Script Out Passages: "You always have to poor with you."
Hespeler, 13 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Mark 14:1-9, Deuteronomy 15:1-11, Amos 2:6-8
One of the reasons why I wanted to spend some time this fall talking about what I call the Script Outâ passages of the Bible is because I find that there is a freedom and a power in being able to say, you know what, I love the Bible, I really do, but there are some parts of it here and there that I just hate or that really drive me crazy. It is true of all of us. Anyone who has ever tried to take the Bible seriously has run into passages like that, but we all seem so afrai
d to acknowledge it or speak about it publicly. I
believe there is power in speaking.
Of course, the reason why you don’t like some passages will vary. Sometimes it will just be because you don’t agree with them or have a hard time accepting what they are saying. But there can be other reasons as well. Sometimes, for example, you will come across verses that you personally don’t have any trouble with, but your problem with them is what other people do with them.
A perfect case in point is the saying of Jesus that we read from the Gospel of Mark this morning. We are told that, in the course of a discussion about whether or not a certain woman should have anointed Jesus’ head with some rather expensive ointment, some people suggested that maybe the money would have been better spent on the poor than on Jesus’ hair. To this Jesus said, greatly annoyed, “You always have the poor with you.”
The thing that bothers me about that verse is not that it isn’t true. It seems, sadly, all too true. I also don’t have any problem with what Jesus meant when he said it either. My problem is with what people have done with that verse.
Of all of the things that Jesus had to say on the subject of poverty – and he had a lot to say on the subject – that verse seems to be the only one that anyone ever remembers. Do they remember the one where he said, “Blessed are you who are poor”? or when he said, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”? No. Just that one time when he said that the poor would always be there.
And why do people remember that one? Primarily because it is a really useful verse if you don’t actually want to do anything about poverty – and most people don’t really want to do anything about poverty. The verse seems to be saying, why try to do anything to reduce or eliminate poverty, it’s always going to be there, so there’s no point in even trying. A few years ago a comedian, Stephen Colbert, summed up this response when speaking about a proposal to eliminate poverty by then presidential candidate, John Edwards: “Well, sorry,” Colbert said, “but I won’t stand for it. Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with you.’ Edwards, do you want to make the Son of God look like a liar?”
So, yes, I have issues with how people use this verse to brush off the very real problem of poverty in this world. And, yes, because of that, there are times when I have wished that the verse just weren’t there at all. So, what do you think, should I take my bottle of Script Out® (or even better the handy paragraph size) and just remove it? No, of course not! What I am saying in this series is the very opposite. We need to deal with the whole of Scripture whether we like a passage or not. So let’s truly listen to this verse.
First of all, we need to ask what Jesus really meant when he said it. I will admit that a superficial reading of the passage in question might lead someone to conclude that what Jesus was saying was that there was no point in bothering to help poor people because you would never get rid of the problem of poverty. But you have to wonder because, if that is what he was really saying, it would fly in the face of so many of the other things that Jesus said on the topic. So you have to ask the question, is there something more going on here?
One thing you need to remember, for example, is that Jesus said this to people who belonged to a particular religious tradition. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews and, as Jews, they had been immersed in the laws and stories of what we call the Old Testament for their whole lives. And so, if Jesus made reference to one of those well-known passages, he could take for granted that they would recognize it.
And that saying, “You always have the poor with you,” was actually a direct quote from what was, at that time, a well-known Old Testament passage. The passage in question is the passage that we read from the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. It is a part of the Sabbath Year law.
There was a provision in ancient Jewish law that, every seven years, all debts should be forgiven. This is one of those passages that everyone today would identify as a definite Script Out® passage. The Bible actually has a great deal to say on the subject of forgiving debts and never charging interest on loans. There are several laws in the Old Testament that demand such actions and we regularly ignore them all.
If we really took the Bible literally, as many people say that they do, we would have to take that passage as literally as all the other laws and we would have to demand periodic cancellation of all debts. The Bible is very clear on that issue. But, of course, I have never heard any Christian seriously making such a call because everyone understands that any such action would totally destroy our economy. Banks would fail, businesses would go under, the Great Depression would seem mild by comparison.
But, as I say, the law is there. Forgiveness of debts is, in fact, a major theme in the Bible, and the whole point of having a book of Scripture is that you have to struggle with the passages in it whether you like them or not.
