‘The Poor You Will Always Have With You’—What Did Jesus Really Mean?

“Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is coming. He calls us to be part of it.”

Poverty can never be overcome, right? It’s a problem that simply can’t be solved.

After all, Jesus said, “The poor you will ALWAYS have with you.”

It’s right there in Scripture. John chapter 12. Verse 8.

So 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.

Right?

Perhaps, like me, you have experienced that metaphorical pat on the head. 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.

Well, I reckon 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 actually to eradicate poverty, rather than hands-up-in-the-air, shoulder-shrugging apathy.

Here’s my reasoning.

You know how some catchphrases are just so well-known, that everyone knows the ending—you don’t even really need to say it?

For example: “Sticks and stones …” Everyone already knows the ending: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Just saying “sticks and stones” is enough for you to catch my drift.

It just so happens that by 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 is 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.’ (Deut. 15:7-11)

So, reading Jesus’ words in their original context, you can see that his words were meant to spur generosity toward the poor. “Open wide your hand!” The command to be open-handed toward 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)

So, when we use Jesus’ words to justify not caring about the poor, we are actually repeating the very sin of Judas himself, who was robbing the poor.

Of course, this posture of generosity and open-handedness lines up much more consistently with the rest of Jesus’ life and teachings, starting with the revolutionary song sung by Mary while Jesus was still in the womb:

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:53)

You can see Jesus fulfilling this prophecy in the feeding of the 5,000. The same word from Mary’s song, “filled”, is found in John 6:12, where we read that that motley crowd all ate and were “filled.”

The need of 5,000 hungry people was met in that place and time because one little boy was willing to be “open-handed” toward 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. For 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. That was the natural outcome of taking Jesus’ teachings seriously.

Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is coming. He calls us to be part of it. The poor are going to be lifted up. The hungry are going to be fed. Your call and my call is to be open-handed.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get on with it!

Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2016). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world. Get a free copy of Craig’s first book Urban Halo at his website. This article was originally published on Craig’s blog.