'The Poor You Will Always Have With You': Did Jesus Care About Poverty?

Did Jesus say that we shouldn't try and combat poverty?Reuters

A US congressman earned considerable scorn last week when he used the teachings of Jesus to argue that some people, frequently the poor and the homeless, 'just don't want healthcare'.

Republican congressman Roger Marshall, a former doctor leading the fight against Obamacare, said in an interview with STAT News: 'Just like Jesus said, "The poor will always be with us." There is a group of people that just don't want health care and aren't going to take care of themselves.'

He added: 'Just, like, homeless people...I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don't want health care. The Medicaid population, which is [on] a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising.'

The Congressman has since been chided for his comments, which many have called an offensive misreading of Jesus' teaching. Marshall's comment was unfortunate, though it's unlikely he was intending it as biblical commentary, rather as a throwaway phrase to make a point.

Nonetheless, his attitude can come across like a patronising dismissal of serious poverty, and to be fair: Jesus did say 'The poor you will always have with you.' Can Jesus' own words be used as a licence to ignore the poor?

The expensive gift

The story is found in Matthew, Mark and John's Gospels.

'While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, 'Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor.' And they rebuked her harshly.

'Leave her alone,' said Jesus. 'Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her' (Mark 14: 3-9).

These can be hard words to hear. It can sound like Jesus is saying that the fate of the poor has been sealed: they will always be there – so you shouldn't try too hard to help them. It could come across as blasé and uncharitable. It's a line the wealthy could use to justify their privilege at the expense of the poverty-stricken.

Didn't Jesus say, as his ministry began, that he came to bring 'good news to the poor'? So what did he mean? 

The ancient law

Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which is part of a radical, challenging chapter in which God commands the Israelites to give to the poor.

On one hand Deuteronomy affirms 'There will always be poor people in the land.' But in the very same verse, it adds: 'Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.'

As if to completely contradict verse 11, 15:4 says that because of God's blessing 'there need be no poor people among you'. The whole passage addresses the tension between a wise recognition of the pervasive reality of poverty, and the divinely-ordained obligation to serve those in need.

The chapter is about 'The Sabbatical Year', where at the end of every seven years, all debts are cancelled, and slaves are set free. When slaves are released, the passage says 'you shall not let him go empty-handed', but rather should 'Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Edinburgh in 2005 to take part in a mass rally to urge leaders of the G8 nations to smash global poverty.Reuters

Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.' (Deut 15.13-15) Generosity for those who have little, rooted in God's kind provision, is hardwired into the Jewish law.

This famous passage would have been well known to any educated Jew listening to Jesus. How could they hear the line 'The poor you will always have with you,' and not also think of the radical obligations of Deuteronomy 15? Jesus, by making this reference, affirms its teaching. He affirms the reality of poverty, and the need to fight against it. He affirms that in this life, injustice will persist, but that through his New Creation, when it comes in full, injustice will cease, and the poor will be lifted up.

The love of God

Jesus' point in this moment seems to have been one about priority in devotion. When a lavish, expensive gesture is made in his honour, he challenges those who rebuke it because the money could have instead been given to the poor. Jesus, whose death on the cross is nigh, welcomes the woman's devotion – and her recognition of what he is about to face – and calls it 'beautiful'.

As Scott Bessenecker says, greed is a powerful force in the human heart and is the true source of the world's poverty. Greed, the desire to accumulate, to shore up power and security, is prevalent in our world and in the Church. It poisons faith, provokes evil and pierces the heart with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10)

It can be justified as wise thriftiness, and you can even pretend that you're saving money to give to the poor. But are you really? In his encounter with this woman, Jesus shows that yes, poverty is tragic and wrong – but it also shouldn't be used as a cover for ungenerosity. To be able to give without restraint, and practise true worship, is a 'beautiful thing'.

You don't have to choose between worshipping Jesus and giving to the poor. Like the love of God and of neighbour – they go together. Don't make God an excuse for unkindness.

Yes, 'the poor you will always have with you'.

But: 'If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?' (1 John 3:17).

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