Public Square

Will the Poor Really Always Be with Us?

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For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me (Matthew 26:11).

This is one of the most quoted passages in scripture on poverty, but it is also one of the most misused.

Usually you’ll hear someone quote this verse when they think ending global poverty is unrealistic. The general attitude towards poverty in the church seems to be,

We should do what we can for the poor by tithing and donating to charity, but why channel so much energy into fighting poverty when Jesus basically said it’s a lost cause?

But what if I told you we are on the verge of eliminating extreme poverty in our lifetime?

The End of Extreme Poverty Is Near

The poor, as defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, do not always have to be with us.

In 1981, 52 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today it’s only 22 percent!

Think about that. If one generation has more than cut extreme poverty in half, imagine what our generation can do.

These encouraging numbers show that we’re figuring out how to fight poverty better. We know more today than ever about what does and doesn’t work.

This progress is due to many factors, including more access to clean drinking water, improved medicines, the spread of democracy, better education, but perhaps most notably, free enterprise.

80 percent of the world’s worst poverty has been eradicated since 1980, thanks to open trade, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, says,

Free enterprise is the reason that people around the world aren’t starving to death. If we’re good Samaritans, if we really love the poor, we have to fight for free enterprise for everyone.

When Jesus said the poor would always be with us, he was not presenting an excuse that should minimize our efforts to eradicate poverty. Instead, he was presenting us with a magnificent challenge.

A Challenge, Not an Excuse

When Jesus says “For you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:18) he is quoting Deuteronomy (emphasis added):

 For there will never cease to be poor 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’ (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Notice how this statement is followed directly by a challenge to care for the poor and not a reason to maintain a hopeless attitude towards poverty.

But just a few verses earlier, God also says (emphasis added),

 However, there need be no poor people among you, […] if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today (Deuteronomy 15:4-5).

God seems to be contradicting himself, but he’s not.

He is saying there is no reason for poverty to exist if we follow his commands to help the poor. But do we always follow his commands? No. So when we fail to open wide our hand to our brothers and sisters, we keep the poor with us.

Poverty is not a lost cause, but instead an incredible opportunity for the body of Christ.

Though the effects of sin, which include poverty, won’t be eliminated in full until Christ returns, we can have faith that if we obey God’s command to be generous to our brothers and sisters, the needy, and the poor, we will see the end of extreme global poverty.

Thy Will Be Done on Earth as It Is in Heaven

Jesus prayed to his father, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Have you ever thought about what this means for poverty?

It means we have the opportunity to give the world a glimpse of heaven, where poverty is no more. It means our vision for every nation, for every city, and for every community should be the New Jerusalem. It means we are meant to flourish here and now.

God has clearly and repeatedly called us to care for the poor. Christians today are rising up to take this call seriously.

Scott Todd, Sr. Vice President of Compassion International says,

 Christians, churches, and world-class poverty fighting organizations are now assembling an unprecedented alliance to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Will your church be one of those churches? Will you be one of those Christians?

If we are willing to come together and obey God’s call in faith and hope, we can overthrow extreme global poverty in our lifetime.

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  • Roger McKinney

    “It means we are meant to flourish here and now.”

    Yes, but only for believers. All of the promises of flourishing in the OT applied only to those who followed God. When Israel rebelled, God cursed them with poverty, famine, and war.

    Poverty is partly God’s judgment against rebellious people and partly God’s attempt to persuade people to repent. God blesses rebellious people only with common grace.

    The ungodly will often prosper in spite of their rebellion, as the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and some of the prophets lament. But Christians should never expect the ungodly and rebellious to prosper generally. The world prospers financially only to the degree it follows Christ.

    As for the reduction in poverty, that has happened primarily in China and India where the gospel has enjoyed great success over the past generation.

  • JGradGus

    “If one generation has more than cut extreme poverty in half, imagine what our generation can do.” Optimism is a good thing, but reality can’t be ignored. In an endeavor as massive as eliminating poverty, early gains will always be spectacular, but as the efforts continue, wonderful results will get harder and harder to come by. This is not to say the goal is not worthwhile. Let’s just not get too unrealistic in our expectations.

  • Jonathan Waterman

    Elise – Hope is good and reflects the Gospel message, so I appreciate your optimism! I wonder if you could expand on the kinds of efforts you see being made by the church at large that will ultimately bring this flourishing about. You noted “…[Christian] organizations are now assembling an unprecedented alliance to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.” Are these missions truly engaged in promoting free enterprise from a biblical perspective as the means of ending such poverty? I hope it is but have doubts as to their method(s). I say this because, by my observation, the profluence of marxist thinking on charity and ‘social justice’ from within the church seem to be far more pronounced than any free market solutions. Christians seem to spend more time trying to feed, cure and cloth the extreme poor (which is notable), yet it seems that secular businesses tend to provide jobs by exporting manufacturing work to cheaper 3rd world nations. I believe those jobs (despite the obvious flaws) are good economics at work becuase they can provide the first stage of upward mobility for a generation of poor people with no other hope or power. However, that method of introducing ‘flourishing’, let alone ‘free enterprise’, doesn’t appear to be the calling of the church en large. I’m not claiming to be able to see and know all, of course, so am interested in what data you base your opinion. Thanks much!

    • Elise Amyx

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for the comment!

      In short, no, generally these missions are not truly engaged in promoting free enterprise from a biblical perspective as a means of ending such poverty (however, there are some ministries like HOPE International, Partners Worldwide, and Jobs for Life that are wonderful exceptions to this rule). I would like to see this change though. You’re right, the church gets involved with a lot of charities that just show up, dump donations in impoverished villages, and leave. It’s not effective or dignifying. At it’s worst, social justice activism can sound similar to marxism, thought I definitely don’t think it’s the intent.

      One of the key components to promoting flourishing in the church is to first edify the vocation of the entrepreneur and the businessman, recognizing that’s where real prosperity is created. The second thing that I think needs to change is recognizing that the church has a moral obligation to not pawn welfare responsibility off to the government precisely because God has called the church to care for the poor and a local church can love a person in ways an impersonal government can’t. This means we should be acting as if the church is society’s safety net, and looking to the government only as a last ditch effort.

      The energy and enthusiasm from the social justice movement is very encouraging, it just needs to be harnessed by better economic thinking.

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