The Poor You Will Always Have With You

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We have a very strong tendency to throw around certain Bible passages when we feel they suit our needs. First and foremost of these in dialogue about Catholic Social Teaching and the proper role of government in aiding the needy is Matthew 26:11, in which Jesus states: “The poor you will always have with you.” (NAB)

The most unfortunate tendency in using this quote is to justify doing very little to help the poor. In arguments, it is used to excoriate any governmental welfare program, noting that since the poor will always be with us, the governmental efforts will not succeed, and therefore that justifies doing nothing at all. We all know, of course, that Jesus never meant this statement to be an acknowledgement of futility, or an advocation of doing nothing. But certainly the context of the quote seems telling.

We have three versions of the story from Matthew (26:6-13), Mark (14:3-9), and John (12:1-8). While Jesus and his apostles are in Bethany, shortly before the Passion and the crucifixion, and while they are staying in the house of Simon the Leper, a woman comes in with an expensive perfumed oil and anoints Jesus with it. (John names the woman as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.) The apostles—Judas especially, though for different reasons than the others—become indignant, and to anyone who has followed the story thus far, rightly so.

Keep in mind that as Jesus and his apostles traveled the countryside, preaching the good news and the coming of the Kingdom, the apostles continually heard from their master the virtues of poverty, and the excoriation of wealth. In the Beatitudes, we have “Blessed are the poor (in spirit), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3, cf Lk 6:20) Jesus tells us such things as, “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroys, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, whether neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 7:19-20) He asks his disciples to leave all they have to follow him. One specific time, when a rich man asks him what more is needed to gain eternal life, Jesus replies (If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Mt 19:21) As the rich man goes away, dejected, Jesus tells his apostles (to their mutual dismay): “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I say to you, it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23-24) Time and again we see Jesus admonishing the rich and extolling the virtues of the poor. The message seems pretty clear, right? Rich bad, poor good. If you have anything superfluous to every day necessities, it should go to the poor.

So here we have an example where the students attempt to imitate their master. They call down Mary for wasting such a valuable resource, stating that the oil could have been sold for a great price, and the money given to the poor. Judas (a thief who dipped into the party’s funds for his own benefit) particularly knew just how much money could have been procured and given away to the needy (himself included, of course), and we can imagine that a number of poor people could have filled their bellies for days, if not weeks. Think of how one of our valuables could be sold today, and how long that would feed some poor people. For example, if I sold my car (my wife has a vehicle of her own, and we don’t really need two right now) for a couple of thousand dollars, I could feed several poor families for over a month.

And yet, against all expectation, Jesus stuns them yet again. He admonishes them, telling them that Mary has done a good thing for him (especially in preparation for his death on the cross and burial). And then, confounding them altogether, he quotes from Deuteronomy (15:11): “The poor you will always have with you,” adding: “but you will not always have me.” (Mt 26:11)

So how are we to understand this sudden change of pace? We could interpret this very narrowly. In general, it is best to sell your possessions and give to the poor, but in this one instance, because it is for Jesus, and with a particular significance—i.e. the anointing of the body before burial—it is acceptable. Or we could interpret this less narrowly, in that riches and luxuries, when given to God for such purposes as display in churches, are all right to have around and need not be sold off. Wider than that is to suppose that having a few luxuries around, even those not dedicated to God, are all right, because the greater problem will not be overcome simply by throwing money at the problem. In fact, because the poor will always be around, no matter how hard we work, we don’t have to bankrupt ourselves providing for them.

Probably the most consistent message throughout the gospels concerning poverty is not that being poor is good and being rich is bad, but that attachment to material possessions impedes the way to heaven. Loving our toys too much could end up placing those toys between ourselves and God. A poor person has an advantage over a rich person because he has fewer possessions to hold on to. But that does not mean that a poor person necessarily is any more virtuous just by being poor, nor that a rich man must be vile.

In this light, Jesus possibly rebukes his disciples because of their overzealousness in the matter of giving to the poor. While giving to the poor is good, forcing someone else to give what they do not desire to give is hardly justified. Also, even though there are poor people out there, that does not prevent one from making material gifts to people who aren’t poor (especially if that person is God).

Still, there is no escaping the feeling that Jesus is twisting the meaning of the passage in Deuteronomy, which clearly states that, since the land will never be lacking in poor people, we must always be willing to give. At the very least, Jesus seems to be adding some exception clauses.

Yet that isn’t really the case. Jesus, as he always does, adds higher dimension to what the apostles already knew. There is an obligation to help the poor, but that is derived from—and in no way superior to—our obligations to God. The duty of tending to the poor is not supposed to be all consuming that we lose sight of God, or the reasons we are to help the poor.

Where does this leave us, then? The argument that the poor will always be with us is not justification at all for refraining from giving to the poor. Any arguments about whether to give really hold no weight. We are obligated to give. What we can argue is how we are to give and how much we are to give.

As a note, the poor we are obligated to help need not be materially poor. There are among us those who are spiritually, or emotionally, or culturally poor, and we have an obligation to tend to them, as well.

