The Poor You Will Always Have With You

The Poor You Will Always Have With You May 27, 2017

Liz Theoharis writes:

Keeping in mind these emphases of Deuter­onomy, we can grasp the liberative dimension of Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:11, “you always have the poor with you.” After an unnamed prophetess anoints him to be ruler of God’s kingdom, Jesus responds by quoting to his disciples from Deuter­on­omy 15:11, which is embedded in one of the most radical Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions in the Bible. Deuter­onomy 15 says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow the commandments of God: to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even when you know you won’t get paid back. But Deuteronomy 15 also says that because people will not follow those commandments, there will always be poor among you.

When Jesus quotes this phrase, he isn’t condoning poverty. He is reminding us of Deuteronomy’s message: that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, by outlawing slavery, and by restructuring society around the needs of the poor.

Therefore, Jesus’ words are a critique of empire, charity, and inequality. Rather than stating that poverty is unavoidable and predetermined by God, he says that poverty is created by human beings—by their disobedience to God and neglect of their neighbor. Matthew 26:11 does two things: it refers to people’s failure to follow God’s law and commandments, and it instructs us on how to establish a reign of prosperity and dignity for all. In God’s kingdom, there will be no poor because poverty (and perhaps wealth?) will not exist.

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  • Gary

    Correct me if I am wrong.

    It is nice to expand text to make it a more wonderful world. However, you have to be realistic about what the text actual said when written.

    Liz Theoharis says…

    “These verses broaden the law to apply to the entire society (rather than just the practices of individual families or clans).”

    A good goal, but the author forgets that the texts all relate to Hebrews only. Not the entire society, world, etc., which fits the Matthew author as being very Jewish. And slavery for 6 years is OK even for Hebrews.

    Deut 15:3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.

    Deut 15:12 If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.

    And a little later, Deuteronomy 15:16 says (and what this means is rather obscure, but confirms slavery is OK if you are stupid, and you deserve it).

    Deut 15:16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.

    At first, I thought Deut 15:16 might be a ancient joke, to emphasize the point. However, I find it hard to believe the authors of Deuteronomy had a sense of humor.

    The one verse Jesus quote from Deuteronomy contained in Matthew 26:11 has been expanded by Liz Theoharis to encompass an entire world view, which far exceeds the meaning of the original text.

    Besides, when Jesus says “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me”, it would seem that Jesus is actually violating the commandment given by Liz, “Deuter­onomy 15 says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow the commandments of God:”. So Jesus is not following the commandments of God, apparently?

    • PLTK

      It seems you are mistaking the meaning of the passage and her writing. The Deut passage first says that if Israel followed God’s commands, there would be no poor among them. A few verses later comes the text Jesus quotes. It indicates that since the Israelites were sinners — and would NOT faithfully follow God’s commands — there would always be poor. So, “the poor you will always have with you” is a condemnation of their sinfulness.

      Jesus’ words here are reflecting that understanding of humankind’s tendency to sin. Essentially “You people will always sin. You will not faithfully follow God’s commands. Therefore the poor will always be with you.”

      Not sure how you got to “So Jesus is not following the commandments of God, apparently?” He is not referring to himself. The “you” refers to his hearers, and to the world of people he is leaving behind when he goes to be with the Father. As she wrote, it is a condemnation of the sin in this world.

      • Gary

        If Jesus were following God’s commandments, then he would have followed his disciples advice, “For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”
        Instead, “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” sounds like an excuse.
        At least according to Deuteronomy. The last half of Deut 15:11 that Jesus could have quoted but didn’t, was “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land'”, instead of “you will not always have me”.

        And even so, it still only applies to Jews, not Gentiles.

        I think you and Liz are reading WAY MORE into the one statement by Jesus, than what the text clearly only says.

        But not a problem. Everyone expands their own special meanings to texts. I do the same.

        • jh

          A lot of christians that I know use that excuse to justify republican ideology. Right wing Jesus is an interesting version of the Jesus in the Judeo-Christian religion. He’s like the Bizarro Superman.

