Were Jesus and the Disciples Wealthy? Part Two

To support the claim that Jesus and the disciples were rich, the prosperity gospel teachers often appeal to the story of the casting lots for the garments of Jesus at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24). The synoptic gospels simply say they cast lots for his clothing, but John goes into a bit more detail here, providing the extra information about the seamless garment.

The prosperity teachers would have us believe this seamless tunic was some really fancy garment, and worth a lot of money. But let me offer a few replies to this. Firstly, it was a common Roman practice to confiscate the possessions of an executed prisoner, who was left to hang on the cross naked. Roman soldiers were not fabulously wealthy either, so getting a bit of extra clothing for free always came in handy.

Secondly, we know that none of the gospel accounts, including the fuller one in John, say anything about his clothes or his tunic being of any great material value. Not a word about its financial or material quality is mentioned: it was simply a single garment which of course would have done no one any good if ripped into pieces. So the soldiers cast lots, simply because only one of them could get it intact. It was a functional bit of clothing – that is all we can infer from the text.

Thirdly, the only important reason as to why this fact about clothing is even mentioned has nothing whatsoever to do with some unfounded claim as to the great material wealth of Jesus. It was specifically raised as another piece of the prophetic message of the Old Testament.

Many prophecies about the death of Jesus are found in the OT, and Psalm 22 is one of these key messianic psalms. And Psalm 22:18 provides this specific bit of information about his clothing and the casting of lots. There as well absolutely nothing about the quality or cost of the garments is mentioned. Thus this episode is recorded in the four gospels as yet another indication of the fulfillment of Scripture, and the truthfulness of Jesus’ messianic claims.

If the economic status of Peter and the other fishermen and so on indicate a lack of wealth, or are at best ambiguous as to their financial standing, other indicators may point to a lower standard of living, at least for Jesus and his family. Because Mary and Joseph could only offer a sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons after Jesus was born (Luke 2:22-24), we can presume that “at least at the time of Jesus’ birth Mary and Joseph had very few financial resources” as Blomberg says.

We know this because according to Leviticus 12:1-8, after the forty days of purification, a lamb was to be brought as a burnt-offering, and a pigeon as a sin offering. But the poor could only bring the two birds instead. So clearly Jesus was not born into a wealthy family, or even a mildly well-off family.

Moreover, if Jesus and his followers were in fact well-off, why did they need welfare handouts from the wealthy women as mentioned above? As Hagner notes, “Jesus had a few relatively wealthy followers (e.g., Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and perhaps Matthew) and was happy to take advantage of their hospitality (cf. Luke 8:3).”

Other indications of their lack of wealth can be cited. At one point for example Jesus had to get some tax money out of a fish (Matt. 17:24-27). If the amount owed was about “two days pay for an ordinary workman” as Morris says, such an amount should not have been too difficult to come by. But “their lack of ready money” as France says may point to their relative poverty.

Although this may not be very decisive evidence, it could be, as Morris suggests, that Jesus and his band of followers did have the money, but did not want to squander the “little group’s meager store of money” on a tax that Jesus by rights did not have to pay.

Moreover, we are clearly told that Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, even though foxes had dens and birds had nests (Luke 9:58 – see also Matt 8:20). The context of this verse (vv. 57-62) is about the cost of discipleship. Jesus is making it crystal clear that being his disciple will cost them everything, including material possessions, security, comfort, and their valued resources.

As Grant Osborne comments, “There will be no comfortable, settled life for one who truly follows Jesus. To the man’s ‘wherever you go’ Jesus adds, ‘OK, will you go this far?’ Jesus does not want shallow commitments but demands that the one who truly ‘follows’ him count the cost (cf. Luke 14:25-35) and make a radical commitment.”

Speaking of the Matt 8:20 passage, France says this: “The itinerant ministry (4:23) which now required their crossing the lake would allow no certainty of lodging, and many nights must have been spent in more exposed locations even than those of the foxes and birds; the coming night will find Jesus sleeping in a boat (v. 24).”

