When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” 3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” 6Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a 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. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. 14Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” (Matthew 26:1-16)

Common throughout the New and Old Testaments are texts addressing the redistribution of wealth and the abolition of poverty: “Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isa 58:6-7); “[God has] lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53); “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:35, 40).

Yet, while passages like these are dominant, many so-called religious and political ‘leaders’, as well as the general public, fixate on a small handful of passages – “The poor will always be with you” (Matthew 26:11); “If you do not work, you shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10); “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 25:29) – that they claim justify poverty. Such is the case with Texas Governor Rick Perry as quoted in the article “The Bible Proves Poverty is Inevitable” from Salon Magazine:

“But Perry doesn’t see inequality as a particularly big problem, and he’s certainly not going to champion an all-out war on poverty.

‘Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,’ Perry told the Post.”

Governor Perry’s statement is a good example of how these Bible verses are regularly cited to claim that poverty cannot be ended and that if God wanted to end poverty, God would do so. These verses have been used to claim that the only “good news” that poor people will hear will be in heaven. They have been interpreted to mean that while some lepers and hungry people in Jesus’s day deserved compassion, today’s poor people are at fault for their own poverty.

Google searches of “the poor will be with you always” reveal the omnipresence of this biblical statement (728,000 mentions on one search) as well as a popular debate emerging on the role of Jesus, the Bible, and faith communities in the eradication and amelioration of poverty, saying that: a) we can never end poverty, b) it is the role of Christians, not the government, to try to care for the poor, or c) Jesus rather than the poor should be our concern, as well as other common interpretations of this passage.

Following are a couple examples gathered from the Internet that show how this passage is used by self-declared conservatives and liberals to assert the inevitability of poverty and to argue that the poor are either charity cases or criminal cases:

Poverty will never be eradicated. As Jesus said, ‘The poor will be with you always…’ There will always be people who are physically unable to work, and people who will never work because they simply will not, and people who are too stupid to work for very much money, and people who are criminally inclined to steal from stupid or helpless people, etc. And there will always be people who want to take money away from the higher paid, smart, energetic and enterprising people who are the backbone of this country, and give it to those who are not. Those are the people who refuse to believe what God has said. Poverty CANNOT be cured or eradicated, but there will always be people who try”1

Jesus said the poor will be with you always. It has been over two thousand years and this statement still holds true. We cannot eradicate poverty but if a neighbor comes to us and asks for a loaf of bread, we should care enough to share if we can meet that need. With that in mind I propose establishing a directory with a Website www.GalesburgCares.org containing all organizations offering various types of assistance. It would include churches, nonprofit organizations and government agencies to better connect the providers with recipients. The groups might be categorized by food, clothing, medical, childcare, financial management, housing, etc. I would also like hard copies of the directory to be distributed to all participating organizations connecting the groups with one another for a unified approach to poverty in Galesburg 2

However, a deeper exegesis of Matthew 26:1-16 that places it in context, with an emphasis on verses 6-13 and their allusions to the Old Testament (specifically Deuteronomy 15:1-11), reveals a critique of charity and the ancient slavery-based Roman imperial economy. It demonstrates how Jesus, his disciples, and the books of the New Testament apply a biblical theology of justice taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Roman Empire was a highly class-stratified economy. Every imperial conquest of oppressed peoples added to the growing ranks of the impoverished classes and accumulated more wealth for the ruling slave-holding strata. One such example of this comes from an account of the dispossession of the Italians as told by Appian:

“The rich had got possession of the greater part of the undivided land. They trusted in the conditions of the time, that these possessions would not be again taken from them, and bought, therefore, some of the pieces of land lying near theirs, and belonging to the poor, with the acquiescence of their owners, and took some by force, so that they now were cultivating widely extended domains, instead of isolated fields. Then they employed slaves in agriculture and cattle-breeding, because freemen would have been taken from labor for military service. The possession of slaves brought them great gain, inasmuch as these, on account of their immunity from military service, could freely multiply and have a multitude of children. Thus the powerful men drew all wealth to themselves, and all the land swarmed with slaves. The Italians, on the other hand, were always decreasing in number, destroyed as they were by poverty, taxes, and military service. Even when times of peace came, they were doomed to complete inactivity, because the rich were in possession of the soil, and used slaves instead of freemen in the tilling of it”3

