As soon as I decided to talk about poverty this month, I emailed Kelley Nikondeha and asked her for a guest blog post. She works among the Batwa in Burundi and she’s one of my new very favorite writers and friends. We’ve had a lot of great email discussions in our few months of online friendship about adoption, working with the poor, and cooking (the important things). I’m so thrilled to be able to add Kelley’s voice to our ongoing discussion on poverty.
Mark tells of a woman who comes to Simon the Leper’s house one night, knowing Jesus was dining inside. She pours costly perfume over His head out of a small alabaster jar. Jesus discerns her prophetic gesture. He honors her.
But those surrounding him at the table, disciples and Pharisees alike, couldn’t get past the price tag on the alabaster jar. They did the math – that perfume if converted into denarii could weigh down their collective purse. And think of all the poor people that could be helped with the money… Why waste it all on this display? Give the money to the poor instead was the verdict according to three of the gospel writers.
Jesus acknowledged the goodness of the woman’s anointing and continued, “…For you always have the poor with you…”
You can’t be a practitioner alongside the poor and marginalized for long before you confront this text, most often quoted as a stand-alone verse. Working in Burundi with the Batwa we’ve witnessed the inhumanity of extreme poverty, people living on less than thirty-five cents per day. My husband and I know the God who loves justice couldn’t accept perpetual poverty for our African friends – food insecurity, no access to health care, laughed out of classrooms, denied fair wages and even citizenship. So in our community development and micro-lending efforts we’ve wrestled with this verse.
For too many of us this is the only biblical scrap we’ve got in our pocket when it comes to Jesus’ words on poverty. The poor will always be with us. Doesn’t that deflate our efforts to eradicate poverty? Don’t those words make us rethink even trying to break the cycle of poverty? If ‘the poor’ are a permanent fixture then maybe we ought not try so hard or give so much. If Jesus accepts the inevitability of a poverty class, we should too.
Except that doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it?
Jesus was born into the under-class. Son of a carpenter in the backwater town of Galilee, He knew poverty firsthand. He and his friends came of age in a scared economy, people losing land and freedom to the elites; struggling under the heavy tax burden of Rome. This impoverished kind of living shaped Jesus. And with salvific energy alight in His very body, you cannot convince me that He saw this as acceptable, that He would shrug poverty off as inescapable.
So what did Jesus mean when He said the poor are always with us?
Moses offers instructions about many things, ranging from family life to economic practice. In Deuteronomy 15 he just finished a brief discussion on tithing (read: taxes) and now moves to a larger economic concern – debt. He begins by saying that every seventh year there must be a remission of debts. He makes the connection that God has forgiven you (more than money) so you in like manner forgive debts as a sign of covenant. And the result of complete economic forgiveness, according to God speaking through Moses, is that ‘there will be no poor among you.’
God does have a plan to eradicate poverty – and it begins with radical debt forgiveness.
If only you will obey this command in the community there will be no poor. So start by debt forgiveness every seven years, breaking the idea of a permanent poverty class. No one should be in perpetual hock to creditors, servicing debt to the extent that they lose their land and even their freedom.
The instructions continue. When you release debts, also release those enslaved by outstanding debt. And don’t send them away empty-handed, Moses says. Give him some of the bounty God has given you – share liberally (his words, not mine) from your threshing floor, wine-press and flock. Call this reparations, redistribution or economic empowerment – but God wanted those freed to have the ability to re-enter the economy. A free person with empty pockets remains poor, but God wants her to posses some capacity to engage in the economic life of her community. Again, the goal is to eradicate poverty.
But God knew that Israel would not be able to keep the command of debt forgiveness. There still lingered a sense of scarcity from the days under Pharaoh. They’d already been lured by the mechanisms of the Canaanite economy. God warned about hard hearts and clinched fists because He saw they weren’t fully formed by deliverance and abundance yet. Cancellation of debts (loans, mortgages, interest, etc.) was too hard to stomach in their current condition.
So God said, since you won’t enact debt forgiveness. ‘the poor will always be with you.’ If you refuse to engage in full-scale economic restructuring then poverty will be a perpetual reality under the policies currently in place. It’s not what God wants; it is the result of financial praxis that does not seek the good of the entire neighborhood.
The next command God gives is to keep an open hand to the poor. As long as they are poor, the wealthy must keep their hands open.
Jesus intended his tableside friends to remember Deuteronomy 15. Their quip about ‘giving that perfume money to the poor instead’ unmasked where their hearts stood – focused on the money and not the person in front of them. But larger still, Jesus reminded them that they had the economy of their own choosing. And as such, the poor would remain. The opportunity (well, command, really) for them to give with an open-hand would remain as well. No alabaster jar was going to change that truth.
If they really cared about eradicating poverty, as good Jews, they knew what to do. Moses told them the strategy – regular debt cancellation and economic empowerment would end poverty. But if they weren’t up to radical restructuring then they better be up for a lifetime of generous giving to the poor.
These instructions were given to those living in a Canaanite economy, which varies substantially from our modern form of capitalism. And, as scholars are quick to note, there isn’t any proof this (or the larger economic enterprise of jubilee) was ever actually attempted. However, reading the words of Jesus and Moses reveal God’s poverty agenda clearly enough – eliminate it.
On the ground in Burundi we’ve learned agriculture, education and human rights are not enough. Economics must be addressed to allow the poor to move into a viable and vibrant community life. This past year we opened a community bank to offer lending services to the working poor because they need the tools to engage in their local economy. We’ve given micro-loans in rural communities as economic empowerment and seen them create local soap, cultivate honey, make shoes and craft handmade pottery to support their children. There’ve been literacy classes to help our friends learn how to write receipts, read inventory lists and keep business records on their profits. Our shift toward economics is a result of the truth that God cares about the economy, invites us all into local commerce and that God wants us to work for the elimination of poverty in Burundi.
So let’s be clear, the poor don’t exist solely because they are lazy or under-educated or weak. From what we witnessed, the poor are quite skilled and industrious when given the right tools. Poverty exists because we have not chosen otherwise, we’ve decided against the hard work of economic restructuring, debt release and true economic empowerment. We are part of the poverty problem.
And if we choose an economy that creates a permanent poverty class, then we also choose a world order in which we forever must live with an open hand and open heart to the poor.
As Jesus left Simon the Leper’s home, I imagine Him taking in the cool air and contemplating the woman’s anointing. She prepared Him for burial. In the days ahead would come betrayal, trial and crucifixion. I envision the others walking quietly home, considering the words of Moses and what it would take to eradicate poverty in their little town of Bethany. Were there debts they could forgive? Or would it be easier to just keep giving…
Kelley Nikondeha is a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader, mother of two beautiful children, lover of God’s justice & jubilee. She leads theological conversations at Amahoro Africa and is chief storyteller for Communities of Hope in Burundi. Kelley lives her life in transit between Arizona and Burundi. She’s in transit between continents but also in terms of her own experience of motherhood, discipleship, theological engagement and living into God’s dream for the world. She savors handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann. She is fueled by space and snacks (and Diet Coke). Blog: kelleynikondeha.com// Twitter:@knikondeha