Will the poor always be with us?
The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me (Matt 26:11, see also Mark 14:7; John 12:8)
I love this verse. It is one of the more well-known sayings of Jesus, said in the context of a lavish gift of perfume which has just been poured on his head. Judas Iscariot – ever the economist – bemoans the waste of money and feigns a concern for the poor to whom the money could have been given. But Jesus rebukes him. The significance of the passage for us though is the way in which it has been abused by all kinds of commentators for their own political ends. In particular, some have used it to argue that we have no responsibility to do anything about poverty because, as Jesus said, the ‘poor will always be with you’.
But that is a gross misunderstanding of what is going on here. For Jesus’ statement is an almost direct quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be poor people in the land.” And as the verse continues, the author makes it clear how we should respond: “Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” What we have here then is a both an empirical statement—‘There will always be poor people’—and an ethical imperative—‘Therefore I command you to be generous’.
There is a useful parallel with sin in this. We all recognise that sin is inevitable; that it will always be with us. But none of us thinks that means we should not do all we can to try and eradicate it. In the same way, the inevitably of poverty and inequality is no more a prescription for passive acceptance than it is in regard to sin. Yes, the poor will always be with us, but rather than a message of passivity, it is in fact a call to action.
“So heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good”
You’ve no doubt heard this phrase a thousand times. I was reminded of it in a recent panel discussion in which I was involved when the claim was made that we can have our heads so involved in spiritual matters that we ignore or forget the material and physical struggles that people have – we can be of ‘no earthly good’. But I have a problem with the phrase – and my problem is that I think it’s not true.
Of course it’s possible to be ‘of no earthly good’. Sadly, many people do ignore the plight of their fellow humans. But what I would say is that this is not because they are too ‘heavenly-minded’. It’s because they are not ‘heavenly-minded’ enough!
This is certainly the case if you consider how the scriptures talk about the life to come. For instance, in the story of the man who built bigger barns to store his wealth and whose life came to an abrupt end, Jesus says this: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Similarly, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the point is not to give us a literal description of heaven or hell, but to challenge our complacency regarding economic injustice.
The same point is made in Luke 14, in the parable of the great banquet where Jesus depicts “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” as enjoying the feast with God. The challenge to Jesus’ hearers was why were such folk not enjoying such feasting now? How do we know that was his point? Because immediately before the parable Jesus said this: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:12,13). The parable is not so much about feasting in the age to come as about feasting now!
The visions of the life to come, the new heavens and new earth, are not given to us as a glorified holiday destination: something that is of no relevance now, but to which we can look forward. Rather they are provided in order to make us reconsider the way in which we live and to motivate us to work with God in bringing his kingdom to come now. In light of this, it seems to me that one of the primary ways in which we can be 'of earthy good' is precisely by having such a vision of heaven, one which shows us the kind of society we could be building in the now.
For the Love of Money
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
One of the great contributions of Catholic Social Teaching to the church has been the concept of structural sin. Structural sin is the idea that wrongful attitudes and practices can be enshrined not just in individuals, but in the very systems, policies and structures that collectively we live by. The thing about structural sin is that its relationship with individuals is two-way. On the one hand, sinful structures can be promoted by individuals who are seeking their own agenda – consider a racist policy proposed by an individual racist. But structures of sin can also facilitate and encourage sinful behaviour by their very existence. Often it is our unwillingness to challenge them that makes us complicit with them.
This bidirectionality is neatly summed up by John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, when he writes “If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of 'structures of sin' which... are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behaviour.” And he goes on to give a concrete example of such a structure: “In this respect I wish to mention specifically…the reform of the world monetary and financial system, today recognized as inadequate”.
I mention all this because although this passage in 1 Timothy is clearly directed at individuals, the “love of money” of which it speaks can also be considered corporately. Our economies have become beset with the false idol of economic growth for which the love of money is the fuel. Whether intentionally or not, we have developed a system, a structure if you will, where the love of money is simply assumed. Such a system is both fed by individuals who are greedy themselves, but it also impacts all of us – encouraging and facilitating our own love of money.
It was in light of this that I was pleasantly surprised to see New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explicitly state that the purpose of her government’s budget is not economic growth but the “well-being” of her population. Specifically, all spending must advance one of five priority areas: mental health, child poverty, inequality, thriving in a digital age and the environment. For many years, campaigners have been arguing that national budgets should prioritise people and planet over profit. Yet, we have been stuck in a system whose only measure of well-being has been rising GDP. This has been our structure of sin for it involves a metric that pays no attention to inequality or meeting the needs of the most vulnerable or environmental sustainability. We can all thank God that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn and if coronavirus has taught us anything it is that an alternative future is possible.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
It’s hard to know what the most appropriate biblical analogy is for our present crisis. The range of concerns we face are manifold. We might be worried about our own health, or the health of those we love; we might be worried about our jobs, our income. We might be worried about our children and the impact on their education. We might in the moment simply feel the absence of friends, family and our worshipping community who we no longer see in the usual way. We might simply be lonely.
