Prosperity and Jesus
I apologise if this ruins your idea of the perfect Christmas nativity complete with heartless inn-keepers but it is much more likely that the story of Jesus’s birth was just one in a long line of prosperity miracles.
You’d expect that from a Son of God really, wouldn’t you? It’s plain silly to think someone as clear, loving and powerful as Jesus was broke. And yet we are still infected with the idea that Jesus was poor and that, if we are ‘good’ people, we should follow that very same path.
In the Christian world, the most often quoted objection to spiritual prosperity is not from Jesus at all. It’s attributed to St Paul: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy: 6)
This is what the King James Bible says:
Having food and raiment let us be therewith content.
But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.
For the love of money is the root of all evil; which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
The Greek words for sustenance and clothing, diatrophe and skepasma in ancient times covered food, housing without a mortgage or rent, four holidays a year (literally the ability to attend four religious festivals a year in Jerusalem), clothing, bedding, curtains, carpets (rugs), household equipment, all bills and taxes.
The phrase ‘love of money’ means ‘obsession with money’ and the word translated as ‘evil’ is kaka which actually means…um, crap.
So, in a nutshell, it means:
“If, having everything you need for a prosperous life, you obsess over money and lose your true focus, then your life will suck.”
I don’t think anybody would disagree with that.
It also means if we hate money or resent it, or spend so long sorting out our bills that we seem to have no time for anything else, we are still being avaricious – obsessed with the negative side of money. And feeling resentment at the riches of others is a sure fire way of creating lack in our own life.
Certainly, Jesus himself was not a fan of cluttering yourself up with possessions. We all know the quotation, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24). The rich man is “one heavy with possessions.” It’s hard to be prosperous when what you own possesses you – when the ties of the mortgage, your kids’ schooling and your job mean you can’t follow your life’s dream.
Jesus also said “Ask and it is given” (Luke 11:9) but in Matthew 21:22, he added the rider “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” This is the key. If we ask for money but don’t believe wealth is our birthright, we cannot attract prosperity.
I’ve never found any evidence in the Bible to show that Jesus or his family lived a life of poverty. What I have found is modern misinterpretation of ancient lifestyles.
Jesus never needed for anything. In those days there were no books or movies so a visiting preacher with new stories was an exciting event. If Madonna showed up for a concert in your town and needed a bed for the night I don’t think there’d be any shortage of food or accommodation offered (and her retinue’s much larger than Jesus’s was!)
We are taught that Jesus was a carpenter. The Greek word translated as “carpenter” in the Gospels is tekton which means artisan, mason or builder as well as a worker in wood.
In the Jewish Biblical commentary, the Talmud, the trade of carpenter is deeply respected. There is even a story of a man who arrives in a town looking for someone to help him with a religious problem. He asks for the rabbi, then says, “Is there a carpenter among you, the son of a carpenter, who can offer me a solution?” Where there was no rabbi, a carpenter was considered the person most qualified to interpret law or answer questions.
There were customers too. Four miles from Nazareth, was the town of Sepphoris which was partially destroyed by fire in about 4 BCE. During Jesus’ lifetime, it was being rebuilt into a thriving city. Archaeologists are still discovering luxurious homes and public buildings dating back to the first century including an aqueduct and a palace. For a tekton there was full-time work for years and the walk from Nazareth would be considered a very reasonable commute.
But about the nativity, the stable and ‘no room in the inn’?
The story we love at Christmas only exists in the Gospel of Luke and it reads (KJV):
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7).
There is no donkey; no ox; no trailing around Bethlehem, no unkind inn-keepers and not even the slightest hint that Mary was in labor while they searched for somewhere to stay.
A lodging house in Jesus’ day didn’t have rooms the way modern motels do. It consisted of two dormitories with men and women segregated from each other. This meant that more people could be accommodated at a time of pilgrimage and made it easier with respect to the laws of purity (where orthodox Jewish men and women spend up to two weeks not touching during and after the woman’s menses). The shepherds could never have found their way into the female dormitory to see the holy child – and Joseph couldn’t have been there either!
It is also worth noting that a stable was rarely separate from a house in those days; animals lived next to the kitchen; their body warmth being useful and their dung being used for fuel.
The next problem is the word that Luke uses and that we translate as ‘inn.’ This is kataluma and it is not used in the sense of public accommodations or inn anywhere else in the whole New Testament.
Just before the last supper, in Luke 22:11, Jesus tells the disciples to follow a man into Jerusalem carrying water. He leads them to a house that had a large kataluma where they could all gather together for the Passover. That kataluma is translated in almost all versions of the Bible as "upper room" or "guest room."
Luke does tell a story featuring an inn – the Good Samaritan. But there, he doesn’t use kataluma but pandocheion, meaning “a public house for travellers.”
Luke writes that Joseph was of the House of David and had to return to his family’s hometown for the census (apographo, meaning “written record” rather than the usually-translated “tax”) so it’s more than likely that he had extended family in the town.
It has been suggested before by scholars that Joseph and Mary would have stayed with relatives rather than at an inn and anyone with Jewish friends knows they would be outraged if even a distant cousin chose to stay at a motel and not with them!
If there was more than one couple staying in a private house, there probably wouldn’t have been enough space for a woman to give birth, so Mary would have been moved out of the guest room and into a warm place where she could walk, sit, lie down, be attended by others and where she didn’t have to worry about the ritual purity laws and the blood and natural mess of a baby’s birth.
And the stone (not wood) trough used as a manger would have made an excellent and secure cradle when the baby was born.
Both Jesus and his family knew how to manifest exactly what they needed at the perfect time without being encumbered by unnecessary possessions, duties and cares. They weren’t poor; they were truly prosperous – just as we can be.