The Poor You’ll Always Have with You?
I fight persistent rural poverty in the United States. An important part of this work is mobilizing religious organizations to participate. One response I hear repeatedly in Christian churches is a quote from Jesus: “You will always have the poor with you.” At a recent meeting I met a parishioner who bluntly remarked: “What you are trying to do is impossible.”
The impossibility, for him, was rooted in those familiar words, “You will always have the poor with you.” After hearing the same refrain for the past seven years, I decided to use my Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity and do some exegesis.
Using “the poor you will always have with you” as a justification for doing nothing is the worst kind of poverty—it is poverty of the soul.
The Jesus quote regarding “the poor” is in three Gospels: Mark 14:1-11, Matthew 26:1-16, and John 12:1-8. Anyone who has taken a New Testament introduction course would immediately realize how odd this is. Most stories like this are in the Synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but missing in John. So why isn’t this in Luke? Like Matthew, Luke has a copy of Mark in front of him as he writes his Gospel, but he does not include the piece about “the poor.” Evidently, the idea that “the poor you will always have with you” doesn’t fit well with Luke’s divine reversal, where the “first shall be last and the last shall be first,” nor does it fit well with Luke’s overall focus on helping the most vulnerable: “Blessed are the poor … blessed are those who hunger and thirst …” Simply put, Luke rejects this story—or at least this quote from this story—from his Gospel for decisive theological reasons.
Meanwhile, Matthew takes liberty with the story and changes the audience from Mark’s “some of those present” (Mark 14:4) to “the disciples” (Matthew 26:9). John, whether using oral tradition or a literary relationship with Mark and/or Matthew, changes the setting entirely and puts this in Lazarus’s house, which includes Mary and Martha. In John, it is neither “those present” nor “the disciples” in general who raise the issue, but Judas Iscariot himself (John 12:5).
Where all three Gospels agree is the general setting in Bethany; a woman pouring expensive, perfumed oil on Jesus; an objection to this extravagant gesture; and a rebuke from Jesus to those who object. It is in Jesus’ rebuke that he says, “the poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11, John 12:8). What is clear in every version is that Jesus’ response is not the main issue in the story. This story is about anointing Jesus, an action that prefigures his death. Jesus’ response about “the poor you will always have with you” is really a critique of those who criticized the woman who gave the extraordinary gift. Jesus is saying that the woman’s detractors actually don’t care about the poor anyway. In fact, according to John’s account, Judas steals money from their common fund and then betrays Jesus for a tenth of the cost of the perfumed oil. What Jesus is pointing out is the absurdity of the woman’s critics—those present/the disciples/Judas—who are making a pious show of wanting to sell the perfumed oil and give the proceeds to the poor. It was not a commentary on poverty in general.
Taken together, this story where it occurs in three of the canonical Gospels has nothing to do with “the poor.” Jesus’ response was only highlighting the hypocrisy of those who criticized the woman’s extravagant gift. They were the problem, not the poor. This whole scene, which is rightly entitled “the Anointing at Bethany” by most modern scholars, is not a story about poverty and not an instruction about how to construct our views about poverty. It certainly shouldn’t be the one verse that is trotted out in contemporary society to show the inevitability of poverty. Of all the things Jesus said about poverty in the New Testament, why is this passage the only one I hear in Christian churches as a rebuttal to my work in rural poverty in the U.S.?
338 Impoverished U.S. Counties
Persistent rural poverty is defined as 20 percent of a rural county’s population living below the Federal Poverty Line for the past 30 consecutive years or more. That is deep, generational poverty. There are 338 counties of persistent rural poverty in the U.S. (out of a total of 3,144 counties). These poor counties cluster in large regions in Appalachia, the Delta region, the Black Belt region, Tribal Nations, the Four Corners region, and throughout Texas. Rural poverty exists primarily where some large industry has abandoned labor through federal policy, like the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), and through mechanization and/or automation of labor. Specifically in Tribal Nations, persistent rural poverty is the long result of genocide and forced migration. In the Delta and Black Belt, so much of persistent rural poverty goes all the way back to enslavement. These are the areas our nonprofit, Together for Hope (TFH), is serving.