So whenever we find ourselves arguing politics and debating economics, we need to be careful about how we wield quotes like “The poor you will always have with you.” The temptation is to use this quote to justify being overly blasé about the plight of the poor, and it was never meant to support such a viewpoint. Instead, it is meant to remind us that our work will never be done, that we must indeed always be prepared to give to those in need. The only caution is not to lose sight of why we bear this obligation. Our duty first and foremost is to love and serve our God. Love of God then extends to love of God’s creation, and especially our fellow man. Our obligation to serve the poor is not really geared towards ending poverty forever; instead, it is a natural manifestation of our love for our neighbors and the communion we are meant to build with them. We are to give to the poor, not necessarily because it will lift them out of poverty (though we certainly carry that hope), but primarily because we love them and wish to ease their suffering and bring them, in turn, closer to God.

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14 Comments

  1. Very good post. In a narrow sense, I take this scriptural passage as an admonition against utopian idealism. It doesn’t mean we are justified in doing nothing, but rather, we cannot expect to create a paradise where there is no poverty.

  2. Much like you wrote, Ryan, here’s what the Pope has said about things being in their “proper order:”

    “At the heart of all temptations…is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” (from Jesus of Nazareth)

    He goes on to quote Deut 8:3 (“Man does not live by bread alone…”) as well as German Jesuit Alfred Delp: “Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.” The Pope writes: “When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of the material goods themselves.”

    Notice that it doesn’t diminish the need for social justice and caring for the poor; instead, it explains the reason why we care about these things in the first place. As paul mentioned, it’s a bit of cautionary teaching about the dangers of utopianism, which would twist human nature for a misconception of the common good.

  3. Dear me, what a lot of words! I am reminded of God speaking to Job [Ch. 38]:
    “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

    I believe Our Lord’s words were meant more simply. As between honoring God [Himself] and giving to the poor, we will always have occasion to give to the poor. So, if we are not going to give to the poor, give to the God.

    Otherwise it would be beholden on us to sell all the real estate of the Church and the treasures and other wealth and give it to the poor.

    But is not the real meaning of the words, that we should intend to give to the poor [perhaps never ending poverty] because God told us to? Even if we have to give up one of our cars, should we not do it and come to rely on God?

  4. POPULORUM PROGRESSIO

    ENCYCLICAL OF POPE PAUL VI
    ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF PEOPLES

    MARCH 26, 1967

    Excerpts:

    The Use of Private Property

    23. “He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (21) Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” (22) These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

    No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.” (23)

    The Common Good

    24. If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.

    Vatican II affirms this emphatically. (24) At the same time it clearly teaches that income thus derived is not for man’s capricious use, and that the exclusive pursuit of personal gain is prohibited. Consequently, it is not permissible for citizens who have garnered sizeable income from the resources and activities of their own nation to deposit a large portion of their income in foreign countries for the sake of their own private gain alone, taking no account of their country’s interests; in doing this, they clearly wrong their country. (25)

    Programs and Planning

    33. Individual initiative alone and the interplay of competition will not ensure satisfactory development. We cannot proceed to increase the wealth and power of the rich while we entrench the needy in their poverty and add to the woes of the oppressed. Organized programs are necessary for “directing, stimulating, coordinating, supplying and integrating” (35) the work of individuals and intermediary organizations.

    It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.

    The Ultimate Purpose

    34. Organized programs designed to increase productivity should have but one aim: to serve human nature. They should reduce inequities, eliminate discrimination, free men from the bonds of servitude, and thus give them the capacity, in the sphere of temporal realities, to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments. When we speak of development, we should mean social progress as well as economic growth.

    It is not enough to increase the general fund of wealth and then distribute it more fairly. It is not enough to develop technology so that the earth may become a more suitable living place for human beings. The mistakes of those who led the way should help those now on the road to development to avoid certain dangers. The reign of technology—technocracy, as it is called—can cause as much harm to the world of tomorrow as liberalism did to the world of yesteryear. Economics and technology are meaningless if they do not benefit man, for it is he they are to serve. Man is truly human only if he is the master of his own actions and the judge of their worth, only if he is the architect of his own progress. He must act according to his God-given nature, freely accepting its potentials and its claims upon him.

    Superfluous Wealth

    49. We must repeat that the superfluous goods of wealthier nations ought to be placed at the disposal of poorer nations. The rule, by virtue of which in times past those nearest us were to be helped in time of need, applies today to all the needy throughout the world. And the prospering peoples will be the first to benefit from this. Continuing avarice on their part will arouse the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foresee. If prosperous nations continue to be jealous of their own advantage alone, they will jeopardize their highest values, sacrificing the pursuit of excellence to the acquisition of possessions. We might well apply to them the parable of the rich man. His fields yielded an abundant harvest and he did not know where to store it: “But God said to him, ‘Fool, this very night your soul will be demanded from you . . .’ ” (54)

    To Government Authorities

    84. Government leaders, your task is to draw your communities into closer ties of solidarity with all men, and to convince them that they must accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace. Delegates to international organizations, it is largely your task to see to it that senseless arms races and dangerous power plays give way to mutual collaboration between nations, a collaboration that is friendly, peaceoriented, and divested of self-interest, a collaboration that contributes greatly to the common development of mankind and allows the individual to find fulfillment.

  5. Segue:

    accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace.

    Interesting, the Holy Father here is recommending the “Fair Tax”, he seems not to be in favor of the income taxes which tax not luxuries and expenditures, but productivity… hmmm.

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