At some point when working with church people on poverty issues someone says, “Well, we can only do so much. After all, Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you.’ We can’t really change that.”
Sometimes it’s used as an excuse to avoid change toward more effective poverty alleviation strategies. Sometimes it’s justification for doing what we’ve always done (even though we can’t see progress). Usually it is to put a dreamer in his or her place. I’ve never heard it as motivation for doing more to reduce poverty.
Jesus brought God’s kingdom vision, a world turned upside down from our current reality. God’s kingdom changes everything — except poverty it seemed? “Poverty will always be around and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”
Did Jesus really mean that?
The NIV Study Bible (representative of most explanations on this text) tries to comfort us with this footnote on Mark 14:7 — “Jesus’ statement did not express lack of concern for the poor, for their needs lay close to his heart. He was simply stating the truth.” In other words: Jesus cares about the poor, but the truth is God’s kingdom doesn’t effect poverty.
I’ve come to a different understanding. Let’s read the story:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” – Matthew 26:6-13 (NIV, emphasis added)
Jesus said this to his disciples at the dinner table. Yet, when this Scripture is quoted today, it is assumed that Jesus is speaking to us in 2012: “Brad, the poor you will always have with you.”
Here’s a few reasons why I think Jesus isn’t talking to me and he’s not making a poverty-will-last-forever prediction for the future.
Because the rest of his statement wasn’t talking to me. If I believe he’s talking to me when he says “the poor you’ll always have with you” he must still be talking to me when he says, “but you won’t always have me.” Isn’t Jesus with us today? Didn’t he say a few pages later, “And surely am I with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NIV). He wasn’t stating a long-term future reality.
Because everything Jesus says is not intended for me today. First blush suggests apostasy. But let’s look at the next red letter words following this story: “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, “The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house'” (Matthew 26:18, NIV). We don’t consider this one of Jesus’ literal commands for us to follow today. So, it’s possible that when he’s talking to his disciples a few days earlier he’s also not talking to me.
Because this text is about Jesus heading to the cross, not poverty. Jesus finishes up some important teachings as Matthew 25 comes to a close. As Matthew 26 begins, he tells his disciples he’s about to be crucified. Then it’s dinner time and he tells them, “The poor will be here next week, but I won’t.” Then Judas goes to work out a deal for betrayal, followed by the Last Supper where he tells them again that he’ll be crucified. Just before this text, Matthew turns his attention into the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection. When Jesus is talking at dinner, he’s not throwing in a prophesy about poverty in 2012.
God has a different plan
In fact, God’s story tells us something quite different about poverty.
In the Creation story humans are created in God’s own image and God provides everything. Of course, sin entered the picture, but God’s vision of a world without poverty continued.
In the law, God instructs the people; “However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if you only fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today” (Deuteronomy 15:5 NIV, emphasis added). God continues outlining a plan for taking care of the poor.
But God’s people didn’t obey. (And we still don’t.)
The prophets spoke God’s condemnation — often pointing to their lack of caring for the poor. Jesus entered and he, too, came with good news for the poor and alleviated the suffering. And the New Testament teachings urge us to alleviate (and eliminate) poverty: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).
When God’s people — the church — act in the way God intends us to act, then we see the possibility of a world without poverty. Echoes of Deuteronomy 15 are found in the early church:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:32-35 NIV, emphasis added)
When the church (Christ-followers) does it’s job then God’s vision of there being “no needy among you” starts becoming a reality. And if we continue doing our job, then poverty can be eliminated — not just later in heaven, but now.
Let’s stop using the Jesus’ words out of context as justification for not ending poverty. Instead, let’s find ways to effective and sustainable ways to alleviate poverty with dignity, respect, and long-lasting results. But how?
In follow-up posts, we’ll take a look at what poverty is and then discuss some strategies for sustainable poverty alleviation.