the poor will always be with you

Below is the text of a presentation given by Kairos Co-Director Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis at the Vineyard Justice Network‘s 2015 Forum: Jesus, the Kingdom, and the Poor. You can read more of Rev. Dr. Theoharis’ work on this passage from Matthew 25 here.

This presentation focuses on the ways the Bible—a text replete with calls for economic justice and denunciations of the scourge of indifference to the poor—has been mis-used and cynically politicized to suggest that poverty is a result of the moral failures of poor people sinning against God, that ending poverty is impossible, and that the poor themselves have no role to play in efforts to respond to their poverty.

Biblical texts, especially “the poor will be with you always” are used to justify the inevitability of inequality and to provide religious sanction for the dispossession of the majority for the benefit of the few. As folks at this gathering may know, when Jim Wallis regularly does a short Bible quiz for American audiences he speaks to, asking the question: “What is the most famous biblical text about the poor?” Every time, he receives the same answer: “The poor you will always have with you.”

To see the omnipresence of this biblical missive, just do a search for “the poor will always be with you” online. You’ll find hundreds of thousands of references (728,000 mentions in one of my searches), as well as a debate emerging on the role of Jesus, the Bible, and faith communities in the eradication and amelioration of poverty. Typically, this takes the form of a personal assertion, reflection, blog post, or series of questions on whether or not this statement from Matt 26:11, John 12:11 and Mark 14:7 is saying: a) that we can never end poverty, b) that it is the role of Christians, not the government, to try to care for the poor, or c) that Jesus rather than the poor should be our concern.

But I believe the phrase “the poor will be with you always” and the larger story of the anointing at Bethany actually means the exact opposite of how it has traditionally been interpreted. Indeed, I believe “the poor are with you always” is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.

This is what I want to talk about today. Does the Bible say that we can never end poverty or does it support a movement to abolish poverty with the poor taking the lead? To answer this question, let’s talk through this story from Matthew a little. In our story, an unnamed woman appears at Simon’s (“the sick one”) house with a jar of expensive ointment. Right there from the beginning poverty is central to this passage. Simon is a leper, an outcast. And Simon lives in Bethany, which means the house of the poor in Hebrew.

All of the gospels have this anointing story and place it in the Passion narrative before the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. I want to suggest that it is actually the turning point in the Gospel, the place where Jesus is put on a collision course with the Roman Empire by his anointing and with Judas and disciples for his relationship to money. This collision course leads directly to his betrayal, crucifixion and then resurrection. I will return there in a little while.

In our text in Matthew 26, the woman comes and pours the very expensive ointment onto Jesus’ head. Now nowhere else in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus anointed. Only the unnamed woman does this. The Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah. The Greek word for anointed is Christ. So, where Jesus is made Christ and considered Messiah, is actually in our passage in Matthew 26. I want to suggest that there are multiple meanings of the anointing that happens in this passage. Jesus is anointed on his head with a special anointing ointment for kings – the same process that David and the other kings in the Hebrew Bible are brought through. It seems that Jesus is set up as an alternative king to Caesar when he’s anointed in this passage. Here he is also anointed for his burial. The unnamed woman is the first person to recognize that Jesus is going to die and wants to ensure that his body prepared.

But this story does not end with anointing Jesus and crowning him as King for the Kingdom of Heaven and as Messiah for the poor. When the woman anoints Jesus, she is chided by the disciples for doing so. They accuse her of destroying this very expensive and valuable ointment. They say that if instead they had sold that ointment, they could have earned a lot of money and they could have made a very big donation with that money to the poor. Now John’s version of this story is special here. The one who criticizes the woman in John is Judas. And it reads that Judas says this not because he cares about the poor but because he’s the treasurer and regularly steals from the Jesus movement’s coffers. Judas uses the poor as an excuse to make money for himself.

