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.
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..