Posted by: Andries Louw | 20 December 2008

The poor you will always have with you

While waiting on Joburg station for our train to Cape Town yesterday morning I read a thought provoking article on p14 of The Star entitled Free economies more equal than others. Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation argues that South Africa needs a bigger income gap! He says:

The income gap is growing too slowly, and articles and comments lamenting the growing or excessive income gap are all nonsense.

My first reaction was that he is the one talking nonsense – typical capitalist with no heart for the poor! I soon realised that he has a very valid point. His basic line of thought is that poor people in rich countries are better off than poor people in poor countries. He illustrates this as follows:

If rich person A has an income of R100 000 and poor person B has R1000 (a typical rich-poor ratio), the gap is R99 000. The gap will be about R10 000 bigger (R99 000 to R 108 900) if they both get 10% richer (R110 000 and R1 100 respectively). If A has 10% more while B gets a 100% increase, B is overjoyed until someone points out that the gap grew by R9 000. At the outer limits of what might be achieved, if B’s income grows twice as fast as A’s in a country with 10% annual growth, it will take 26 years for B to reach A’s initial income, but by then A will be earning R1,2-million and the gap will have increased to R1,1-million. At such rates, the relative gap closes, but very slowly. A’s relative income would decline from 10 000% to 1 200% of B’s over the 26-year period. It would take many years for the nominal gap to start closing and 53 years for their incomes to equalise. The only real-world way to prevent the gap from growing is stagnation or depression (negative growth), as in Zimbabwe.

I’ve been thinking about this throughout the train trip. It reminded me of Jesus’ words in the gospels, “The poor you will always have with you”. I have often heard these words quoted in discussions about poverty, implying that Jesus was saying that poverty will never disappear so we don’t even have to bother to do anything about it, conveniently looking for a theological justification to escape our responsibility towards the poor.

Looking out for differences between the gospels can be very useful because these often provide clues to important theological statements by the authors. Consider the following observations:

Matthew (Mat 26:8-10) and Mark (Mar 14:4-8) relate this story almost identically, both in content and in their placement of the event within their overall narratives. The setting is the house of a certain Simon the Leper in Bethany, a day or two before the last Passover. There are however a few subtle differences.

For example Mark adds a phrase (or is Matthew omitting it?), “…and you can help them anytime you want…” suggesting that Jesus is not providing His listeners with an excuse to ignore the poor. The whole sentence in Mark 14:7 then reads as follows:

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.

John provides a totally different setting, especially in content. His placement within the overall narrative is only slightly different. Jesus is also dining in Bethany but according to John it is at the house of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, six days before the Passover. According to John it is Judas Iscariot who complains about the wastage of the perfume. The author then makes a very interesting comment (John 12:6)

He [Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

This is probably the clearest indication that Jesus wasn’t giving a license to ignore poverty. Matthew, Mark and John all place this story shortly before the crucifixion and interpret the woman’s actions as anointing Him for His burial, invoking powerful Old Testament symbolism. John places it directly after the resurrection of Lazarus, vividly creating the expectation of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Essentially Jesus is saying that the negative comments about the woman anointing Him with expensive perfume are hypocritical rationalisations, missing the point of this unique event altogether. It has nothing to do with the poor.

To me the most interesting version is found in Luke (Luke 7:36-50), “the gospel for the poor”. Four differences with Matthew, Mark and John are particularly interesting. Firstly Luke sets the story in the house of Simon the Pharisee, commenting strongly on the religious establishment of the day. Secondly he identifies the woman as “a sinful woman”. Thirdly he places the event in the middle of his narrative, not linking it to the death of Jesus. Rather he is teaching a lesson about showing much love because much has been forgiven. Fourthly and perhaps most significantly the poor is not even mentioned. Could this be Luke’s way of saying that the event doesn’t have anything to do with the poor?

Leon Louw ends his article by asking what policy makers should be concerned about. He answers as follows:

First, relative income should be irrelevant. All that matters is whether living conditions are improving for the poor and at what rate they are doing so …[governments] will find that during high rates of market-driven economic growth, the rich get richer and the poor get richer faster despite the fact that the income gap grows.

As we are cutting our way through the magnificent Boland mountains, decorated by the deep green vineyards, the colourful descendants of the slaves, many of whom are still trapped in systemic poverty, welcome our train with their warm smiles. I’m left wondering what the church is supposed to do about poverty. The answer really merits at least another blog post if not a series of posts. Quite a number of issues are relevant in this discussion. Firstly there is the issue of feeding and sheltering people for the sake of survival, the crisis management nature of poverty. Secondly we have to carefully consider the capitalism vs socialism debate, the systemic nature of poverty. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to learn how to treat poor (and rich!) people with dignity. We need to create an environment and a culture where rich and middle class people can live in solidarity with and defend the rights of poor people. The church needs to be a space where rich and poor sinners, saved from their sin and being transformed into the likeness of Christ, are living in community, creating examples for society of what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like.



  1. Geluk Andries.

    Your conclusion that we have to build Christian communities where the rich and the poor could live in true Community to prove that the Kingdom of God can exist in a purer form is what I feel inside me. It’s about God being the owner of everything. In His Kingdom there is only stewardship left for us to take up (no ownership!). Some of us can and should manage more of God’s wealth and resources. We must however be prepared to always hear from the BOSS how and where He wants to invest.

    It takes all kinds of gifted individuals to build up His team, but let us never forget a harsh Kingdom principle: “Those that are lazy should go without food.” There is no place in God’s plans for laziness. “Go check-out the ants…” Poor people need opportunities and help, but I believe, laziness will never find an excuse with God.

    “Community” from God’s perspective is also a different ball-game. When He mentions “COMMUNITY” He has a dream of His in mind that is out of this world! He dreams of a unity that He likes to compare to the Holy Unity (Tri-unity) that exists in Himself between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Wow, the is out of this world!) This is truly something that only He could create amongst us… We need a community who thinks and dreams and operates with THE MIND OF CHRIST.

  2. I suspect that Leon Louw is confusing cause and effect. When a country’s generasl prosperity improves, the rich usually get rich faster tyhan the poor do. But making the rich richer will not necessarily bring about an increase in general prsperingy.

    A wise man understand the rights of the poor, a foolish man has no such knowledge (Proverbs 29, i think).

  3. Gawie, welcome to this blog – thanks for popping in!

    I assume that in addition to Proverbs 6:6 (the example of the ants), you are also referring to 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, the example of Paul working hard to earn his keep, giving the rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

    He goes on to say: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”

    The question is what about those who are not lazy but still cannot find work? We know that a very high percentage of South Africa’s population fall in this category. The ministry you started, Jacob’s Well (, is a very good example of what can be done to address this issue.

  4. Steve, that is exactly what needs further investigation. Maybe it is true that in general poor people do get richer faster when the rich get richer as apposed to situations where the rich don’t get richer.

    Leon Louw’s main point was that a growing income gap is not bad news for the poor but good news because usually that goes along with an improvement in living conditions for the poor.

    What I would like to see is this hypothesis either being backed up or discarded by sound research.

    The weakness of this kind of thinking is that it can de-sensitise us towards poor people and their plight because we might feel that they will be OK as long as the economy is growing.

    I am not an economist but I want to better understand these dynamics because they have a direct bearing on the way we are being the church.

  5. I liked this article from Gawie Malan. I’m Portuguese, I’m living in Portugal, but when I was a child I lived in South Africa and that’s I’m interested in South Africa’s problems. I’d like to know more about this church.

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