By Class unity
Jun 9, 2015
The social status of Jesus
In other cultures/ sub-cultures and in days gone by it is/ was sometimes confusing to people as to why Jesus arrived on earth as a poor carpenter's son who ended up as a homeless man who was executed by the state. Why not as a glorious king? Why all the poverty and lowliness?
Well in a certain sub-culture of my socio-historical context (people who are quite young and left wing) some of us can’t help wondering why he turned up with so much privilege. Why wasn't Jesus born as a woman? Why not into an even lowlier family? Why wasn't he disabled? Why not into an oppressed ethnic minority group?
I won’t have all the answers but here’s a bit of a reflection on it (I'm reflecting on this within a fairly orthodox Christian world-view and assuming the stories in the Bible about Jesus are true).
Let’s start with the last on the list, the easiest, and work backwards.
Jesus was born into an oppressed ethnic group. The Jewish people’s homeland was being occupied by a foreign superpower, they were oppressed and exploited by the Romans in all the ways that colonies are normally oppressed and exploited under imperialist empires. Even within Israel Jesus was from a place that was considered backward and looked down upon. Yes there were other ethnicities made up of gentiles around Israel to whom the Jews would have shown prejudice and even hatred but the Jews were not in a position to be oppressive in the way we think of white people oppressing black people in America or Arabs oppressing Asians in the Middle East. To be oppressive based on ethnicity you have to hold all or most of the political and economic power and use it to systematically favour your own people whilst keeping others’ down. The Jews weren't in a position to do this. Plus, obviously, if you read the Old Testament it’s fairly clear that Jesus had to be a Jew (I'm not going to go into all that now though!).
Jesus’ able body
Jesus was born able bodied. As far as we know Jesus wasn't physically or mentally disabled. To me it seems obvious that he had to come capable of speech so certain learning disabilities that prevent someone from being able to talk would have prevented him from completing his mission. A tactical consideration by God? I reckon yes, probably.
What about all those who were ‘lame’ as a lot of Bible translations put it? People who couldn't walk and had to be carried everywhere? Why wasn't Jesus born like them? In theory I can still imagine his mission having been pretty much possible, even if he had some kind of severe physical disability like this. So why didn't he have one? Another tactical move to make his mission easier? Maybe, but maybe it would have been pointless since he was clearly capable of changing disabilities like this, he would surely have changed himself early on. Jesus clearly has the power to make disabled people into able people and often did it so it’s not too difficult to see why he himself was able bodied too.
(Cisgender just means comfortable with assigned gender). Jesus was man and we don’t have any particular reason to think he was uncomfortable with his status as being male, lots of people do. Why not Jesus?
Well let’s start from the beginning. Pre-incarnation Jesus had no gender, during the incarnation Jesus became male so we already have a kind of sex change going on. Beyond this I hypothesise that, again, Jesus could transform a body into whatever so if he was physically male and wanted to be female or androgynous then he could have done and probably would have done so there would be no point in him being unhappy with his assigned gender (as to why he was male… more on that next).
Jesus’ family and his gender
Why wasn't Jesus born to a family of beggars or slaves? Or to a single mother? Tradesmen may not be upper class but it’s clearly not as crappy as can be imagined. Also why was he born male and not female?
Now we get to more difficult questions. I don’t have an answer to these but I can think of a few possible answers. Some of these would surprise or even offend me if they were true, some seem more understandable.
- More tactical considerations. Maybe God the father was like; “I want you to be lowly, but not so lowly that no one will listen to you… let’s just go for working class male”. This seems to be at least a plausible answer, especially since the Bible doesn't actually say that there was an intention to maximise the lowliness. This would explain why Jesus also chose all male disciples too (although notably he did treat women with a lot of respect and you do have stories like the one about the women being first to see the risen Jesus, controversial in those days when a women’s testimony was not considered as valid as a man’s).
- Another option could be that there is genuinely something inferior about women or destitute people that was just a bit too far for God. This doesn't seem to be an at all plausible answer, surely the massive gap between God and man (of Jesus’ social status) is far more significant than between the gap in social status between man and woman, or man and even lowlier man. Why go from creator of the universe to mortal human but then decide that becoming a woman was a bit too far?
- Maybe the answer is a bit more like the ones above to the other questions. I.e. that his family was at actually a bit messed up. Mary’s pregnancy involved a certain amount of scandal, they were refugees for a while when he was young and the Joseph seems to disappear from the scene by the time Jesus is older (maybe he died) being the son of a widow in those days was very similar to being from a single parent family now. Both poor and looked down on. Also, regarding gender, maybe Jesus was inter-sex genetically but appeared male. Too ridiculous? What, like God becoming man? That kind of too ridiculous? I have no idea and it’s been too many years since I studied theology to instantly know if that’s a stupid point or not.
- Maybe the point is that the point of Jesus mission was different for different groups. Back when I did study theology I did my dissertation on ‘to what extent is the gospel good news to the poor and bad news to the rich?’ My conclusion was to a surprisingly large extent! What if Jesus social status was aimed precisely at the kind of ‘low end of average’ sort of mark to signify that he came to challenge all those who roughly ranked above and to bring a message of hope to those who roughly ranked below? Jesus challenge to the rich was ruthless, he considered it humanly impossible but absolutely necessary for them to give up their social status and follow him (only possible with God’s help). Yes he did make clear challenges to those of lower status to stop sinning but he didn't seem to think it would be quite the same level of difficulty for them as it would be for the rich. All of his big shows of forgiveness (that I can think of right now) seemed to be primarily aimed at them, even where they didn't even ask for forgiveness in some cases. This is the whole 'first shall be last, last shall be first' thing going on.
Jesus famously said “the poor you will always have with you” leading lazy people to assume that he was being totally fatalistic about the fact that society will always being hierarchical. “The poor” in Jesus’ day was as much about social oppression and ostracism as it was economic poverty or exploitation. In this case Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15. A chapter about economic justice. Within that one chapter we find three seemingly contradictory quotes:
- “There need be no poor people among you” – verse 4
- “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward them.” – verse 7
- “There will always be poor people in the land.” – verse 11
I’ll leave you to figure out why this chapter moves from bright optimism to dull fatalism…
In conclusion, I'm just some guy, I don’t have all the answers but maybe I have a few of them. As usual this has mainly been an exercise in helping me work out some of my own thoughts which always become clearer if I write them down (especially if I know I'm going to let anyone else see them!).
I enjoy responses, criticism is absolutely fine, no assholery though. Some Christians think they get a free pass to be assholes when they disagree with someone. You don’t.