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'You will always have the poor with you'

Jesus tells his disciples to be among the poor, yet 2,000 years later all too often we are not. Some lateral thinking may help, writes Michael Shaw

Woman begging on the street

In his Book God’s Politics Jim Wallis talks of a survey he often carries out with students. He asks them, what does the Bible say about poverty? The verse that consistently comes back is “you will always have the poor with you”, which can be found in all four Gospels. The basic understanding is that we should accept that we will have poor people with us, and get used to it, rather than fighting to raise people out of their poverty. 

Wallis goes onto state is that the passage is not about acceptance of poverty as a fact, but a challenge to our attitude towards poverty. He argues that it is about proximity: you shall always be among the poor. I personally convinced that he is correct, and that we have failed fully to understand what the implications of that might be.

While it's in all four Gospels, what people do not often realise is that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be some in the land who are poor.” (NLT) It seems fairly clear cut, but that is why context is vital.

Deuteronomy 15 is about the Sabbath year, the year when all debts are released, loans are cancelled, the poor raised up and equality is restored. The problem is that when you get close to that year, people might be a little less inclined to lend, if they know in a years’ time that it would be cancelled. So the encouragement is to lend, to not be hard hearted or tight-fisted, because there will always be poor people who need help. The passage is not a casual acceptance of poverty, but an encouragement to deal with the problem of poverty. If you have been lucky enough to blessed with much, give to those who haven’t.

But what about the proximity element of Jim Wallis’ understanding? What does that look like?

May I ask you to have a think – where are all the bigger churches in your area? Are they in the areas of poverty or wealth? Where I live in Plymouth all the big churches are clustered in the same areas of the city. Meanwhile the more deprived areas have either very few churches or churches with small and elderly congregations. The young families who can drive may live in some of those areas, but they won’t worship in local churches. They would prefer to drive past dozens of churches to find one that suits them. There are exceptions to this rule, but sadly the rule is too often a reality.

We have simply not understood Jesus’ mission to the poor, and we use theological justifications for it: when Jesus says “blessed are the poor in Spirit”, we emphasise the “in Spirit” bit, choosing to ignore Luke’s version (which omits it) or the fact that the Greek word for “poor”, pto¯chos, means a beggar or a pauper. It is about economics.

Jesus tells his disciples to be among the poor, yet 2,000 years later, all too often we are not. It may mean living among the poor, taking the bus with them, eating in the same cafés as them, using the cornershop with them. This could be a massive sacrifice, but we are called to live differently (holy lives), and if we did we would be following the example of Christ himself.

Tom Wright argues that Bethany, that small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem which Jesus stayed in whenever he was near Jerusalem means “the house of the poor”. When questioned about how to become a disciple, Jesus says he has no home to go to. When asked by a rich man what he had to do, he was told to sell everything and become poor.

Jesus did not mince his words, and yet we have allowed ourselves to believe that Jesus probably didn’t literally mean that, did he?

But of course without rich Christians the church could not do what it needs to, and Jesus was supported in his ministry by a number of rich women. Proximity with the poor may not mean living among the poor, but it may mean thinking laterally: a doctor or a nurse working in a surgery that nobody else will; a teacher serving in a school with a poor Ofsted history; a lawyer taking cases others would not accept; a solicitor setting up a practice in a deprived location; a retailer locating to the wrong part of the city.

Deuteronomy 15 reminds us that the rich are necessary to help the poor. It is about our heart's response: tight-fisted or generous? One thing people in the suburbs could do is give differently, not just to the church they worship in, but give a percentage of their regular giving to a church they know to be struggling down the road.

There are many creative ways we can be among the poor, but we cannot just accept those words as a reason to do nothing.

Picture: Elif Ciftcioglu / freeimages.com

The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth

Baptist Times, 18/07/2016
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