Jesus on Poverty

There is something quite fascinating about the Christian understanding of Jesus being God in the flesh.  It boggles the mind to try to imagine all that is God– the all-powerful and all-knowing infinity of God– being encased in the tiny and very fragile human body (which might look like an “ugly bag of mostly water” to a crystal alien–see March 28 post).

I think Jesus being God in the flesh is what makes it difficult for us to understand some of the things he has said.  I’ve often spoken about how Jesus’ responses to people often seem to be so unresponsive.  One example is in Mark 7:27 when Jesus says to the Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her daughter: “…it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  How many people have struggled with what sounds to us like Jesus calling this non-Jewish woman a dog?  I think Jesus was speaking to this woman on a different level, a level only she could understand.  Jesus knew something in her history that only she knew, and she understood the point he was making and responded accordingly.

We often  assume that Jesus’ statements are Godly statements of truth to all people for all times.  Certainly some of his statements are that, like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But I also believe that there were times when Jesus was being more human than God, speaking only to the human moment that he was in.

All of this is to take us back to Jesus saying to his disciples “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11).  This he said in response to the disciples, who had objected to Mary’s lavishing expensive perfume on him, claiming that she could have sold it and given the money to the poor. This occurred not too long before Jesus was to be put to death.  This part of Jesus’ response to the disciples has been described by some theologians as the most misinterpreted text in Scripture.

Many people assume Jesus’ statement acknowledges poverty as a fact of life that will never be changed.  Some have taken it to mean that it’s okay to ignore the poor as long as you worship God.  Most theologians conclude that Jesus is repeating God’s commandment found in Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”  That’s very likely.  But the problem is that people interpret both of these texts to minimize poverty and to accept it as inevitable, limiting their caring to giving alms or hand-outs without any further responsibilities.

In the Deuteronomy text, God was speaking to a people who had not separated church from state.  The people were governed by the religious leaders, and the command to them as a governing body was to treat all the poor with generosity, through all methods available, not limited to personal, at-will handouts.

When Jesus said to the disciples “you will always have the poor with you” I think Jesus was having a really human moment, savoring the kindness poured out on him by Mary while he was anticipating the cruelty he would endure in a short while.  I reach this conclusion in part because Jesus also said “you will not always have me,” clearly not a statement to be understood to mean anything other than that he was about to be crucified.  I think at that moment, Jesus needed the kindness that was poured out on him. I like to think that Jesus remembered Mary’s kindness when he was on the cross, right before he said “Father forgive them….”

Jesus was focused on that moment, on the trial that he was facing, and not making a statement to be understood to mean that concern for the poor should be minimized or that poverty is inevitable. If anything, he was telling his disciples that they would always have a responsibility as a people towards the poor, to remember the commandment to be generous to them, to walk with them and to speak to power on their behalf if the commandment was not being met.

I think this also because the idea that poverty is inevitable is inconsistent with so many of the other things Jesus said and taught, primarily among them the two highest commandments, which are to love God and to love others (See Matthew 22: 37-40). Loving others is described by the “Golden Rule” –do to others as you would have them do to you” (See Matthew 7: 12). This was given equal standing to the commandment to love God, yet it seems to be given so little importance in much of Christianity today.

What would you want to be done for you if you were born into a broken family with little or no income in a poor neighborhood?  If we truly understand the highest commandments to include treating others the way we would want to be treated, we wouldn’t just give our old clothes, we wouldn’t just work in a soup kitchen once a month, we wouldn’t just send some cash through another agency to help out. And most important for this discussion, we wouldn’t stay downstream trying to pull out so many people who  have fallen into the river.  We’d head upstream to see what is making them fall in.  Then we would do something to change it.

In my opinion, giving to the poor borders on cruelty–yes, cruelty— without also attempting to deal with the social systems that put and keep them in poverty.  Why is it cruel?  Because when we give food and clothes to the poor without further action, we accept poverty as inevitable, making it the problem of the poor. When we make poverty the fault of the poor rather than the fault of the system, we do nothing to fix the system that keeps poverty in place.  The system seems to work because the poor are making it, just barely, and therefore no further effort is needed–there is no sense of urgency, no priority given to discovering why there are so many poor people and why their numbers, in this richest country in the world, keep getting higher.

To me, trying to meet the needs of the poor without dealing with what is making and keeping them poor is the epitome of hypocrisy for Christian behavior, because one of Christianity’s highest commandments is to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

I think that’s enough from me today.  More next week on what poverty does to children.  I’d love to hear from you on this.


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10 thoughts on “Jesus on Poverty

  1. What you wrote rang several bells for me, because I can see a world without poverty.
    I can see a world where we really do walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I can see a world where people know that you are your brother’s keeper. I know when I see someone living in “poverty” I have a responsibility to do something about it. I can’t walk by a homeless person or someone asking for help and not do something. If I do I am troubled by it. I think poverty in our society and the world speaks volumes about our weak connection to our God the Father. God wants us to be witnesses for Him in our daily lives. How can we hoard money and collect things we don’t need and be selfish when everything we have is a gift from HIM? My Spirit tells me that if mankind truly lived the “connected” life God asks us to, everyone would have more than they need and the word poverty would not exist in our vocabulary .

  2. Very thoughtful insight especially when we consider our economic obsession with draining our resources to give more and more to the rich. I wonder though if the poor we will always have with us are the spiritual poor who seem to have no capacity to love God or to love neighbor since love of other gods such as money and greed usurps the need for God.

    • You’re right, Bill. There are different kinds of poor. All of them need our care.

  3. Alice,
    Thanks for giving those of us not living in poverty some awesome thoughts to consider for actions to live out the Golden Rule and to get busy working/serving “upstream”
    I look forward to your thoughts and facts on “what poverty does to children”

  4. Like Bill said, poverty can be both economical and spiritual. Following the events in the Garden of Eden, I can’t think of a time in history when poverty did not exist. Sociologists, politicians et. al have gone upstream to fix the system on a number of occasions (e.g. “The War on Poverty”) but with mixed results. Perhaps what has been missing is that we have relied on our own understanding but have not truly acknowledged God in the process of trying to resolve this longstanding issue.

    • Well said, Joe. Part of what we struggle with is how to define poverty. It has to be done in context, and with attention to relative wealth. When God said “there will always be poor people in the land,” I think God was referring to the people who would be born with limited capabilities– physical, mental and spiritual. I guess if we dealt with them generously, you might say that they wouldn’t be poor anymore….not that they would become wealthy, but that they would have their needs met. I think we’re a very long way from that form of generosity in our day and time.

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