Rethinking the financial status of the Holy Family

How the heavily pregnant Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south, we do not actually know – the bible, historical documents, do not tell us.  The image we have of Mary, sitting on a donkey, being led by Joseph on foot, travelling alone, is an image we have come to accept from Christmas cards and other image sources.  Perhaps, although not stated in the bible, this image is one that has been verbally, and later graphically, conveyed through history.  It seems that the question of how the holy family got to Bethlehem was not important to the biblical writers.  It has, however, it seems, become important to us.  This image is a part of our depiction of this family being poor, reinforced in popular hymns and carols, such as Father All-Loving and Ruling in Majesty

Blesséd Lord Jesus, born humbly in poverty,

sharing a stable with beasts at your birth,

stir us to work for your justice and charity,

truly to care for the poor upon earth.

and, O Come All Ye Faithful

Child, for us sinners

poor and in the manger,

fain we embrace thee with love and awe;

who would not love thee,

loving us so dearly?

amongst others.  Needless to say this has been influential on Christian spirituality, our expectation of those who are devout, and a focus on social justice issues.

If Mary and Joseph did travel from Nazareth as we have become accustomed to its depiction, the 163 km journey would have taken at least 4 days, perhaps even as long as a week if they were avoiding premature labour, and since there was a census taking place, there would have been many on the road.  They would not have been a part of a caravan not travelling alone. Sorry to smash that image.  In addition to this, if they had made the journey with the aid of a donkey, this would mark them as middle-class, not poor.  Where horses were the Rolls-Royces of the wealthy and kings, the donkey was the Commodore and Falcon of the middle class.  The poor went by shank’s pony.

On my study tour of Israel and Palestine in 2012, we went to an archaeological site just outside of Nazareth.  This site was a suburb built in Roman style and argued to be the work of Joseph.  The biblical word we translate as ‘carpenter’ can also mean ‘master builder’.  Joseph was the Simonds of the age of the bible.  And, if the ruins of the house, converted to a synagogue and then later to a place of Christian worship over which a church has now been built, is the home of the holy family, then they can be anything but poor.

One of my favourite biblical words is, in biblical Greek, ‘oikos’ – usually translated in English as ‘house’, sometimes, closer to its depth of meaning, ‘household’.  It means more than the physical structure of the building, although, including this aspect, it also means the network of relationships that are under its roof; whether temporary visitors, immediate members of the family, or servants and slaves.

‘Oikos’, with ‘nomos’, translated as law, is the root of our word ‘economy’.  Thomas Moore writes,

Economy is concerned with the ways in which we get along… with the family of society.  Money is simply the coinage of our relationship to the community… in which we live. [1]

Economy is concerned with relationships and how we live together; it is the expression of how we order and provide the resources for our being a community.

Among issues such as redefinition of gender roles, negative image toward marriage, individualisation, ease of divorce, the top of the list of causes for relationship breakdown is financial.  Finances stress, whether due to loss employment, uncontrolled gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, and can find its expression in relationship issues such as isolation from family networks including immigration, lack of communication, and even violence in all its forms.  Economy is not just about money it is about relationships.  Economy is an expression of the identity of a relationship, a family, a community group, a church, a nation, and even the world.

One of the things that I am proud about of this local church I belong to we call St Stephens, is how we are growing to understand this reality of our finances, our economy, as an expression of our life together.  We are, relatively speaking, a small church of three small congregations and, although our finances are always very tight, we are people who have become very generous financially (and in other ways).  We are a community and, therefore, we talk about money.  We see our ‘offertory’ as a contribution to our life together as a community, not as giving our money away.  When we talk about ministry and mission projects and maintenance requirements that need to be undertaken, we understand that this is our community and we contribute to enabling this community to be.  If economy is an issue of the identity of relationship, then it is an issue of the soul of the community.

One of the things this year that we have had to endure was the federal election.  In particular sorting through, if that was possible, the misinformation, the spin and, perhaps, even the lies concerning the state of the economy.  The focus upon money independent of relationships of those who are a part of this national community of which we are a part is, I think, a symptom that we are losing our national soul – we are becoming soulless.

One of the things that challenging our image of the financial state of the holy family does is helping us to not think that money is bad.  Having been challenged about the Anglican Church being a middle class church, we should have no shame in that position.  Our shame should only come when we separate our finances from our living with those around us;  when we withhold who we are and what we have from contributing to society, as a couple, a family, a community organisation, a church, a nation and indeed the world.  It is not surprising that there is evidence to support how good people feel and think about themselves when they make a contribution to the well-being of others – it both nurtures and gives expression to our soul as individuals and as a nation.  Indeed, isn’t this the reason for Jesus’ coming and, therefore, the message of Christmas.

[1] Moore, Thomas.  Care of the Soul, Harper:1992.  p. 189.

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