IN NOVEMBER, an advocate asked a group of state lawmakers to “think about the moral aspects” of a bill seeking to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act in South Carolina, prompting another speaker to declare: “God said the poor will always be with us. Not everyone can be helped.”
I’ve read similar comments from across the country by people using Jesus’ comment as a way of justifying not expanding Medicaid or raising the minium wage or otherwise helping the poor.
While we can debate what kind and level of aid we should extend those in need, what we shouldn’t debate is what Jesus meant in Matthew 26:11: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Regardless of how many politicians and regular church-goers want to read it that way, Jesus was in no way proclaiming that some people are just always going to be poor and that they should be left in that state.
That becomes clear when we understand the context in which Jesus made his statement: It was during a time when he was preparing to go to the cross and a woman began to anoint his body with expensive perfume. The disciples, particularly Judas, said she shouldn’t waste the perfume on Jesus but should sell it and give the money to the poor. Of course, we know that Judas, who would betray Jesus, also was a thief and was more interested in stealing the proceeds than in giving to the poor.
But Jesus took the time to tell them that he would be with them only a little while and that they should look to serve the son of God first and then serve others later.
Mark 14:7 reads: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”
Jesus’ ministry focused on helping the least, the left out and the long forgotten. He showed compassion toward people who others would dare not approach, let alone help. When others ran from, ostracized and avoided lepers, Jesus reached out and touched them — spiritually and physically.
In Luke 14:12-13, Jesus said that when preparing dinner, “call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.”
Remember what Jesus told the rich young ruler? “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.”
And we all know what Matthew 25 says about tending to the hungry and the thirsty and the naked and the imprisoned: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me,” Jesus says in the 45th verse.
Today, we indeed have the poor among us — across both our state and our nation — and we are obligated to extend a helping hand.
South Carolina’s workers make about 20 percent less than their counterparts across the country. Nearly one in five of our state’s residents live in poverty. While some states have expanded Medicaid to cover the poor, our state’s poorest residents have been left without insurance.
Ours is a state in which your ZIP code dictates the quality of the education you get. It’s a state in which poor school districts that lack the tax base and resources to offer quality instruction are having to sue in an effort to force the Legislature to allocate funding so they can provide an acceptable education opportunity.
Some people argue that government isn’t the instrument to meet needs as Jesus would have us to do. I agree that individuals and charities and churches and private corporations can — and do — play a key role in helping improve lives.
But government can and should play a role in providing basic needs and rights and promoting the overall health and well-being of citizens. What other mechanism do we have to ensure that people have access to health care and education?
While helping the poor illustrates a reverence for God’s directive that we look out for others, it also makes good economic and social sense in that the good we do ultimately benefits us, a biblical principle in itself.
Until we help the least of these — those trapped at the bottom of the literacy ladder, those trapped at the bottom of the health-care ladder, those trapped at the bottom of the wage ladder — our state won’t reach its full potential. No matter how much we try to move South Carolina forward, if we don’t help those at the bottom lift themselves up, our state — and each of us — won’t be as prosperous as we could be.
As some are wont to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. What is even more true is that we’re all in this together — in the same boat. Some might be standing or sitting in a more comfortable place in the boat, but if it springs a leak, we’re all endangered.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.