Many verses of the Bible are misinterpreted; sometimes I wonder if we get anything right. There are two verses in particular whose misinterpretations cause a lot of widespread grief, and given the situation with poverty, we should tackle them had on because they provide justification for those wishing to deny or limit help to those in need.
Mark 14:7 “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.” (parallels at Matthew 26:11 and John 12:8; Luke doesn’t tell this story which includes this quote)
The context of the story is almost always absent when this verse is remembered. The scene is the Friday before Palm Sunday at the house of Martha and Mary in Bethany. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly oil, and the disciples (in John’s Gospel, it’s Judas) object to wasting the oil which could have been sold for an incredible amount and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus rebukes them with these words and goes on to say Mary has done the right thing preparing his body for burial. This is clearly the last in the series of Passion predictions, showing Mary’s insight in what’s about to happen. One could also use this as evidence that Jesus disapproved of people sidetracking and disrupting important messages.
To say this verse sets a universal precedent for treating the poor goes against consistent teachings in the Gospels about the need to care for the Poor that are rooted in Old Testament theology. This is probably why this episode isn’t included in Luke’s Gospel, which is frequently called the “Gospel of the Poor.” Perhaps Luke knew the story would get misinterpreted. It certainly goes against the main thrust of the Beatitudes.
The idea of not helping people because it wouldn’t make a difference doesn’t seem to be consistent with Jesus’ words or actions, either. Jesus never seemed to counsel inaction on any pressing problem, or ignoring someone with a legitimate need. The indication is our giving to the poor should be instinctive, thoughtless, ‘not letting our left hand know what our right is doing.’ (Mt 6:3) He also didn’t think we should get a lot of recognition for our charity, either. In Luke 17:10, Jesus said our reaction to doing His commandments should be: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
Putting this in our time and place, Christians are frequently called to see Christ in the poor, the stranger, the oppressed, and anyone in need. Perhaps the strongest gospel argument in favor of caring for the Poor comes from Matthew 25:40, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
2 Thessalonians 3:10, “In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians were written around the year 51 AD, to a church he had begun shortly before on his second missionary journey. In these brief letters he addresses several issues this church has been facing and offers advice and instruction. At this time in Paul’s life, it was commonly believed Jesus’ return was imminent, and that expectation was the greatest incentive to become Christian and to live according to Christ’s teachings as Paul did.
It’s thought some of the Thessalonians were so convinced of Christ’s immediate return they stopped working for a living. The small Christian communities Paul started took care of each other, so able bodied people checking out of the work force meant an added burden for those who were still working. Another general preconception of that time was that those who did not have to work were particularly blessed, at least they were free to spend their entire time with pursuits they were particularly interested in. All of the philosophers of the ancient world, including Aristotle and Plato, were so wealthy they didn’t have to concern themselves personally with running a business or managing their money. It was desirable to be able to spend all of one’s time on intellectual or spiritual pursuits, and they were considered superior people, if not especially blessed by the gods.
Paul frequently used his own life as an example of model Christian practice. As he traveled, Paul practiced his trade of tent making to pay his own way and remain independent of the communities he visited. He took great pride in saying, “I paid my own way and took nothing from you”, using this as proof that his message was trustworthy. In 2 Corinthians he goes into great detail the privileges he could’ve claimed from them as a wandering preacher but didn’t, and when he collected money it was to help poor Christians in Jerusalem, not for his own expenses.
Paul believed that the dignity of work, and wanted the people of the churches he founded to share that. He had no tolerance for freeloaders and says so quite directly here.
Once again, I don’t believe Paul intended to set a precedent or rule for a whole society or country to follow. He was not creating new governments. He did believe in helping those in need, going to the trouble of personally taking a collection to Jerusalem when he knew he would get into trouble in the Temple. Even though the Gospels had not been written yet, there were enough stories of Christ’s life and teachings circulating to teach people about the dignity of the poor. In fact in that time, the dignity of work was tied in to respect for all people, since the poor did almost all the physical labor in that culture. The only poor people who didn’t work were those unable to work: the elderly, the crippled, the maimed.
I’ve heard this verse quoted to justify working in exchange for public assistance or welfare. I’m not against this, however using this verse as evidence for compelling people goes against the larger context of the Christian message. I don’t believe Jesus or Paul would condone throwing anyone away, or categorically disqualify people from receiving help to serve the common good. The dignity of all people means on a fundamental level we are all equal, and deserve the basics of life without question. How we deal with things that are not basic is another question. Denying people the basics of life using Scripture as justification is an abuse of the Word of God. There’s legitimate motivation to work, and there’s blackmail, manipulation. There is no virtue in bullying people, no matter what reason (the end never justifies the means.) We rightly object when people use charity to by frills, indulgences, but just punishment shouldn’t be death by starvation or neglect.