Always with Us?

What Jesus Really Said about the Poor

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Liz Theoharis
Prophetic Christian Series
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     2017.
     207 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802875020.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“The good news of the Bible has been reduced to an individualized acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, severed from his mission to the world” (153). In Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor the Reverend Liz Theoharis, founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls upon readers to recognize that Jesus’s own work and the work to which he called his followers was to live out God’s kingdom on earth: “to proclaim good news to the poor … to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Poverty and economic justice are among the most common themes of the Bible (13-15). Yet Theoharis contends that the Bible has been misused to suggest that poverty is inevitable and that the poor themselves are to blame for their situation (13). One of the problematic verses which has been used in this way is Matt. 26:11, where Jesus tells his disciples that the poor are always with them, but that he will not always be with them. This verse and the pericope of which it is a part are the subject of Theoharis’s book.

Theoharis points out that this verse is often mistranslated into the future tense, implying that there is an inevitability about poverty, but this future tense is not used in the original Greek. Instead, the verse points to the reality that Jesus, the disciples, and the people around them were poor–and that poverty is the systemic (not individual) result of not following the economic system decreed by God. In this regard, Theoharis points us to the Deuteronomic Code which lays out this economic system of sabbath years, Jubilee, lending freely, freeing slaves, tithing, gleaning, and so on. In particular, Deut. 15:4 states that if these rules are followed, there will be no needy among the people of Israel–a situation exhibited within the early Church in Acts 4:34. Theoharis interprets Matt. 26:11 as Jesus’s condemnation of the disciples for following the economic ways of the Roman Empire (and the Jewish priesthood who benefited from adopting their ways) instead of obeying the Deuteronomic Code. “Poverty is the result of society’s disobedience to God and of following the laws and commandments of empire instead” (xvii).

Theoharis critiques the Roman system of patronage and charity on four levels: ideologically, politically, spiritually, and materially (109-11). Ideologically, maintaining an unequal system allowed the wealthy to appear as saviors who helped the poor, even while the system that benefited the wealthy is what created poverty. Politically, those who received patronage and charity were required to support the political ambitions of their benefactors–even though doing so did nothing to improve their own situation. Spiritually, the system was upheld by Roman religion whereby the gods decided who was deserving or undeserving of wealth. Materially, patronage and charity did not eliminate poverty, but did produce situations that exacerbated it. When the disciples say in Matt. 26:9 that the ointment used to anoint Jesus should have been sold and the money given to the poor, Theoharis says that Jesus’s criticism of them in the following verse is a criticism of their participation in the economic system that creates poverty–that the very act of buying and selling is one of the building blocks that upholds the unequal social structure (106).

Theoharis states that her liberationist interpretation of the Matt. 26 passage is more in line with the rest of Jesus’s teachings about poverty. Rather than using religion to justify a system that keeps people in poverty, religion should be used to create a more just society. Again pointing to Deut. 15, Theoharis conveys that obedience to God’s law would both eliminate persistent generational poverty by creating a more equitable social structure as well as provide help in exceptional situations such as disaster (70-71). Charity is a necessity in such exceptional situations, but not at the expense of radical transformation of the social structure to eliminate ongoing poverty. This is her argument against those who say that the government ought not to be involved in poverty initiatives because charity is the work of individual Christians.

Although much of this book is an exploration of Biblical passages and the sociohistorical context in which they were written, Theoharis wants to show that there is relevance to today. She discusses contemporary situations such as fire station brownouts in Philadelphia (rotating closing of fire stations once per week to save money) which resulted in the deaths of children and the privatization of the water supply in Flint which resulted in the poisoning of the water (11-12). “Poverty is a defining issue of our day, even as we largely ignore it” (12).

Theoharis’s book also includes an extensive bibliography, subject index, and Biblical citations. Even the footnotes provide valuable insights. Through this book, readers will gain a more extensive knowledge about what the Bible says about poverty and the poor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is Adjunct Instructor at Ashland University.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Liz Theoharis is founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Theoharis has spent the last two decades organizing among the poor in the United States and worldwide.

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