God came among us in poverty and need, to tell us that in serving the poor, we will show our love for him. From this night onward, as a poet wrote, “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love” (Emily Dickinson, Poems, XVII).
Most of the portrayals of the birth of Jesus lead to a false impression. Clean-swept stables that sanitise and romanticise poverty; a country-style birth straight from the pages of a Laura Ashley catalogue. The truth is probably more shocking; Jesus was surrounded by animals and filth, with nought for company save a few rough shepherds. Jesus, it appears, was 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 (ok, it was only 1 bhp). Moreover, when the Wise Men came to visit, they brought quite expensive gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh have never been cheap. What do you suppose Jesus’ parents did with these gifts? Was it a case of (a) can’t believe our luck – hide immediately for a rainy day (b) straight to the pawnbrokers, or (c) they’ll go nicely on the mantelpiece, next to the other ornaments?
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. The Holy Family could afford a pilgrimage or two, and in Luke’s Gospel were enjoying it so much that they didn’t even notice that Jesus was missing. Jesus was educated; well educated, in fact. There were no comprehensive schools in Nazareth, but Jesus had the financial resources to learn reading and writing, and trained as a Rabbi. Even at his death, he owned an expensive seamless robe, and his body was smuggled away by a foreign merchant to be given a ‘decent’ burial.
Further support for this thesis comes, strangely enough, from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book III:20. The writer, quoting a first century source, says that the descendants of Jesus 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 believed 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. Its radical stuff, and its anti-bourgeois. No wonder he got on people’s nerves.
The early Christian Socialists such as F.D. Maurice, Stewart Headlam and John Ludlow understood that God discriminated for the poor, and shared something of the radical nature of Jesus’ chosen social incarnation. They worked with Chartists, radicals and other organisations to bring justice for the working class. The 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 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.
But what about the rest of Bethlehem? Nothing. Not a sausage. Life goes on. The inn opens and closes: ‘last orders, please’ is said in Bethlehem just as it is over the road. And into this busy world, Jesus comes amongst us. New life is born in the busy Inn that was too full to accommodate a pregnant woman and her new husband. No-one notices anything special.
Later, Jesus’ own friends and acquaintances will look at him and say ‘is this not the carpenter’s son?’. For them, there is nothing special about an ordinary lad making extraordinary claims, and beginning to beat the Wise Men at their own game. In their own way, they 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’.
This question isn’t a political party matter. But it is a spiritual, moral and social matter. Our response to the Epiphany of Jesus, and of the poor, must indeed ‘cost not less than everything’. It is as Brother Roger of Taize said – ‘he does not ask for too much; but he does ask for everything’. This is discipleship. And that’s why I especially like this prayer for the new year.
for giving yourself to the world
not in the powerful and extraordinary
but in weakness and the familiar:
in a baby; in bread and wine.
for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning;
for setting, in the poverty of stable,
the richest jewel of your love;
for revealing, in a particular place,
your light for all nations …
for bringing us to Bethlehem, House of Bread,
where the empty are filled,
and the filled are emptied;
where the poor find riches,
and the rich recognize their poverty;
where all who kneel and hold out their hands
are unstintingly fed.