But let me draw this to a close. There is no question that as the eternal second person of the Trinity, the Son is of course rich beyond measure. God is the creator of all things, and owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). But that is not the issue. The issue is this: during his life on earth, was Jesus “extremely wealthy” as folks claim, or was he very much like most people back in first century Palestine: basically poor, but able to get by.

All the biblical evidence we have would suggest the latter. And given how often Jesus warned about the dangers of wealth, it is highly unlikely that he chose an opulent and extravagant lifestyle. In fact, everything we know about Jesus suggests the exact opposite.

As to the broader issue of how Christians should look at the issues of wealth and poverty in general, and the prosperity gospel in particular, I have discussed this elsewhere:

billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/04/jesus-or-prosperity/
billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/18/spirituality-and-material-riches/
billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/17/the-prosperity-gospel/

Those preachers who want to convince believers that they should always be rich and rolling in the dough by appealing to Jesus and the disciples are simply on very shaky ground when it comes to the biblical record. The truth is this: God may not want us wealthy, but he most certainly wants us holy. And if financial hardship is part of the means to bring about such holiness, then God is more than happy to use it.

And if he can trust us with wealth and riches, that is also fine. Of course the point of having such wealth is to finance the work of the Kingdom, not to be lavishing it all on ourselves. Wealth is a gift of God and is to be used for his work. But a lack of wealth is also a way in which God can and does work.

The issue is not ultimately about money, but our attitude toward it. The prosperity gospel teachers are simply appealing to carnal, materialistic and greedy desires when they promise every Christian great wealth. The Scriptures make no such promise, and Jesus and the disciples did not live it. We are promised however that if we put his Kingdom first, everything else will be added unto us (not for our greed, but for our need).

Part One of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/08/14/were-jesus-and-the-disciples-wealthy-part-one/

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7 Replies to “Were Jesus and the Disciples Wealthy? Part Two”

  1. Hey Bill as you know we are not always on the same hymn sheet but we are on this one!!! Demonstrates whilst we may differ on somethings, there is not a doubt about your sincerity and that you are genuine. God Bless.

    Tara Kelly

  2. Philippians 2:7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

    Clearly Jesus came as a servant, normally servants aren’t rich.

    Ian Nairn

  3. When I hear “the prosperity gospel teachers” I immediately think of “the Pharisees”, the bitter and deadly opponents of Jesus Christ and his message. Their nit-picking is so off-message and ungracious .It may well be true that if you follow the way of life Jesus taught, you will always “fall on your feet”.

    But there is a much clearer message in: “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Or: “Why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, they spin not, but I tell you not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.”

    Rachel Smith, UK

  4. I believe there is no special virtue in either poverty or riches for their own sake. As one of the writers of proverbs said,”give me neither poverty nor riches, but simply enough.” And I think that is what Jesus demonstrated in his earthly life, as it was the example of a godly life that we cold follow. His father provided all he needed to fulfill his ministry. And that is the greatest encouragement we can have that God will provide what we need, the means for life while life is his plan for us and the grace to die, for that is what we need at the time it is ordained for us to die. But the greatest focus should always be on the greatest provision of all, that of eternal life, utterly undeserved, freely given at His own expense. It just puts a different perspective on things, inspires us to greater worship and obedience and that is what we need most.

    And though for the camel to go through the eye of the needle seems impossible to us, Jesus clearly said even that was not impossible with God.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  5. Derek, I just watched that u-tube link and while I agree with the message, I did not agree with the way he did it. I understand his passion about the true gospel and that he could not be silent when his saviour was being is-represented, but i can hardly imagine Jesus challenging Jason in such a manner. A gracious manner surely will will facilitate the hearers to absorb a message of grace.
    To speak the truth in love is a great challenge to us, we tend to either focus on the one or the other, but can’t manage both. May God help us to get the balance right.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. Preachers who maintain that they ‘need’ a $20 million jet to more efficiently do Christian work are, I suggest, on very shaky theotholgy and are conveniently twisting it to try to justify palatial lifestyles.

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