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Written by Jim Jordal   
Monday, 25 October 2004

Many Christians quote Jesus' comment that "the poor you have always with you" to explain why we will never be able to effectively deal with the problem of poverty.  But is this what Jesus really meant?  Is it possible to eradicate involuntary poverty in our society?  What does Scripture say?  Read on.

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it upon His head as He reclined at table.  But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “What is the point of this waste?  For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.”  But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother this woman?  For she has done a good deed to me.  For the poor you have with you always; but you do not always have Me.  For when she poured the perfume upon My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial.  Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done shall also be spoken in memory of her.”
                                                                                                                                  Matthew 26:6-13 (NASB)

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in the land.
                                                                                                                                          Deut. 15:11 (NASB)

Another economic fact: Wages of the average factory worker fell 5 percent in real terms (corrected for inflation) between 1981 and 1995, while incomes for the richest 1 percent of Americans soared by 78 percent.
                                                                                                 Source: New York Daily News, May 16, 2004

      So here we have the well-meaning disciples blowing it again as their human understanding fails to match the out-of-this-world understandings of Jesus. They didn’t think it right that this woman should lavish expensive ointment on the body of Jesus when it could better have been sold and the money given to the poor.  At least their priorities appeared to be right: they placed people ahead of things, and they evidenced the good sense to avoid ostentation and waste while helping the poor.
     But they didn’t comprehend that Jesus had greater things in mind.  He was thinking of the long-term spiritual effects of her act, not the short-term economic consequences for the poor.
     In response to their concern, Jesus uttered the well-known words, “For the poor you have with you always.”  But what did Jesus mean when He countered their opinion with this comment?  Did He mean that poverty was an endemic condition never to be cured?  Was he saying that charity did no good since some people would always remain poor?  
     And what did God mean when He states in Deut. 15:11 that “… the poor will never cease out of the land”?  Does He negate His promises of deliverance and removal of poverty resulting from application of the Year of Jubilee? (see Leviticus 25).  
      How often have you heard these phrases about the poor always being with us quoted in an attempt to justify failed attempts to deal with poverty, or to discount anyone who claims we can and must permanently end involuntary poverty?  We take solace from these phrases, since they justify our often deeply-held belief that the poor deserve their lowly position because of their many personal failings.  Oh, yes, everyone agrees that poverty is debilitating and certainly not to be desired.  But we also believe that we can do nothing about it other than to share a strictly limited amount of our wealth, since we know that the overall condition of the poor is far beyond our ability to change.
      Or we go to the other extreme by blaming society for all earthly perversions and human suffering. Thus we create a continuum of political belief concerning causes of poverty.   On the extreme right is the view that all poverty is self-caused and therefore incurable except through intense personal effort.  On the equally extreme left is the opinion that all poverty arises from imperfections of society, and can be cured only through massive realignment of basic values and institutions.  As a result of these polarized positions, we debate continually what to do, while actually accomplishing very little.
      Will poverty never cease in human society?  Not as long as we steadfastly refuse God’s commands concerning justice and deliverance from oppression.  In hundreds of Bible verses God expresses displeasure over mistreatment of the poor, widows, orphans, workers, strangers, and other marginalized groups, so we can hardly claim that He somehow likes poverty and oppression.  So also are there hundreds of verses explaining God’s plan for the ending of poverty as we know it.  But these scriptures are mere words until carried into effect, something we are reluctant to do.
      Involuntary human poverty can and will be eradicated when we come under the rule of Jesus Christ in His earthly kingdom.  Our role now can be to learn as much as possible about God’s economic law, and to awaken ourselves and others to the dire consequences of a world financial and economic system operating to increasingly enrich the powerful and further impoverish the poor and vulnerable.  Until then, poverty can be dealt with on the local level by doing just what God said: “Freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in the land.”

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