If we don’t focus on Judas and John’s version of the story but rather look at the disciples’ concerns in Matthew, these disciples seem to be asserting a common way we still follow to address poverty. You earn money or come upon nice things in some other way and then use that money to donate to the poor.

But in this story, Jesus doesn’t praise the disciples for their idea of addressing poverty and he stops Judas from being able to add money to his own pockets. He praises the woman for her alleged waste of the ointment. And then to make matters worse, Jesus then says this classic line: “The poor are with you always but you will not always have me.” For someone who’s concerned about meeting the needs of the poor, this sounds pretty bad. This sounds like Jesus is justifying poverty.

But Jesus’ response to the disciples and praise of the woman with the line “the poor are with you always” echoes or actually quotes Deuteronomy 15 – one of the most liberating “Jubilee” passages in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty. In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (or, “the poor you always have with you”), and because of that, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.”

So this passage that is about God’s plan to ensure that no one is poor is referenced by Jesus in his line “the poor are with you always.” Although we don’t have this whole passage readily available in our minds, Jesus’ disciples would have. So when Jesus said this line to his followers, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. The woman anointed Jesus as king of an empire that had Jubilee and Sabbath at the center. What God demands of God’s followers is justice not charity.

This interpretation of Matthew 26 in light of Deuteronomy 15 is consistent with and actually frames the biblical teachings on poverty. The main theme of many of Jesus’ teachings and his ministry in general is caring for the poor and ending poverty. There are passages like Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds us that what we do to the least of these, we do unto him. There is the story in Exodus 16 of the manna that God sends from heaven when the Israelites are living in the wilderness after escaping from slavery. The prophets all emphasize our duty to care for the widow, the orphan, those in need. There is the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4 that tells us that the early Christians had no needy people among them because they shared and cared for each other. Or even the Apostle Paul following his revelation of Jesus started a collection for the poor of Jerusalem that he discusses in Romans, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians – more than any other single theological issue.

One of my favorites and the reason I named my son, Luke, is Luke 4 where Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and announces that he has come to fulfill this passage – to proclaim release to the captives, to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free. That passage in Luke 4 is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s the first place where he really shows what he’s made of, what his life on earth is about.

So returning to Deuteronomy 15 and the passage from Matt 26, Jesus is demonstrating that poverty need not exist, and therefore that the poor will not need loans or charity, if people follow God’s laws and commandments, especially through living out the “Sabbatical Year” and “Jubilee.” In the passage where Jesus says “the poor are with you always,” Jesus is criticizing the disciples with this echo of Deuteronomy 15:11, where it is established that poverty is the result of society’s disobedience to God and of following the laws and commandments of empire.

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ critique of the woman who anoints him, and to their suggestion of selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor, shows that he is actually condemning charity, philanthropy, buying and selling, and the larger hegemonic economic system. Looking closely at this passage from Mattew 26 itself, Jesus is suggesting that if the disciples and other concerned people continue to offer charity-based solutions, Band-Aid help, and superficial solace instead of social transformation with the poor at the helm, poverty will not cease (in disregard of and disobedience to God).

I believe there is a four-leveled critique of charity from the Scriptures and Jesus’s teachings found in Matthew 26: ideological (challenging the belief that charity demonstrated how much the rich cared about the poor), political (showing how patronage actually helped the wealthy to gain a political base and following), spiritual/moral (exploring how charity and patronage are directly tied to state religion, the imperial cult, and religious expressions that actually justify inequality), and material (explaining how charity, benefaction, and patronage made more money for the wealthy and at the same time did not meet the needs of the poor). Another story that continues along these lines comes from 2 chapters later where the blood money that Judas gets from the chief priests for turning over Jesus ends up creating a potter’s field that does not resolve poverty, but instead establishes a burial plot where the poor are buried in mass graves with no dignity or liberation. In Matthew and the larger biblical story, money and economic inequality are not God’s plan or intention.

