Jesus had a lot to say about the poor. He spoke to them, he spoke of them — and often invited them to eat with him, breaking all sorts of social and religious conventions. And at the same time Jesus challenged nearly everyone who was not poor to do something to correct the situation. To the rich man who was seeking eternal life, Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing: that he needed to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. (Luke 18:22). At another point, he tells a story of a wealthy man who hosted a banquet, but all of his invited guests begged off, so he invited the poor (Luke 14:13). Jesus demonstrates consistent and compassionate concern for the poor.
With few exceptions, the poor don’t have names, and they don’t have stories. All they have is a category — the poor. They remain anonymous, which invites our projections and over the centuries has generated disdain.
When John the Baptist is locked up in prison, and word gets back to Jesus that John is wondering if his ministry proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah is all for naught, Jesus responds, “Tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, those who have leprosy are cured, the dead are raised — and the poor have good news preached to them”. (Luke 7:22). He identifies people by categories, but in each category people are restored to wholeness: they are no longer blind or lame or deaf — or dead. They are changed.
Not so with ‘the poor”. They have good news preached to them, and while we can assume that the good news will bring about some change, Jesus doesn’t identify what that change will be. Over and over again, Jesus demonstrated that he could heal individual people. That he could restore their bodies. But to heal an oppressive economic system was not in his purview. It was far too complex, oppressive, and impersonal. He couldn’t very well lay hands on the economy or make a paste with dirt and spit and apply it to the marketplace, as he did with the blind man. (John 9:6) Jesus knew that. He regularly preached against injustice and called out those whose wealth was achieved through the oppression of others. He could do all that, but he couldn’t heal the system. So his language, when it came to people who were poor, was to identify them as casualties of an unjust economic system. We have been doing it ever since, which leaves people who are poor as constituents of an economic category. Without names or stories. That said, there are a growing number of scholars who maintain that Jesus sought to set up alternative communities of equality, particularly in terms of economic resources, where people could freely and fully be with one another. When Jesus included “give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer, he was claiming that the 50-70% of people living in Roman- occupied Israel who struggled with hunger be adequately, if not abundantly fed.
When I was in college in the early 1970s, Bill Russell came to speak to the student body in a public lecture. He had recently retired from the Boston Celtics, where he led the team to 11 eleven National Basketball Association championships in his thirteen-year career. He is widely considered to be one of the ten best basketball players of all time. While he was imposing in size (6 feet 10 inches tall), he was more impressive in dignity. He talked a bit about basketball, but mostly he shared his considerable wisdom. He refused to be categorized. He told a story of a woman who came up to him at an airport, and said, “Oh, you’re a basketball player.” He quickly and gently corrected her: “No ma’am, I am a man who plays basketball.” His humanity came first, and throughout his life he has insisted that people recognize both his humanity and the humanity of one another; and not as part of some category. There was breadth and depth to his person, and he challenged people to recognize that. The way language was used made a difference.
For centuries, we have been biblically and culturally socialized into lumping poor people into an amorphous economic category: the poor. The term reinforces distance between “the poor” and everybody else, and subliminally maintains the gap between those who have financial security and those who don’t. And mitigates against being with one another.
In recent years, I hear fewer references to “the poor” and more to the “underprivileged”, especially when it comes to children. Programs, donations, bus trips and free tickets are forever being offered to underprivileged kids. They are charitable and welcome gestures, and givers respond to the many requests by doing for; but the term still leaves the underprivileged without names or stories. At some level the term recognizes that an economic system which has underprivileged people in it is not a level playing field, because it leaves whole cohorts of people, under-resourced, undereducated, under-accepted, or underprivileged. As far as I am concerned, the term “underprivileged” is a linguistic cosmetic which seeks to soften economic and other inequities. But it still keeps people distant from one another, and undermines opportunities for being with.
When I lived in Japan for two years after college I quickly learned that non-Japanese people were often called gaijin, which means outsider. Gaijin were people who didn’t belong in the very homogeneous Japanese society. The more I heard it — especially when I was called gaijin (which often happened in rural and less cosmopolitan areas), the more I resented it. It precluded my having a name. It placed me in a category that — for the people who used the term, I couldn’t escape from. Which was exactly the point. The term established and maintained distance between insiders and outsiders. Being called gaijin gave me an appreciation of the sting people who are economically poor might feel when they continue to be referred to as “the poor”. They are outside — if not literally outside as homeless people, then at least outside the mainstream. And are not easily let back in. A key difference between my experience as gaijin and people who are poor is that I knew I would one day leave Japan, and would no longer be an outsider. That is not the case with people who are poor, because a change of address does not automatically change economic status, because they typically move (and move frequently) from one maligned neighborhood to another.
In Matthew 26:11, Jesus says the poor will always be with us. Some make the case that Jesus is endorsing a system and culture that results in a permanent class of “the poor”. And the most that people of means can do is to “do for” them. Offer charity, compassion and blessing, but maintain the gap between the poor and everyone else, because Jesus meant for it to be that way. Others indicate that Jesus is making the case that followers of Jesus should do all they can to not only lift people out of poverty, but to correct an unjust economic system that causes it. No doubt Jesus is referring to Deuteronomy 15:11 — “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth”, accompanied with an exhortation that a safety net be designed to prevent people from entering into grinding poverty.
As I reflect on what I feel is a cultural slur by referring to people as “the poor”, I am drawn by what I consider to be a hidden message in Matthew 26:11: “the poor will always be with you.” Jesus is not making a sociological prediction, but instead is issuing an invitation to be in relationship. Be with one another. The poor will always be with us; we need to be with them— more than benefactors or rescuers or feeders, shelter providers or thrift shop operators. We need to learn from one another. We need to learn to move past concepts into relationships –acknowledging economic difference, yes, but drawing the threads of connection that bind us to one another – poverty of spirit, grief, laughter, hope. When the relationship becomes personal – and stories can be shared, the categories which serve to maintain distance begin to fall away. Our language then changes — instead of referring to “the poor”, we follow Bill Russell’s lead by claiming humanity first. And solidarity grows.