5 Minute Post: Would a Poor Person Ever Say That?

This morning on Twitter @Hope Jahren cleverly tweeted, “‘The poor will always be with us’ — said no poor person evar [sic].” I quickly dashed off a considerably less clever (though is seemed more so at the time), “‘Cept Jesus.” But then I got to thinking…

As I expressed earlier, I am not so confident that the Gospels always give us a reliable picture of Jesus. This particular saying, one that if I had my way would not be in our sacred text, is recorded in three of the Gospels: Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11, and John 12:8 (Luke, as perhaps would be expected, omits the saying). I get that the conclusion of the saying is an exhortation to give when one “wishes” (a wholly unsatisfying suggestion). I also understand that this can be read as an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4-11 which clearly states that there shall be no poor among the Israelites and gives specific commands about taking care of those who are. There is also the happy liberation read of the text, which I blogged about in my former life when I was an anti-hunger educator: the verse is best understood as a command to always be with those who are poor, i.e., walking alongside and working with them as they seek justice.

All this said, I am still unsatisfied with the thrust of the text and Hope is right to ask if a poor person would ever say such a thing. Are our Gospels so removed from Jesus’ experience as a poor person on the margins that they could imagine him saying something no poor person would ever say?




Filed under bible, early Christianity, justice, poverty

4 responses to “5 Minute Post: Would a Poor Person Ever Say That?

  1. Mary Ann McDowell

    I actually think that a number of those living in poverty are so far entrenched in the mire that they would not only believe it, they would say it.

    It is indicative of the unequal society in which we live. Even those of us who work for anti-poverty or poverty alleviation non-profits are fully aware of the gravity of this statement, and of its problematic truth.

    Both churches and the greater society are removed from Jesus’ experience as a person living in poverty – our churches do not reflect poverty, rather they exude opulence. Our church members tend to be uncomfortable with the whole concept of poverty, or with anyone living on the margins of “acceptable society”.

    This Gospel text allows for the creation of the “us and them” division that occurs in the broader cultural context, and is also found in our churches. As a Christian community, we like this text, it gives us a way to do the work of helping without ever having to get our hands dirty or attempt to eradicate poverty. We are almost comforted by the fact that we don’t have to fix it because “Jesus said it”.

    Each of us needs to work for the day when poverty is ended in our world; whether Jesus said this or didn’t isn’t as important as our reaction to it – are we willing to actually roll up our sleeves and prove this piece of text wrong, or are we content to believe it simply because it is “Gospel”?

  2. I always found it interesting that Jesus was poor when he said this. Many times we treat the poor is a stat and not real flesh and blood being like Jesus. I always found that many times serving people who are homeless but with a unique story, I treat them as generic homeless person. I remember this saying of Jesus and I listen to them as individuals.

  3. FWIW, I tweeted this in full knowledge that I was quoting the Gospel. The quote has always bothered me, and I think you are right that the words are worth dwelling upon. What these words meant with respect to the veracity of the Gospel is probably not something we would agree about, so I’m going to leave that alone. I have often heard this “quote” used as a justification for inaction or even to support the claim that self-destructive behavior within impoverished groups is incorrigible. In fact, I’ve heard the quote perpetuate itself so often within these contexts that I often wonder if it was simply some poetic license activated during translation within a particularly anxious age of economic inequality. But you’re the biblical scholar here, not me, I’m not fool enough to try to beat you at your own game. My real question is, would you give such a ludicrously de-empowering statement any credence at all, were it not mythologized to have been said by Jesus? [Only wrote in bc you specifically asked me …]

    • Thanks for the comment, Hope. I so enjoy how your mind works… The veracity of the Gospel, eh? Even though you said you would not go there, you piqued my interest. I wonder if we really would be very far apart…

      Anyhow, as to the substance of your question, I think it is an excellent aphorism for people who are wealthy and powerful and don’t like to feel bad about it. As such, it sure is nice to have the guy you worship saying it. Would it have any legs without him? I don’t know. But the sentiment sure is handy in a pinch. Is that a fair response?

      Looking forward to following your blog and Twitter feed!

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