Rethinking Jesus: Jesus was poor

by Kyle
published April 18, 2015


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One of the burning questions people who study the life of Jesus tend to have is what Jesus was like before the beginning of his public ministry.

John and Mark’s gospels begin the story of Jesus with his baptism. Matthew and Luke give great details on his birth and Luke’s gospel shares a brief story from Jesus’ adolescence, but still there is very little information to go on.

Ancient readers probably wouldn’t have cared like we do. Modern biographies delve into the details of a person’s childhood. Some memoirs focus on childhood exclusively. We’re fascinated with how people became who they are. On the other hand, biographies of the 1st Century tended to focus only on the public life of the biography’s subject. Occasionally, if the person’s birth was the result of or took place in extraordinary circumstances, the biographer might include the details of his birth (as Matthew and Luke did). The years a public figure spent in obscurity were seldom investigated or reported in ancient Greco-Roman culture.

One thing is clear, though. Jesus was as blue-collar as they come. There are three key verses — and one that is missing — that give a picture of what Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood were like.

Luke 2:22-24 notes Mary and Joseph, following the Mosaic law, presented a sacrifice in the temple to consecrate Jesus as the firstborn, but offered either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Except, the prescribed sacrifice for the firstborn son was a lamb. According to Leviticus 12:8, only if the parents were poor could they offer the two birds.

Either Mary and Joseph were cheapskates, or they were actually poor. That they were poor is more likely. Jesus grew up in a poor home.

The verse subtly left out is the one that says anything about Jesus’ stepfather Joseph. After the birth accounts, and a few lines in Luke 2 when Jesus was 12, nothing about Joseph is mentioned at all. We see Jesus’ brothers, and his mother, but his stepfather is nowhere to be seen in any of the Gospels. He isn’t mentioned in John or Mark at all, and he isn’t found anywhere beyond the second chapters of Matthew and Luke.

Many scholars believe Joseph died sometime before Jesus’ baptism, perhaps in his adolescence. Jesus might have grown up, at least partly, in a single-parent home.

Mark 6:3 notes that before his ministry, Jesus was a carpenter or craftsman of some kind. Some scholars (ones I disagree with) have argued based on this fact that Jesus wasn’t even educated enough to read. At the very least, the people who listened to Jesus preach didn’t expect him to be able to read Old Testament Scriptures, much less to teach them as adeptly and powerfully as Jesus did because a carpenter typically didn’t have that kind of education.

Though I think there is some compelling evidence to believe that Jesus could read, he certainly didn’t have the years and years of formal training the Pharisees he so often confronted had. Before his public ministry, Jesus earned a small, modest living as a carpenter with little formal education.

Finally, in Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When he began his public ministry, Jesus moved from place to place frequently. The only money he had was given to him by supporters, so he probably could not afford to stay at an inn wherever he went. When he stayed in a house, it was always as a guest.

Once he began his public ministry, Jesus was essentially homeless.

None of this is meant to make the rich feel guilty. Instead, consider what we typically expect from a poor kid from a single-parent home in a small town with no upper-level education who lived on the streets. Would you expect that he happened also to be the King of the Universe? Neither did most people who met Jesus because Jesus’ identity was rooted in his spiritual realities rather than in his physical circumstances.

Jesus asked us to let him teach us precisely because he is “humble and gentle at heart.” Scripture commands those who love Jesus to adopt his attitude (Philippians 2:5) and to become conformed to his image (Romans 8:29). Jesus himself said “a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40)

I know a problem I have is to try and look smarter, richer, more put-together and generally better than I really am, even though I already have more education, money and stability in my life than Jesus had. Do you struggle with that? How often do you try to lift yourself above Jesus? Instead, let’s just follow someone like Jesus. When we do, we really won’t have anything we need to prove. Our identities and fullness of life can be found where Jesus found his. We can just live the kinds of lives God wants for us.

What do you think?

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