When it comes to wealth and poverty, “What would Jesus do?” Perhaps a better question would be, “What did Jesus do?” What was the example of our Savior as he lived in the material world, as he interacted with the things and people who fill it?
Certainly, we need to follow the example of Jesus. As Christians (literally, “little Christs”), we ought to be interested in both what Jesus said and what he did. However, when it comes to living in the material world and being Christ-like, interpreting the biblical example of Jesus can be challenging. This is not because Jesus was inconsistent in his example; it is because Christ’s interaction with the material world was so wide ranging.
In reading the Gospels, we can focus on Jesus’ poverty. There is a sense in which Christ’s incarnation itself was an impoverishing act. Indeed, in order to take on human flesh and dwell among sinful people and the filth of this world, Jesus had to set aside the wealth of heaven. This was Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:7, where he wrote that Jesus “emptied himself [of his privileges], by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This same teaching is the essence of this verse,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
We can also see the level of poverty that Jesus experienced by looking at the material state of his family. Most people are familiar with the details of Christ’s birth since they are recounted and celebrated every Christmas. Jesus’ nativity story includes being born in a foreign city (presumably without family and friends), being placed in a manger (literally a feed trough) and being visited by shepherds— strangers who were considered by most people to be the outcasts of society (see Luke 2:7).
In describing Jesus’ circumcision, Luke reports that Mary and Joseph offered two pigeons as a temple sacrifice for Mary’s purification (see Luke 2:22–24). Leviticus 12:7–8 explains that the usual sacrifice at the time of circumcision was to be a lamb, but if the birth mother could not “afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (Leviticus 12:8). Apparently, then, Jesus’ parents were too poor to offer the customary lamb.
Thus Jesus was born into a family that was part of the lower economic class. We see this material status has not changed 30 years later, during Jesus’ earthly ministry. In a recent post, we cited a number of Jesus’ well-known teachings about wealth and poverty at this time. We should note, too, Jesus’ comments on his own economic status, such as when he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The Gospel narratives bear out this testimony.
It appears that Christ had very little by way of material possessions during his ministry. Consider the following: Jesus…
- preached from borrowed boats,
- multiplied borrowed food,
- rode on a borrowed colt,
- and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
In fact, most of Jesus’ material needs, as well as those of his disciples, were apparently met by donations from a group of devoted women who accompanied him. In his Gospel, Luke refers to “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for [Jesus and his disciples] out of their means” (Luke 8:2–3; see also Mark 15:40–41).
If this description could be taken as a comprehensive summary of how Jesus lived in the material world during his incarnation, we could conclude that his example was one of poverty and that our lives should likewise aim toward poverty. However, we can also read the Gospels with a focus on Jesus’ wealth.
As we just noted, the economic status of Jesus’ family at the time of his birth was clearly one of poverty or near-poverty. Yet, three years later when the magi visited Christ, bringing extremely costly gifts, Jesus’ family was situated in a house, which indicates a probable increase in Mary and Joseph’s economic status (see Matthew 2:11). Later, in Luke 2:41–51, the Gospel writer reports that Mary and Joseph had enough financial stability to travel as a family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast—a journey that was only required of adult males, not entire families (see Exodus 23:17).
The Bible does not explain details about the improved financial status of Jesus’ family; however, it is likely that over time they became part of what we would identify as the economic middle class. Historians tell us Nazareth was a prosperous town, especially for tradesmen, since it was located near the city of Sepphoris, a luxurious Roman vacation destination that was under constant construction. We can surmise that Joseph, being a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), would have benefited from this opportunity for steady employment. Evidently, Jesus eventually took up his father’s trade, since he was later known as “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3).
The Bible also reports that Jesus ministered to and identified with many wealthy and powerful individuals, including Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Levi, and certain unnamed Pharisees. Luke’s Gospel especially highlights Jesus’ enjoyment of food, his acceptance of costly gifts and his keeping company with the wealthy. For example, Luke records Jesus’ attendance at parties and his dining with wealthy individuals (see Luke 5:29–32; 7:36–39; 11:37; 14:1–2). Some of these same themes appear in the Gospel of John, which reports Christ’s first miracle to have occurred at a wedding celebration and later notes Jesus’ acceptance of a gift of costly, luxurious perfume from Mary (see John 2:1–11; 12:1–3). Note Jesus’ testimony regarding himself: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19).
We need to learn to be content in our own material circumstances, whatever they may be.
Based on the example of Jesus’ life, what are we to conclude about living in the material world? During his lifetime, Jesus experienced a range of economic statuses. He would have experienced relative poverty at his birth, a first-century middle-class upbringing prior to embarking on his ministry and then voluntary poverty during his ministry. It is telling to note that Christ never condemned wealth or poverty itself; rather, he confronted sins that often led to wealth or poverty—sins including greed, pride, laziness, injustice and theft, among others. Moreover, Jesus was comfortable with and proficient at interacting with both rich and poor.
What does Jesus’ example mean for us? To be Christ-like, we need to learn to be content in our own material circumstances, whatever they may be (Philippians 4:11). Seeking to change our financial status, whether from poverty to wealth or from wealth to poverty, seems permissible, as long as our motives are godly. Furthermore, it is Christ-like to confront sins that result in an unjust material state, whether it be poverty or wealth. Cultivating the ability to talk with the poor and the rich alike will be a helpful skill as we seek to reach the world with the gospel of Christ.