This is the seventh “Noon Wine” reflection in a series on material poverty, with some final thoughts.
Stay tuned for another series to come on “spiritual poverty,” the other kind cited so often in the Bible including Revelation, that terribly misused, abused and misunderstood book-end to the book of Genesis.
SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 15: 1-18
KEY VERSE: (11) “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.” (My italics for emphasis.)
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Christians intimate with the bible will recognize the verse cited above, from Deuteronomy 15: 11, because of something the very Jewish Rabbi Jesus said:
“For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (Mark 14: 7). (Again, with my italics for emphasis.)
Matthew 26: 11, of course, gives a condensed version. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying only that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” John gives the same short-handed quote of Jesus in his gospel version as well. (See John 12:8 here.)
The quotes about perennial poverty from Matthew and John are the ones invoked routinely by Christians with all kinds of self-serving, ulterior motives. They typically want to downplay a command from God, which is to show love for God by showing love and care and kindness to the poor. They typically cite the condensed gospel versions from Matthew and John for political or economic reasons–or maybe out of fear of the fact that they are a disaster or two away from being thoroughly broke and losing everything.
I submit that it’s that fear and insecurity driving much of the widespread hostility toward the poor in America, the nation that still has, far and away, the most financially and materially prosperous people in the world, bar none.
Only two things in life are guaranteed–God’s extravagant love for us all, and death. Lifelong prosperity and financial security for even billionaires can’t possibly come with a 100 percent, money-back guarantee (even though, admittedly, billions of dollars make for a pretty solid, personal safety net).
That’s why I suspect that so many Christians can turn a blind eye to the poor, or demean them as “bums” and misfits undeserving of charity or loving-kindness. It’s a fear thing, an insecurity thing, that lies beneath the many currents of contempt for some, if not all, of the poor.
I suspect that an equal number of well-to-do Christians don’t want to pay the cost of the self-sacrificing discipleship that Christ demanded, even though Jesus tells us that to whom much is given, much is required. (He said that; you could look it up.)
Granted, there is such a thing as lazy poor people who game the systems of government and charity. They will always be with us.
But there’s such a thing as greedy, me-first people, and people of all kinds who game government systems for further gain.
Wall Street and Washington D.C. are running over with them.
To paraphrase Deuteronomy 15: 11, “there will never cease to be the needy and the greedy on earth.”
America does have her share of lazy people, whose numbers include, unfortunately, a countless number of lazy Christians who can justify their hostile attitudes toward the poor by lifting up the scriptures, totally out of context, about the poor being always with us.
I suspect, admittedly at the risk of sounding righteous and judgmental like a preacher or something, that the lazy Christian doesn’t care to be intimate with the whole of the Bible because it requires the time and commitment of digging deep into the Bible with actual Bible reading and study.
So the lazy Christian picks and chooses scriptures from the Bible that he may have heard some other lazy Christian repeat, such as “the poor you will have with you always.”
As the “Church Lady” of Saturday Night Live used to say, “How conveeeenient!”
Someone once asked Billy Graham what it means that Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Rev. Graham actually cited the key verse (Deuteronomy 15: 11) that I cited at the top of this posting.
“The Bible repeatedly commands us to help the needy, and condemns those who take advantage of the poor,” said Graham, who’s never been of the “prosperity gospel” ilk. He preached against hyper-consumerism, materialism and spiritual poverty in America from the start. (Click here to see the full context of his quotes I’m citing.)
The operative phrase in that Billy Graham quote is “the Bible repeatedly commands.”
God and Christ and the Bible leave us no wiggle room to show anything less than love and care for the poor. You won’t find any biblically convenient loopholes.
God was speaking to Moses when he made the clear commandment to open our hands to the needy in our land. Jesus never commanded any less and Matthew and John never expected any less with their condensed quotes. They knew very well that God expects us to help the poor and never mind that the poor will always be with us.
Billy Graham goes on to say:
“You and I live in the most prosperous society the world has ever seen—-and yet hunger, homelessness and poverty are still a tragic reality for millions every day. At least half the world’s population lives on the edge of survival because of the effects of poverty.
“How can we remain indifferent to their plight? Ask God to show you ways you can help those whose lives are crushed by poverty.”
Indeed, if we ask God to show us ways to help those crushed by poverty and to be in ministry with (not for) the poor–if we knock at the door and ask what we can do with the unique gifts and graces as well as the money that God blessed us with–there will be an answer.