Are the poor “always with us”?

Brief commentary on a fatalistic reading of an ancient text

       My hometown paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, recently ran an editorial arguing that poverty is not inevitable. The following was my response, printed as a letter to the editor.

        Wednesday’s AC-T editorial (“The cycle of poverty is not inevitable”) offers a compelling rebuttal to the notion that poverty is preordained. One reference, however, repeats a popular misreading of ancient authority: “Many who are not poor accept the biblical maxim that the poor will always be with us. . . .”

        The “maxim” in Deuteronomy 15:11 (referenced by Jesus, in three of the Gospels, for other purposes) is the premise for this conclusion: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy.’”

        In other words, the persistent scourge of poverty does not absolve us of responsibility but actually underscores our duty—because poverty is not a given in creation but the result human greed, i.e., the fracturing of covenant life. In fact, earlier in this same chapter, God promises, for those faithful to the covenant, that the day is coming when “there will be no one in need among you” (v. 4).

        Furthermore, divine mandates earlier in Deuteronomy 15 (which surface in many other texts) call for a regular pattern of debt release and social reordering. Now there’s a scary thought in a culture devoted to building bigger and bigger barns (cf. Luke 12:18).

©Ken Sehested @