I’ve always struggled with a saying of Jesus that we will always have the poor among us (see Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8). It seems that otherwise well-intentioned people lift this verse out of context in order to excuse themselves from addressing economic injustices. Recently I overheard someone dismiss arguments to forgive student loans: “Students will always be broke!”
I am thankful, then, to come across the following explanation. In his new book, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann situates this saying in its Old Testament precedent, the Book of Deuteronomy. First, he claims the “most radical teaching” of Deuteronomy “intends that the practice of economy shall be subordinated to the well-being of the neighborhood.”
Basic to this remarkable claim is the practice of “the year of release” which mandated the forgiveness of debts after seven years (Deut 15:1-18). This would eliminate any permanent underclass. Even the poorest of the poor would be able to rejoin the economy. Hence this verse: There will be no one in need among you (Deut 15:4).
How does that square with Jesus’ famous statement drawn from a few verses later? Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth (Deut 15:11).
While Brueggemann knows that this is often interpreted with the “resigned recognition” of poverty as “an irresolvable social reality,” he reads the statement in light of the previous verse: “The promise of verse 4 and the urgency of verse 11 do not contradict each other. Rather they underscore together the urgency and the effectiveness of the cancellation of debts.”
Therefore Jesus was not resigned to poverty but actually challenged his disciples to continually re-assess their economy. The presence of the poor is not something beyond their control; it is a requirement to utterly revamp society according to the values of loving neighbor, as opposed to making profit. That is “radical” not only in its countercultural assumption but in its “root” (the original meaning of radical). Money should not be the bottom line. We should be rooted in community.
I submit that we know such rootedness in our heart of hearts. That’s why we must twist the words of our religious leaders to appease our guilt.
I recently came across “The Neighbor” by Steve Kowit, a poem that so beautifully characterizes our modern dilemma. The protagonist notices a single mother with four teenage kids moving out. He calls her on the telephone and learns that “escrow had closed a week early.” He offers to come over, but she refuses such assistance, then thanks him for the kindness he and his wife had shown them:
She would miss them, she said, & she needn’t tell him how much she would miss this wonderful house up here in the backcountry hills. You can well imagine, she added quietly, how hard it is going to be when . . .
In the silence that follows over the phone, the man looks out of his kitchen window at her small house on the hill, “a house no longer hers.” The narrator of the poem tells us:
& fumbling slightly for words they said their final good-byes, with the awkward reticence of friends who understand they might well never see each other again.
The poem ends there. In the recent mortgage crisis, how many relationships with our neighbors are forever silenced as well? As student debt grows exponentially each year, we should feel an urgency to act . . . before we are left fumbling for the wrong words that are only too late.