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Several weeks ago, I read an article titled “Why we should care less about inequality in Singapore.” One comment that was subsequently deleted disturbed me to the core.
It cited a passage from the Bible – specifically Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” This person used this verse to say that there will always be the poor, there will always be inequality, and so this person agrees with the article that we should care less about inequality.
This verse also appears in different forms in John 12:8 and Mark 14:7.
At first glance, this verse almost suggests that Jesus is a megalomaniac and one who puts himself above the poor. “The poor you will always have with you, so don’t bother about – worship me instead” Jesus seems to say. Is this the Jesus you know? I hope not.
Let us revisit this passage from Matthew 26:6-13
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Some of us may be taught in Bible study or Sunday school that the woman was anointing Jesus both as Messiah (the anointed one) and preparing Jesus for burial, and Jesus was praising her for doing so.
Well, there is something more to this passage than just that.
First of all, when Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me,” Jesus wasn’t saying that poverty is a condition that is ordained by God and we can never end poverty, nor was He saying we should give our money to Him, or the Church or Christianity instead of the poor. (That was how I heard some of my friends explain to me why their church was putting so much money into their new building when I was in university). I am not telling you not to give to the church at all – but rather pointing out that giving to the church is not what just Jesus is saying here.
When Jesus said “the poor will always have with you,” Jesus was quoting the Scriptures – specifically Deuteronomy 15:11 (NRSV) “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your sibling, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.”
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary and author of the book “Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor” writes:
“Jesus’ response to the disciples and praise of the woman with the line “the poor are with you always” echoes or actually quotes Deuteronomy 15 – one of the most liberating “Jubilee” passages in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty. In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (or, “the poor you always have with you”), and because of that, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour.”
Let’s read Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbour, not exacting it of a neighbour who is a member of the community, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. When the LORD your God has blessed you, as God promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.
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 neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 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 neighbour in your land.”
Poverty isn’t evitable, nor is poverty ordained by God – rather it arises from our failure to follow God’s instruction. If we are willing to lend enough to meet needs of our neighbours and then forgive the debts if they are not repaid every Sabbatical year, then would there be anyone who is poor and needy anymore?
Immediately, my mind went “but there will be some people who would game the system! They will borrow money without the intention to return, and borrow in the sixth year, right before the Sabbatical year!”
Or, like the lawyer in Luke 10:29, we want to justify ourselves, and ask “who is our neighbour? Who is this neighbour we are to open our hand to?” I think we know in our hearts the answer to that question.
Yet, during Jesus time, this law wasn’t followed, even by the most pious of Pharisees who were meticulous in following laws. Perhaps some people did game the system, take advantage of this, and people gave up following this. Perhaps the text should have mentioned “Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore borrow from your neighbour, not intending to repay.”
And still, throughout history, there had been and still are experiments to follow the principles behind Deuteronomy 15 to find a way to deal with inequality and poverty.
The early followers of Jesus described in Acts 2 “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need.” Acts 4:32-35 “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Jesus’ admonishment of the disciples, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” isn’t just telling them not to bother her. He is telling them selling the ointment and giving to the poor isn’t God’s plan for addressing poverty. It is the backup plan.
Rev Dr Liz Theoharis writes:
“So this passage that is about God’s plan to ensure that no one is poor is referenced by Jesus in his line “the poor are with you always.” Although we don’t have this whole passage readily available in our minds, Jesus’ disciples would have. So when Jesus said this line to his followers, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. The woman anointed Jesus as king of an empire that had Jubilee and Sabbath at the center. What God demands of God’s followers is justice not charity.
Charity – as how we would understand selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor – is required because our failure to adhere to the Jubilee and the Sabbath. Because of this failure, there will always be the poor with us, and so we are commanded to, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”
How does Deuteronomy deal with poverty and inequality?
It reorders society in a way to break down the whole system of wealth and power accumulation we know.
If debts are erased and slaves are set free every 7 years, and if property (land) is returned to the original owner (or the next of kin) every 50 years as “land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” Lev 25:23, what kind of impact will that have?
No person, or family or group will become destitute forever. They will not fall behind so far that they or their descendants cannot catch up. Likewise no person, family or group will accumulate so much advantage that they end up so far ahead nobody else can catch up.
It is no coincidence that the language in the Lord’s prayer echo the forgiveness of debts. This prayer, recited by Christians throughout the centuries and across the world, is a constant reminder of how this new world order – the Kin-dom of God – looks like. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, do we really mean the words we say?
Do we say, “Your will be done” when we mean “hopefully, Your will aligns with our will, so what we want, our will, ends up being done?” Do we, like the Gospel according to Luke, replace “debts” with “transgressions,” thinking that Jesus was talking about our transgressions and our sins and couldn’t have meant literal debts?
I think the kin-dom – Kingdom without the letter G – of God is one that is both about forgiveness of our sins and transgressions AND forgiveness of literal debts.
The world runs on the idea of scarcity, and the way to solve problems is to have more. But where has that lead us? The problem we have today isn’t that we do not have enough to feed every person on this planet, but how to distribute the food to every person on the planet.
We are on the brink of environmental collapse caused by our fears and insecurity bred from the idea of scarcity. Throughout the Bible is the declaration of God’s abundance – abundance meaning enough, and not excess – just like Manna in Exodus 16 – “ ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer[a] for each person you have in your tent.’” 17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.”
In today’s lectionary passage from Luke 12, Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
The poor will always be with us if we are to follow the ways of the world – the ways of Empire. There is no poverty in God’s kin-dom, no exclusion, no lack – all of God’s children are beloved, valued and all life affirmed.
It is not enough to do charity, we must advocate for changes in the system.
Where do we start? Start by empathising. Start by listening. Start by educating ourselves. Teo You Yenn’s book “This is what inequality looks like” is a good place to start. She writes, “In an ideal world, “dignity doesn’t have an expiration date attached to economic productivity. It affirms the worth of personhood. It feels different from what we have.”
We start by examining how we do church. Are our programs, activities accessible to everyone regardless of financial ability? When we socialise and hang out, do we consider that some of our friends may not be able to afford doing what we want to do – like hang out at that hipster café sipping our lattes? Do we even consider the possibility of someone not being able to afford coming to FCC because they could not afford the transport fares?
We have aspired to make our programs accessible – we have always offered financial support for our church retreats. But have we considered that some people will not even ask for help because they feel ashamed and less than because they cannot afford it?
May we begin to imagine how the Kin-dom of God looks like, and respond by letting go of our fears and insecurities – afraid of losing, afraid of not having enough – and trust that God is a God of abundance. May we stop hoarding – realising that the things we hoard will, like the manna in Exodus 16, fester and smell when we hold on in excess of what we need.
12:16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
When we pray “On earth as it is in heaven,” may we say it like we mean it, imagining what heaven looks like and make it happen on earth, one bit at a time.
This is why we should care about inequality. Here in Singapore, and anywhere else in the world.