“For the poor you will always have with you in the land”

In Matthew 26:11 Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you…” when his followers criticized him for allowing a woman to anoint his feet with expensive oil. Their argument was that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. The meaning of this act is not the subject of this essay. But rather what others have taken those words Jesus spoke to mean. I have often had fellow Christians tell me that I should not advocate for trying to end poverty because even Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you”. They take this to mean that there is no point to trying to end poverty. That we should simply throw up our hands and accept it as an inevitable reality. There will always be poor.

Unfortunately, it is true that poverty has existed throughout all of recorded history. It has been a reality in every generation. Most of us intrinsically know that poverty is terrible and so over time we have devised hundreds of theories and methods for how to address it in order to bring change. Looking back to the 15 and 1600’s Europe began to develop a series of “poor laws”. On the surface, this was seen as an attempt to force the poor to work because being poor was seen as a character flaw which was dangerous for the good of society. You could legally be flogged in the streets for being poor. You could be fined money for not having enough money. In order to be legally poor you had to apply for a license which proved that you were too sick or disabled to work. With that license you were told what area of the city and what time of day you were legally allowed to beg for money. Today in North America, our programs are not quite as brutal. But they still show hints of coming from the same mentality of their predecessors. Often people living in poverty are forced to meet unrealistic requirements in order to access meager assistance. I have seen people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa receive fines for pan-handling. I have watched social workers tirelessly try to navigate a system in which they constantly have to prove that a client is poor enough for assistance or that someone is in enough danger to receive help for their mental health and addiction struggle. At every turn people experiencing poverty are told there is no help because of either a lack of resources or because they do not meet the qualifications.

Here is the interesting thing about Matthew 26:11. Jesus was actually quoting a verse from the book of Deuteronomy. The verse actually reads:

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 to 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 the poor in your land’” – Deuteronomy 15:7-11

At Restoring Hope Ministries we have made it a point to eliminate as many barriers as possible for the people that we serve. The community has been extremely generous to us and we are passionate about giving to people freely what we have received. I can tell you of countless times when youth were relieved that they did not have to prove to us that they were worthy to receive help. I always tell them “if you need something and we have the ability to give it to you then we will do so no questions asked. The youth that we work with have already experienced trauma, hunger, weariness, shame, mental and physical abuse. We don’t want them to ever feel that they need to prove their worthiness. Sometimes they will say to us ‘I feel different when I come here. I feel at peace and I feel like you guys really care.” That is how Jesus intended for them to be treated. People do not escape poverty by being shamed until it is too uncomfortable to remain poor. They escape when their dignity is restored and they are made to feel that they are worthy of love and that they can accomplish the difficult tasks ahead of them. In my understanding of God’s word I believe that he requires us to keep mercy at the heart of our strategies and plans to address poverty. We should never put more requirements on others to receive mercy than God puts on us. It is true that we will always have the poor among us. But it is also true that this should lead to unconditional mercy instead of mean spirited scarcity.

 

– Jason Pino – Executive Director