By Tommy Airey
Over the decades, I’ve consistently heard conservative pastors quote their Lord and Savior to dismiss policies and provisions that attempt to systematically help low-income residents. You’ll always have the poor among you (Mark 14:3-9). “See,” they say, referencing the Scripture, “Jesus, is telling us it’s a waste of time to try to alleviate poverty. He promises that the poor will always be with us no matter what we try to do.”
In this episode, Jesus is actually quoting Deuteronomy 15, one of the most crucial junctures in the history of Israel. God is preparing the former slaves of Egypt to live in a new kind of way in the Promised Land. As the old African-American proverb illuminates, it is easier to get the enslaved out of Egypt than it is to get Egypt out of the enslaved. The exodus wilderness was a school, a 12-step-program for recovery from the colonial script.
God threw down the gauntlet, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” A clean slate. A Sabbath year release! Those searching for the biblical prescription to end poverty find it right here.
After giving the command, God adds, “There will, however, be no one in need among you…if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” If only.
Two verses later, God reiterates: “If there is among you anyone in need…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”
First, God says (A) there will never be poor people in the land…as long as y’all practice Sabbath economics. Then, God says, (B) “If there are any poor among you, then see A.” There’s a slippery learning slope at play here. A few verses later, God summarizes:
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.”
Translation: The poor will always be among us because people of faith will consistently fail to follow this challenging divine economic policy. Jesus’ words in the Gospel episode cue readers to the chronic failure to practice what God called “Sabbath” and “Jubilee.” These concepts call us to live with less and redistribute surplus to those who need it (Leviticus 25:8-13). It pinpoints the predatory root of poverty.
As it turns out, “You will always have the poor among you” means exactly the opposite of how I heard it used over and over again during my decades in the cult of the white Jesus. It’s not an unfortunate inevitability to relieve the guilt of the privileged and powerful. It is a prophetic call to ensure that communities do not structure economic growth around the plundering of poor people.
When Paul was given the green light to invite non-Jewish people to join the Jesus movement, leaders offered one caveat:
They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do (Galatians 2:10).
Over and over, the Bible calls people of faith and conscience to do something serious about poverty. In fact, there are more than one thousand passages urging believers to care for those plagued by economic oppression.
In the wilderness, God introduced Israel to Manna, a flaky food provision that was simple and sustainable. Manna was probably poo from aphids who defecate 130% of their body weight every hour. In desert contexts today, it is gathered up at the base of plants and baked into honey cakes. Apparently, God told the Israelites to eat shit. And it tasted great. Even more, the manna meal separated Israel from the mindset of the Egyptian colonial script. Manna connected Israel to the rhythms of Earth. It was about trusting and paying attention and receiving. It was about ensuring that everyone in the community had enough and that no one had too much. This was the opposite of excluding, exploiting and extracting so that a few had a fortune—while everyone else lived paycheck to paycheck.
God teaches the community of the formerly enslaved that the key economic principle, for the health of everyone, is to abstain from taking too much. God’s gift economy centered on a daily practice of gathering just enough food to sustain a simple diet (Exodus 16:1-36). Manna was a reminder to them that, back in Egypt, they were tasked with brick-making to build gigantic warehouses to store the grain produced by industrial agriculture. Pharoah’s economic policy hinged on hoarding all the food so the masses would stay perpetually imprisoned in debt and dependence (Exodus 1:8-14; Genesis 47:13-22). Unfortunately, the wilderness people eventually settled for the way of Pharoah (1 Samuel 8).
For four hundred years of Israelite monarchy, the prophetic call committed to crying out on behalf of those oppressed by the colonial script (Isaiah 40:6-8; Jeremiah 8:18—9:11). This is the tear-stained tradition that John the Baptist and Jesus took up. They covenanted to grieve with those groaning under the weight of a dehumanizing socio-political and economic system (Matthew 2:17-18). Early Christian communities connected the dots and told the truth—unjust economic practices never go unnoticed by God:
Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (James 5:4).
Just as poverty was the prism through which the earliest followers of Jesus viewed the world, so it was for Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement in their mission “to save the soul of America.” The last months of King’s life were consumed with organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to expose hidden suffering all over the country. He was murdered in Memphis, where he traveled to support 1,300 sanitation workers on strike. The night before his assassination, he got to the core of what the gospel meant:
It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.
Jesus wasn’t dismissing his disciples’ meager attempts to eliminate poverty, but challenging them to live in close proximity to poor and marginalized people. “For you always have the poor with you,” Jesus proclaimed and then added, “and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish” (Mark 14:7a). The authenticity of our kindness is fully dependent on our consciousness. When we can see for ourselves the concrete conditions that produce poverty in the first place.
Jesus wasn’t dissing the critical work required to get at the roots of poverty, but questioning the creative tricks utilized to flee from it. Our choice is simple: either live insulated from the poor or in solidarity with the poor. Where one lives determines what one learns. Jesus knew what the colonial script refuses to acknowledge—that the poor have plenty to teach us.
For Further Reading
Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics (Washington D.C.: Tell The Word, 2001).
Ched Myers, Binding The Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988). See also “Say to This Mountain:” Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996). This post was greatly influenced by the work of Myers and Jim Perkinson.
See also Daniel Erlander’s beautiful book for children and adults Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe.
Tommy Airey is a former high school teacher and Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).