The Poor are not a Problem to be Solved

Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:

The poor are not a problem to be solved.

The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.

The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).

It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.

Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.

The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)

Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.

Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.

So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.

On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.

The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.

A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.

As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV)   It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.


  1. David

    Well stated, John. Seems like there are two inquiries going on here. One is descriptive. This involves, among other things, the enumerations of beliefs that explain why the poor are not more a concern than they are. The other is prescriptive. It calls us back to our normative principles as Christians, reminding us, (Jews and Muslins, as well) that concern for the poor, the suffering, widows, children, etc., is a command from God about which there can be no misinterpretation. Getting congruity of texts and traditions on this matter is admirable. I hope you will do more of this – or show us what you already have. Sifting this congruity through the ideologies of the age can be tricky, and some of the wealthy are disingenuous in advancing dicta that seem Christian but are otherwise pretexts and disguises.

  2. David

    I like Bill Moyer’s interview of “The Wire” creator David Simon, in which this long-time journalist turned film director claims that our society has made a decision to turn its back on a large segment of our people because it is not economically viable to do otherwise. Some folks have been “written off” by the system, and it is something the system is willing to live with. This seminal series deals, not only with drug peddling, but the persons who apprehend and prosecute them, with the educational system that uninspires them, with the political system which is in part fed by them, with the media system which is only too willing to write about them if it proves to be a good, sellable, story. Lots of things going on here. Of Simon, Moyers remarks, he has done for the portrayal of American society today what Edward Gibbon did for the decline of the Roman Empire. The prevailing ideology of the day, though it would never be said, is Social Darwinism. This is the notion that unfettered competition is the most effective and ‘natural’ way of producing vibrant economies (Adam Smith); and that, while population growth is geometric, the growth of the food supply is only arithmetic; therefore, there will be winners and losers in the game of life – and there SHOULD be. This opens the door to a wide range of stratagems for dealing or not dealing with the poor. Social Darwinism trumps Christianity today, and some Christians fall in to the trap of letting “the poor will always be with us” be a rationalization for non-action – which, of course, pleases the Social Darwinists to no end.

  3. David

    John Rawls proposes that fairness is the standard for determining justice. This seems to be the closest contemporary writer I know of that comes close to your stance (“See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.”) Opposed to his is the libertarian stance of Robert Nozik, which you seem to eschew. I might have overreached in suggesting God Command Theory as the way to give normative force to your views. But I do not see how an inductive approach (tradition a, b, and c are agreed on the need to give protection to the sojourner, hospitality to the stranger, and care to the widow and orphan; therefore, give protection, hospitality and care) will lend the force needed. This might exclude the humanistic (and atheistic) traditions with whom the Christian, Jew, and Muslim might find common cause. And it might include traditions with which you find yourself at odds, and overlook the real antipathies within the traditions you mentioned.) You seem to suggest that STATING the tenets of the tradition will be sufficient for addressing these important issues. My fear is that so many in our society are so benumbed by their own interests, so resistant to critical thinking, as to interpret Jesus’s “the poor will always be with us” as the easy ‘out’.

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