Here’s an essay by Christian blogger, Fred Clark, that discusses one of Jesus’ sayings quoted by a Republican Congressman from Kansas, “the poor you will always have with you.” Politically conservative Christians and politicians often cite this verse to express the idea that we can do nothing to help the poor.
Here’s Jesus’ full sentence from Mark 14: “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”
Here’s the Congressman’s quotation from this Stat story: “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
Clark shows us Jesus’ complete sentence, not just the clause before the comma. This shows us that his meaning is opposite from that intended by these conservatives. Jesus is scolding some of his apparently pious followers. Jesus tells them that if they persist in false or misdirected piety, instead of helping those less fortunate than themselves, “the poor you will always have with you.” Clark recognizes that Jesus is citing verses from Deuteronomy, “the Scriptures.” Clark displays the relevant verses from Deuteronomy, instructions from the Lord to Jews to care for the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, and the outcast, even the alien in your midst, to prove what Jesus had in mind. It’s worth reading Clark’s essay. There is more to it than I’m mentioning here.
Clark, a seminary educated evangelical Christian, explains and criticizes this reversal of Jesus’ teaching because this kind of all too typical misuse of the Bible and Jesus’ words is embarrassing to informed and decent Christians and makes Christianity appear hard-hearted and mean-spirited and cruel. Clark believes that we should help the orphan, the widow, the poor, the meek, and the outcast, and those who mis-cite this verse believe the opposite.
I sent Clark’s essay to some of my correspondents, and my young, thoughtful and independent thinker friend, an educated Christian responded:
Yes, the abuse of Scripture knows no limits. The ignorant and corrupt will also always be with us.
Deuteronomy’s vision of Israelite society has always intrigued me. Perhaps I will read it again soon.
I replied to him as follows.
You might also enjoy reading Clark’s other posts on this widely-cited Bible verse. The links are in the essay I sent to you.
While Clark wrote this post in response to a statement by a newly elected Kansas Republican, I’ve run across it, and I’m sure you have too, cited by political conservatives as a reason not to bother helping those less well-off than we might be.
As a person educated in Judaism, I recognize that Jesus is quoting or referring to major themes of the Hebrew Bible when he instructs his followers, and demonstrates by example, to help the widow, the orphan, the meek, the poor, the sick, and the outcast. To an outsider to Christianity, as I am, these directions by Jesus are the most admirable parts of his teachings, particularly because he tells his followers that the empathy and actions he encourages are to be directed to all, not just to Jews.
When I’ve had political discussions with some righties, and I state these ideas, along with Jesus’ clear direction to the wealthy to give away their wealth to the poor, the righties often tell me that Jesus also said that “the poor will always be with you” with the meaning that helping the poor is a hopeless task.
I assume that, as a student of language and the Bible, you are familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea, originated by German theologians and scholars 200 years ago, but added to since then, that the Bible texts that have come down to us are the product of many minds who wrote down oral accounts that had been circulating for centuries. By detailed textual analysis of the ancient Hebrew, and careful comparisons of the many stories told twice or three times in the ancient books, those scholars proposed several earlier sources, which they named J, E, P, D, and R. That is the Yahweh stories, the Elohim stories, the Priestly stories and laws, the Deuteronomist, and the Redactor. That J is from the German for the wye sound, as in Jehovah. The R is for redactor, a fancy word for editor. For all the Torah books, the scholars believe that the Redactor or redactors assembled material from several earlier oral and written sources. But Deuteronomy, they believe was written by a single person long after the others.
I forget the details, but one of those Kings, like Josiah or Hezekiah, intended to institute religious practice reforms. As you know, the ancient Hebrew people often to slipped away from the Lord’s way. The prophets and the Lord himself frequently scolded them. Supposedly, the scroll of Deuteronomy was found during Temple renovations, the people assembled, and the newly discovered ‘ancient” text read to them.
I must say that people today have similar troubles to those ancient Jews, although I suppose we aren’t running after the Phoenician women as those old guys did. I hope that our ethical standards are higher than the ancient ones, as for example we now believe that slavery is immoral, but we still have trouble living up to our ideals.
I found this essay by journalist Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.
Jonathan Chait doesn’t know his Bible as well as Fred Clark does, but he tells us more about the Congressman who cited “the poor you will always be with you.” The guy is a physician! Chait analyzes the Congressman’s reasoning about Medicaid as a wonk.
We can say that Marshall is cruel, unfeeling, and un-Christian. He has missed a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, which, to help us understand, he taught by precept, by parable, and by example. Jesus, often quoting the Scriptures, said that his followers should care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the outcast, and the foreigner.
In response to you and to Chait, here’s how I see things.
Some people are born incurably broken physically, some were maimed or broken as children, some never had enough mental capacity to understand what healthcare means, some were racked apart by war, and so forth. Many of these people are permanently disabled, meaning literally not able to take care of themselves. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they make rational decisions to refuse healthcare or refuse aid. Rather, it’s that they never learned how to make considered and informed decisions in their own interest, or they never even could have learned, or they’re not physically or mentally or financially able to carry out such decisions.
