“Don’t laugh, folks: Jesus was a poor man.” —Phrase written on a canvas covering on the mule train of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign
Jessica C. Williams, an activist with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, invites us to consider the practical implications of the poverty of Jesus.
What if we take seriously the proclamation of the Mule Train organizers—that “Jesus was a poor man”? . . . 
In the time and place in which Jesus ministered, most people lived under the subjugation of the Roman Empire and were considered expendable. Elite rulers extracted wealth from all the lands they conquered, pushing people to hunger, homelessness, and the brink of starvation—and sometimes over the edge into slavery and death. The Bible tells us that Jesus had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58), which is another way to say he was homeless. Jesus was trained in carpentry—a form of manual labor akin to low-wage work today—and he relied on the hospitality of friends, many of whom were also poor, to share meals and lodging with him. Jesus, the disciples, and those to whom they ministered were poor, subjected, and oppressed. They were the expendables. . . .
“Jesus was a poor man” is a theological statement. It is more than saying “Jesus cares about the poor,”—how Matthew 25:31–46 is often interpreted. In Matthew 25, what is usually translated as “the least of these” is the Greek word elachistoi, which literally means “the smallest or most insignificant ones”: in other words, the expendables. Jesus’s identity as one of the least of these is not a romantic, charitable notion; it is Jesus’s reality. He is saying that the social class of expendables are his people. The homeless, the poor, the incarcerated are Jesus’s friends, family, disciples, and followers, and Jesus himself. . . .
Interpretations of Matthew 25:31–46 that diminish Jesus’s ministry to that of charity miss the gospel message and actually help to maintain inequality. But when we understand that the Roman Empire considered Jesus to be expendable—much the same way the United States considers poor and low-income people, nearly half of the population, to be expendable—we see that being a follower of Jesus means something deeper than charity. Being Christlike means joining a movement, led by the poor and dispossessed, to lift the load of poverty. 
Father Richard comments on Matthew 25, reminding us that: Jesus teaches there is a moral equivalency between himself and other people. Jesus says, “Whatever you do to others, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40). How you treat other human beings is how you treat Jesus. That’s nondual thinking. Many Christians would read this statement and firmly say, “This is the Word of the Lord.” But it isn’t their actual practice. As long as they remain at the dualistic level, they can go to church and worship Jesus and be greedy, selfish, and racist an hour later, not seeing any conflict with that at all. 
 The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which Martin Luther King Jr. organized right before his death, led a caravan of mules to carry people to the nation’s capital to draw attention to the plight of poverty.
 Jessica C. Williams, “Jesus Was a Poor Man,” in We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, ed. Liz Theoharis (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 17–18, 19.
Explore Further. . .
- Read Dorothy Day and Pope Francis on solidarity with the poor.
- Read Bryan Stevenson on love and proximity to one’s neighbor.
- Meet the team behind the Daily Meditations.
Image Credit: Brian McLaren, Untitled 10-12 (detail), 2021, photograph, United States. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2021, triptych art, United States.
The creative team at CAC sent a single-use camera to Brian McLaren as part of an exploration into contemplative photography. His photos are featured here in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.
Image Inspiration: The two outside photos in this triptych can appear spare, bare, or apart. The photo in the middle brings together a collection of unique items supported by the table. What happens when we are intentional about connection, or together-ing, rather than other-ing?
Story from Our Community:
With the current conditions of our political climate, I found myself put off by many of the conversations, posts and polarization on social media. Therefore, I found Father Richard Rohr’s daily meditation on Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” especially poignant. . . I practiced intentionally sending love from my heart to one or two specific others in which I disagreed. I felt the tension in my own body as I did this. It was not easy, as I also felt a wave of my own fear come up to be released. The struggle of this practice reminds me that real love is not an idea, but an anchor point within myself that I have to access, return to regularly and rest. It helps remove the “log in my own eye” so to speak and heal the relationship with the other.
Prayer for our community:
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough, because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.