October 17th marks the UN’s World Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This day calls us to work toward overcoming poverty. But what is the use of all our efforts? After all, in three different places Jesus tells us “the poor will always be with you” (Matt 26:11, John 12:11, and Mark 14:7).
Some of the ways people understand this are that
a) that we can never end poverty,
b) that it is the role of Christians, not the government, to try to care for the poor, or
c) that Jesus rather than the poor should be our concern.
I must admit the question that has long been in the back of my mind. especially in light of the Vincentian Family thrust of Systemic Change. However, I recently read “Understanding “the poor will always be with you.” It helped me realize that Jesus was really saying quite the opposite of the above interpretations. The author pointed out that we miss the point when we read the passage from our own historical context.
What the phrase meant in Jesus’ day
We read that Jesus says, “The poor will be with you always”. However, we read it without any awareness of the mindset of the people of Jesus’ time.
The Jews of Jesus’ day would have understood that passage in the light of what they grew up with. They would have immediately recognized the words as a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy.
Chapter 15 of the book of Deuteronomy explains that IF people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty. In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions. These spell out so the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (or, “the poor you always have with you”), and because of that, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.”
Jesus’ listeners would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee.
So returning to Deuteronomy 15 and the passage from Matt 26, Jesus is demonstrating that poverty need not exist, and therefore that the poor will not need loans or charity. if people follow God’s laws and commandments, especially through living out the “Sabbatical Year” and “Jubilee.” there will be no poverty.
Therefore, Jesus is criticizing the disciples with this echo of Deuteronomy 15:11. It established that poverty is the result of society’s disobedience to God and of following the laws and commandments of empire.
Jesus challenges us
Rather than Jesus giving us a pass on poverty, he is issuing a profound challenge.
Jesus calls for more than a permanent relinquishment of his acquisitions. He tells us to change our relationship to the poor – to help them, to identify with them.
The poor will always be with us because we have failed the ongoing challenge to change our relationship with those who are poor.
Food for thought
- Does the above give another biblical basis for the Vincentian Family’s emphasis on collaboration and systemic change?
- How many other words of Jesus do we misunderstand because we do not know the thought patterns of the people of his time?
- Is this a reason why Pope Francis brands the bible as a dangerous book?