Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Was Jesus rich?

CNN carries a report over the debate over whether was Jesus rich. Some preachers of prosperity teaching claim that Jesus was rich (edited from CNN's report):

1) Jesus received lucrative gifts -- gold, frankincense and myrrh -- at birth.

2) Mary and Joseph, lived and traveled in style. Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey. Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation.

3) The 12th chapter of the Gospel of John says that Jesus had a treasurer, or a "keeper of the money bag...poor people don't have treasurers to take care their money.

4) Jesus said you will always have the poor, but you will not always have me. Jesus did not affirm himself as being part of the poor class...he was the richest man on the face of the earth because he had God as his source.

5) Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothing while he hung on the cross. They wouldn't gamble for Jesus' clothing unless it was expensive.

6) Jesus never would have had disciples or a large following if he was poor. He would not have been able to command their respect. The poor will follow the rich, the rich will follow the rich, but the rich will never follow the poor.

CNN also interviewed Luke Timothy Johnson and Bruce W. Longenecker, two established experts on the ancient world of the New Testament.

Johnson responded to point 6, "So Martin Luther King must have been a millionaire. Crowds followed Siddhartha Buddha and he was poor. And mobs followed Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi wore a diaper, for God's sake."

He inadequately responded to point 5, "Crucifixion was the sort of execution carried out for slaves and for rebels. It wasn't an execution for wealthy people."

Longenecker remarked that about 90 percent of the population at that time lived in poverty. There was no middle class. "In the ancient world, you were relatively poor or filthy rich, there's very little in-between."

Without responding to any of the points raised by the preachers of prosperity teaching, Longenecker dismisses them, "The only way you can make Jesus into a rich man is by advocating torturous interpretations and by being wholly naive historically."

I think both experts are more than adequate to answer all those points but I'm not sure why they did not. Since there are 5 points which are not addressed, I'll try to do that here.

RE 1) Since we do not know the amount of gift received, we can't determine whether are those gifts enough to make the family wealthy. But there are evidents show that the family remained poor.

RE 2) Riding on donkey doesn't indicate in any degree the economic status of Joseph and Mary. The donkey could be borrowed to carry the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Borrowing donkey seems not uncommon as Jesus himself borrowed one to ride into Jerusalem to enact Zechariah's prophecy (Mat 21.1-5 / Zech 9.9). Even if having a donkey is an indication of wealth, then the fact that Jesus needed to borrow a donkey shows that he was not wealthy enough to have one as his own.

RE 3) It is wrong to give the deceptive impression that Jesus alone had a treasurer. Jesus was an itinerant preacher who traveled in a big group. There were as many as 72 followers around him at one time (Luk 10.1). It was the entire group that had a treasurer as it was necessary to manage the donated resources to sustain the group (Luk 8.3).

RE 4) Mark 14.7-8: "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial." Jesus' emphasis here was not differentiating economic class between him and the poor but the temporariness of his presence. The story is a lesson for his disciples to cherish the little time left to spend with Jesus. So no dimension of economic class was in view here.

RE 5) Clothing in that era and place was scarce. There was no 'Great Jerusalem Sale' every three months when middle-class citizens hoard clothing at shopping complexes to stuff their already over-blotted wardrobe. Cloth was rare. That was why John the Baptist urged his followers to share tunic (Luke 3.11). So it was common for Roman soldiers gambled to get hold of their captives' clothing for their own use.

RE 6) The logic doesn't correspond to many examples in real life. Sometimes a lot of richer people follow the poor. Johnson gave some examples. Another example is that there are many readers of this blog who are richer than a poor student yet 'follow' this blog. The point is that people follow whatever that interest them and not necessarily for economic purposes. In the case of this blog, I think people follow it for funny and perhaps sometimes insightful information. And I hope it is indeed.

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