Perpetual Poverty?

“…you always have the poor…”

(Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8)

The two most recent entries in this blog have examined how people have used poor biblical interpretation of, admittedly, difficult texts to justify and undergird racism and misogyny. This entry turns attention to the ways in which some have perverted a saying of Jesus – who elsewhere called the poor blessed and equated how one treats the poor with how one treats Jesus, himself  – into an axiomatic statement describing poverty as a sociological given, almost as though an expression of the order God wills for the moral universe.  In almost paradigmatic fashion, the interpretation of Jesus’ statement on the poor illustrates the importance of contexts.

Recently, speaking about healthcare reform, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) appealed to Jesus to support his contention that the poor essentially choose their condition, implying that they cannot be helped or that they deserve poverty. “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us’…There is a group of people that just … aren’t going to take care of themselves…morally, spiritually, socially….” (

Did Jesus say that?

In a somewhat unusual case, two of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Matthew) share with the Gospel of John an account of a woman (John identifies her as Mary, presumably Lazarus’ sister) anointing Jesus (head – Mark and Matthew; feet – John) with expensive (Mark and John value it at 300 denarii, a year’s wages for a day laborer at the time) ointment (again, Mark and John agree that it was nard) while Jesus was visiting in Bethany.  All three Gospels report that the disciples (John specifies Judas, the Betrayer, raising interesting questions about his motives) objected to the waste and reprimanded the woman. The money spent on ointment could have gone to the poor. In his defense of the woman, Jesus reminded them that the circumstances were unique.  Whether the woman had intended it as such, Jesus saw her actions as preparation for his burial and lauded her. If, indeed, she meant the anointing as Jesus interpreted it, she would have been the first of Jesus’ disciples to understand what was to come. In any case, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus predicted that her apparent early grasp of the situation would mean that in the future her actions would be associated with the Good News wherever it is preached.

Jesus made the statement about the poor in the exchange about the propriety of the woman’s act.  He did not reject the concern of the disciples (with the possible exception of Judas) for the poor outright.  Instead, he set it in the context of his impending crucifixion. The shortness of time, the fact that Jesus would soon be leaving, justified the woman’s action.  In fact, although Matthew and John omit the phrase, perhaps because each of them uses the story to emphasize another element of their telling of the Jesus story (Matthew surrounds the anointing episode with material about Jesus’ preparations for and celebration of his last Passover on earth; John embeds it in the extended story of Lazarus’ return to life and the trouble this caused with the Jewish authorities), Mark reports that Jesus told the disciples, in effect, that when things returned to “normal” after Easter, the poor would still be there, needing help, if the disciples (truly, remember Judas) want to offer it: “…whenever you will, you can do good to them …” (v 7).

The clause “Whenever you will” provides other context clues. Only a few chapters earlier, Mark relates the episode involving the young man who could not muster the “will” to follow Jesus’ call to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. Indeed, the form of Jesus’ statement about the persistence of poverty suggests that he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:7 and that he probably expected the disciples to be familiar with the text – the “deep context” of Jesus’ statement. The passage constitutes part of the section of Deuteronomy that interprets the Decalogue commandment to observe the Sabbath. Deuteronomy explains Sabbath observance in relation to God’s liberation of Israel from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  Because Israel knew what it meant to suffer through no fault – moral, ethical, or character – of their own, Deuteronomy argues, Israelites should willingly and eagerly exercise particular concern for those who have fallen victim to circumstances. Otherwise, they would run the risk of endorsing, supporting, and sustaining the external conditions that produce poverty.  They would become like pharaoh.

In particular, the Deuteronomy passage Jesus quoted contemplates situations that could arise during the so-called “Sabbath Year,” every seventh year in which debts were to be forgiven, slaves set free, and property returned to its original owner.  Suppose a poor person were to ask for a loan on New Year’s Eve before the beginning of a Sabbath Year. In such a case, the lender would be required to forgive the debt the next day and would have no hope of recovering any portion of the loan. The text Jesus quotes, and presumably invokes, very explicitly commands that, even in such extreme circumstances, the need of the poor and the hope that individual Israelites will emulate their Liberator God, surmount the economic interests of the lender.

