The poor you will always have with you

Originally posted on 2 October 2007, updated on 2 March 2010

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11).

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:

Deuteronomy 15:11
“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:

Deuteronomy 15:4
“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!

3 thoughts on “The poor you will always have with you”

  1. When this was first posted, there was some discussion between myself and Stephen Murray. Here is that discussion:

    STEPHEN:

    Graeme what I struggle with when Emerging folk take fresh looks at scripture is how selective those looks tend to be. Now let me say upfront – I affirm that this passage does not teach that eradicating poverty is a waste of time, I also affirm that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy. What I have a difficulty with is the failure to place the command in Deuteronomy in to its redemptive historical context. That command is given to Israel ruled under a theocracy with the Mosaic law as their guide to life WITHIN this theocracy – you cannot just apply it straight to us and say – see God wants us to get rid of all poverty – that breaks numerous hermeneutical rules (including principles that I’ve heard other emerging folk accusing evangelicals of breaking).

    Besides – if you wanted to draw a strict parrallel between the theocratic kingdom and us you’d have to concede that the command is given to those living within the covenant community, not the outside tribes (verse 3, the preceding verse clearly shows this). So then we’d have to say that according to that verse we should only care for the Christian poor – and not unbelieving poor – if we consider ourselves in a similar position.

    Secondly I looked up a few exegetical commentaries on the Matthew passage and the possible greek translation is scarce and at best unlikely – but I stand open to correction on this one because my greek is a little rusty at the moment.

    Please understand me – I affirm that we need to expose silly exegesis like that of Sach’s but I also think we should be careful with what we replace it with. Does the bible promise the possibility of the eradication of poverty in this life – I’m not sure it does – I don’t think Deuteronomy makes that promise either. Does that mean I don’t do anything to try and eradicate poverty? Of course not – if I’m living as a citizen of heaven and a future citizen of a restored creation (hower that will come about in the end) then I must be concerned about the restoration of this earth now – even if, in this life at least, that restoration never comes about. Deuteronomy clearly tells me that much – more than that, I think we need to be careful

  2. My response:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Let me say first that my post wasn’t intended to be a full exegesis of the verse, so some of your comments are valid in relation to what I have actually written.

    I also fully agree that the danger we are ALL facing today is bad exegesis and misuse of Scripture. The reason I am drawn to many of the EC writers and theologians is that they are at least willing to admit that they are wrong when errors or bias is pointed out in their interpretations. They are also willing to go back and ensure that their theology matches what Scripture says. I know my Calvinist and Reformed friends will howl in protest that this is precisely what they do – but they do NOT! Most of them let their theological tradition and cultural bias taint their reading of Scripture, and they proof text their way out of trouble.

    But, let me try and respond to you.

    To simply dismiss all attempts to understand the Jewish context of the Bible as irrelevant because we don’t live in a theocracy is a flimsy response on two counts. Firstly, maybe we are SUPPOSED to live in a theocracy. I don’t believe this (Calvin’s “City of God” is more scary than inspiring for me), but it is a valid viewpoint. Secondly, and more importantly, the church is specifically established as the new Israel. The reason we have all the stories about Israel, and the wisdom and myths of Israel recorded for us, is because they provide a pattern of God’s working in the world – a pattern that must be applied to us today. The trick, obviously, is to work out what still applies – and how – and what does not (and why).

    It is these considerations that lie at the heart of debates about women leaders, homosexuality and environmental and social concern, amongst other contentious issues.

    In the case of the issues you raise above, Jesus is making it clear that the OT concerns about the poor must be NT church concerns too. So, theocracy or not, this is something we must take seriously.

    You talk about only being concerned about those inside the church – in fact, the OT is clear about precisely the opposite. There are numerous and specific instructions given in the OT about foreigners, slaves, and other non-Jewish peoples. The same concern must apply to them as to brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Finally, you have completely misunderstood me about Sachs. I think his book is a must read, and I think his message is powerful and important. We CAN get rid of extreme poverty within 10 years, if we really tried. As Christians, we should be in the forefront of support for this type of thinking!!

  3. Stephen replied:

    Hi Graeme. Firstly – sorry for the misunderstanding on Sachs – I thought you meant he upheld a faulty exegesis of the text. Secondly, I think you are mistaken on your views of the Reformed and Calvinist tradition, I think the tradition is far more diverse than you allow for in your comments however I am well aware that the type of Reformed people you describe abound and probably make up the majority of the tradition. I grew up amongst the type you described, however I have signifiacantly moved a number of my positions yet still remain in the refomed tradition becuase I discovered numerous groups of reformed folk (both in SA and abroad) who weren’t like the ones you mentioned and actually worked hard at making sure that their systems were always subject to exegesis and not the other way around.

    Thirdly – the theocratic law of the OT is NOTconcerned with those outside of the covenant people as you propose. It is concerned with the covenant people and those living amongst them ‘in the land’. The concept of ‘land’ has huge theological significance in the OT. The law instructs the Israelites to be concerned about all of those ‘in the land’ – the foreigners and aliens who live in the land amongst them – nothing is said for the foreigners outside of the land. Notice though that this is restricted to the law.

    I think in the prophets, especially Isaiah, we see God’s concern extend beyond the Israel and the land to all nations and so we could probably extend the concern for the poor on that basis – Deuteronomy however is concerned with what is going on within the covenant community. The NT seems to follow suite (at least in the epistles) there are far more references to caring for those in the Christian community than for those outside. Jesus’ commands seem to be far more general and extend beyond the Christian community – although even then he is in the process of as you rightly say building a new Israel and in that sense we are in a theocracy.

    BTW – I didn’t dismiss all attempts to understand the Jewish context because we don’t live in a theocracy. In fact I did exactly the opposite and attempted to understand the Jewish context and its application more accurately. I believe the OT scriptures are extremely applicable to NT Christians I just think you need see each part clearly in the unfolding storyline of the bible to discern the application.

    In saying all of this I am very encouraged by your initial post because it displays a commitment to really understanding what God is saying in the text even if it means revising cherished systems and I applaud you for that and am grateful for your contribution. I might read the text differently, and I might be unsure as to whether the eradication of poverty is possible in this life – but I hope that in terms of application I’m saying the same thing to Christians and that is: fight poverty – God wants us to.

    Regards,
    Stephen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *