Rick Perry is biblically illiterate, sanctimonious, and … um … and I forget the third one.
But he’s not alone. The governor of Texas is just the most recent of many, many, far too many Christians who have disgraced themselves by misquoting Jesus to support the precise opposite of what he said. And this needs to stop.
“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” Rick Perry said in an interview published yesterday in The Washington Post.
The reference there is to a story in the Bible, one repeated in three of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both tell us the story happened in the house of Simon the Leper. John’s Gospel says it happened in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But they all agree it happened in Bethany — in the house of the poor. Here’s the story from Matthew’s Gospel:
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The bit Rick Perry was attempting to quote is from verse 11 there: “For you always have the poor with you,” or, in the King James Version, “ye have the poor always with you,” or in the NIV, “The poor you will always have with youa.”
People love to quote that bit. Christians especially love to quote that bit — Christians who claim to have read and understood their Bibles.
And, like Rick Perry, they all get it wrong.
Completely and utterly wrong. Backwards wrong. Perversely, cruelly, anti-biblically, priggishly, prickishly, sinfully, hellishly wrong.
Almost every time you see someone citing this passage, they’re invoking it the same way Gov. Perry is there — a shrugging acceptance that poverty is just the way it is and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
And that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.
You see that little superscripted “a” at the end of that phrase in the NIV translation? That’s a footnote. Scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see that footnote reads “See Deut. 15:11.”
That’s important. Jesus was quoting from the Torah. And you can’t understand what he said — or what his disciples heard him saying — unless you understand what it is he was quoting.
So let’s do that. Let’s “see Deut. 15:11.” Here it is:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Already you can see that Jesus’ statement can’t be made to mean what Rick Perry et. al. are trying to twist it into meaning. The passage Jesus was quoting is not a complacent description, but an if … then statement. “Since … therefore …” Deuteronomy 15:11 says. Jesus only quotes the “since” part because he didn’t need to quote the “therefore” — he knew that his disciples knew the rest of that verse: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'”
That is what “The poor will always be with you” means in the Bible. In Deuteronomy and in Matthew, Mark and John. It means, therefore, we are commanded to open our hands to the poor and needy.
But we’re not done yet. Because just as Jesus’ remark in the Gospels is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, that verse is also a direct reference to the verses that come shortly before it.
If you want to understand the verse Rick Perry is mangling, you have to read not just Deuteronomy 15:11, but also Deuteronomy 15:4-5:
There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.
That’s the NRSV. Here’s the same passage from the NIV:
However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
So here in Deuteronomy we read that “there need be no poor people among you” and then, shortly thereafter, that “There will always be poor people in the land.” Which is it?
Well, it’s the second one, because the first one is conditional. “There need be no poor people among you … if only you fully obey the Lord your God.” And then, six verses later, “There will always be poor people in the land.”
Zing. Moses is delivering an unsubtle slap there. “If you were obedient, there would be no poverty among you. … Since there will always be poverty among you …” Yes, he’s telling the people not just that they’re a bunch of disobedient bastards, but that they’ll probably always be a bunch of disobedient bastards. He’s telling them that poverty is the result of their disobedience — that they are to blame for its existence, and that they are responsible for it.
And that’s the same message Jesus is delivering to his disciples in all three versions of that Gospel story.
But that’s the exact opposite of what ignorant Christians misquoting Jesus are trying to say when they babble about “the poor will always be with you.” Those Christians are perverting that verse in order to deny all culpability and responsibility for or to the poor.
That’s wrong. That is, according to Moses and to Jesus, evil.
But we’re still not done, because the rest of Deuteronomy 15 is also important here if we’re going to understand what it means about following “all these commands I am giving you today.”
This is about Jubilee. This is about the year of the Lord’s favor — about the very set of commandments that Jesus quoted in his first public sermon, the Jubilee that Jesus identified himself with. So let’s look at this whole section from Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verses 1-11:
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
Whether he knows it or not (and he clearly doesn’t know it), this is what Rick Perry is accidentally affirming when he tries to quote that passage from the Gospels. All of this.
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “be careful not to harbor this wicked thought.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “do not show ill will toward the needy.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “give generously and do so without a grudging heart.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “be openhanded toward the poor and needy.”
And if — like Rick Perry or countless other lapdogs for the rich and powerful — you try to say “the poor will always be with you” without also saying all of that, then be warned. Because the poor may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.