Will the poor *really* always be with us?

In a popular exchange from Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya replies to Vizzini’s constant use of “Inconceivable!”, saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In the same way, Jesus says many things in the gospels that modern American Christians find inconceivable, so to soothe the cognitive dissonance, we do some interesting eisegesis so Jesus’ word means what we want it to mean. I can hear Inigo Montoya now…

It would take a book to cover those sayings properly and exhaustively, but I want to focus on one.Remember the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and then washes them with her hair? Some, perhaps Judas maybe others too, scolded and rebuked her saying she shouldn’t have wasted such an expense on Jesus, rather, she should have sold it and gave the money to the poor. Never mind they all missed the deep significance of her worship. It’s Jesus’ reply that we Christians often pluck out of context and misapply to social justice concerns:

Mark 14:7: For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me.

Matt 26:11: For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me.

John 12:8: For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.

Far too many times I’ve heard this taken as a word of wisdom or prophetic prediction from Jesus, when he is simply stating fact. If we consider carefully the context, Jesus is just comparing what will always be in the flesh, and what will not always be. We would do well to remember what Mark recorded from Peter’s mouth, that Jesus said “whenever you wish you can do good to them.”

My alternative take on this Scripture refers to rabbinical teaching methods. Often rabbis, which Jesus was, would quote part of a Scripture, intending you to complete it in your mind or out loud, thus facilitating their instruction. I suggest Jesus may have been doing that, in part, here. Look at Deuteronomy 15:11:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

Some of the teachers of the law were present, we know this because he spoke to them directly in a parable in Luke’s version of the story. Jesus may have been referencing Deuteronomy, saying “I know what Scripture says, and it should be followed. But I want to teach you something else about worship and forgiveness.” Deuteronomy still applies. The fact is sin is in the world, the rich and powerful will always seek to exploit the poor and weak, but the truth is God despises inequality and injustice, and will judge the nations because of it. Jesus will return to fulfill his kingdom vision. Until that time, we ought to be working to fulfill it, as far as possible, today.

Scripture upon scripture shows definitively that the Patriarchs, Prophets, Jesus, the Apostles and Church have always defended society’s poor and marginalized, not as a corollary to the gospel, but an essential part of it. The Prophets said that Judah and Israel were destroyed due to idolatry and social inequality–hatred of both God and their fellow man. Jesus cared deeply for every part of a person’s life, the spiritual and the material. The Apostles took up offerings not to build churches, not to pay for their livelihood, not for programs, but to care for the widows, orphans, and poor in the Church. When Peter commissioned Paul and Barnabas he commanded them to “remember the poor” to which Paul replied, “it was the very thing I desired to do.” Yet today we go to lengths to forget they said these things, to spiritualize the material, and jump through hermeneutical hoops to avoid the testimony of Scripture concerning the sins of social inequality and injustice.

I don’t know why we do this. A general hardness of heart toward the poor? An existential fear we will become like them so we choose to ignore them instead? Too many creature comforts that blind us to need? No matter what, it has to end.

The US Census Bureau estimates it would take $175bn, or a little more than 1% of our GDP, to bring everyone in the US up to the poverty line. According to research by Oxfam, the 2012 net income of the world’s richest 10% would end extreme poverty 4 times over. Inequality and greed is a huge part of the problem, but our theological understanding of the gospel, of Jesus, and what it means to be his disciple is also a problem. Part of it is dismantling those arguments that set themselves up against the knowledge of God, such as the false idea Jesus said poverty is inevitable and incurable. It’s clear he didn’t say that at all. So let’s abandon our preconceived notions, see if we might be wrong, and look at what he actually said and did.

What other examples of Scriptural misinterpretation, misapplication or eisegesis need to be dismantled? Post in the comments section!

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