There are many expressions of the Roman imperial theology and the system of euergetism and patronage that helped uphold that theology and justified the slave-based economy. Some come from Caesar Augustus himself who, although he was the richest person in the world and responsible for the dispossession and poverty of the majority in the empire, claimed to be a savior of the poor. In contrast, what is recorded in the Old Testament of God’s will and God’s justice was written in the context of, and in opposition to, the unjust theology, poverty, and inhumanity of the empires of those times. This God of Israel was in strict opposition to the Caesar-god of the Roman Empire, and the theology of Jesus and his disciples stressed that opposition.

Interpreting and contextualizing Jesus’s statements in Matthew 26:11 within his biblical theology of justice (drawn from Old Testament scripture) also promotes the leading agency of the poor and the primary importance of achieving material security and prosperity for all humanity. Jesus reacts strongly to the disciples in verses 10-11 saying 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.” Echoing Deuteronomy 15:4 – “there will be no one in need among you” – Matthew 26:11 is to be read as a warning (not a prediction) that the perils of disobedience to God’s commandments are poverty and inequality, and as Jesus’s call to the disciples to take up the struggles of the poor for economic and social justice even after his death. That the woman who anoints Jesus in this passage is not named and does not follow charity and philanthropy, that Jesus’s reaction to the practice of buying and selling suggested by the disciples is so strong, and that the potter’s field donation of money for the poor (from Judas’s blood money that he returns to the temple elites after he receives it in verse 26:15) in the larger passion narrative is treated negatively—all point to a strong critique of money, charity, and hegemonic economics.

It is possible, in fact it is required by God, that we end poverty.

In his biblical assertions Governor Perry, like many others across the political spectrum, brushes over the Bible passages he’s quoting from and leaves them sorely unexamined. While he is right that Matthew 26:11, and the whole story of the anointing at Bethany, is central for any teachings on the poor in the Bible, the message of this passage is not what Gov. Perry asserts it to be. In this passage, an unnamed prophetess anoints Jesus to be ruler of God’s Kingdom. The passage is a critique of economics, charity, and inequality; rather than stating that poverty is unavoidable and predetermined by God, this interpretation of Matthew 26:11 proposes the exact opposite. Poverty is created by human beings—by their disobedience to God and neglect of their neighbor. Jesus shows another way – that ending poverty is possible through the practice of covenant economics as seen in Deuteronomy 15 and through the acceptance of the poor Jesus anointed as a popularly acclaimed king or prophet in the line of Moses, a teacher of the law and social movement leader. In God’s Kingdom, there shall be no poor because poverty (or wealth, for that matter) will not exist. This is what Jesus is saying when he proclaims, “the poor you will have with you always but you will not always have me.”

poor-peoples-campaign-mule-train
'Don't laugh folks, Jesus was a poor man.' The 'Mule Train' on its way from Marks, MS to D.C. for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968

As we approach Christmas, it is all the more important that we remember the social and economic position of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let’s celebrate the true reason for the season – celebrating the birth of Jesus, a poor child of a young poor mother who has come to turn over the tables, reverse inequality, transform society. The Bible has a very different message on poverty than the one offered by Gov. Perry – it is possible, in fact it is required by God, that we end poverty. In this Christmas season, let us take up this call.


Notes

  1. “How can poverty can be eradicated?” n.p. [cited 29 October 2013]. Online: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_can_poverty_can_be_eradicated.
  2. Eric Delawder, “Mayoral Candidate Eric Delawder: Galesburg Mayoral Candidate Eric Delawder Answers Questions From The Register-Mail Editorial Board and Speaks on Video About Why Voters Should Elect Him” Register Mail (March 20, 2009). n.p. [cited 20 October 2013]. Online: http://www.galesburg.com/archive/x1331535567/Mayoral-candidate-Eric-Delawder.
  3. Appian, Bell. civ. I.7 [White, LCL].