There is no single biblical example that captures all of this, but like others, I think the exile of the Israelite nation to Babylon comes closest to what we are now experiencing. In moving to a new land, and in engaging with new populations it is quite likely that the people experienced a range of new diseases that they had not encountered before. However, ill-health was probably not their primary concern. Instead, economic and religious isolation was probably their greatest fear. They were effectively taken as prisoners of war and many of them would have been in servitude. They also suffered an exile from people and places of worship. The whole of the community did not go and some would have been separated from friends and family relatives. They were certainly separated from the centre of their religious worship – namely the temple in Jerusalem which was now destroyed.
Just like our experience, then, the Babylonian exile is an experience of profound loss – of people, places and maybe things. Now the norm at this point is to highlight how in their distress the nation turned to God and found a new form of comfort and worship. The point is often made how difficult times such as these can frequently be times of spiritual growth even if it doesn’t always feel that way. All of that is true, but I want to reach a different conclusion.
In the verse quoted at the start, the phrase translated as ‘peace and prosperity’ is actually a single Hebrew word shalom. It refers not to the absence of war, but to a much fuller, grander sense of flourishing in which we are at peace with ourselves, others, the planet and God. It is wellness in all its forms. But what is interesting about the verse is that such shalom is called for as the shalom ‘of the city to which I have carried you’. God is not saying seek this shalom in the future when you are back in Israel; he is saying seek this shalom now in the place that I have sent you. This does not mean that the exiles achieved that shalom in Babylon. I’m sure they always hankered after a return to Israel, but it was an instruction not just to sit and wait, but to use the time and place where they were to do something constructive.
Speaking personally, when coronavirus first hit, I did wonder if we should put the work of CATJ into hibernation as it were until the pandemic was over. But I am now more convinced than ever that now is the time for action, now is the time to articulate and campaign for a bold and innovative new economic landscape. In such a world, our tax system would not be used not to shore up the lifestyles of the wealthy but to tackle poverty and inequality, and to serve the common good. My goal is to seek the shalom, the tax shalom, of the place where God has put me, and I hope as you find your own shalom in the present crisis, you’ll also join me in my quest too.
Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. (Luke 14:21-24)
The painting you can see here is anonymous, painted by a Dutch artist in the early 16th Century. I love this painting. It depicts the parable of the great banquet, also known as the parable of the wedding feast. It's the story of a master who invites a host of people to his party and who all, one by one, make excuses, until the master gets his servant to go out into the streets to invite 'the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame'. The parable is widely understood as a parable of the feast in heaven, in other words the life that is to come. In Isaiah, the age to come is also portrayed this way as a great feast to enjoy. Isaiah 25:6 says this “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Both accounts speak to us of a place where there is no want, no hunger, no crying, no pain – just a place of enjoyment.
But what’s interesting in Luke’s parable is the way in which the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are shown to be enjoying this feast also. We see this depicted in the painting – we have the food, the drink, the merriment, the young the old – but also a lame man, dead centre in the painting.
So what has this to do with tax justice? The vision of heaven we are given in scripture is not merely about something we look forward to when we die – it in the words of the old Christian Aid slogan – about life before death. The vision of heaven is basically an indication of how life should be now. Don't we pray 'thy kingdom come'! In other words – life should be a party – but it should be a party for all. Life should be a place of flourishing for all – including for the crippled, the blind and the poor. Our tax regimes should be such that everyone can enjoy life as much as they are able. And if our tax systems are such that some are excluded, that they are left out of the party as it were, then they are wrong. But as we all know, that is what our tax systems do. In the UK, as the JRF report above indicates many are still suffering significant degrees of poverty. And internationally, the picture is even worse. Yet, the global tax rules are set in such a way that they benefit the richest countries not the poorest. Tax justice is, in part, about ensuring that everyone is invited to the party - for that is the vision that Christ gave us.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)
What is this parable about? On the surface, we might be tempted to think that it’s a warning about the life to come and an encouragement to repent as otherwise we face the fires of hell. But I do not think that is its purpose at all. Scholars have pointed out that the parable has well known parallels in other ancient near east literature, and in all of them the emphasis is on the reversal that happens in the afterlife. The poor man in this world becomes rich in the world after; the rich man in this world becomes poor or suffers in the life to come. The point of the parable, then, is to not to provide a literal description of the fate that awaits us, but instead provides a morality tale to encourage ethical behaviour in this life.
It comes shortly after Jesus has chastised the Pharisees for their love of money and his proclamation to them that they cannot serve two masters (Luke 6:13). In this context, and in the whole Lukan context, the parable acts as a critique of those who seek to store up as much wealth as possible and fail to share it with the poor in their midst. The point of the rather gruesome depiction of hades is intended to shock us into divesting of our wealth for the sake of others. It is in short a parabolic command that our goal should be equality. If we heed its message, that is the real challenge we face.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
One of the things we all know is that Christians are meant to tithe. We might well have a debate as to whether the 10% we give away should we based on pre-tax income or post-tax income, or even whether it is 10%, but what we all agree on is that we are meant to give away some proportion of our income.