Jesus’ statement “the poor will be with you always but you will not always have me” is not about pitting the poor against Jesus or even about pitting the poor Jesus against the other poor. Instead, Jesus is trying to suggest his significant role and the role of the (mostly) poor disciples in ending everyone’s poverty and the epistemological, political, and moral agency and leadership of the poor. The poor are a stand-in for Jesus (as he established in Matt 25:31-46, the Last Judgment). God’s children and the foundation of the movement to materialize God’s reign on earth are not the rich, not the usual philanthropists or “change-makers”, but the poor. God is not only aligned with the poor, but, in fact, present in (and of) the poor.

When Jesus says about the unnamed woman: “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13), Jesus is placing his own death and burial alongside the death and burial of thousands of other poor subjects of the Roman Empire. Through his statement “in memory of her,” Jesus may also be shifting the process of commemorating those who have come before—which is taken up in the communion formula documented in the epistles and still practiced today—to the unnamed woman. This can change our understanding of communion, from being primarily about spiritual conditions and spiritual community to being focused on material conditions and material community, and charging more leaders to join Jesus in bringing heaven to earth.

I would suggest that we should read Matthew 26 side by side with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Willie Baptist, Poverty Initiative Scholar in Residence, who has 50 years of experience organizing and educating amongst the poor, asserts that this quote about the beggar is King’s response to and interpretation of the story of the anointing woman. He states that Jesus critiques the disciples for their suggestion of selling the ointment and giving the money to the poor and considers it like “flinging a coin to a beggar.” Baptist continues that the woman’s act of anointing Jesus – recognizing and honoring him – is a celebration of someone whose words and actions stand for the restructuring the “edifice which produces beggars.”

In the last year of his life, King called for a Poor People’s Campaign. He suggested that poor people from across the country needed to get together and organize for an end to poverty. King was killed while working on the Poor People’s Campaign. His vision of a Freedom Church of the Poor and a social movement led by poor and homeless people was not realized in his lifetime.

I believe that we are called to finish the unfinished business of Rev. King and build a new Poor People’s Campaign for today. We must get involved doing God’s work of ending poverty and building a social movement that could “save the soul of America” like Dr. King suggested.

So let me return to our passage from Matthew. When we juxtapose Matthew 26 and Martin Luther King, it helps bring forth a new reading of this passage and the Bible through the lens of the Jubilee. We are able to implode an interpretation of this passage that suggests the poverty is inevitable and instead insist that poverty can and should be ended: Indeed, this is God’s will.  We begin to see Jesus as God, the Son of God, and the leader of a spiritual renewal movement that is concerned with ending poverty. The fact that Jesus is anointed as king and prophet in this passage further emphasizes the fact that God’s kingdom is an alternative one to the Empire. The rules and norms of God’s kingdom are set by the Jubilee. There is no poverty in God’s empire; there is no exclusion. All of God’s children are valued and all life is affirmed.

We see why Jesus is crucified. Rather than conforming to a world that dehumanizes and impoverishes, Jesus through his words and deeds is a challenge to Empire. We maybe even see why Jesus is betrayed by Judas – he won’t continue to let others profit from the misery and poverty of others. And this brings us to the Easter story here as the Bible always does. Jesus is betrayed and crucified because of his relationship to the poor and his stance that God’s kingdom should be here on earth. It’s one where debts are forgiven, mouths are fed, community is built. But the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death. He is raised from the dead and called to bring God’s reign to earth. In Matthew, Jesus’ resurrection is coupled with the resurrection of many others – in Matthew, the tombs break open and many of the past and present prophets and leaders of the Jesus movement are brought back to life alongside Jesus.

I find the resurrection of the saints very moving in Matthew’s Gospel. I think it emphasizes that many are needed to bring God’s reign of abundance here on earth. Ending poverty, building a movement, uniting people takes a lot of work and lots of hands, hearts and minds. Thanks for your lives of commitment. I leave this gathering very inspired and hopeful to serve as a disciple for Christ – and to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with my God as we work to end poverty and do God’s will.