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Inevitable Poverty—What did Jesus mean?

Inevitable Poverty—What did Jesus mean?

There’s a lot of talk right now about how to make a difference in the lives of the poor. Some people say that the government should give citizens a leg up. Others speak of personal responsibility. Some thread a gingerly path down the middle.  When you’re trying to work out how to approach poverty, and how to best help those in economic distress, it’s a challenge to know where to turn for guidance.

Even the Christian scriptures have some puzzling passages.

An intriguing story about Jesus is told three separate times in the Bible. He’s sitting—either in the home of someone named Simon the Leper, or in the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus—and a woman walks in and proceeds to anoint his head with a jar of expensive, nice-smelling ointment. When his followers howl, he basically tells them to knock it off. The poor will always be around, he says. But I won’t be.

“For you always have the poor with you.” People sometimes use this quote from Jesus to justify callousness towards those who don’t have enough to keep body and soul together. ‘They are always going to be around, so why bother?’ some people reason. Why would we even care what Jesus must say on the topic?

Perhaps we should care because Jesus is on the side of those who need Him the most—and because He apparently wants us to be there also.  You can’t be whole unless the person who doesn’t know where he or she is going to sleep tonight is on the path to wholeness too, he challenges us.

In the story of the pricey ointment, he seems to be addressing the criticisms of those who complained about the extravagant generosity of the mysterious woman who anoints his head. It’s almost like he’s challenging them by saying: guys, you are majoring in the minors. Acts of grace are never out of time or place. It’s also possible that here Jesus is referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the words of Deuteronomy 15:11: “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.”

‘There will always be need around you,’ Jesus may be saying to his critics. The more the need, the more generous you ought to be towards those who don’t have what you possess.

I don’t know about you, but I live in a nice house (nothing pretentious, but comfortable) in a quiet area with lots of sunlight and space for a vegetable garden. My life is full of choices. It’s easy for me to forget the parent scrabbling through garbage to feed a child, a child who must grow up without parents, or families who worry that the next tide will sweep their hut off the beach into the sea.

It’s only when I venture into the city, see the lines at the food cupboard at church, or drive past a local trailer park, that I am aware that many around me are struggling to keep up with the most necessities, things I take for granted. In a hierarchy of concerns, they are probably more worried about simple survival, while I might be calculating how to pay for a nice dress or a trip to New England.

Yet it seems to me that God calls all of us to live with an acute, perhaps even a painful sense of the world that surrounds us. The needs of the poor may be temporarily invisible to us and their cries unheard in our daily lives—but we know that they are being heard by God. Their situation is as real to God as ours (there is some basis in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures for thinking that God has an affection for the poor, those who mourn, the weak and the young).  And those of us who have much are called to share of our bounty with the men, women and children who don’t have enough.

Are the poor always with you? My answer, at least for today, would be an embarrassed: not enough.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on poverty from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and mother of two young adults. Her work has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Religion News Service, LNP Media Inc., the National Catholic Reporter/Global Sisters Report and many other media outlets.

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