Always with Us (Liz Theoharis) -- A Review

ALWAYS WITH US? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Prophetic Christianity). By Liz Theoharis. Foreword by William J. Barber II. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. Xxii + 185 pages.

Will the poor always be with us? Is poverty a chronic situation that no matter how hard we try, it can’t be eliminated? If so, is the only option that we manage poverty through charitable action? As Christians, seeking to answer that question, what would Jesus have us do?

Liz Theoharis, the founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and coordinator of Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative, seeks to make the case that not only can poverty be eliminated, it is an imperative. Unfortunately, in her experience, Christians resist this message, arguing on the basis of a statement in Matthew 26, that the poor will always be with us, and that Jesus makes it clear that he’s more interested in being worshiped than dealing with poverty (beyond charitable action). She challenges this sentiment in this contribution to Eerdmans' Prophetic Christianity series, which is based upon what appears to be a revision of her Ph.D. dissertation in New Testament at Union Seminary. Central to her work is the idea of "Reading the Bible with the Poor." She uses historical critical methods to engage the text of scripture, but does so in conversation with persons who experience poverty, much like Ernesto Cardenal's "Gospel in Solentiname," recognizing the importance of this too often-neglected voice.

Theoharis focuses her attention on the story in Matthew’s gospel of the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman who breaks open an alabaster jar and pours out its contents on Jesus. While the disciples criticize her, suggesting that she had wasted something of value that could be sold and provided support to the poor (charity), Jesus welcomes her action as preparation for his death.  It is amid this conversation that the statement at issue is uttered: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Mt. 26:11). Theoharis argues that traditional scholarship, even of the liberal, historical-critical type, has missed the point and interpreted Jesus as suggesting that nothing can be done to address poverty. In response to this traditional interpretation, which she feels has been used by the church as an excuse for not pursuing structural change in society, she argues that Jesus himself was poor and that his mission arose from within his poverty (she also assumes that he, like most Palestinian Jews of that era was illiterate). While affirming his God-calledness (even his divinity), she insists that Jesus was a leader of radical social change on behalf of the poor. Reading the text with the poor, she invites the reader to rethink the message of Jesus, especially in this story. Instead of seeing Jesus dismiss the concerns of the disciples about aiding the poor, she sees Jesus critiquing their use of band-aid solutions as opposed to pursuing structural change.

Rather than an apocalyptic prophet proclaiming an eschatological kingdom, she understands Jesus as a visionary and a revolutionary leader, who is cut down by the authorities who are seeking to defend the status quo. While the authorities seek to shut down his movement, God raises him up in the resurrection, so that he might commission the disciples to follow his lead and continue the work. As for the woman who anoints him with the ointment contained in the alabaster jar, she interprets her action as that of consecrating/anointing Jesus as king among the poor.  Rather than the Last Supper being the turning point in the Gospel of Matthew, this act of anointing, which takes place in the home of Simon the Leper, whom she suggests is himself an outcast. Theoharis writes that "Jesus is anointed as a poor person responsible for bringing God's reign of economic justice on earth" (p. 141). Thus, the message of Matthew 26 is that Jesus is a social movement leader, a messiah for and among the poor. To follow Jesus is to continue that mission. If this is true, then the contemporary American church should hear Jesus’ message as a challenge to our comfortable affluence. Rather than simply building nice congregations, to truly follow Jesus is to engage with him in pursuing social change.

The book offers the church a challenging, even prophetic, word, that calls us to leave our comfort zones and join in a movement of social change that would not only give solace to the poor, but change their whole existence. She finds the interpretive key to Matthew 26 in Deuteronomy 15, which describes the year of Jubilee. She argues that Jesus was seeking to institute the year of Jubilee as an expression of God’s realm. She believes that most professional interpreters of this text have missed its message due to their own affluence. That is why it is important to read the text with the poor, so that we might see Jesus’ message from their vantage point.

Theoharis has done us a great service, even if we might not agree with all her conclusions.  One might raise questions about the possibility of introducing the Jubilee laws in our context (at least doing so without significant coercion, even violence).  Additionally, there are legitimate questions to be raised about her vision of Jesus—whether he was an agent of social change or (as many believe) and apocalyptic prophet who did not expect structural change in the future, but rather the radical inbreaking of the realm of God, replacing the current system. In other words, will Jesus do this eschatologically, or will we do so through political action?

Many important questions are raised here, and while I agree with many of her social/political positions (though I don’t believe that we can introduce Jubilee laws (at least without great violence), I wonder about her picture of Jesus. To put it differently, could she, by focusing so closely on one particular text, which is common in academic circles, prevent her from engaging with the historical Jesus (if such a person can be fully reconstructed). Jesus definitely pushed on political sensitivities and he addressed the concerns of the poor, but would we call him successful due to his crucifixion? And did he see himself as an agent of social change? Paul, who writes at least a decade before the first Gospel would seem not to agree on that picture of Jesus.  So, can we say for certain that he was a social movement leader? Did he see himself as an agent of revolutionary structural change? It's clear that the priests and the Roman authorities feared this was his aim, but is this how he viewed himself? Moving forward to this moment, can we transfer a vision instituted in an agrarian economy to our context? In other words, can we institute the principles of Jubilee, without engaging in violence? Having read Reinhold Niebuhr, I’m thinking we need some realism here. Niebuhr recognized long ago that political solutions rarely achieved their expectations.

It doesn’t appear that the author has the entirety of her program figured out, but she is committed to elevating the poor, no matter who they are. We know Jesus was committed to caring for the poor, but what about his followers? Again, this is an intriguing book that calls on the church to listen to Jesus and his message to the poor (and to those who are not poor). It serves as an unsettling challenge to middle class American Christians, who live or seek to live comfortable lives. I agree that charity is not enough, and that structural changes must happen, so that we can move toward eliminating poverty in our midst. The question is, how do we accomplish this? It is also important to make sure that if we bring Jesus into this conversation, we are aware of the differences of interpretation regarding Jesus’ identity and calling. While it is increasingly popular to claim Jesus as a social prophet, is this the picture the gospels provide us? That is a question for debate among biblical scholars, who are not of one mind. Nonetheless there is much here that is food for thought and action, especially in the fact that she has brought people into the conversation who normally are excluded and marginalized. 


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