The minuscule Galilean town in which Joseph and Mary spent their lives and raised their son Jesus was, quite literally, a joke. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asked one disciple, when he heard where the Messiah was from. Some scholars posit that this was a popular saying in the first century. In any event, Nazareth was on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Roman roads avoided it until the second century. Jesus came from a backwater of a backwater; he and his mother and father, the figures at the heart of the Christmas story, were most likely considered throwaway people.
The Gospels tell us little about Mary other than to say that she was a young woman, a virgin, most likely illiterate. The life of women in first century Nazareth was difficult: filled mainly with labor.
But life in Nazareth was difficult for everyone, not just women. Life expectancy was in the 30s. Those who reached 60 were rare. In “Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit,” a fascinating study of daily Jewish life in Nazareth, the scholar Jodi Magness points out that we tend to view the life of the Holy Family through a “highly sanitized lens.” Garbage and sewage were tossed outside into the alleyways, perhaps by Mary herself. Magness describes conditions in Galilee as “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy.”
Joseph is described in the Gospels as a tekton, a word that opens a tantalizing window into Jesus’ early life as well, since he followed his foster father in his profession. Tektons were generally seen as ranking, socially and economically, below the peasantry since most didn’t own a plot of land. It was probably a hardscrabble life, building doors and tables, but also likely digging ditches and building walls. Today many scholars translate tekton not as carpenter, but as handyman or day laborer.
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You can detect growing discomfort with this lower-class status in the Gospel narratives. When Jesus reveals his divine identity in Mark, the earliest Gospel, people say, “Is this not the tekton?” Writing a few decades later, Matthew transfers the label to Jesus’ foster father: “Is this not the son of the tekton?” people ask. Finally, in Luke and John, written even later, all vestiges of Jesus’ former occupation disappear from the question: “Is this not the son of Joseph?”
Jesus worked as a tekton from roughly 12 to 30. Fully 18 years of his life would have been spent at this arduous labor – six times longer than his public ministry as a preacher and healer.
We must keep in mind that our Christmas cards are miles away from the reality of the Holy Family’s existence. We must remember that the three of them looked more like the poor Syrian refugees on the news than the well-fed (and usually white) actors who play them in films. We must remember that it is into a life of simplicity, obscurity and poverty that Jesus came.
We must remember that he was, most likely, poor.
God could have entered the world in any place or family that God chose. God could have become human in a great ruling family in Judea. God could have entered into humanity in a wealthy Galilean family, perhaps as the child of a well-traveled and well-read merchant or scholar. More to the point, God could have chosen to be born into the Roman dynasty, in line to become emperor, to exercise and demonstrate maximum power.
Instead, God chose to enter a family headed by a man with a simple profession, married to a woman who, from outward appearances, was no different than the other poor women in their joke of a town.
Is it any surprise, then, that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger? He was one of these throwaway people, and he lived among them for 30 years before his public ministry began. Christians tend to see Jesus’ commands to care for the poor as divine. And they were – Jesus was fully divine. But they also came from his human experience. He was fully human as well. I’m always amazed by people who feel they can be Christian without caring for the poor. Not only did Jesus command us to do this, Jesus himself was from this class. When God chose to join us, he joined us in Nazareth, to make sure that we wouldn’t forget.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America, consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of Communication, and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.