In traditional Christianity, the disciples of Christ are often viewed as homeless single men, perpetually on the road and living below the poverty level. Some even have this view of Jesus Himself. Is this a correct view or simply another misconception?
Although Jesus and His first followers did their share of traveling and interacted routinely with the poor residents of Israel and Judah, the Bible actually offers a more varied description of them.
For instance, fishing was one of the main occupations for Galileans, and the Bible records that some of the disciples had worked on fishing vessels and made a living in that trade. This brings to mind one of the more famous events in the Apostolic Writings, which occurred after Jesus’ death. The disciples had returned to what they knew best: their former occupations. For Simon Peter and some of the others, that meant fishing, but after fishing all night, they had caught nothing. The now-resurrected Jesus called to them from the shore and told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, saying that they would find success there. They listened to Him and indeed caught so many fish that they could hardly bring their catch ashore (John 21:1–6).
The point to be made here is that they clearly had access to boats, nets and other fishing equipment, which would have been difficult without a sufficient income.
As the early church grew, the apostle Paul lived off the tithes of the people he served, but when that was insufficient he, too, fell back on his original occupation. Acts 18 tells us that Paul joined Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, in tent-making because he was of “the same trade” (Acts 18:1–3).
Mark 1:29–30 offers an account of Jesus visiting the apostle Peter’s home: “As soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon [Peter] and Andrew, with James and John.” When they arrived, they found Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed. Jesus took her by the hand, and the fever left her. She immediately stood up and served them. So Peter not only owned a home, but he was married, and his mother-in-law either lived with them or at least occasionally came to stay with them. In any case, Peter was able to provide for his mother-in-law as well as a wife. This doesn’t sound like the life of a drifter.
When we look at the scriptural record, then, we see a much different view of the disciples—later to become the apostles—than we do if we rely on popular traditions.
What about Jesus? What were His background and upbringing? We know that He was not only a carpenter’s son but a carpenter Himself (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). The Greek word translated “carpenter” is tektōn (τέκτων). It means “one who constructs”; in other words, a builder. Jesus had the skills to be a contractor, not just a carpenter. Like Paul, He had a viable trade with which He could earn a living and support Himself. Yet He is often portrayed as a homeless, poverty-stricken preacher.
In the account of the first public miracle He performed, Jesus, His family and the disciples were invited to a wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1–10). The exact location of Cana is not known, but it is believed to have been in the area of Nazareth and Sepphoris in Galilee. Jesus, His family and the disciples were well enough known in this region to be invited to a wedding there. This would hardly be the norm for a wandering, itinerant preacher.
Isaiah 53:3 prophetically describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows” who would be “acquainted with grief.” He knew what it was like to be shunned and despised, but it wasn’t because of His upbringing or occupation; it was because of His teachings and example. The things Jesus said and did were difficult for the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees to hear and follow. They belittled Him for eating with sinners and with the wealthy-but-despised tax collectors (Matt 11:19). But they couldn’t see that their own sins would have made them equally flawed dinner partners.
While He had a great deal to say about showing compassion for the poor and destitute, Jesus knew how to handle Himself with both rich and poor; He didn’t judge people on that basis. What Jesus was looking for, in both rich and poor, was an attitude of repentance, an attitude the religious leaders of the day generally lacked (Luke 5:31–32). While He did say that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, this was not an endorsement of poverty but of humility.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:3). This echoes a similar statement in the Hebrew Scriptures, made by the One who would later become Jesus: “On this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit . . . ” (Isaiah 66:2, emphasis added).
Jesus was not teaching His disciples to be destitute, homeless itinerants as many assume. He was teaching them to be humbly contrite (repentant) and teachable.
In this respect, as in all others, He was a good example for His first-century followers as well as for us today.
JERRY DE GIER