Monday, January 16, 2012

"For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me."


While defending the woman who anointed him with the costly ointment, and calling it a "beautiful thing," Jesus said, "For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me." (Some of those nearby had criticized the woman: "This could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor!") The account is in Matthew 26.6-13.

I use to read this and think that poverty really is a perpetual, unsolvable problem. Jesus says so right here. The poor will always be with us.

But in my study this morning, I realized afresh that that's a bit of a cynical interpretation to walk away with. Jesus is actually quoting Moses in Deuteronomy 15:11:
"For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’"
What was Moses' (and thereby God's - for in the Scriptures Moses is speaking for God) stance on poverty? Three things might be said:

  • Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy 15 (verses 4, 5, & 6), we read,
    "But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you."
    This means that if we are faithful, poverty will cease to be the blight it is today. Sin causes or sustains poverty in a whole host of ways -- either our own individual sin (for example, substance abuse, a gambling addiction, or a failure to be diligent at our work) or our connection to the sins of others (the child of a father who abused substances, etc.). Or - and this is just as devastating - a sinful culture that creates social structures that themselves create poverty, make it difficult for people to find work, etc. But in general, the first thing Moses seems to say on the issue is that faithfulness to God would reduce poverty.

  • Moses goes on to say this in verses 7-10 of Deuteronomy 15,
    “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake."
    Moses'/God's/Jesus' position on poverty can hardly be one of "What's the use? It's a problem that defies all remedy." Godly generosity reduces poverty.

  • But... when studying what God's Law has to say about poverty (and how to minister to it), it's also important to understand this: handouts are not the first option. The first thing the Law of God recommends is forgivable loans (some of which are referred to in the passage quoted above). Next, the Loving Law of God urges that we give the poor some work to do. For example, Leviticus 23.22:
    "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God."
All in all, looking into the context of Jesus' remark at his anointing is a good reminder that our God does not devalue the poor. Nor does he devalue our ministry to them. Just the opposite, in fact.

Poverty is not hopeless.


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