This comes from a three part sermon series preached by Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt about social justice and poverty. The CAST team hopes that you take some time to ponder how God wants us to treat the poor in our communities.
I’ve worked with poor communities for more than sixteen years. Over the years I’ve met lots of people who think it’s a great idea to work with the poor, but I’ve also met some who think it is a waste of time. I’ve often heard Christians say “Didn’t Jesus say the poor will always be with us – there is nothing we can do about poverty”, or even this: “It’s God’s will that there should always be poor people. We know this because Jesus said: ‘You will always have the poor with you’”.
Jesus did say that, of course, but this is what happened: Jesus was having supper at the house of some important man and a very sorrowful and repentant prostitute came in crying and poured perfume over his feet. It was shocking and embarrassing for everyone except Jesus, it seems. And people were making all kinds of judgments about both him and her. Some people were saying: “It’s disgusting that Jesus would let a woman like that touch him, doesn’t he know who she is? And that is expensive perfume, she should rather have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.” And so Jesus, reclaiming her dignity, says: “Leave her alone … You will always have the poor among you … But you will not always have me.”
It’s fascinating to me how much emphasis is put on that verse to excuse us from confronting the problem of poverty as Christians; it’s especially fascinating to me because we know that Jesus talked so much about our responsibility to the poor. That little quote, “You will always have the poor with you”, is actually referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which talks precisely about our responsibility to the poor.
Often, those of us who are rich (or upper-middle class—and let’s be realistic here and define that as the richest 25% of the population: anyone with a gross monthly household income of more than R4 000 per family member) … those of us who have enough money, often think that if someone would just throw enough money at the problem of poverty it would go away. But poverty is much more complicated than people not having enough money: poverty has to do with opportunities, infrastructure and accessibility of resources, power and control, mindset, education, belief, history … and just giving money or food does not solve all the problems of poverty. It never will.
In Deuteronomy 15, God does say that there will always be poor people. Fascinatingly though, just a couple of verses earlier he prefaces this by saying (v4-5) There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you … he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
But just in case (v7-11) … “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you … be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs … There will always be poor people in the land.”
Here are two statements almost right next to each other that seem to contradict each other: “There should be no poor among you” and “There will always be poor people in the land”—which is what Jesus was referring to. So what does that mean and how should Christians respond to each one of those statements?
This chapter actually started by reminding the people that God commanded them to cancel debts every seven years. If someone couldn’t pay you back, there was a time every seven years that you had to write off the debt. Of course when you lent something you had to calculate repayments based on that law, but basically it was a way that God made sure that nobody could get entangled in debt in a way that they couldn’t escape. At some point everyone could get free.
There are certain things that keep people poor, certain things that cause poverty to be passed on from parent to child, that trap whole families in poverty: and one of those things is debt. Now, obviously there is a time for lending and borrowing, but there is also a time that it gets out of hand and so God does not want debt to destroy the life of any person or any family. It was the same with slaves, slaves had to be freed every seven years—so even in that era when slavery was considered normal, God put a limit on how long someone could be a slave.
This wasn’t the only law God gave to stop people becoming trapped in poverty, he also made sure that every family had land that they could farm, and that even if they had to sell that land or gambled it away, then every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, the land would be given back the family. So that no matter how irresponsible parents had been, the land would be given back to the children and the economic opportunity—the ability to produce wealth, would be restored to every generation.
These things probably seem strange to most of us today, living in a world where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer. This is because the economic systems we have today are built around the love of money, not around fairness and the dignity of people. The harsh reality is that if you grow up in a family that is poor, you will probably go to a school where there are 70 in a class and you won’t have much access to books or the internet. If you study maths or science your teachers will probably not be qualified to teach you and you’ll probably fail. You might struggle to concentrate because you are hungry. And if you manage to pass matric and do some level of tertiary study, you still probably won’t know someone who can get you a job, no one will have taught you how to do a CV or conduct yourself in an interview … so you will join the millions of others who are unemployed and really don’t have much idea what to do about it and your family will remain trapped in poverty for generation after generation.
The rich never really need a safety net, because our bank accounts, our insurance policies, our education, our families and friends are all our safety nets. But there is no real safety net for the poor. That is why God commands us to build in a safety net system for poor people. And God measures justice in this world against the standard of his laws.
Check out the blog next week for the second installment of “No Poor Among You”