And of course, there is a good biblical basis for such behaviour. In previous posts, I have written about the Levitical code that required the people of Israel to set aside a tenth of their produce for the widows, the poor, the foreigners and the Levites. But as we turn to the New Testament, something different seems to be going on. The emphasis in numerous NT passages is not on a tithe on income, but a title on wealth. This passage from Luke is just typical. Jesus' instruction was not to take the excess of our income and give away a proportion, his instruction was that we sell some possessions and give those proceeds away. And while the same point is made in relation to the rich young ruler (Luke 18) the instruction here is to us all. It does not just seem to be a command to the rich.
I've been reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century recently. His fundamental point is that as soon as we have wealth - whatever its form - that wealth will almost always generate a greater growth in value than growth in income from work. This is another way of saying the rich will always get richer - unless we intentionally do something about it. We saw this in the wealth inequality stats from the UK discussed earlier. Wealth inequality outstrips income inequality and has been doing for some time.
All of this makes me wonder if Jesus knew what he was talking about. During early Judaism, the mechanism of wealth redistribution was the Jubilee principle (at least in theory) in which every 50 years all debts were cancelled and land was returned to its original owners. In 1st Century Palestine, this would have no longer been effective because the economy was far less land-based. Perhaps therefore in encouraging us to sell our possessions and give to the poor, Jesus was giving us a jubilee principle for the 1st Century, and possibly for the Twenty-First too!
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 2 Corinthians 8:13,14
The context of this passage is that the church in Jerusalem was struggling. This may have been ongoing fallout from a famine some years before, or simply because the church there was poor. Either way, they didn't have the resources to keep going. In this letter, Paul has drawn attention to the generous gift of the Macedonians and he is now encouraging the Corinthians to give likewise.
However, his use of language is really interesting. On the one hand, we might think of this gift as merely an act of charity. The Jerusalem church was poor, the Corinthians were potentially wealthier, and Paul is merely asking the Corinthians to give out of their excess to help their poorer brothers and sisters. However, Paul does not frame the gift in that way. If he had then the Corinthians would have effectively become the patrons of the Jerusalem church and that was a model of financial support that Paul despised. He rejects it for himself for instance in 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9: 1-18, 2 Corinthians 11:5-10).
Instead, Paul's emphasis is on justice not charity. As he repeatedly notes in this passage, 'the goal is equality'. In other words, Paul is saying here that the fact that we share resources - my plenty supplying what you need; and your plenty supplying what I need - is not a matter of charitable giving; it's a matter of justice. It is how things are meant to be in the Kingdom of God. Of course, this same pattern is also evident in the way the early disciples shared all things in Acts 2 and Acts 4, and how debts were cancelled in the Jubilee principle of Leviticus 25.
As I say in the blog about The Three Key Questions about Tax, none of this means that we can achieve absolute equality today. But the question that must be asked is this: in which direction are we heading? Is it the direction of more equality or less? Paul would certainly encourage us to seek more, and our tax systems if better engineered can do just that.
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 26:12)
The sharp eyed among you will have noticed that this is the same verse that I provided comment on in the previous post, but this time I want to draw out a different lesson from it. In the final clause, it tells us the aim of providing the tithe (or as I previously suggested, tax), is that the poor, the vulnerable would be provided for, but more than that, they would be satisfied. The Hebrew word here for satisfied does not just mean someone who has received the bare minimum - enough to repel the worst hunger cravings - no, it means someone who has received plenty, an abundance, so much so that they are filled, complete, full up, stuffed. It's the same word used in Deut 31:20 when the authors describes the land flowing with milk and honey, or Nehemiah 9:25 when they ate to their fill and "grew fat". It's a word that conjures up the idea of the extravagant God who turns water into wine, who feeds 5,000 with so much that 12 baskets full are left over. It is a God of plenitude. This is how things are meant to be.
Yet, if I compare that picture to the one we see in our own society today, I am aware of a stark difference. On the day that I wrote this, there was a news report that many women on universal credit are so short of funds that they resort to sex work to make up for their lack of funds. That is not a society in which those who receive the fruit of our taxes are 'satisfied', that is a society that pay taxes to furnish the poor with the bare minimum needed for survival. And that is why campaigning for tax justice matters
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 26:12 )
As you will be aware, one of the repeated refrains throughout the whole of the scriptures is an emphasis on our responsibility to care for four particular groups: the poor, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant. In different verses, three or four of these groups frequently appear in combination (Ps 146:9, Isa 1:17, Mal 3:5, Zech 7:10, James 1:27). In the Deuteronomic verse, the emphasis is on our responsibility to care by paying our tithe, the equivalent some might say of our current tax system. What many commentators have pointed out however is that what links these four groups is not so much their economic plight - their material poverty as such - but rather their vulnerability. They lacked social status, and it is that relative powerlessness that made them vulnerable to the exploitation of others. This for me is a reminder that a fairer tax system is not just about generating resources to meet a particular need (thought it is that), but it is also about fostering genuine social equality. It is about empowering people so that they are not vulnerable to the exploitation of others. It is about justice.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..