I’ve just read an article on “prosperity gospel” teaching from one Rev. C. Thomas Anderson, a pastor in Arizona. He says that Jesus, in fact, was not poor but a rich man! His reasoning? Well Mary rode a donkey, and apparently only rich people rode donkeys. Also, when Jesus was being crucified the guards cast lots for his clothing, so he must have worn expensive clothes. Oh, and don’t forget the wise men who gave expensive gifts. For these reasons, Rev. Anderson has deduced that Jesus must have been rich…oh, and followers of Jesus should be rich too. How convenient.
It’s funny that those who were quoted in the article were non-denominational pastors, whereas those refuting Anderson’s claims were biblical and historical scholars. Coincidence? Not likely. There are two big words that are thrown around most seminaries: Exegesis and Isogesis. Exegesis is the investigation of scripture in order to extract its intended meaning. This is vital from both a secular and spiritual perspective. For the bible to have any integrity, you must look into all factors that may have contributed to the writing of the text. Who wrote the text? Who were they writing it to? What was the culture of the day? What was the context of life? What was the language? The genre of writing? And more. The point is that we cannot make the bible say anything, but we must find out what it is saying. From a spiritual perspective, this is key. If indeed you believe that the bible is God’s word, extracting its intended meaning through careful exegesis is vital in receiving biblical guidance for our spiritual journeys.
Isogesis happens when you begin with a thought or idea and then transpose that thought into a piece of scripture. It happens when you assume that the bible was written just for you. This can get pretty dangerous, because at this point you can make the bible say anything you want…like saying that Jesus was rich for example. It’s not a coincidence that the idea that “Jesus was rich” comes from somebody in a culture that is quite wealthy, consumeristic, and materialistic. We cannot, I mean cannot read 21st century, western thought into a biblical text. The two just don’t fit. The bible was not written for you, or for me, but for us -all people living in the world. What I find helpful in scripture is how the bible can give inspiration and guidance to me in regard to who God is and how God interacts with the human story, of which I am only a small part.
Historically speaking, it is most likely that Jesus was not rich, but poor. As the one scholar said in the article, there was no middle class in the ancient Middle East. As a Christian pastor, I grieve over people who handle scripture so lightly. When you read the bible, take heed and look into the details. Read the commentaries, learn the history. And may you be impacted by scripture in a profound and powerful way.