Originally posted on 2 October 2007, updated on 2 March 2010
Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11). You’ve heard that verse before, but here’s something you should be told about it in church and probably won’t be.
So, should we try and even solve the problem of poverty? Some people have used this verse to say that it is impossible to eradicate poverty. Others have argued that it is not only possible, it is possible within a decade – you can read Jeffrey Sachs in his best selling book, “The End of Poverty” (buy it at Amazon.co.uk or Kalahari.net) or connect with the Global Poverty Project and see their presentation, “1.4 billion reasons”.
Who is right? If Jesus himself said we’d always have the poor then maybe we shouldn’t even try to get rid of poverty. Is this what Jesus meant? I don’t think so.
Well, Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament. And here is the context:
“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.” (NIV)
So, at very least, Jesus had in mind that we SHOULD give to the poor. He deliberately used a well known scriptural phrase to ensure that his audience would have this particular command brought to their attention, without him needing to make the additional points explicit. This was certainly a style of teaching used often by Biblical writers. It is one of the reasons that interpreting Scripture can be quite difficult, and why we must be open to new understandings and deeper interpretations.
Let’s go further with this example. Note the prior context to the Deuteronomy verse quoted above:
“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,” (NIV)
The original audience that Jesus was speaking to would therefore have heard exactly the opposite of what we think we hear today. Jesus was saying that there might be poor people in the world, but that God’s people were to have none of that. Israel was meant to be a beacon of hope to the world, showing a new, wonderful way to live as God’s people. The poor of the world would come, so they could be poor no more. In New Testament times, we are the new Israel, and God’s plan for the world is to save/redeem the whole world.
So, here we have definite proof that God wants us as His people to specifically be involved in eradicating poverty. There should be no poor people!! That is God’s plan, and when we pray and ask Him to establish His kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven, this must surely then be part of the plan!
It may also be instructive to point out that the Greek linguistic construction of, “the poor you will always have with you” could also possibly mean, “you must always be found among the poor”. If this is what Jesus actually meant, it makes a huge difference to how we interpret the passage, and what we should be focusing our efforts and energies on.
So, this post is about two things: its about the poor and our response to them. But it’s also about how we interpret Scripture. (And so, it’s probably about a third thing, too – how emerging church theologians are looking with fresh eyes at God’s wonderful Word).
If you want to know what you can do to help eradicate extreme poverty, then sign up to the pledges at The Global Poverty Project, and start today!