Jesus: The Working Man’s Hero

There is a song on the Alan Lomax Christmas album, Sing Christmas and The Turn of The Year, that I’ve always thought is more appropriate for Maundy Thursday. The Ballad of Jesus Christ takes us through: the Nativity in the “slums of Bethlehem;” Jesus apprenticeship as a carpenter with His stepfather Joseph; His realization that “wealth and poverty live always side by side;” his betrayal, imprisonment, and death. There is no resurrection in this story. It is incomplete.

I do like the depiction of the Jesus in this song. He’s perhaps a little less divine than I would prefer, but you can find Him in the Gospel. He is there in the story of the rich young man, and again when He washes the feet of the tweleve.  The dream of the carpenter is there in the book of Acts:

32 And the multitude of them that beleeued, were of one heart, and of one soule: Neither said any of them, that ought of the things which he possessed, was his owne, but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gaue the Apostles witnesse of the resurrection of the Lord Iesus, and great grace was vpon them all. 34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: For as many as were possessors of lands, or houses, sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were solde, 35 And laide them downe at the Apostles feete: And distribution was made vnto euery man according as hee had neede.

Some people get angry with the socialist reading of this selection from Acts, saying that the early Christians were not compelled, not required to hold all things in common, but had the choice to do so. This may be  true, but consider this:

17 ¶ And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good master, what shall I doe that I may inherit eternall life? 18 And Iesus said vnto him, Why callest thou me good? There is no man good, but one, that is God. 19 Thou knowest the Commandements, Doe not commit adulterie, Doe not kill, Doe not steale, Doe not beare false witnesse, Defraud not, Honour thy father, and mother. 20 And hee answered, and saide vnto him, Master, all these haue I obserued from my youth. 21 Then Iesus beholding him, loued him, and said vnto him, One thing thou lackest; Goe thy way, sell whatsoeuer thou hast, and giue to the poore, and thou shalt haue treasure in heauen, and come, take vp the crosse & folow me. 22 And hee was sad at that saying, and went away grieued: for hee had great possessions. 23 And Iesus looked round about, and saith vnto his disciples, How hardly shall they that haue riches enter into the kingdome of God? 24 And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Iesus answereth againe, and saith vnto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God? 25 It is easier for a camel to goe thorow the eye of a needle, then for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 26 And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselues, Who then can be saued? 27 And Iesus looking vpon them, saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. 28 Then Peter began to say vnto him, Loe, we haue left all, and haue followed thee. 29 And Iesus answered, and said, Uerily I say vnto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the Gospels, 30 But hee shall receiue an hundred fold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternall life: 31 But many that are first, shall be last: and the last, first.

Once again people get angry with the idea that one must divest oneself of possessions to enter the kingdom of heaven.

I remember talking with a friend about the impossibility of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. He insisted that it was not an actual needle that was being talked about, but rather one of the gates to Jerusalem. The Eye of the Needle was so small that someone coming to the city would have to unpack his camel before leading it through.  He had to unburden himself before he could enter the city.

I do not believe that one must be poor to go to heaven: that would be some sort of works righteousness, a good deed, that one could achieve as a work of the Law. I also do not believe in some sort of prosperity gospel: that just doesn’t seem like the Gospel at all.  The rich man’s camel could pass through The Eye of the Needle, but it had to be unpacked first. Possible? Yes. Easy? No.

Andrew Carnegie believed that it was a sin to die with money in the bank. That’s why we have so many funds, endowments and cultural institutions with his name on them. For me it all circles back to the mandate from Christ to wash one another’s feet as He did: to serve as he did, to give all of what we have, as he did, for the uplift of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It was once a tradition for royalty, whether the Emperor or the local king or queen, to wash the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. There are remnants of this tradition today in the United Kingdom. The English tradition started with Edward I, and the monarch actually did wash the feet of the poor who came before him. It was Queen Mary who also gave alms, or Maundy Money (and even her own dress) to the poor as well as washing and kissing their feet on Maundy Thursday.

Since 1689, however, the reigning monarch of England has foregone washing and kissing feet on Maundy Thursday, although the current Queen still carries a sweet-smelling nosegay, a remnant of the days when the monarch’s sensitive nose had to be protected from foot-odor funk. Maundy Money is still given, although not necessarily to the poor.  The recipients are deserving seniors, which seems a bit contrary to the spirit of servitude present in Maundy Thursday. It is not a purely gratuitous act.


Ballad of the Carpenter


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