by Liz Theoharis
Eerdword: the Eerdmans blog
April 26, 2017
For over twenty years, on nearly a weekly basis, I have heard people quote Matthew 26:11, “the poor will be with you always,” to blame the poor for their poverty, to justify inaction in the face of growing poverty and misery, and to claim that if God wanted to end poverty, He would do so. This passage led me to seminary and biblical scholarship and eventually to write a book: Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.
I started noticing how dominant such punitive interpretations of this passage were while I was working with two Philadelphia organizations led by poor and homeless people themselves organizing to get their families and entire communities up and out of poverty. Politicians, religious leaders, and others quoted Matthew 26:11 (and the parallels in John 12 and Mark 14) to justify shutting down housing programs and kicking mothers and their babies off of public assistance in the lead up to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. They put forward ahistorical, non-contextual, and unethical (mis)interpretations and (mis)appropriations of biblical texts.
These leaders, many of them self-described Christians, ignored the majority of passages from the Bible—passages like these:
- “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing homeless children.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)
- “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you….The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” (James 5:1-6)
- “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
They failed to see the moral and political agency of poor and homeless people who—much like early Christian communities—were taking care of each other and building safe and vibrant communities, although they were forced to live without adequate housing, food, education, or healthcare. These poor families proposed policies and programs similar to the jubilee prescriptions from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the collection for the poor in Paul’s letters. They advocated for an end to poverty that would benefit all people and resisted welfare cuts and draconian policies that punished the poor and benefited the wealthy.
A few weeks ago, Rep. Marshall (R – KS) used Matthew 26:11 yet again to justify cutting millions off from healthcare: “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us . . .’, there is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
Clearly, interpretations of “the poor will be with you always” that justify inaction in the face of poverty are still dominant.
In my book, I document stories of poor people organizing to end poverty and show how their struggles articulate and embody a truly liberative theology. I assert that poverty is not inevitable; it is a systemic sin, and all Christians have a responsibility to partner with the poor to end poverty once and for all.
Indeed, Matthew 26:11 quotes one of the most liberative Sabbath prescriptions in the Bible, and it offers a strong critique of our model of so-called “charity,” which upholds dominant economic practices that produce poverty for the majority and wealth for a select few.
In Matthew 26, Jesus is responding to his disciples, who criticize a woman for “wasting” the ointment she pours on Jesus’ head. They could have taken the nard, they say, and sold it for a year’s salary and given the money to the poor.
The suggestion of the disciples follows the dominant economic systems of the Roman empire. Indeed, this idea of earning lots of money and giving the proceeds to the poor follows how we try to address poverty—by doing charity work, by buying and selling and then donating to the poor, but never questioning how poverty was created in the first place.
So Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 15, which says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow the commandments God is giving today—commandments to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even knowing you won’t get paid back. Deuteronomy 15 continues and says that because people will not follow those commandments, there will always be poor among you.
Thus, Jesus isn’t condoning poverty—he is reminding us that God hates poverty, and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, by raising wages, by outlawing slavery, by restructuring society around the needs of the poor. He is reminding the disciples that charity and hypocrisy will not end poverty but keep poverty with us always. He is reminding his followers that he is going to be killed for bringing God’s reign here on earth, and it is their responsibility to continue the quest for justice.
We have just celebrated Holy Week, and we are living in Eastertide, remembering the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we take the message from Matthew 26 seriously, we have to commit ourselves to really understanding and then doing justice. We must see that poverty is disobedience to God’s will and it is our duty as Christians to bring good news to the poor. We have to put the cross back into our theology and social justice witness knowing full well that resurrection follows crucifixion.
But too often we forsake the belief that ending poverty is possible. Instead of realizing the resurrection of Jesus and all of his disciples who stand for justice, we ignore the controversial, revolutionary nature of a poor, resurrected Jesus as Lord and Savior, who challenges the wealthy, immortalized Caesar. We forget that Jesus’s Kingdom includes economic and social rights in the here and now and that the Messiah Jesus came to usher in this reign.
The good news of the Bible has been reduced to an individualized acceptance of Jesus Christ as a Lord and Savior, severed from his mission to the world. We deny that the poor are at the center of God’s concern, ignoring that Jesus was a leader of a revolutionary movement of the poor, who—rather than mitigating the unfortunate inevitability of poverty—called for a movement to transform heaven and earth.
Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. Will we follow in his footsteps?