“The poor you will always have with you.”
Mark 14:7, John 12:1, and Matthew 26:11, are among the most misinterpreted sections of the New Testament.
Here, Jesus defended a woman from the scolding of his disciples after she anointed him with oil. To those followers who argued that the money would be better spent on the needy (in John’s account, the writer mentions Judas as the offending speaker), Jesus retorts: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
This is not a prediction. It is a comparison of the woman’s action with the hypocrisy of his most loyal apostles. By saying “the poor you will always have with you,” Jesus knew that each good Jew would be reminded of the following well-known verses from Deuteronomy 15:7-11:
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore, I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ ”
It is unfortunate that, in the minds of North American Christians today, the verse “the poor you will always have with you” often serves as an excuse to deflect attention from the poor, and direct our minds to other, higher, purposes. Others use this verse to refrain from any attempt to end poverty. “Reduce,” “limit” or “mitigate the effects” of poverty — through charitable activity, sure. But don’t get taken up with any attempt to “eradicate” or “eliminate” poverty — it is argued — because Jesus in the Bible seems to have said that simply cannot be done. Really?
Anglican priest Gary Hauch stresses that this passage is reported only two days before Jesus was crucified. “The contrast Jesus sets out is between an immediate need that must be addressed now, and an ongoing need that can be addressed after. Rabbinic teaching on good works makes a similar point: burying the dead, which must be done today, is to take precedence over visiting the sick, which can be done tomorrow.” Therefore, the text is not meant to dismiss care for the poor, but to practice radical generosity toward them when we best can do so.
Today, for Christians across Canada, radical generosity toward the poor means pressing the federal government to develop and implement Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy. This important action should even take precedence over our continuing support of food banks, feeding programs and other social services that Christians have long supported — efforts to which we can return tomorrow.
This past winter, and ending in the summer, the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, asked Canadians for their opinions on what an eventual Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy (CPRS) should include. Over 30 representatives of congregations of Catholic religious, and the bishops’ conference, participated in Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) workshops that prepared people to present opinions on what is needed in an eventual CPRS. At least two congregations of sisters involved their members of Parliament in dialogues about poverty reduction.
Citizens for Public Justice set up an online mechanism from our website, and more than 850 people used this portal to send the minister their views. CPJ’s brief to the minister outlined also several necessary ingredients for a robust anti-poverty plan (https://cpj.ca/flourishing-together).
We can look forward to hearing a report from the minister on what his consultation revealed, and prepare ourselves to study his proposed poverty reduction plan: will it include accountability mechanisms, with targets and timelines to monitor progress toward ending poverty? Will it include specific and immediate measures in budget 2018 that could include indexing the Canada Child Benefit to inflation, increased coverage for Employment Insurance, improvements to Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement to lift seniors out of poverty, an enhanced Working Income Tax Benefit and focused Guaranteed Livable Income options for working-age adults? Will we see included the (promised) National Housing strategy, more responsive programs for indigenous people living in poverty, a national pharmacare program and sustainable job creation in renewable energy infrastructure, for example?
The best thing we could do this autumn would be to encourage Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, and their own member of Parliament, to make poverty reduction a priority in this new session of the House of Commons.
Join Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada in over 60 events across the land on Oct. 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Order free materials for organizing an event in your parish or school, at https://dignityforall.ca/chew-on-this/#more-1422
It’s sad that Christians quoting “the poor you will always have with you” rarely follow it with the intended injunction, “therefore, you shall open wide your hand to the needy and to the poor.” By separating these phrases, we may prevent ourselves from hearing and acting on the best sense of the intended teaching of Jesus. By acting today, and on Oct. 17, we can help the gospel message come alive in our hearts and communities.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.