Jesus the rich kid brings disturbing news
MEANINGS OF CHRISTMAS
Tuesday 30 December 1997
Our Christmas cards may sanitise and romanticise it, but Jesus was born in a pretty insalubrious place, surrounded by animals and filth, with no one for company except a few rough shepherds. He was, it appears, born poor - a working-class lad from Bethlehem who made good.
Yet closer attention to the Gospels reveals another side to Jesus which is much more comfortable - even middle-class. Remember that Jesus was only born in a stable because the hotels were fully booked. Mary and Joseph could actually afford B&B, so they were clearly not that poor. They had their own transport too . Moreover, when the Wise Men came to visit, they brought quite expensive gifts - gold, frankincense and myrrh have never been cheap.
Ironically, portraiture of Jesus has hidden his true class origins to our detriment. It is actually probably quite important that we see Jesus as being born into a relatively comfortable world. Consider the evidence. Mary and Joseph had the money to flee to Egypt and live abroad for a few years, in order to escape Herod's wrath. Generally, the poor do not have these resources at their disposal. Carpentry was more of a skilled building industry than a basic utility trade: wood was fundamental to the structure of most housing. Indeed Italian scholars have recently re-translated the word used for Joseph's profession - tekton - suggesting that he was more of a chartered surveyor than a wood-carver.
The Holy Family could afford a pilgrimage or two. Jesus was educated; well educated, in fact - he almost certainly spoke three languages, Aramaic, Hebrew and probably Greek, and had the financial resources to learn to read and write, and trained as a rabbi. He developed the social skills to be at home with all classes of people - from the poor, to middle class families like that of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and to wealthy members of the community. Even at his death, he owned an expensive seamless robe, and his body was smuggled away by one of his richer followers, a foreign merchant, to be given a "decent" burial.
Further support for this thesis comes, strangely enough, from Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, book iii,20. The writer, quoting a first-century source, says that the descendants of Jesus's family were rounded up during a persecution, with a view to their land being confiscated. Eusebius tells us that "they had enough to be self- sufficient". Not really wealthy, but certainly comfortable.
So if Jesus was from a good, Jewish, middle-class background, what are the implications for Christians? Ironically, they are far more disturbing than if he had been born poor. It would appear that Jesus, in his ministry, turned his back on his class roots, and chose poverty. "Blessed are the poor: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Jesus knew something of both sides of the equation when he said that a rich man would struggle to gain entry into heaven; he assumed the poor would be there by right.
Jesus made friends amongst the poor - sinners, prostitutes, the mentally ill, widows - and he invariably challenged the wealthy over their pride and complacency. The Christian paradigm, in Jesus at least, is "Sell all you have", "Take no gold and silver for the journey", and always bless the beggar, the homeless and the hungry. It's radical stuff, and it's anti-bourgeois. No wonder he got on people's nerves.
The early Christian Socialists - men like F.D. Maurice, Stewart Headlam and John Ludlow - understood that God discriminated for the poor, and shared something of the radical nature of Jesus's chosen social incarnation. They worked with Chartists, radicals and other organisations to bring justice for the working class. They argued for universal suffrage, set up colleges and co-operatives, and laboured for the labourer. It was a costly agenda: Maurice lost a Chair in Theology at King's College, London for his trouble. Yet he never lost sight of the imperative: the poor were God's cause, and a truly socialist society would never abandon them.
At Christmastide, we remember the Shepherds and the Wise Men who came bearing gifts for a king. What they found instead was an ordinary family, but in temporary accommodation, struggling with a new baby. It must have been quite a shock. The Wise Men had tried Herod's palace first, but found they got the wrong address. Yet the Gospels record that they still gave their gifts, expensive as they were, and left them at the poor and lowly stable.
In their own way, they too were quite radical, and they throw a question back to us. What gifts will we give to the homeless, the displaced, the poor and the marginalised? The question isn't meant to be a tax bombshell. Yet our response to the coming of Jesus must indeed "cost not less than everything".
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