“For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” (Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8).
I have personally heard this verse used by other Christians to suggest that ministering to the poor is a futile venture.
A look at the context suggests it means precisely the opposite.
This series of posts on Justice intends to provide a biblical context for doing justice and to provide a foundation for discerning what biblical justice looks like.
I began this series with an article titled “Injustice: maybe I’m the problem.” I do not think we take this issue seriously enough. We evangelicals think too highly of ourselves.
In my second post, “Evangelicals and Justice: Why are we so late to the game,” I noted many reasons why evangelicals have failed to do justice through the years. Again, many evangelical readers might not take this message to heart either. After all, I am a good person. I give to my church and support missionaries.
The point is, however, that the evangelical church has not only been late to the party when it comes to doing true justice, but, dare I say, we have actually contributed to much injustice through the years. (I am getting ahead of myself here. I will defend this assertion in future posts).
In my third post, “What is Justice,” we examined the Old Testament and noted the prominence of the call to do righteousness and justice. An examination of these passages and the meaning of the words “righteousness” and “justice” leads to the understanding that righteousness refers to things “as they ought to be” and justice is what is needed when things are not so. In a just society, there will be no poor, no needy, etc.
In my fourth post, “Jesus and the call to justice” I argued that justice is equally present in the New Testament in that Jesus’ command to love is the fulfillment and application of the OT call to do justice.
Thus, in my last post on justice, “Justice without love is not justice,” I argued that biblical love is the way of the cross: i.e., it lays down one’s life for the other.
In this post and the next, I intend to set forth the proposition that God calls His people to be the means through which He brings justice to the world.
When I suggest this, some respond by saying that Jesus noted “the poor you will always have,” which is taken to mean that giving to the poor is futile.
The tragedy of this is that it leads to the conclusion that since I cannot alleviate world hunger there is no sense of helping the person in front of me who is starving. Really? Why don’t you just sit next to them and eat your hamburger in front of them? No need to offer them a bite since they will just be hungry again tomorrow anyway.
This is not what Jesus meant! In fact, what Jesus meant was the opposite!
In order to understand what Jesus was saying we must first look at the context. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was responding to Judas! (John 12:4; Mark says that “some were indignantly remarking”: Mark 14:4; and Matthew says it was the disciples: Matt 26:8).
Secondly, Jesus was citing Deut 15:11: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land.”
There is a principle of interpretation, which was widely used in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, in which one may cite a portion of a verse or even a single word, and the whole context of the passage would be in view.
An illustration might suffice to clarify. Let’s suppose that someone was struggling with their faith and they came to you and were confessing their sins and acknowledging that they have strayed. You assure this person that since they are repentant, God will forgive them. After all, you suggest, He is a loving Father who runs to meet his wayward child and welcome them home.
In doing so, you have obviously alluded to the Parable of the Lost Son (often deemed the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15. By alluding to the story the person may well think of themselves as a wayward Christian and compare their unfaithfulness to the wayward son in the parable. You didn’t need to tell the whole story to do this. You simply had to refer to a part of the story and the whole story comes into view.
Similarly, when Jesus cites Deut 15:11 in response to Judas the whole passage is in view.
The key to understanding Deut 15 is that sets forth the provisions for the Sabbatical year in which every seventh-year debts were to be forgiven and the land was to be restored to its owners (Deut 15:2).
Moreover, the passage establishes that among the people of God “there shall be no poor among you” (Deut 15:4). The passage continues by making provisions for what they are to do if there were poor among them (Deut 15:7).
In such instances, “you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut 15:7-8).
The reality is that even if the Israelites followed all of God’s provisions, famines and other factors will still create situations in which people become in need. Thus, “the poor will never cease to be in the land” (Deut 15:11).
What were they to do in such situations? Well, Deut 15:7-8 already answered the question. Nonetheless, the rest of Deut 15:11 reiterates it anyway: “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 your land.”
That is right, the very verse used by some to suggest that we shouldn’t worry about giving and helping the poor because it is a futile effort actually says that we should, “freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.”
The people of God are called to do justice!
The principle is that there should not be a needy person among us. But, if they are, then do justice! Now, there are a number of objections some might raise at this point. I’ll only address one at the moment.
Namely, I can easily imagine someone responding that this is an OT principle and is not for us today. (I will attempt to contain myself in replying to this absurd proposition).
First, this reasoning miserably fails to understand the relationship between the OT and the NT.
Secondly, does it not matter that Jesus is the one citing Deut 15:11? If Jesus is citing the passage, which says, “open freely your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land,” then should we not suppose that it applies to us?!
Thirdly, the early church sure thought the principle from Deut 15:4 applied to them. Luke, in the book of Acts, notes that in the early church, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). In doing so, Luke cites Deut 15:4. The church in Jerusalem was fulfilling the call of Deuteronomy.
In my next post, I will continue this discussion by contending that the means through which God brings His justice is through the people of God (i.e., “us”).
 That Luke is citing Deut 15:4 is evident in that the Greek of Acts 4:34 is virtually indentical to the Greek version of Deut 15:4.