, reconciliation, justice and koinonia (fellowship)? Could the church you attend, or used to attend, be described in such terms?

Jesus Database

  • 110 A Leper Cured: (1) Eger. Gos. 2b [35-47]; (2a) Mark 1:40-45 = Matt 8:1-4 = Luke 5:12-16; (2b) Luke 17:11-19.

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site

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Music Suggestions

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