2-7 The Poverty Of Jesus

Rich Man In A Poor Man's Shirt

Jesus was poor (1). He was from Nazareth, a village of between 200 to 2,000 people, about 7 km. away from Sepphoris, a city of 40,000. And He would have gone through the process of socialization which anyone does who lives in a village under the shadow of the big town. He is described as a tekton  or manual worker (" carpenter" in many translations). " A tekton was at the lower end of the peasant class, more marginalized than a peasant who owned a small piece of land. We should not think of a tekton as being a step up from a subsistence farmer; rather, a tekton belonged to a family that had lost its land" (2) . The problem was that the Jewish authorities insisted that the tithes were still paid, and these could amount to around 20% of agricultural income. But the Romans added their own heavy taxation system on top of this. Farmers had to pay a 1% land tax, plus  a 12% crop tax on produce, as well as various other custom, toll and tribute taxes. For those who wished to be obedient to the Government as well as the Jewish law, there was a total taxation of around 35%. Those who could no longer pay their taxes to Rome lost their land, and a tekton was one in this class. It has been noted: “Some peasant who were forced from their lands turned to carpentry as a profession”(3). A case has even been made that the term "Abba" ['daddy'] was specifically "from lower class Palestinian piety" (4). If this is so, then we see yet another window into the poverty of the Lord Jesus, extending even to the kind of language He used to address His Father in prayer. So Jesus was Himself marginalized, the poorest of the poor [perhaps because of paying all the required taxes and not being dishonest], in one of the poorest corners of the Roman empire. The poor needn't think of Jesus as so Heavenly that He doesn't know their crises; the crises that come from not having food or money, the problems of drought, the worry about the weather, the rains not coming, the problem of broken equipment and worn out clothes and shoes, the distress that a little brother is sick, there's medicine in the nearby town, but no money for it...He knows. He really does. He can and does relate to all this. And it's why He is so especially watchful, according to His own teaching, of how we respond to those in such need. It means a lot to Him; because as a poor man, He must have known what it was to receive charity, to be given a few eggs by a neighbour, some milk from a kind woman down the street. When He taught " Blessed are the poor...the hungry" , He immediately had a realness and credibility. For all the poor want to be better off. But He was so self-evidently content with who He was. The poor also want a bit more security for the future than just knowing that they have enough food for today. Yet Jesus could teach people to pray only for the food they needed for each day. And they were to forgive their debtors. This was radical stuff for people who lived a generally hand to mouth existence as day labourers and subsistence farmers. Only if Jesus was real and credible would people have flocked to hear Him and taken His teaching seriously. The fact He preached to the poor was a sign that He was indeed Messiah (Lk. 7:22); the context of that passage suggests it was something totally unusual, that a religious leader should bother with the poor. Serious religion was some kind of hobby for those rich enough to be able to spare the time for it. But Jesus turned all this upside down; He, the poor man, preached to the poor, and showed them that God and salvation was truly for them more than anyone else. 

That God's Son could be a normal working class person actually says a lot about the humility of God Himself. Jn. 5:17 has been translated: "My Father is a working man to this day, and I am a working man myself". No less an authority than C.H. Dodd commented: "That the Greek words could bear that meaning is undeniable" (5). I find especially awsome the way Mary mistakes the risen Lord for a lowly gardener- He evidently dressed Himself in the clothes of a working man straight after His resurrection, a far cry from the haloed Christ of high church art.

And yet if ever there was the rich man in the poor man's shirt, it was Jesus. The cross is imaged as Jesus the rich man making Himself a pauper for our sakes. He could have asked His Father for anything; He could have had all the Kingdoms of the world and their wealth. Just for the sake of an internal submission within His brain cells to the desire to have it all. That's how close wealth and prosperity was for Jesus. Why, then, did He allow Himself to remain poor, when He must have seen His family so suffering? Surely it was because He wanted to be able to relate not only to the materially poor, but to those who are marginalized and desperate in any  sense. It's not surprising that Paul comments that the majority of those who respond to the Gospel are poor; and the Lord Himself commented that " to the poor the Gospel is preached" . Indeed, it is noticeable that His preaching campaigns in Galilee were focused on dirt poor villages and hamlets that were no more than a huddle of houses; there is no mention of Him tackling the big Galilean cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias which were the more obvious ones to go for strategically. Here was someone the poor can relate to. And the massive explosion of the Truth in our times has very largely been amongst the poor of this world. Not just the economically strapped, but those poor in spirit too. Why? Because the real Jesus is our representative, which means He is someone we can truly relate to. My concern is, though, that although we have so rightly understood Jesus as our representative, we may not feel that identity with Him in practice, because we haven't allowed ourselves [or quite simply, haven't made the effort] to really know and image Him as a person. Our search for Bible truth has perhaps left us Bible-centred, whereas in the business of practical life we are to be Jesus-centred. 

The special identity of Jesus with the poor is reflected in His parable of the sheep and goats. We will be judged upon our treatment of “the least” of the Lord’s brethren; yet the description of “the least” brethren exactly match the Lord’s own experience in His death- one who is imprisoned (Mt. 26:50), sick (Mt. 27:26), naked (Mt. 27:35), thirsty (Mt. 26:29; 27:48), friendless like a stranger (Mt. 26:56). In responding to “the least” of the Lord’s brethren, we are responding to His cross. For our brethren, in their poverty, nakedness and imprisonment, are fellowshipping the sufferings of their Lord. 



(1) However the suggestion has been made that because Jesus increased in favour with men, He may have gotten on quite well in His secular life. Paul speaks about how although Jesus was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor [a pauper, Gk.] that we through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). I find those words hard to conclusively interpret. Clearly the reference is to the 'poverty' of the cross, that we might be spiritually rich- for He doesn't enable us to get materially rich through following Him. And yet the context of Paul's words is about the need to give up our material riches for Christ's people, and he cites the example of Jesus to inspire us in this.

(2) Geza Vermes, Jesus The Jew (New York: Macmillan, 1973). It has also been observed that the choice to reveal the good news of Christ to the shepherds first of all was surprising; for these too were the poorest of the poor, deprived [along with tax collectors] of Jewish rights. They belonged to the " most despised" of all social groups. See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem In The Time Of Jesus  (London: S.C.M., 1969) p. 304; Richard Horsley, The Liberation Of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives In Social Context (New York: Crossroad, 1989) pp. 102-106. Mk. 6:56 speaks of His preaching campaign as focusing on the towns, villages and " country" - in modern terms, the villages, hamlets and isolated rural dwellings. He made the effort to get out to the individuals, the poorest and loneliest of  society. Likewise it was the mentally sick who were the main group to 'know him to be the Christ' (Mk. 1:33 RVmg.). And it was a woman, and one with a history of mental illness, who was chosen as the first and leading witness of His resurrection. And women had no legal power as witnesses.

(3)  Andries van Aarde, Fatherless In Galilee (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001) p. 75.

(4) James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980) p. 27. Other New Testament references to our calling God "Abba" are to be understood as our doing so insofar as we possess "the spirit of Christ" and come to the Father in prayer as Jesus once did.

(5) C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation Of The Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1960) p. 4.




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