Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Wealthy Jesus

A common misunderstanding is that Jesus Christ was a poor man. This understanding has led many Christians through the ages to exalt poverty as a more spiritually elevated state than prosperity, as if poverty was what is involved in “sharing his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Critics of the so-called “health and wealth gospel” might point to Jesus’s own poverty as an exemplar for Christian living, berating those “prosperity preachers” who teach that the application of biblical principles can lead to freedom from sickness and want.

It might appear that some passages in Scripture suggest Jesus was poor. Jesus himself declares that “the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And Paul states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor . . .” (2 Corinthians 8:9). But neither of these statements need be understood to imply economic poverty on Jesus’s part. Jesus’s statement simply means that, in his traveling ministry throughout Galilee and into Judea, he was seldom at his home in Nazareth. And Paul’s statement need not apply to Jesus’s material poverty; it describes his emptying himself of his pre-incarnate state “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) to become a “servant,” in order to be subjected to death on the cross for the redemption of his followers. Indeed, Paul completes his statement by adding, “that by his poverty you might become rich.”

What is the Gospel evidence that Jesus was, in fact, not a poor beggar but was fairly wealthy, at least by local Galilean standards? Let’s look at a few facts.

Jesus is called a “carpenter” (Mark 6:3) and the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). The Greek term tekton does not mean someone who just saws up pieces of wood and makes things out of them, or does incidental repairs. It really denotes what we today would call a contractor, or builder; the term can also refer to someone who works with stone, or who thatches roofs. Joseph was a well-known businessman of Nazareth, who passed the business along to Jesus and, no doubt, his brothers James, Joses, Judas and Simon. Like all Jewish teachers, Jesus had a trade that brought him an adequate livelihood before he was baptized by John and set out on his traveling mission.

In his three-year preaching career, as Jesus traveled with his disciples, he was adequately provided for. A group of women, one of whom was the wife of one of Herod’s officials, accompanied them to care for their needs (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus chose some men of substance to accompany him; Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were in the fishing business and at least part owners of boats and other equipment. Levi (Mark 2:14), equated with Matthew (Matthew 9:9), was a publican or tax collector; in the Roman system a publican contracted with the government for a certain amount, and then could collect as much as possible and keep the excess for himself. In following Jesus, Levi gave up a comfortable, if despised, life style; he did not come to Jesus out of a state of economic deprivation. If, like the publican Zacchaeus, he gave away part his wealth to the poor and redressed anyone who had been defrauded (Luke 19:8), he doubtless brought the rest into the disciples’ common treasury. That treasury, managed by Judas Iscariot, maintained funds adequate to provide for the poor (John 13:29) as well as for the disciples’ own sustenance.

Sending out the seventy on a mission to preach the kingdom of God and cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-10), Jesus instructed them not to take money with them or extra clothing — an instruction unnecessary unless the disciples already had such things available for their use. When Jesus taught the 5,000 men (plus women and children) at Bethsaida, and needed to provide a meal for them, the disciples proposed to buy food (Luke 9:13), and therefore they must have had sufficient resources to do that.

As his passion approached, Jesus rebuked the suggestion that a jar of expensive ointment with which a woman anointed him might better have been sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor. “You always have the poor with you,” he stated, “and whenever you will, you can do good to them” (Mark 14:4-8). His statement implies not only that the disciples had the means to help the poor, but also that they were not themselves identified with “the poor.”

Finally, as Jesus’s body hung upon the cross, the Roman soldiers, who customarily divided among themselves the clothing of the crucified, demurred at dividing Jesus’s seamless tunic (John 19:20-24). Evidently it was an unusually well made, expensive garment as opposed to the cheaper clothing of their usual victims.

When the Gospel record is consulted for details of this sort, it becomes clear that Jesus Christ, in his earthly ministry in Galilee and Judea, was not the penniless mendicant he has sometimes been made out to be. His suffering was not that of an economically poverty-stricken man, but that of the Son of God who bore the weight of the sin of his people. Critics who deride the so-called “health and wealth” gospel have no warrant for doing so in the recorded life style of Jesus himself.

And, we have to ask, what is the evangelistic impact of something other than a “health and wealth” gospel? How does a “sickness and poverty gospel” strike you? “Look, I serve the Lord and I’m sick and I’m poor — don’t you want to be like me?” You will look in vain for anything like that in the New Testament.


Anonymous said...

In 1 Cor. 4:11-13 Paul responds to Corinthian Christians who boast of their wealth, power, and wisdom. He contrasts himself (and other apostles) by saying, "To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our hands . . . we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world." Then in 4:16-17 he adds, "I urge you, then, be imitators of me . . . of my ways in Christ."

Richard C. Leonard, Ph.D. said...

If you read Paul's entire paragraph, he's speaking sarcastically. For example, he says (4:8), "Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!" Do you really believe Paul meant that any way other than sarcastically? So his comment a few lines further about being "the refuse of the world," etc. is part of his berating the Corinthians for their arrogant sense of self-importance. It's not an exaltation of his own supposed poverty -- and he wasn't a poor beggar; he was able to support his own ministry through his trade, as he points out here and elsewhere. It wasn't poverty he was asking the Corinthians to imitate, but the conciliatory attitude he is trying to exhibit (e.g., verse 5). At any rate, the topic of the blog is the supposed economic poverty of Jesus, which some people think Christians are to imitate. But when Paul says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (11:1), the topic in that context isn't living an impoverished life, but rather avoiding offending other people's consciences.

John H. Armstrong said...

I think "fairly wealthy" is a stretch. I have just done a Luke-Acts study to present a paper on this subject. The poverty aspect is assume and you are correct to challenge it. But he did seem to rely on others for food and housing a great deal. He was not "abjectly poor" I would say but he was not "fairly wealthy" as in upper middle class (in our modern sense), which this terms suggests to me at a minimum.

Richard C. Leonard, Ph.D. said...

I may have overstated the case somewhat to make a point, but I still hold that Jesus was not "poor" by the standards of his environment. He had material resources available to him, as I outlined, that went beyond what might be expected for "the poor." He was even accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard" (Matthew 11:19) because of his non-ascetic lifestyle. In any case, it's good finally to have posted a blog that has received some comments!