The evidence for Jesus’ trade is found in Mark chapter 6 verse 3, where the inhabitants of his own village, are startled by his new calling, and say, “Isn’t this the builder?” “Carpenter” is the more usual translation, but the word designated the local tradesman who worked in wood, metal, or stone, repairing and making articles necessary for fishing, agriculture, or animal husbandry, as well as houses and other buildings with their necessary furnishings, for human use.
How much reliance can we put on this one reference? Matthew 13: 53, which is based on this Markan passage, calls him, “The builder’s son” making his father the primary tradesman, which is likely to have been the case anyway. We must remember the lapse in time between Jesus and the Gospels, a minimum of 37 years in the case of Mark plus another 15-20 for Matthew. That, and the Gospel writers’ freedom with the information they received, should make us cautious in accepting this information about Jesus’ trade. Still, if we can trust the conservative nature of oral tradition about Jesus as it circulated in the first Christian communities; and if we can find no theological reason for Mark turning Jesus into a builder, there seems no reason to deny what he states.
Moreover, if the usual guesswork is correct, and Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was around 30 years old, he would probably have been active in his trade for at least 15 years. This means that he would be a very experienced tradesman and local business man, with knowledge of technical and “financial”skills. In his day in Palestine money was replacing older forms of exchange and credit, so Jesus would have been familiar with the various forms of quid pro quo payment as well as currency payment. He would also have seen the gradual break-up of traditional the traditional rural economy with the advent of large estates owned by absentee landlords, run by slaves.
Is there any other material related to Jesus the builder which we can reclaim? I think there’s a great deal.
There is a range of material in the gospels connected with debt. Doubtless Jesus was used to being in temporary debt for say, supplies, and also to others being in debt to him for work done. The good management of debt-relationships is still necessary today for success as as a self- employed tradesman. Jesus’ teaching is uncompromising: securing the repayment of a debt should never be made more important than the relationship with the debtor. The person is more important than what they owe. He puts this understanding at the heart of his Prayer:
“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”
Of course, this can be interpreted as “really” to do with the forgiveness of sins and wrongs, but it is also to do with breaking the punitive cycle of debt and impoverishment. Many in his day were made slaves because of their debts. Jesus was quite clear that people should cultivate the generosity of God, freeing debtors to make a new start. I’m sure that like any tradesman Jesus wanted his bills paid, but knew that his willingness to offer credit should not made into an instrument of destruction, just as God’s gift of freewill to his human children was not be a justification for destroying those who misused it. The generosity of spirit which does not take legal advantage is evident in Jesus and his stories of forgiveness, especially the one about the forgiven debtor who then shows no mercy to his debtor, Matthew 18: 21-35. Again here, there is of course a reference to those who wrong us, but the parable has economic implications also.
In Luke, chapter 4, Jesus speaks about the “ year of the Lord’s favour” by which scholars suppose he meant the Jubilee year, the forty ninth year (7×7 years), when the Jewish Law says that debts should be forgiven, slaves freed, and land restored to its original owner.(Leviticus 25) There is no evidence of how or whether this Law was ever obeyed, but Jesus’ reference may indicate that he saw it as fulfilled in his own ministry, that is, as a time when divine generosity would rule in Israel. The command in Matthew 5 not to turn away from the person who wants to borrow is further evidence for this.
I think that Jesus, who knew local commerce as well as anybody, refused to allow a predatory system of credit and debt to control personal and societal relationships, but rather pioneered a radical generosity which disrupted economic as well as moral oppression.
In today’s society, ruled by a capitalism more vicious than Jesus would have imagined, his utter refusal to bring economic sanctions on needy people, is a serious challenge to our system but even more to our own discipleship of Jesus.