We humans are morally obligated to take care of our disabled people, compassionately and proactively. To do anything less as individuals and as societies would take us back hundreds or thousands of years.
Always, some people will dishonestly game a grant system for their own profit. We can only do our best to minimize their impact, and we can do that only through regulation and frequent inspection, i.e. the kinds of non-profit-related work that Trump and gang see, foolishly or ignorantly (or worse), as useless aspects of government to be removed wherever possible and as quickly as possible.
From my young, thoughtful, Christian correspondent in response to Chait:
Marshall is both right and wrong. He’s wrong to hijack Jesus’ teachings and use them to argue for ignoring the needs of the poor. But in a way he’s pointing at the root of the problem. Expanding Medicaid will certainly help meet immediate medical needs, which is good, but it will not address the cultural and behavioral roots that cause a disproportionate amount of poor Americans to be unhealthy. JD Vance addresses these roots in his book Hillbilly Elegy (although it’s not the primary focus of the book). I’d like to see the poor have better access to healthy food and information/coaching on how to get healthy and stay healthy. The article is clearly politicking and wants to paint self-professed Christians like Marshall as hypocrites–fine, ok, they probably deserve it–but articles like this betray the order of their true priorities, which is to villainize and muckrake, rather than discuss roots of problems and constructive solutions.
Here is my response the above from our ytC (young, thoughtful, Christian correspondent) .
I’ve been thinking about your ideas about Kansas Republican Congressman Marshall’s remarks about poor people and health policy, and his incorrect citation of Jesus in support of his views.
I agree with you that Marshall takes that phrase of Jesus, not even a sentence, and turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. I thought that Fred Clark’s essay, written as an informed and careful Christian, was exemplary. For this quotation, which I have often heard cited with just the same upside down sense, Clark gives us the context, a better translation, and then demonstrates what Jesus must have meant, and the meaning that must have been clear to his audience, by showing us the set of verses from Deuteronomy that Jesus was citing.
You agree that Congressman Marshall is misquoting Jesus, but you believe that he is correctly describing poor people and their attitude toward health. You say that our discussion should not be about scoring political points, but about finding the best ways to help troubled and poor people find better health. Medicaid, you say, is a solution to the symptoms, not to the pathology.
But the context of Marshall’s interview is not about expanding Medicaid, but about shrinking it. While Marshall’s Kansas did not expand Medicaid in response to Obamacare, the Republicans’ proposal for a replacement to Obamacare reverses the Medicaid expansion in those states that have accepted it. Indeed, one of the fights going on among Republicans in the House of Representatives is between the leadership, whose bill reverses the Medicaid expansion in 2020, and the 30 member Freedom Caucus that wants to reverse the expansion immediately.
Here is the original news source for Congressman Marshall’s remarks, cited by Chait. This an on-line news source, owned by the guy who owns both the Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox. Its name comes from the medical term stat, which means right now! As I read their story about Marshall and a group of a couple dozen Republican physician-Congressmen, it is generally friendly and favorable to him and to them, describing their key role in the present debates. You can judge for yourself. The reporter does not present his story in question and answer format, so we don’t know the questions, only paraphrases of them, but the statements by the Congressman we are discussing are in quotation marks.
Marshall is explaining why taking away health insurance from poor people would not harm them. The Congressman cites his experience as a physician and hospital manager. He says that poor people don’t want to be healthy, and they don’t want to be responsible for their own health. You say that expanding Medicaid, a matter not presently up for discussion in Washington, does not address the “cultural and behavioral roots” that cause poor Americans to be unhealthy. Indeed. It does, however, address the problem of paying physicians, nurses, and hospitals to treat people who otherwise could not pay for health care. It seems to me that lack of money is a well-established root cause for ill health. The published research generally shows that people’s health improves when Medicaid allows them to pay physicians.
As a matter of fact, most people don’t like receiving charity. People without health insurance and little money delay going to the doctor, hoping that their ailments will improve on their own. Plenty of well off sensible people do this too. Now this is a “cultural and behavioral” cause for not going to the doctor. Dr. Marshall asserts that the “cultural and behavioral” characteristic of people with little money that prevents them from seeing a doctor is that they don’t care about their health. Jonathan Chait and I believe that a simpler cultural and behavioral characteristic of poor people that prevents them from seeing a doctor is that they don’t have the means to pay.
I conclude from this that Chait is not just scoring political points by criticizing Marshall for mis-quoting Jesus. Chait is engaging Marshall in a discussion of the root causes of the relatively poor health of people without health insurance or money as compared to the rest of society. Marshall says it is because those people don’t want to be healthy, and offers no solution to that. To your credit, you suggest some useful ideas, none of which is part of the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Chait says that the main reason that people with little money avoid doctors is because they have little money. His article is just what you propose: a discussion of the root causes of this problem of ill health among poor people.