The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus famously tells His disciples in Mark 14:7 (NIV). Some have misunderstood this, thinking it means Jesus doesn’t care about the poor and is saying, Oh, they’ll always be around. Don’t worry about it! But this betrays God’s powerful concern for the poor, evidenced throughout the Bible and Jesus’ own ministry, when He fed the hungry, healed the hurting, welcomed the outcast, and died on a cross—naked, broken, and despised.
Let’s take a closer look at “the poor” in the Bible to better understand Jesus’ words here and to get a window into the heart of God.
An Indictment, Not an Affirmation
Jesus’ famous statement here is alluding to Deuteronomy 15, where Israel is told, “There will be no poor among you … if only you listen obediently to the voice of the Lord your God [and obey the Law]” (Deut. 15:4-5). Whoa, wait a minute—Jesus says there will always be the poor; the Law says there will be no poor. That’s quite the contrast. Is Jesus contradicting the Old Testament? No, keep reading. The passage continues:
“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut. 15:7-8).
That’s strong language: Be generous to those in need; don’t harden your heart or close your hand toward them. They’re not outsiders or charity projects but “your brothers.” That’s family language. And it’s the heart of our heavenly Father for His children.
But God knows His people won’t fulfill this command, so He gives a realistic assessment of what will happen: “The poor will never cease to be in the land” (Deut. 15:11). There will always be the poor this side of kingdom come, God is saying, because there will always be disobedience.
Jesus is indicting His people, not affirming them. He isn’t stating an eternal truth about the unchangeable nature of reality but implicitly acknowledges they haven’t been faithful to God’s Law. When He alludes to Deuteronomy, He’s subtly calling out their callousness, even as He welcomes the dignity of a woman who in this moment is anointing Him for burial, generously bringing Him the greatest gift she has to offer (Mark 14:8).
Protecting the Poor
Israel’s Law was designed to protect people in need. For example, they had the right to glean the fields, which meant landowners had to leave space in their fields for the poor to gather crops (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21). This was not a handout, but the equivalent of job creation. The poor had to work to gather crops, but they got to keep what they gathered and were ensured a means of sustenance.
Their wages were to be paid by the close of each day (Lev. 19:13). During the Sabbath year (every seven years), impoverished people were entitled to their share of the produce from the fields and vineyards (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:6). And during the Jubilee year (every 50 years), land was to be returned to poor families who had lost their property due to hard circumstances (Lev. 25:25-30). During both the Sabbath and Jubilee years, bond-servants were to go free (Deut. 15:12-15; Lev. 25:39-54).
Israel’s Law was designed to protect people in need.
Likewise, the poor were included in the national life of Israel. They were to share in the holiday feasts (Deut. 16:11-14; Neh. 8:10) and received portions from the tithes (Deut. 14:28-29; Deut. 26:12-13). Usury was forbidden—there was to be no lending at high interest rates—and any clothing taken as a pledge was to be returned by sunset (Ex. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13). All these examples from the Old Testament law display a vital truth: The poor are close to the heart of God, and He is deeply interested in personally seeing to their needs.
The Predicament of Poverty
Multiple Hebrew words for “the poor” give us different pictures for the predicament of poverty. The term ani comes from a root that means “to bend” or “to bow down,” which gives the impression of a person bent over, brought low by hard or oppressive circumstances. The word rush means “to be in want,” which speaks to the fear and desperation associated with such conditions.
Ebyon is the most prominent Hebrew term used to refer to the poor, and it means “needy” or “in want,” both of which highlight lack, hunger, and a dependency on others for survival. And the word dal means “lean” or “weaker,” emphasizing how the vulnerable are impacted by the situations surrounding them.
The poor are close to the heart of God, and He is deeply interested in personally seeing to their needs.
In the New Testament, the primary term is ptóchos, a Greek word that means “poor” or “beggar.” When Jesus steps on the scene, God’s concern for the poor is not only reaffirmed but intensified. Jesus launches His ministry by saying He came to preach “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18 NIV) and invite them to the feast (Luke 14:16-24).
And Jesus practices what He preaches. Our Savior left the glory of heaven, Paul reminds us, to identify with us in our low estate: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He gave it all for us.
A Generous People
Jesus’ liberality should make us a generous people. The early church was known for giving to one another “as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:45; Acts 4:32), even making contributions to distant lands for “the poor among the saints” (Rom. 15:26). As the church, we should be known for joyful and sacrificial giving.
We can and should, of course, give with wisdom and discernment. Begging is discouraged for those who can work (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:7-13; Eph. 4:28), so rather than give directly to people you meet on the street, it might at times be better to give to organizations on the frontlines—groups that provide food, shelter, and employment opportunities for those who are hurting and on the edge of survival.
Yet it would be wrong to harden our hearts or close our hands to the plight of people experiencing poverty. James rebukes Christians who dishonor the poor and show partiality to the rich (James 2:5-9), and John asks the penetrating question “[If anyone] has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
If our heart feels cold toward people in need, our greatest resource to warm it is to turn toward the love of God. His is the divine fire that sparks generosity in us—the ones who are filled with His Spirit. When we experience the lavishness of God and the extravagant generosity of Jesus—who became poor that we might become rich—how can our heart not be changed to live generously for others? When we examine the sheer scope of what has been given for us, we can offer up everything to the One who provided so much.
Illustration by Adam Cruft