The poor you wil always have with you (some provisional thoughts)

Peter Rollins is so articulate and right on target here:

There is an intriguing verse in which Jesus is recorded as having said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7). Upon first looking at this one could ask, “is Jesus being portrayed here as complacent and pessimistic, as saying that no matter what we do we can never abolish poverty”? The verse would initially seem to play into the hands of those who would claim that the world is in terminal decline and can only be redeemed at the end of history. At the very least it would seem to hold a negative view concerning the possibility of ever distributing the wealth of the few among the many.

However there is another way of approaching this verse, one which interprets it as an insightful comment upon the nature of human interaction. Within its context the verse is referring primarily to those without money. However it is important to bare in mind that these individuals will be financially poor, not because they don’t want to work, but because they are excluded from the economic life of the Roman Empire (I would doubt that there was some kind of welfare state). These people would be made up of the elderly, the widowed, the sick, the outcasts, and the political dissidents. So we can think of the people that Jesus is referring to as those who are poor because they are excluded, weak and marginalised. Indeed we can take this a step further and say that, for Jesus, “the poor” directly refers to those who are excluded, weak and marginalised (hence Jesus saying elsewhere about the poor in spirit – a phrase that takes the word poor out of a purely economic realm).

With this in mind we could interpret this saying of Jesus as one that infers, “we will always have the excluded among us”. And indeed this idea makes sense when one acknowledges that every time human beings (as social animals) band together in groups some people will be excluded from those groups. And when one or more of these groups become powerful they will exclude in a more powerful way. Sometimes this exclusion will be explicit and consciously violent (e.g. the Jewish persecution by the Nazis) while at other times it will be implicit and the violence will be hidden (like the implicit violence involved in simply being a Western Consumer). When there are insiders there are always outsiders. Every time an ideological system is formed – a political structure set in place, an economic strategy enacted or a religious group put in power – there will be those who do not fit.

The Christian is the one who always seeks those outside these dominant systems of power (even, or especially, if these systems call themselves Christian). The Christian is the one who privileges those who are marginalised, identifying with the poor in all their manifestations, and seeking to provide them with a voice. The Christian is one who acknowledges that there will be excluded, voiceless people as long as the world is the world. And while they may have a vision beyond vision (no eye having seen) of a realm in which there are no poor, in this world within which we currently have our being what we are called to do is continually prejudice the excluded over the included. The believer is called to always look after the poor and, baring in mind the words of Christ, to never sit back saying, “my job is done, there are no more poor to look after” – if we think that we just aren’t looking hard enough.

I have heard many use the verse “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7) as justification for maintaining status quo, and for justification that systemic poverty and marginalization of the poor can not be transformed. In fact, this came up on our mission trip in Mexico City this last week.

That’s when I was turned on to Ched Meyers commentary on the book of Mark, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I have just purchased it, and once I begin reading I will start blogging about it. But if the poor are always among us, we have a huge responsibility before us to be a change agent in the relief and elimination of poverty, rather than an acceptance of it.