Book Review: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor

By Mary Lord

Always With Us?  What Jesus Really Said about The Poor.

By Liz Theoharis.  Eerdmans Publishing Company (2019)

     I write from my personal response to this inspiring, disturbing, and brilliantly researched book.  Always with Us is written from a deep knowledge of Christian history and theology but has much to offer all of us who are concerned about injustice and poverty, whether or not we grew up in a Christocentric tradition. 

     Rev. Dr. Theoharis is known to many Milwaukee Quakers and other Peace Activists as a co-leader with Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign.    She was raised in Shorewood.  Her mother, Jean Theoharis, was a co-founder of Milwaukee’s Peace Learning Center, along with our own Quaker community members, Phyllis Berentson and Don Austin.

     The writer of the Gospel of Matthew (26:6-13)   has Jesus saying, “The Poor will always be with you”, which has been the excuse for Church leaders throughout the centuries to ignore the plight of “the Poor” either believing God wills poverty for some, or the poor are at fault for their own poverty, or nothing can be done about poverty.   Some current Christian thinking believes that the admonition in this passage is to “worship” Jesus; not be distracted by “the Poor”.  (In this story an unnamed woman comes from the background and pours very expensive oil on Jesus’s head, causing the male disciples rebuke her.)  Theoharis argues very convincingly and at length that this traditional Biblical interpretation of Matthew 26 is totally false.  (One short example:  Two sentences earlier Matthew has Jesus say in parable “When I was hungry, you did not feed me; when I was naked you did not clothe me, when I was in prison you did not visit me”.)   The shocked listeners ask when that ever happened, and Jesus responds “As you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done to me”).

     Theoharis makes the case that Jesus himself was poor; that all his followers were poor and oppressed; that Jesus “favors” the poor, and that in the whole of the Jewish bible and continuing in the Christian gospels, God favors the Poor.  The big “take away” from this book is that God wills that all the gifts of God’s creation are to be distributed equitably and “justly” to all God’s children, and that helping the Poor is not about “giving alms”, but about structuring society around the needs of the poor.   Faith and vision are key to this work, as is an understanding that this work is what God requires of us.  Poverty is NOT inevitable. 

I have been in Bible discussion groups over the years, some of them Quaker, some of them academic.  One chapter stood out for me as being especially enlightening: “Reading the Bible with the Poor”.  Theoharis gives a detailed dialogue of one of her Bible study group discussions of the Matthew 26 story.  The participants were all working in grass roots anti-poverty movements and came from those same communities.  They immediately identified (in a way scholars rarely can) with the people in the story and could articulate from a place of deep understanding the reactions, feelings, and motivations of the individuals in the story— from their own lived experiences.  They saw richness of meanings missed by more privileged study groups.

The true extent of poverty in our country and in the world is not in the public mind and when stated as statistics are always shocking.  In his preface to the book, Rev. William Barber cites some U.S. poverty statistics, for example:  over 15 million children live in poverty; 64 million people are living at less than a living wage, including 54% of African Americans.  250,000 people die each year from poverty-related causes The book was published in 2019.  Poverty statistics during the succeeding 4 years have greatly increased. 

     Image credits:  James J. Tissot, detail of ‘The Ointment of the Magdalene’ (1886-94), Brooklyn Museum, New York. No known copyright restrictions