Jesus vs. the UN – World Day on the Eradication of Poverty (10/17)

October 17th marks the UN’s World Day for the Eradication of Poverty calling us to work toward overcoming poverty. But what is the use of all our efforts at systemic change? After all, in three different places Jesus tells us “the poor will always be with you” (Matt 26:11, John 12:11 and Mark 14:7).

More than a few understand this to mean that a) that we can never end poverty, b) that it is the role of Christians, not the government, to try to care for the poor, or c) that Jesus rather than the poor should be our concern.

I must admit the question that has long been in the back of my mind. especially in light of the Vincentian Family thrust of Systemic Change. However, I recently read “Understanding “the poor will always be with you.” It helped me realize that Jesus was really saying quite the opposite of the above interpretations. The author pointed out that we miss the point when we read the passage from our own historical context.

We think we understand what Jesus is saying but we do not.

First, a quick observation… The word “Madonna” evokes quite different images across the age spectrum. To anyone coming of age prior to the 1980’s Madonna would clearly mean the Mother of Jesus. To those who came of age after the 1980’s the more frequent association is with Madonna, an entertainer always pushing the envelope. Our time-conditioned cultural experience shapes us and  our understanding of words

Something similar happens with Jesus’ words on poverty. When we read that Jesus says, “The poor will be with you always” we read it without any awareness of the mindset of the people of Jesus’ time.

The Jews of Jesus’ day would have understood that passage in the light of what they grew up with. They would have immediately recognized the words as a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy.  Chapter 15 of the book of Deuteronomy explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty. In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (or, “the poor you always have with you”), and because of that, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.”

They would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. Systemic Change?

So returning to Deuteronomy 15 and the passage from Matt 26, Jesus is demonstrating that poverty need not exist, and therefore that the poor will not need loans or charity, if people follow God’s laws and commandments, especially through living out the “Sabbatical Year” and “Jubilee.”

Therefore, Jesus is criticizing the disciples with this echo of Deuteronomy 15:11, where it is established that poverty is the result of society’s disobedience to God and of following the laws and commandments of empire.

Jesus challenges us

Rather than Jesus giving us a pass on poverty, he is issuing a profound challenge.

The author continues…

I believe there is a four-leveled critique of charity from the Scriptures and Jesus’s teachings found in Matthew 26:

    • ideological (challenging the belief that charity demonstrated how much the rich cared about the poor),
    • political (showing how patronage actually helped the wealthy to gain a political base and following),
    • spiritual/moral (exploring how charity and patronage are directly tied to state religion, the imperial cult, and religious expressions that actually justify inequality), and
    • material (explaining how charity, benefaction, and patronage made more money for the wealthy and at the same time did not meet the needs of the poor).

Indeed thought-provoking!

Food for thought

Does the above give another biblical basis for the Vincentian Family’s emphasis on collaboration and systemic change?

How many other words of Jesus do we misunderstand because we do not know the thought patterns of the people of his time?

Is this a reason why Pope Francis brands the bible as a dangerous book?

This is an adapted version of a post that originally appeared on VincentiansUSAEast


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