Is extreme poverty inevitable? Is it possible to eliminate it? Will we always have the poor among us or will people eventually say, “it is no longer acceptable to have others living this way”?
Jesus was in the home of Simon the leper. A woman came with a jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head. Judas Iscariot objected and said the perfume, worth a years wages, could have been sold and the money given to the poor.
Jesus replied with a verse that is often misquoted, or quoted out of context.
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me”
(John 12 verse 8)
- Was Jesus just talking to Judas and those present, or was he making a prophetic statement for all time?
- Is it true that Jesus will not always be with us?
- Is it correct to take the first phrase (you will always have the poor among you) as an all-time declaration and yet contextualise the second phrase (but you will not always have me)?
It seems clear to me that he was talking to his disciples who had the privilege of knowing Jesus as a man. They were soon going to lose him as a man though he also promised to be with them always! (Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:20)
We must be very careful to interpret the whole verse in the context that it was given. If we took the whole verse as a prophetic statement, then we could not claim to know Jesus now!
So the disciples must make the most of the time that they had remaining with him. They would have plenty of other opportunities to remember the poor! Certainly all their lives the needs of the poor would concern them.
Sometimes this verse is used as an excuse not to care for the poor and certainly not to seek to abolish poverty in our communities. Let us use another example.
Poverty and Slavery
Slavery has existed for most of human history. It still exists in some forms but nowhere in the world is it legal. In Jesus’ day the Roman Empire depended on slavery.
The bible neither condemns or condones slavery. It accepts it as a fact of life for the era it was written in. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. But the underlying principles of righteousness and justice meant that eventually men like Wilberforce would say that it is no longer acceptable. When the mass of ordinary people agreed, the politicians had to take action and slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. So when Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, is he making a prophetic statement for all time?
The end of Poverty
I believe that Jesus was talking to his disciples and not making an all-time prophetic statement. We should not use a single verse as a disincentive or excuse for inaction. Extreme poverty should be, and can be, eliminated.
It is time to abolish poverty, or at least extreme poverty. We need to put right the injustice of people being trapped without sufficient means of feeding their families and seeing their children dying of diseases which are quite preventable and curable.