Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reflections on Poverty

 Parts of this will be in my new book on Facing Adversity with Grace coming out later this spring.

I have to confess that I’ve long had a problem with those who prattle on and on about how poor Jesus was and how destitute the Holy Family must have been. Before anyone has a coronary, I agree that Jesus and the Holy Family were “poor,” but their “poor” and our “poor” aren’t quite the same thing. First of all, in first century Palestine, in fact, in first century almost anywhere, there were only two categories—rich and poor. The  “middle class” didn’t emerge until quite recently in history. Jesus and his family certainly weren’t rich, so by default they were poor. But being poor wasn’t the same as begging at the gates of the city for scraps and even first century Palestine had its share of beggars. Poor was what everyone (except the rich) was. Poor was average.  

To say that the Holy Family lived in abject poverty seems to me to be quite insulting to Joseph. He was a tekton, a skilled workman more along the lines of what we would call a contractor. He wasn’t whittling the occasional little bench or stool for his neighbors in exchange for a handful of grapes. He probably was involved in much larger construction projects, possibly even working in the nearby Roman city of Caesarea where massive public building was going on. If he was unable to adequately provide for his family given his talents and abilities and if they were reduced to begging for handouts from their neighbors, which is what the truly poor had to do, then he shouldn’t be held up as a model for husbands and fathers. The same goes for Mary. If she was such a poor homemaker, unable to manage with what Joseph provided, that the family was the poorest of the poor in their region, then why do we look to her as our role for ideal wife and mother?  

Those who want to call attention to how poor the Holy Family probably aren’t imagining that they lived under a palm branch at the city wall, digging in the garbage for their food and wearing cast-off rags, which is what the truly poor would have been doing. I know that people claim as proof of their destitution the fact Mary and Joseph offered a dove instead of a lamb in the temple at the time of Jesus’ birth. Again, I’m not so sure that’s proof positive of poverty. I personally think it’s more common sense. If you could get the same blessing for buying a dove instead of a lamb, wouldn’t you buy the dove? I may be wrong, but I’ve always thought of their action as more like buying “generic” instead of “name brand.” In addition, I have the hunch that the only people who bought lambs were those who wanted to show just how important and wealthy they were. Mary and Joseph had no need to show off, even if they did have an idea that their son would turn out to be someone quite special, so they didn’t splurge on a lamb.

It seems to me that instead of calling them “poor,”  it is much more realistic to think of the Holy Family as “average,” not the elite with their marbled baths and hummingbird tongue banquets, but a family who had adequate food, sufficient clothing and a satisfactory dwelling to be able to live a normal life. In other words, the Holy Family was pretty much just an ordinary family doing ordinary things. If you are still questioning this, then consider that when Jesus was 12, they traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It wasn’t cheap to travel now and it wasn’t then. They had to pay for the caravan, their food, the temple sacrifice and all the other expenses that come along with a “vacation.” If the Holy Family were truly the poverty-stricken beggars of Nazareth, they wouldn’t have been going anywhere, much less to the capital city for the biggest festival of the year when all the prices would have been elevated to make a profit off the visitors. 

Or think for a bit about the Wedding Feast of Cana. If the Holy Family were the truly poorest folk in the village, why would Mary even presume to talk to the wine servers? She would have been grateful to be allowed into the festival at all, much less get involved with the matters of what was being served. She wouldn’t have been calling attention to herself or her son, but probably sneaking a few morsels into a bag for the next day’s meal. 

As for Jesus himself, it is true that he said he had no place to lie down his head, but again I think he said that for emphasis’ sake. After all, he did have a mother and family back in the old hometown and I’m pretty sure they would have found him a bed and a blanket if he knocked on the door. Moreover, the women who accompanied him and bankrolled his ministry, like Mary Magdalene and the Johanna, the steward’s wife, were wealthy. I can’t imagine that they didn’t provide more than adequately for his needs and those of his disciples. Why else would the gospels make a point of telling us that they were rich?

Jesus might not have had much money of his own, but his ministry was well off enough that he and his disciples had money to give to the poor, since we are told that Judas complained about spending money that could have otherwise been donated. If the disciples themselves actually were the poor, they would have been receiving money, not giving it away. In addition, they had sufficient funds to rent a place for the Last Supper and eat a full-blown Seder meal. Even in those days, the absolutely poverty-stricken couldn’t afford a lamb, much less the rest of a Passover meal. Jesus and the disciples had to have had sufficient funds to afford what amounted to a catered dinner. Finally, the robe he wore to his death was so well made that the soldiers cast lots for it. It couldn’t have been the rags of a beggar or they wouldn’t have bothered keeping it.

I expect some people will be shocked and even angered by this, but my point is not to say that Jesus was rich; he wasn’t. My point is to show that suffering from severe financial hardship doesn’t have to be considered a goal of our lives just because we have been taught that Jesus and the Holy Family were “poor.” Jesus said he came to bring us abundant life, not neediness and poverty. Moreover, being poor and in debt doesn’t automatically create holiness. If it did, the crime rates in slums and inner cities would be lowest anywhere. Of course, wealth brings its own set of temptations and struggles, but the reality is that even saints need money to do their good works, even if they merely have the money long enough to give it away. The only time that poverty is a true blessing is when it is voluntary. Having to worry about where the next meal comes from is suffering, not grace.


  1. Hi Woodeene,
    I think your argument makes perfect sense. I am feeling quite low today, wishing I could attend a writer's conference that I've always wanted to go to. I saved up all year. Then my aunt in Arizona had the audacity to die and I had to fly down for her services. All this makes me think about how in many ways the CBA feels skewed to serve only those with credit cards with huge limits. I hate feeling excluded and I'm not even poor! Maybe the reason I am not going to California for this conference is that God's saying, "Well you could just stay home and write and get better." Do I really need a really long plane trip, an uncomfortable room shared with people who probably snore, bathrooms down the hall and several days of workshops about stuff I already know? Maybe Jesus would tell me to sacrifice a dove instead of a lamb to show I am not forgetting the truly poor of the world. THanks for a great post. Linda Clare

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Linda. Thinking about what poverty is and means has been on my mind for some time.


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