Can poverty ever truly be eradicated?
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Can poverty ever truly be eradicated? According to our scriptures, Jesus didn’t seem to think so.
“For you will always have the poor with you...” (Matthew 26:11).
Are you familiar with this scripture? It’s in our Bible in red letters. Jesus says this to his disciples in the gospel of Matthew. So perhaps we shouldn’t get too worried about undertaking injustice and poverty. It sounds like it’s a losing battle, doesn’t it?
This is how many people interpret this scripture. Despite all of Jesus’ commands to work for justice and to love mercy, this scripture alone is often used to undermine all of that. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “The poor aren’t going anywhere, so don’t put too much energy into the fight against poverty.”
Context is so important when reading the Bible. If we aren’t mindful of the historical and literary contexts of our scriptures, then we can get into serious trouble with our interpretations.
You see, I think Jesus actually meant the exact opposite of what we read here at first glance.
When Jesus says, “For you will always have to poor with you,” he’s quoting a Hebrew scripture from the book of Deuteronomy:
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be… Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is a popular passage from the Jewish Torah. It would have been well known to the disciples Jesus is talking to when he says, “For you will always have the poor with you.” Take a moment and consider a popular catchphrase that when partially quoted you can complete.
“Better to have loved and lost than…”
“Cheaters never win and…”
“If the shoe fits…”
Chances are you’re able to complete all of the catch phrases listed above. They’re so familiar to you, you know how they end. This would have been true for the disciples whom Jesus says to, “For you will always have the poor with you.” Hearing him, they would have caught his drift, knowing what comes next. “…Therefore I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy.’”
The next time someone says to you then, “For you will always have the poor with you,” complete the sentence: “Therefore I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The gospel of Jesus Christ is a social gospel, meant to lift up the poor, to bring them good things (Luke 1:53). When we use the scripture, “For you will always have the poor with you” to justify not caring about the poor, we are actually sinning against the gospel itself. This scripture should compel us to open our hands and extend generosity, not shrug our shoulders in apathy for what we think is impossible.
In the book of Acts, we are told that God’s grace was so powerfully at work in the people that there was “not a single needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). There was no one in need. There was no one in poverty. That was the outcome of following the gospel of Jesus who came to bring good news to the poor.
Fighting poverty is not a losing battle. It’s a command given in our Hebrew scriptures that is best embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. And, most importantly, it is possible to eradicate poverty, so may we finish the instruction and “open our hands to the poor and needy in our land.”