Was Jesus rich or poor? If you’re asking this question for your own justification, the answer matters very little. But if you’re asking because you truly want to know more about Jesus, the answer matters very much. And here’s why.
One of my favourite things is to imagine what Jesus is like, especially his human aspects. While God reveals who he is through the Bible, there are certain elements that aren’t as emphasized: What kind of humour does he have? What might he have looked like? What did he enjoy eating? Because these questions pertain to Christ’s human nature, they help me to relate to Jesus in a more personal way. Of course, many of these will remain unanswered until I get to meet him in person one day (1 John 3:2), but sometimes, these seemingly trivial questions lead to a deeper understanding of his character in a way that is so endearing. This is exactly what happened when I recently read a statement.
In African Christian Ethics, Dr Kunhiyop (2008, 138) writes that Jesus himself was poor. That statement caught my attention. At that point, I thought Dr Kunhiyop made an assertion with which I did not wholeheartedly agree. Permit me to explain my initial hesitance.
- When Jesus was still a little child, the Magi from the East, well-knowing who Jesus was, presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). The symbolic meaning of these gifts warrants a different discussion, but the main point I would like to emphasize, is the great value of these items, all of which were fit for a king! Though Scripture does not itemise the volume or quantities, in light of celebrating the King of kings, I suspect that these were substantial presentations.
- Jesus wore a seamless undergarment, which was very expensive and typically worn by wealthy people. This explains why the Roman soldiers opted to cast lots for the garment instead of tearing it so that its value would be preserved (John 19:23–24).
- Lastly, arguing from a point of contention, if we identify sin as the root cause of poverty, how then, can we say that Jesus, who was without sin, was poor?
While the above objections are often adopted by those who dangerously promote prosperity ministry, I have since found sufficient evidence to suggest the opposite.
- Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. When the time came to present Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, Mary had to offer a sacrifice in accordance with the purification laws (Lev 12:6–8). Instead of offering a lamb, she is only able to afford a pair of doves, a minimum requirement for those who were poor (Luke 2:24, 39).
- In Luke 8:3, we see that followers of Jesus supported his ministry financially. If Jesus was rich, would he not have used all he owned to finance his own ministry? Mark 10:21 offers a clue. Here, Jesus challenges the rich man to sell all his possessions, give it to the poor and follow him. But what if it wasn’t only about discipleship? What if Jesus challenged him also to do as he did!?
Having now presented support for both views, the question persists: Was Jesus poor or rich? I don’t always get instant answers, but in this case, that’s exactly what happened. No sooner had I objected to Dr Kunhiyop’s statement when the Holy Spirit led me within mere minutes to a Scripture that I have read a thousand times and never ‘saw’.
“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 through his poverty might become rich.”
2 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV). [Italics added].
And there it is. Crystal clear! So, we can say that Jesus was poor. However, it should be stressed that Paul’s reference here surpasses the realm of money and underlines a Messiah, who became poor in many other ways. But more importantly, this Scripture reveals something else about Christ’s nature; he chose to become poor. Why is this significant?
Because, by surrendering all he had with great humility and sacrificial love, Jesus’ work to take mankind’s sin upon himself, was made perfect. In other words, if Jesus overcame mankind’s punishment without paying the full penalty for our sins as fully human, His salvation would not have been righteous. Instead, Christ emptied himself, fully glorifying God the Father (Phil 2:6-8). And by ‘giving up’ all that is rightfully his, the full force of the due punishment for man’s sin, including the curse of poverty (Gen 3:17-19), was obediently and willingly taken upon himself, so that we would be justified. At this point, I would like to invite you to just let that sink in a little.
That the Messiah was poor, was a difficult thing for first-century Jews to accept. But his poverty facilitated another purpose. Jesus was so revolutionary and counter-cultural, that he represented the exact opposite of everything people expected to see from the Messiah. Instead, Jesus always relied on God the Father to provide for all his daily needs, encouraging us to live by faith. May this be the example we follow as we rely on him for our daily bread.
Kunhiyop, Samuel W. 2008. African Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Short Bio: Hello! I’m Rosika Delport, a South African currently living in the Netherlands with my husband. I’ve always had a passion for the Bible, but never fully understood Christian doctrines as a whole until I started my undergrad studies at SATS. Most importantly, this journey has been invaluable in my relationship with God. As I continue my studies, it is my hope that He will reveal more of Himself and equip me with all that I need going forward.