[The following post first appeared on 18 January 2005. Due to the fact that so many people quote Jesus about the enduring presence of "the poor," it seemed appropriate to bring this one back for the sake of a deeper biblical understanding of Jesus' intentions.]
Paying attention to how people use the Bible in developing a worldview can be downright entertaining.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has quoted Jesus' line to me--"The poor you will have with you always, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7)--I could stop worrying about how to fund our organization!
Jesus made the statement in response to critics who wondered out loud why he allowed a follower to "waste" an expensive gift just to honor him. Of course, he had the good sense to know that the real concern of these critics had nothing to do with the poor. His reply made that clear, as he challenged them and us to understand that poor folks are in abundance and can be assisted whenever those of us with wealth decide to turn loose some of it!
Most people never look "behind" what Jesus says here.
As was usually the case when he spoke with authority, Jesus was quoting scripture here. The text he had in mind was Deuteronomy 15 (fifth from the front cover!).
Now I've noticed across the years that most of the people who throw Jesus' words at me about the poor also have a very high view of the Bible. These Bible believing, sometimes Bible banging folks, are pretty sure Jesus is responsible for the Deuteronomy passage as well.
So, what do we find there?
Well, for starters there is this directive: ". . .there should be no poor among you, . . .if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today" (15:4-5).
That line comes immediately following a commandment to cancel all debts every seven years in the land of Israel.
Talk about things that make you go Hmmm!!!
. . .poverty reduction program based on systemic, public policy that helps level the economic playing field on a scheduled, periodic basis. That would sure make a difference in how many people were poor, remained poor and fell into poverty, wouldn't you think?
But, the text goes on.
The next line reads this way, "If there is a poor man among your brothers. . .do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs" (15:7-8).
Pretty radical, this call to lend without much question. The text continues by prohibiting any calculation as to when the next seventh year of debt forgiveness would mean for this loan (15:9-10)!
You'd think the Creator really knows us, wouldn't you?
Get the picture so far?
First, there should be no poor among the people of God because we are all doing what God says we should do about poverty from a global, macro-economic standpoint.
Second, almost as a beginning concession by God, if there happens to be someone poor, then the solution is to lend freely.
But then, it is as if God says to himself, "Wait what am I thinking! I know how these people are!"
At this point there follows the final line, the one Jesus quoted to his critics who had observed the presentation of a genuinely openhearted gift. The text in the Hebrew Bible reads, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land" (15:11).
Why is this true?
Because of something in the poor that is wrong or faulty or irresponsible? A basic laziness or unworthiness or stupidity? Not according to this text, the one Jesus quotes.
No. The problem is with people who claim to be interested in making God happy. People who love to read and quote the Bible with ease, but who also find ingenious ways to ignore what the good book actually says about poverty, its root causes and those crushed under it.
Like I say, it is really entertaining to watch us use this book.