Friday, May 27, 2011

The Poor Will Always Be Amongst ...

While doing a quick surf on the interwebz yesterday, I rediscovered why I so much hate Megan McArdle's pseudo-intelligent writing. This famous statement from Jesus was a title for one of her posts that - as usual with this cryptic statement - was used to justify an anti-poor agenda. In her case, she was arguing against the validity of at-risk hunger in the American poor. The logic was akin to, "See, they're all so fat! Ergo, they don't need MORE food money."

It's a pretty despicable show of aggression against the marginalized, but Christians all throughout this country use Jesus' words against his intentions all the time. On Facebook, some of my friends and I were discussing this term and what it means. I like some of their alternative perspectives - that it may be about the "poor in spirit", that it's also a sign that Jesus used the poor as an example to look to when he would no longer be around. We were discussing this term, of course, because we hear it being used as an excuse to do nothing for the poor - or nothing structurally, at least. That and, "All people are sinful. Therefore, whatever we do will simply fail. We will have to wait until Jesus comes."

The thread itself was on this great resource, Let the Churches Do It Is a Deceptive Myth (h/t to Slacktivist), that makes the - all-too-rare - case that churches cannot and will not pick up the slack for government if the "government would only get out of the way." It also clarifies that there is tremendous work still to be done with/for the poor NOW, and we don't have to wait for the gov't to get out of the way, but rather partner with them and fill in missing pieces.

But back to "The poor will always be amongst you..."
Homeless Woman searching for cans and bottlesphoto © 2006 Franco Folini | more info (via: Wylio)

Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. He does that a lot. Sometimes when you're reading your bible, it'll point that out for you. Sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper. Sometimes he makes commentary on and updates the ancient scriptures. Sometimes, he uses the ancient scriptures to put the present reality into horrible context. This is what he was doing in this case.

The original quote is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Not one of the nicest books in the world, let alone the Hebrew canon. But it is within this passage where we discover that all servants/slaves must be released from their debt service during the seventh year. In fact, all debts are to be canceled on the seventh year (pretty outstanding, even by today's standards). And it is here where we find this about treating the poor:

There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 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. (Deuteronomy 15; NIV)

This isn't just about a bunch of nice individuals. This isn't just about being kind. This is to be a concerted effort by the collective people of Israel. In other words, "the government"...

The writer, Moses, mentions specifically that there will be plenty of resources to share, so there should not be any poor amongst them. However, he knows their hearts, and he knows reality enough to say that "There will always be poor people in the land."



Are there poor people among us? Why?


  1. Anonymous12:46 PM

    More equal societies work better for everyone: http://www­.equalityt­­k/

  2. yes. yes they do.

  3. Excellent!!!! And for that matter I find Deuteronomy to be a book I like. I admit I haven't read it in years, but there is much wonderful in it, such as the Shema, which Jesus quoted as the greatest commandment.

  4. i do love me some Shema.

  5. Anonymous2:20 PM

    if the churches were doing such a great job of providing for the poor, then there would have been no need for the government to intervene.

  6. We must remember, of course, that for Jews and Muslims it is LAW, therefore required, to be generous to the poor - respectively, tzedekah and zakat. For Christians (as the religions is largely practiced), it is a matter of individual volition: one is urged to share, but not required. The result is that Christians largely share when they want to, in order to feel good about themselves (or to self-absolve some guilt, and generally the sharing is only what they can comfortably part with. I think of the parishioner who told me that she dumped her unwanted cat out of her car at a farm because "The farmers are glad to have cats, to catch the mice." Or people who put their worthless torn, smelly old clothes in the Goodwill box. Since for Jews and Muslims it is required, the observant give not what they can easily part with but what they must. Christians fail to recognize Jesus's call to give away ALL that they have before coming to follow him.

  7. From the apocryphal Preaching of Peter:

    "Rich is the mean who has mercy on many, and, imitating God, gives what he has. For God has given all things to all of his creation. Understand then, you rich, that you ought to minister, for you have received more than you yourselves need. Learn that others lack the things you have in superfluity. Be ashamed to keep things that belong to others. Imitate the fairness of God, and no man will be poor."

  8. First, did Megan McArdle ever consider the fact that some of the most unhealthy food is the cheapest? What people need is education about making better choices. Until that happens, people will continue to do what they know. There's a retraining that's required and that takes those with the know-how to provide it rather than sitting back and criticizing.

    As for the poor will be with us always, one interpretation that I've held of that passage was that God knew our hearts and our selfishness and so that's why He said the poor would always be us. But as I read your post, another interpretation occurred to me. Could it be that God is also saying that the poor will always be among us for our own good? When we are faced with those in poverty, maybe that's meant as a reminder for us to care more for the least and less for our stuff. Could it be that God would use the poor, so to speak, to speak to our sinful human condition to hoard and store up for ourselves?

    I'll never forget the elder that I served with who commented, "God didn't call us to solve the world's problems". I was shocked at this statement, particularly since he was over stewardship; I knew we were in trouble. But imagine my further shock when I went out to the parking lot one day and saw him getting into his canary yellow Corvette (just one of his cars). I guess he wouldn't want to help solve the world's problems; it might infringe on his ability to have a hot rod.

  9. Pat,
    great response.

    As far as the food deficiencies for the poor, there's so much that can be said about it. I'm thinking now of soul food, which is basically just the common staples of poor folk in the country in the south of US. Along with all the fatty foods, though, were greens and other foods considered healthy by today's standards. But since much of the poor live in urban areas and far removed from their own food production, what we have is a lot of highly processed and highly addictive foods. Since so much time (especially for the poor) is spent doing other stuff, cooking can't be (and wouldn't be - since it's no longer the cultural touchstone it once was, replaced by the tv) a priority.

    Since cooking is no longer a priority, cheap, fast food is. Although some forms of soul food are used in celebratory meals with some of my friends with southern roots, I don't see much greens to go with the mac'n'cheese.

    I can't complain, myself. Even simple cooking can sometimes be a chore for me. So I'm more likely to put a frozen pizza in the oven than bake some chicken and rice. Let alone buy and make something as healthy as most foods were thirty or forty years ago - before most of our poultry and cows were fed corn almost exclusively.

  10. Well, greens in and of themselves aren't bad, it's what gets added to them for flavor like bacon drippings. Most of our food can be "healthified", if you will, but it takes education. I'm going through that now with my mother who's on a low salt diet and she hasn't been used to the variety in foods that I have been exposed to. So, I'm introducing her to healthier, tastier ways of eating. But you're right about cooking what's quick. I'm guilty too, but at least I possess the knowledge and means to eat healthier when I choose to.

  11. Anonymous2:39 PM

    I was going to make a comment on the "the poor will always be with you" statement but, looking at the sidebar on this blog, with the blue text on the orange bg, that is extremely painful on the eyes. And it's almost completely unreadable. Can the colors be adjusted so it doesn't hurt so much to come to this page?


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