Monday, February 21, 2011

Jesus' Humiliation: Birth in Poverty

We are meditating on the humility of Jesus.

In previous postings, we set the stage to show the humility of Jesus in his voluntary humiliation. Now we are ready to look at the humiliation itself. The humiliation of Jesus has several steps. His humiliation would climax on the cross where it was severe and mind boggling. Leading to the cross was a life of raw suffering by the Man of Sorrows who was acquainted with grief.

First: his birth in poverty.

He Had Been Rich

Jesus had been rich. For our sakes, he chose poverty.

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 Cor 8:9)

Jesus had glory with the Father before the world existed. (Jn 17:5) From eternity, he was with God, in the bosom of the Father. He was a member of the Trinity, love’s eternal home, the home of perfect love. He left his riches.

Born in Poverty

Mary and Joseph were nobodies in the world’s eyes, and they were not well off.

Though he was the King, though he owned “the cattle on a thousand hills,” (Ps 50:10), Jesus was born in a barn. He was laid in straw in a manger. Maybe the straw was, umm, clean. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the smell was something. He was wrapped in strips of cloth, not store-bought, cute and cuddly baby clothes.

Two kinds of people visited him in his infancy: poor shepherds and foreigners, the wise men from the East. King Herod knew the King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem. That was walking distance from Jerusalem. No doubt Herod had a carriage or chariot. He didn’t visit. He was troubled by the birth of Jesus, and all Jerusalem was troubled with him. (Mt 2:3) They all knew about his birth, but none of them visited. He was beneath them.

He’s a Real Nowhere Man

The Beatles sang, “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land.” Jesus was a nowhere man in a nowhere town for 30 of his 33 years.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth. This town was mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament. Besides that, it was mentioned nowhere in the Apocrypha (additional scriptures accepted by major branches of Christianity), nowhere by Josephus (the noted ancient Jewish historian), and nowhere in the Talmud (a central text of mainstream Judaism). American archeologist James Strange estimated that the population at the time of Jesus was no more than 480.[1]

Bad Reputation

“The people of Nazareth had established a rather poor reputation in morals and religion.”[2] The no-account and evil reputation of Nazareth is reflected in Nathaniel’s reaction to Philip’s claim that he had found the Messiah.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:45-46)

That was not a question. That was a statement. Nothing good can come out of Nazareth.

The region around Nazareth was considered bad, and Nazareth was its worst. Nazareth was in Galilee, and Galilee is called not “Galilee of the Jews,” but “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “Galilee of the Nations.” (Is 9:1) In other words, Jews of Judea hardly considered Galilee, much less Nazareth, part of their country. It was “of the Nations,” not of Israel.

So here is a 30 year old carpenter from a nowhere town with a bad reputation in a land of Gentiles who owns no property but the clothes he is wearing, and he is supposed to be the King of the Jews. Fat chance, says Nathanael.

Lower than the Animals

After seeing Jesus perform miracles, a scribe came to Jesus and tried to enlist as a disciple. He said, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.'' Jesus did not turn him away, but he wanted the man to know what he was letting himself in for.

And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'' (Mt 8:20)

Nowhere to lay his head. Jesus, while inaugurating his kingdom with miracles, was still the nowhere man.

Jesus is the Son of God and the King of the Gospel. But in answering that scribe, Jesus called himself the Son of Man. Jesus demoted himself in title. He demoted himself in property. He demoted himself in comfort. His words placed him not only lower than God; they even point lower than animals.

Though the humble animals can count on places of rest and comfort, Jesus, who possesses unparalleled authority, nevertheless will not carry out a ministry that secures this comfort and stability for himself or (by implication) for his disciples.[3]

Other people had regular houses, but not Jesus. In one scene we see that, “Everyone went to his own house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” (Jn 7:53-8:1)

Our Greed and His Poverty

When Jesus' parents appeared for Mary's purification in the Temple, they offered a pair of turtledoves. (Lk 2:24) This was the usual offering of the poor. "If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves." (Lev 12:8) When Jesus was challenged to pay the Temple tax, he did not have a shekel. He had a disciple get one, by miracle, from the mouth of a fish. (Mt 17:27) When he died, he made no will. He had no burial plot, no tomb. A secret disciple put his body in one of his tombs. (Lk 23:50-53) He could not provide for his mother. From the cross he put her into the care of his disciple. "And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home." (Jn 19:27) Jesus had no home.

Today we think it is awful suffering to be foreclosed out of a $400,000 house and be forced to rent a $175,000 house. We live above ourselves. We do not act our wage. Ours is only a case of being brought to our right station.

But Jesus was the King of the Gospel. He should have been exalted. But he was brought low into poverty, into nowhere, into bad reputation. He was not a victim. This was not forced on him. His own humility brought on his humiliation. He made himself poor, “so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)

1.  E. Meyers & J. Strange, Archaeology, the Rabbis, & Early Christianity Nashville: Abingdon, 1981; Article “Nazareth” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
2.  Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, p. 574.
3.  Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, Concordia Commentary, pp. 433-34.


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