If there is among you a poor person …do not harden your heart (this allusion to pharaoh is unmistakable) and do not close your hand to your poor neighbor. For you shall certainly open your hand to your neighbor and you shall certain lend enough to meet your neighbor’s need. Keep yourself from speaking foolishness in your heart, “It is nearly the Sabbath Year, the Year of the Forgiveness of Debts.” Your poor neighbor will seem evil to you and you will not give… Your neighbor will cry out against you to YHWH and it will be your sin.  Give! …. (vv 7-10, my translation).

In other words, since Jesus quoted this text in part, and probably meant to evoke the entire passage in the minds of his disciples (and Mark in the minds of his readers), his observation that poverty is a persistent problem constitutes anything but an excuse for abandoning the poor, and certainly not for blaming the poor for their poverty.

In fact, neither Jesus nor the Deuteronomy text discuss the cause or causes of poverty. For the author(s) of Deuteronomy, at least, poverty seems to represent an embarrassment of sorts. After contemplating an ideal circumstance in which God’s blessings for Israel would mean no poverty (v 4), hinging that bounty on Israel’s obedience (v 5), the Deuteronomy text relents, admitting that the world in which Israel lived, and in which we live, is far from ideal (v 7).  The author(s) of Deuteronomy recognized the importance of yet another context important in considering Jesus’ statement about the persistence of poverty, namely, the real world of lived experience.

Whether because a basic human urge seeks to provide explanations for threats such as poverty in order to make them seem manageable or because another basic human urge resorts to blaming victims to dismiss the obligation to help, like Job’s friends, many, even many Christians, pursue the logic that the Deuteronomy text abandons.  Since God blesses the righteous, so the reasoning goes, poverty must signify the opposite.  The poor deserve their poverty; they bring it upon themselves; they do not want to work hard and flourish.  Furthermore, if all this is true, to offer assistance would simply be to reward sloth and sin.  A simple syllogism undercuts the biblical mandate for generosity.

Of course, the real world does not confirm this logic.  Children born into poverty have not sinned to merit their condition. Children born with conditions that will restrict their ability to learn and to earn have not sinned.  Educational opportunities in America are not equal.  Since most public school funding comes from property taxes, schools in wealthy areas as well-funded; they can offer AP courses, IB programs, and enrichment opportunities.  Schools in poor areas struggle to pay well enough just to keep good teachers.  Poor teenagers work part-time, after school jobs to supplement family finances.  They do not have the means or time to attend math camp in the summer or to accept (mostly unpaid) internships.  Their college applications, therefore, lack the bells-and-whistles that attract the attention of college admissions staffs. Every middle class family in America is just one serious medical crisis away from bankruptcy. (A 2013 study finds that inability to pay high medical bills is the leading cause of bankruptcy, health insurance, notwithstanding.  Seventy-eight percent of those filing for medical-bill related bankruptcy in a recent year had health insurance.  Note the source of this information:  In Jesus’ day, a failed crop could propel a hard-working family into poverty; today, down-sizing does. Any claim that people are poor because they deserve it ignores the genetic, sociological, economic, and systemic realities of an unpredictable world.

Yet, a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,686 American adults reveals that, in response to the question “Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?” 46 percent of self-identified Christians attributed poverty primarily to sloth (in contrast to only 29 percent of non-Christians).  Moreover, a majority, 53 percent, of white evangelical Protestants blame poverty on the poor. (source –

By far the most important context for interpreting Jesus statement about the persistence of poverty, of course, is the mandate to care for the poor and for any (orphan, widow, immigrant) on the margins, a mandate that runs throughout the Bible, both Testaments, Moses and Jesus.

Talk about taking something out of context….