The really, interesting thing for me is that that saying of Jesus, “You always have the poor with you” is a part of that debt forgiveness law. It comes out a little differently in the Hebrew of the Old Testament than through the Greek of the Gospel, but it is the same phrase. It is there because the practice of regularly forgiving debts in Ancient Israel created a very persistent problem. Human nature being what it is, you might not be surprised to learn, people hesitated to loan money to poor people when there was a likelihood that the debts would be cancelled and they’d never get their money back. So, built into the law in Deuteronomy was an encouragement to people to be kind and generous to the poor and to be willing to lend to them when they were in great need despite the very real risk that they might never get paid back.
It is an open question, of course, whether that kind of encouragement actually worked. I have my doubts that people, over time, were really as generous as Moses would have liked. But I can tell you one thing: people didn’t forget about the law or about the encouragement. Maybe the rich tried to forget about it, but the poor were not about to let them. So I really don’t have any doubt that, when Jesus said that to the disciples who were complaining about that woman and her expensive ointment, they knew exactly what he was referring to.
So how does the realization that Jesus was making an Old Testament reference change how we might hear these particular words of Jesus? It helps us see that Jesus was definitely not saying that, since the problem of poverty will never entirely be solved, that there is no point in even trying to do anything. In fact, he was kind of saying the opposite. He was reminding them that the problem of poverty is not just a problem that belongs to poor folks – that it is an issue for the entire community just like the Book of Deuteronomy insists.
The disciples had been trying to do what we often try and do in the face of a problem like poverty. They were trying to throw some money at it – 300 denarii worth. And, of course, that is a lot of money and it was a good impulse to want to give it. Often people do that kind of thing just to quiet their conscience – to make themselves feel better about the existence of poor people. But, as I think we’re all aware, just giving people money doesn’t solve the underlying issues that make poverty an ongoing problem. The Sabbath year law in the Book of Deuteronomy, by tackling the problem of crippling indebtedness head on, was trying to deal with the structural issues that made poverty persist. Now, it’s not a way of dealing with poverty that we could try or that would work today, but, in that world, it actually was a way of dealing with the root causes of poverty.
So, if we will actually hear what Jesus was really saying there to his disciples, we will realize that he wasn’t letting us off the hook when it came to dealing with the problem of poverty. He wasn’t saying that we could do less than throw money at the problem, he was challenging us to do more.
You may have guessed by now that there is a reason why I chose to deal with this particular Script Out® passage on this particular Sunday – the day when we launch a new ministry called Hespeler’s Place of New Hope and, in particular, Hope Clothing. It is a ministry that is directed towards the problem of poverty and families just not having quite enough to get by on right here in our community of Hespeler. It is a growing issue in our community and it is not going to go away soon. Yes, it is still true here and now: “You always have the poor with you.”
But the important question when we look at a ministry like Hope Clothing is this: what kind of response to the problem of poverty is this? Is this a “let’s take 300 denarii and throw it at the problem” kind of response, or is it “let’s look at the deep underlying systemic issues behind poverty and work on those” response?
In answer to that question, there is a financial dimension to this ministry. It’s going to take some money to keep this thing going over time. We’ve only been able to begin at this point thanks to special grants from the church Mission Fund and from the Cambridge & North Dumfries Community Foundation. Further sources of funding will be needed to keep it going over the long term and we are working on those and are confident that they will be found.
But the reason why I have such hope that this is a ministry that will make a difference over the long term is because it is not really about money. It is about people. It is about people who have things (like clothes) that they can share and finding a way for them to connect with people who don’t have enough. It is also about addressing at least some of the systemic issues.
Let me give you one example of what I mean. We have noted, in recent months, how much our selection of clothes has really helped people who were out of work and trying to get back into the job market. As you can well imagine, it is pretty hard to impress a possible employer without decent clothes to wear to an interview. So, on a number of occasions, our clothing ministry was an essential part of that process for some clients. That’s not just about meeting someone’s immediate needs but about helping them with their long-term hopes and dreams.
And, though we are still dreaming at it at this stage, that is the direction we want to be moving now that this ministry is something that we can help guide. We want to be more and more involved in actions that help to break people out of poverty and the cycles that keep them in it. We hope to be involved in workshops, counselling, job searches and more.
Yes, the poor will always be with us. Jesus was, as usual, absolutely right about that. But he never meant to let us off the hook. He meant for us to see how the problem of poverty belonged to all of us and that the real challenge was to tackle the big, underlying issues. So this verse (and ultimately all of them I think we’ll find) is staying in my Bible and, I hope, in yours.