Jesus was Middle Class

Bill O'Reilly's recent book Killing Jesus reflects a traditional stereotype that everyone in the Gospel story was poor. Among many historically inaccuracies, O'Reilly writes in his Chapter 5 that fish and red meat would be rare in Jesus' diet in Nazareth and that many Galileans suffered from malnutrition.

Yet one of the names for the Sea of Galilee, Genneseret, means, "garden of riches." Consider the historian Josephus' contemporary description of Galilee:

"Thanks to the rich soil, there is not a plant that does not flourish there, and the inhabitants grow everything...walnuts...flourish in abundance, as do palms...side by side with figs and olives...not only does it produce the most surprisingly diverse fruits; it maintains a continuous supply. Those royal fruits the grape and fig it furnishes for ten months on end." (The Jewish War, Josephus Flavius, Book 3, Ch. VI)

Yet somehow the Gospel story is not complete without portraying Jesus as unfamiliar with a good meal. Recall that the abundant fish of the Mediterranean and lakes were shared among a much smaller human population then and were not overfished. The trade in Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee fish was region-wide. The large number of herders in the region made red meat available. Josephus' mention specifically of walnuts, figs, and olives suggests wealth, not any lack of grains and fruits.

Over the centuries, church thinking has turned poverty into nearly a sacrament. So it becomes impossible to refer to people in the Bible without exaggerating how poor they were. Holiness demands proof of poverty to establish legitimacy.

Glamorizing poverty encourages more suffering and the spread of poverty by depriving the poor of opportunities for practical help. The best thing we can do for the poor is help them no longer be poor, not laud them in song and story. The poor would rather have a new business to give them a job than hear poems and toasts romanticizing their poverty.

Recall that the Catholic Church operates the largest network of non-government schools in the world. Training the poor with marketable skills -- maybe a vocation like carpentry -- would be easily within Pope Francis' grasp. The popular Pope would need only to mount a massive fundraising campaign rivaling the $74 billion-dollar Clinton Global Initiative. No one knows what Bill Clinton does with billions bilked from gullible celebrities. But schools for the poor would be an easy sell.

Jesus was a skilled craftsman, a carpenter, in a region where wood was more of a premium material than we think of today. Americans are used to vast forests. Then, carpentry was more of an art. Modern tools, fittings, stains, glues, and measurement were not available. One could not buy a bag of standardized ten-penny nails at Home Depot, but painstakingly fashioned wooden pins one at a time. One could not afford to waste wood. In Galilee, valuable cedar was imported from Lebanon.

The Bible reports that Jesus was referred to as "the carpenter's son." His father Joseph would have trained his first-born. Children worked. Apprenticeship in a trade was their education, along with study of the scriptures. One would have to view Jesus as a totally irresponsible son not to faithfully and diligently continue the family carpentry shop -- at least before His ministry for His other Father. In fact, Jesus preached on a son's responsibility to his parents.

Joseph lived among Jews but had rich Greeks among his clientele. Across the valley from Nazareth was the huge Greek luxury city of Sepphoris where wealthy ruling-class households offered a steady demand for upscale, high-priced furniture. Rich communities in the Eastern Roman Empire demanded luxury on a scale that even our decadent ruling class today can scarcely imagine. A carpentry business in the vicinity of Sepphoris would attract high-paying clients with great quantities of business.

So Jesus was middle class, probably upper middle-class, on a level comparable to an accountant or an architect in today's society. O'Reilly allows that Jesus probably worked in the Sepphoris building boom in its later years, yet thinks Jesus rarely ate fish or meat. If Jesus worked on-site building houses, he spent a lot of time around wealthy Greeks. He could afford to eat hearty, would dress suitably for a worker visiting an upscale community, and would maintain good relations in business with rich people.

The Bible tells us that at Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary were staying in a stable with the animals and laid the newborn Jesus in a manger. But that was not because they were poor, but "because there was no room at the inn." Clearly, Joseph was not so rich to afford two camels for the journey, but he was not so poor as to go without a donkey for Mary to ride, plus other costs of the trip. Bethlehem was overcrowded because of the edict of Caesar Augustus requiring everyone to register for a census in their home city. Pregnant Mary's journey on a donkey was certainly slow. Without cell phones to call ahead and make a reservation on a credit card, they arrived in Bethlehem later than others. Had there been a room available, Joseph would have rented it. But that wasn't God's plan.

Elitists assume that anyone who does not live in a city like Manhattan must be an ignorant country rube. Some agricultural regions overflow with prosperity as the bread baskets supplying cities. Yet they are assumed to be eating dirt.

Pope Francis' Christmas message repeated the canard that Jesus' birth was announced to shepherds who in society were considered "among the last, the outcast." But Israel's greatest icons from Abraham to Jacob (Israel) to King David were shepherds. Some speculate that shepherds' duties kept them from religious observances, so they were unclean. But almost every occupation demanded careful preparation for the Sabbath and festivals. Most Jews had livestock or animals to feed every day, yet found a way to work around that during religious events.

Of course, the intent is to make everyone feel welcome. This is all an attempt to make Christianity more accessible. Without question, Christianity offers hope for the poor and downtrodden as a central tenet. The relevance of wealth and poverty in the Kingdom of God is that they are irrelevant. Unlike other, prior religions, one's importance in this life means absolutely nothing to God.

Jesus spent a lot of time demolishing with harsh words the strong belief that the rich and powerful of His day were more favored by God than the masses. Moreover, God will compensate the faithful in paradise for whatever they lack and suffer here on Earth.

A vital and cherished principle of Christianity is that all of humanity stands on equal footing, regardless of social class, wealth, nationality, education, or background. Giving hope to those who are poor and suffering, when life is hard and unsatisfying, is one of the greatest legacies of Jesus Christ to humanity.

However, the idolatry of poverty hinders a clear understanding of Christianity. Jesus preached devotion to God above all else. But the poverty cult exalts being poor, not worship of God. In fact, God is downplayed, ignored, and forgotten. The only "poor" person who doesn't matter to the poverty cult is Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, Jesus taught that anything can be a sinful trap. It is not only material wealth which tempts us. Jesus famously taught that we cannot serve two masters. But money was only one example of such divided loyalty. Christianity means that God is Lord and King of all. Money isn't everything.

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