Persistent rural poverty is a dire consequence of the original sins of the U.S.—genocide and forced migration of indigenous populations and chattel slavery. Both of these crimes against humanity were rooted in extractive economics with no sense of morality or ethics. Rural poverty is the design and result of an extractive economy that still functions in the modern U.S. Economic inequality in America is greater now than it has been since slavery was abolished. Poverty in the U.S. is not the result of individual poor decisions or individual immorality—this is how the U.S. continues to blame poverty on those who experience poverty. The narrative that anyone can make it in America if they simply work hard is not true today—and hasn’t been true for many citizens, ever.
My grandparents worked in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta most of their lives. They worked harder than just about anyone I’ve ever known. My grandfather died at 67 years old from lung cancer and my grandmother died at 74 from lung disease. They died with nothing. My parents worked in factories in the Mississippi Delta most of their adult lives—my mother worked clerical jobs in healthcare systems later in her working life. My father died at 65 of complications due to diabetes. His lifelong labor resulted in very little. I know from lived experience that many people in the U.S. work devastatingly hard—they work themselves to death—and they die poor.
I believe we can do better than this as a country. I believe we can do better than this as Christians. If our Christianity, or any religion, doesn’t compel us to care for the most vulnerable in our society, then our Christianity is worthless—it is dead. We will certainly always have the poor with us if we do nothing about it. We will certainly always have the poor with us if we don’t demand better economic policy. We will certainly always have the poor with us if we support an economic system that exploits the masses in order to care for the hyper-wealthy. The Jesus that I encounter in the New Testament isn’t someone who would accept the economic status quo that so many “Christians” have built and maintained throughout the history of the U.S.
Together for Hope finds and connects the good people in rural America who have committed their lives to making things better. We engage existing nonprofits and help coordinate them with many other good people doing good work across the country with a focus on asset-based community development, which matches existing local assets and competencies with the needs of the larger community or region. This coalition shares best practices across geographies of persistent rural poverty, and it is transforming rural America. Focusing on our priorities of hope—education, health and nutrition, housing and environment, and social enterprise—we help create new local businesses, advocate for legislative change, and seek to get to the root of hunger, inadequate housing, education, and healthcare, refusing to accept the fatalistic notion that debilitating poverty must persist.
Strategically, most of our TFH partners run intervention programs like summer food programs, after-school tutoring programs, and swim camps. Our social enterprise partners are alleviating poverty through business innovation. A great example is a new brand of sauces called Appalachian Gold developed by Jason Tartt Sr. in McDowell County, West Virginia. Tartt’s story of his family’s meat sauce was featured recently on CNN’s United Shades of America and also on PBS.
While local interventions and entrepreneurship are vital to immediate relief and transformation, we know that long-term solutions to poverty will happen at a policy level. To this end we have run successful efforts for SNAP incentive programs in Mississippi and campaigned for public education improvements in Florida. We are currently partnering with other national organizations to run campaigns in Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina to expand Medicaid. If successful, nearly a million people will have access to affordable healthcare.
“The poor you will always have with you” is a terrible and lazy excuse to do nothing. It takes Jesus’ remarks out of context and upends everything that is Good News for the poor. Jesus said a lot of things in the New Testament, but one teaching endures as a crucial lens through which everything else is filtered: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This isn’t unique to Jesus or Christianity. In fact, the best in all religions, and the best in no religion, always pulls humanity closer together. This inclusion impulse, this conviction that we are all caught up in the bond of human mutuality, helps us all—especially the most vulnerable. Using “the poor you will always have with you” as a justification for doing nothing is the worst kind of poverty—it is the poverty of the soul.
The Rev. K. Jason Coker ’01 M.A.R. is the president of Together for Hope, a rural development coalition. After nearly two decades of life and ministry in Connecticut, Coker returned to his home state of Mississippi to work in rural areas around peace, justice, and the alleviation of poverty. He earned a Ph.D. from Drew University and is the author of James in Postcolonial Perspective: The Letter as Nativist Discourse (Fortress Press, 2015) and Faded Flowers: Preaching in the Aftermath of Suicide (Smyth & Helwys, 2020).