Several years ago, I was invited to a Phil Collins show by one of his band mates, the show was at Madison Square Garden. At a part in the show where the artist normally hypes his merchandise sold in the hall, Phil said what I thought was very commendable: “rather than spend money at the merch table tonight, give something to the homeless when you leave this building.”
Can poverty ever be overcome? At first glance, it appears Jesus didn’t think so. After all, He said, “The poor you will always have with you.” It’s right there in Scripture. John 12:8.
The implication and highly misunderstood picture is – don’t get too worried about tackling poverty and injustice—it’s a losing battle. Tone down your revolutionary rhetoric and give up the fight.
This verse is often used as an attempt to take the wind out of all the rest of Jesus’ commands to work for justice and to love mercy.
It is obvious that Jesus actually meant the opposite of what we usually take him to mean here. It seems to me that Jesus was actually advocating generosity and action to eradicate poverty, rather than hands-up-in-the-air, shoulder-shrugging apathy.
It just so happens that in saying “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus was quoting another well-known Biblical phrase—from a well-known passage of the Jewish Torah. Everyone hearing him back then would have caught his drift.
Here’s the full original quote: If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)
So, reading Jesus’ words in their original context you can see that His words were meant to spur generosity towards the poor. “Open wide your hand!” The command to be open-handed towards the poor comes directly from Yahweh himself. Not apathy and tight-fistedness as we use these words to mean today.
The next time someone says, “The poor you will always have with you…” Be sure to complete the sentence: “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”
The second thing to note about this story is that Jesus says these words to rebuke Judas who was scornful toward a woman for pouring out her perfume on Jesus: He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief: As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:6)
The needs of 5,000 hungry people were met in that place and time because one little boy was willing to be “open-handed” towards the poor and needy.
Later, after Jesus’ death, the early believers also took these teachings on open-handedness seriously: And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were NO needy persons among them. Because from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:34-35) There were no needy persons among them! Poverty was eradicated in their midst.
It has become routine for several of the artists I work with to visit the homeless in the different countries where we have toured. It balances out the fancy room service and luxury hotels that we have grown accustomed to in the entertainment world. The poverty in the world is a cold reality to us and keeps our feet on the ground.