Is Jesus’ saying a concession to the fact of poverty, or a critique of its continuing presence? Ray Vaillancourt argues the latter in his recent blogpost, and I think he’s probably right.
The relevant story is that of Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13/Jn 12:1-11, in which Jesus retorts, “The poor you will always have with you”, to his disciples, who are furious over a woman’s extravagant waste. The story actually seems to suggest that the disciples were concerned about the poor on that occasion, and not Jesus. The message would then be that followers of Jesus should resign themselves to the eternal reality of poverty — as long as Christians do “something nice for Jesus”, their consciences are clean.
If that’s true, then Jesus was radically revising Deuteronomy 15, sort of like the way Paul revised the figure of Abraham in Genesis 15 (by ignoring the stipulations of Genesis 17). Paul said that circumcision and ethnic commandments did not have to accompany faith. Jesus, if he were pulling a Paul, would be saying that jubilee and other debt provisions were no longer mandatory. Here’s the full relevant passage in Deuteronomy, with verses 4-5 and 11 in bold:
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake. At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a remission of debts, and this is the manner of the remission. Creditors shall remit all claims on loans made to a neighbor, not pressing the neighbor, one who is kin, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. You may press a foreigner, but you shall remit the claim on what your kin owes to you. However, since the Lord will bless you abundantly in the land the Lord will give you to possess as a heritage, there shall be no one of you in need if you but listen to the voice of the Lord and carefully observe this entire commandment which I enjoin on you today. Since the Lord will bless you as he promised, you will lend to many nations, and borrow from none; you will rule over many nations, and none will rule over you. If one of your kindred is in need in any community in the land which the Lord is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your kin who is in need. Instead, you shall freely open your hand and generously lend what suffices to meet that need. Be careful not to entertain the mean thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” so that you would begrudge your kin who is in need and give nothing, and your kin would cry to the Lord against you and you would be held guilty. When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the Lord will bless you in all your works and undertakings. The land will never lack for needy persons; that is why I command you: “Open your hand freely to your poor and to your needy kin in your land.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:11)
As Ray notes in his blogpost, verses 4-5 supply a vision which verse 11 acknowledges won’t be realized, due to the conditional requirement: if you observe the law, then there will be no one in need. “Observing the law” in this case includes commandments like the forgiveness of debts every seven years, and the Jubilee redistribution of wealth every 49 years to clean the mounting slate of injustices. In effect, the Deuteronomy passage is saying that “If you cancel debts as required by the law, then there will be no one in need. If you don’t charge loans with interest, then there will be no one in need. If you keep the law in the spirit of Deuteronomy and the prophets (and less by the lights of Leviticus and the scribes), then there will indeed be abundance for everyone in the land.”
But that returns us to the question: was this in fact Jesus’ understanding of Deuteronomy 15, or was he, as our modern Republicans insist, spinning Deuteronomy 15 in a new lais·sez-faire way — saying in effect, “The poor you will always have, so just live with it and don’t worry.” The Republicans have a case, because if anything it’s the disciples who seem to be reinforcing Deuteronomy 15, not Jesus, who is scolding them for sticking up for the poor. The problem lies in their sincerity. Ray cites Malina and Rohrbaugh, who note that a female with free access to a dinner attended by males would be a woman of questionable reputation, and the resentful disciples are simply using poverty rhetoric to shame this woman. They’re more angry at her presumption than her wastefulness. By defending her Jesus is fending off their hypocrisy more than anything else. (Also, in the context of the larger gospel narrative, the oil she’s using isn’t a self-indulgent meal anointing, but a preparation for Jesus’ burial — a devotional act which resounds to the messiah’s honor.) In John’s version of the story, the hypocrisy is made explicit with the character of Judas, who defended the poor, “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions”.
In other words, in retorting “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus brings Deuteronomy 15 into the spotlight in order to hold the disciples to their word. It’s meaningless to get indignant over injustices if you’re not committed to rectifying them, or if you’re just playing the social-justice warrior to cover for self-righteousness or prejudice. The disciples were doing one or the other or both, in over-zealously faulting a woman with good intentions.
Of course, Republicans can always rely on the face-value reading of Jesus’ saying. They can claim that a new day had dawned, and Jesus dispensed with the debt provisions of Deuteronomy — just like Paul later did with the circumcision requirement of Genesis. But I think that’s a heavy lift, given that the gospel testimony is replete for activism on this point, not least in the way Jesus tells disciples to sell everything they have and give to the poor. People like Jesus and Paul were as likely to reinforce scripture as revise it. Paul revised Genesis 15/17 for the benefit of his pagan converts. Jesus reinforced Deuteronomy 15 for the welfare of the poor.