          As an ex-christian, I would state that the Jesus that is depicted is a social justice warrior and he would wish for his shitty followers to be merciful and charitable to the poor. At least that’s what the promotional marketing claims about Jesus and his teachings. The reality is markedly different.

          • Gary

            First, don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for the Catholic tradition and religion. But your comment struck me that – Jesus’s response in Matt 26:11 “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.” – This could almost be used as a rationale for expensive gold, jewels, statues, paintings, common in a Catholic Church, while the average church members are dirt poor. But, nevertheless, I still think the article develops a whole liturgy of social justice, based on just one comment from Deuteronomy, which has no basis in reality.

          • John Whitmore

            Are you hewing to this approach as a Republican, as a Trump supporter or as an evangelical? Probably doesn’t matter much, because there is little difference between the three, but it would be nice to know. The response to a question about the poor, for members of these groups, is to deny that the Bible actually says anything about helping the poor, and you are working very hard to confirm this approach.

          • Gary

            The topic isn’t about what “the Bible actually says about the poor”. It’s about what “Matt 26:11 “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me”, says about the poor.
            What, exactly, do you think that particular verse says about the poor? If the point is a reference to Deuteronomy, you can’t built an entire thesis to support social justice based upon the two Matt and Deut verses. Are you building a social justice thesis based upon the two verses, the entire bible, or on your political status? Repeat, the topic has to do with the two verses.

          • John Whitmore

            I’m not worried about the specific verse, since it is only one of many on the same topic (which you, apparently, have not noticed. The problem is that many (most?) evangelicals, and many Christians of all sorts only read individual verses, the ones that support their views, without regard for the fact that the Bible has a great deal to say about various issues and that reading the Bible is not about getting out of an obligation.

            In the Bible*, there are over a thousand mentions of the plight of widows, orphans, aliens “in our midst”, the poor, the oppressed, the unfortunate. All of these mentions imply that God is on the side of the underdog, and He expects you to be the same. He does not expect that you will put all your effort into avoiding the needs of other people by using word games.

            It is one of the peculiarities of American Christianity that most adherents seem to want the Ten Commandments inscribed on public buildings,. Why this rather than the Beatitudes or the Two Great Commandments? Obviously, because the Decalogue doesn’t mention helping the poor, and others. But Jesus said He had come to upgrade the Law, to fulfill it’s purpose, and this meant observing the Two Great Commandments. First, Love Go, and, second, observe His Command to Love Your Neighbours – which would imply recognising that some of those neighbours are struggling.

            And what happens? The majority of believers are happy to find reasons why they should NOT do just that. “My salvation” is so important that they don’t realise that refusing to live the Commandments of Jesus will put you outside the Gates (or the Walls, if you prefer).

            Maybe you should read Matthew 25, specifically looking for a discussion of sheep and goats.

            *and in Torah, and in the Quran, and in virtually all of the religious writings around the world. The Dalai Lama, the Pope, Muhammad and the Buddha would agree on this.

  • Exactly! In my book I say “the poor you will always have with you” is equivalent to saying “the empire you will always have with you” – and the woman anointing Jesus was inaugurating a kingdom to fully and finally defeat empire.

    • Nick G

      To defeat empire, you need a democratic republic, not a kingdom.

  • John MacDonald

    Carrier has an interesting quote on this. He writes:

    “The concept of charity and concern for the poor was already fully developed before the Christians borrowed the notion from their pagan and Jewish peers. It’s evident in Jewish wisdom literature, Cynic discourses, Stoic and even Epicurean moral theory, Aristotelian generosity and magnanimity, and the Greco-Roman institutions of philanthropia and euergetism. The idea of charity, welfare, the common good, sharing wealth, helping the poor was heavily ingrained throughout all ancient societies before Christianity. The Christians added nothing new. All they did was boast of being better at it. Which may have been as dubious a claim then as now. The data show poverty only increased under the Christians. For almost a thousand years.”

  • Brandon Roberts