We will always have the poor among us

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Oct 15, 2021

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It is a day that usually comes and goes quietly without much notice. The phrase ‘eradication of poverty’ may suggest that poverty is a huge problem, too big to solve, and so not worth thinking about. We let it slip into the back of our minds. It seems very easy to respond with indifference, to abandon attempts to engage.

With the pandemic, poverty is no longer something out there, but something we brush up against in our families and on our local streets. Poverty has become personal. It is not an impersonal problem but one which wears the faces of people whom we know, have met or whom we see and hear through the media. Poverty could wear the face of ourselves, of our children. In the circumstances that we are facing today, poverty is about people and their suffering. It is firstly about hunger and anxiety and only secondly about statistics and economic settings.

We also need to ask ourselves: Who is being left behind? Who are the poorest of the poor? Our faith calls us to look more closely at who is disproportionately affected by poverty, and to challenge ourselves and our global leaders to bring about change with and for the poorest.

Poverty, of course, also has a political face. Societies in which many live in poverty while the wealth of the few increases have neglected their responsibility to care for the good of all their people, including especially the most vulnerable. Governments have the duty to ensure that all families, all people can live decent lives. Nations have the duty to ensure that prosperity is shared across the world, and that their own prosperity is not built on the poverty of others.

Jesus said: ‘You will always have the poor among you’ (John 12:8). If this statement is not understood correctly, it can lead us to the false idea that Jesus taught that poverty is a reality about which there is not much to be done, pushing us in a certain way towards indifference. This could not be further from the truth. When Jesus tells Judas that they will always have the poor, it is to show him that the poor have always existed, therefore, Judas has always had opportunities to do much for them.

Jesus understood the complexity of the poverty of His time because He lived it. He knew what a coin meant to an old woman who offered all she had (Mark 12:42). He knew the value of a coin lost on the dusty floor of a poor house (Luke 15:8–10). He knew what hunger and thirst were (Matthew 5:6). He knew what it was like to rummage through the leaves of a fig tree (Mark 11:12–14) or ears of wheat (Mark 2:23) to find something to eat. He also knew that, for some, riches were an idol, and it was difficult for such people to enter the kingdom of Heaven if it meant giving them up and sharing them with the poor (Luke 18:22–23).

Like the chasm that separated the rich man and Lazarus in the parable Jesus told (Luke 16:26), the sin of global poverty leaves many members of our human family weak and estranged, outside the gates of warmth, hospitality and love.

There is someone at our gate. What is our response? Will we be indifferent like the rich man? Because inaction, in itself, is an answer — and not one most consistent with what God expects of us.

We will always have poverty — there will always be many like Lazarus sitting at our gate — and that’s why our response must be one of instilling hope, not abandonment; presence, not indifference.

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