Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Christian Obligations: "The Poor You Will Always Have with You"

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Christian Obligations: "The Poor You Will Always Have with You"

Article excerpt

This article argues that a biblically framed approach to wealth and poverty is much more complex than simple answers from the Left or the Right often state them. Neither a "I fight poverty; I work" mentality, nor a "soak the rich" attitude does justice to Scripture or to the complexity of economic life. Rather than moving simply from specific Bible texts to prescriptive rules for contemporary economic life, we need to turn to basic Christian teaching about humanity, about the image of God, as ways into the complexity of economic life.

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The title of this essay, taken from Matthew 26:11 (par. Mark 14:7; John 12:8), may be the best-known and most frequently quoted words of our Lord Jesus Christ on the subject of poverty. The only possible rival is the familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor (in spirit)" (Luke 6:20; Matt. 5:3). What may not be as well known is that, in the case of the passage used for our title, Jesus is referring back to a verse from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: "There will always be poor people in the land" (Deut. 15:11). (1) The context within which this observation occurs is revealing; it helps explain the Sabbath year when debts are to be canceled and forgiven. After seven years, Israelites are commanded to forgive the debts of fellow Israelites. The passage includes a comment that suggests the Sabbath-year provision should be extraordinary and not often required: "However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God" (Deut. 15:4-5a). It is in this context that we are told "there will always be poor in the land."

This remarkable juxtaposition of ideas in the passages cited from Deuteronomy--"there should be no poor among you" but "there always will be"--is invaluable for avoiding a potentially serious misapplication of the words of Jesus captured in our title. To apply our Lord's words primarily as a preemptive warning against utopian schemes that seek to eradicate all poverty misses their main point but is not an illegitimate secondary inference. The emphasis here is secondary because whenever that lesser point becomes so overpowering that a mood of resignation follows, and we give up our concern for the poor altogether (after all, we cannot do anything to cure poverty; it will always be with us), we sinfully distort Jesus' words. What is intended by his observation about the poor always being there is that their presence gives us untold opportunity as well as ongoing obligation to aid the needy. The Deuteronomy reference makes this clear. What is the conclusion to the observation that 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" (Deut. 15:11b). Even if this were the only reference in Scripture to our obligation for the poor it would be enough to challenge our sinful evasions of responsibility for the poor living in our midst. Of course, there is much more in Scripture (2) to bolster this point, and it should be granted without dispute: There is a solemn moral obligation for those who claim to be God's people, who claim to have been redeemed from bondage, to demonstrate compassionate generosity to the poor. In other words, the body of Christ has an indisputable responsibility toward the poor.

How this moral obligation translates into concrete strategy and action, however, is a different matter. To acknowledge responsibility does not yet prescribe for us exactly what action the Bible requires of us. It is not clear from this basic principle even who the poor are nor to what extent the church has an obligation to serve them. Furthermore, there are complex hermeneutical issues involved in translating Old and New Testament instruction about care for the poor. Consider, for example, the difficulty of applying the Levitical Sabbath and Jubilee legislation--prescribed in an agrarian situation for a closed community of fellow believers--to the modern, urban, pluralistic, industrial world. …

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