In some Christian circles, whenever an argument is made in favor of eliminating poverty, someone is bound to retort, “Have you never read Matthew 26:11? The poor will always be among us!”
Thus saith the Lord—case closed.
When read in a certain light, this verse can be misinterpreted and even weaponized as a justification of wealth accumulation or apathy toward the plight of the poor. So, what did Jesus really mean when he said the poor would always be among us?
First, let’s consider the structure of the statement. Jewish teachers in first-century Judea would often quote just the first line of a text, and their studious disciples would immediately understand the reference.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is decidedly not a desperate cry of despair. Jesus is not saying that God has abandoned him, nor is he questioning his faith. In fact, he is doing the exact opposite. Jesus is quoting verbatim the first line of Psalm 22—a beautiful declaration of surrender, trust, and faith that God wins in the end. To the Roman guards, Christ’s words would have sounded like defeat. For the disciples, however, it was a cry of victory.
When Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” in Matthew 9:13, he’s telling the Pharisees they’ve neglected the Old Testament teaching found in Hosea 6:6. When Jesus says, “From the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah” in Matthew 23:35, he’s referring to the entire Old Testament canon from start to finish.
Likewise, for Deuteronomy 6:4–5—one of the most famous and frequently recited Jewish prayers—rabbis would only need to say the first word, shema (the Hebrew word for “hear”), for people to know what came after: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
So, what did rabbi Jesus mean when he said the poor would always be among them?
As it turns out, Matthew 26:11 is a rabbinical head nod to an Old Testament passage that starts with, “There will always be poor people in the land” (Deut. 15:11a)—but that is not where the thought begins or ends.
What precedes and follows this Deuteronomic text is a veritable barrage of economic policy aimed at obliterating poverty within the Israelite faith family—along with a warning that systemic poverty is a direct result of their disobedience to God. And so, by invoking this phrase, Jesus is scolding his disciples for thinking and perhaps even acting like the world when it comes to caring for the poor and needy among them (Matt. 26:10–11).
Now, let’s consider the audience on the other end of Jesus’ statement.
When Jesus said these words, he was in Bethany, and a woman had just anointed him with some extremely expensive oil. Some of his disciples gripe about the waste of money. Jesus’ retort starts with Leave her alone—and as John 12:1–8 makes very clear, it’s Judas Iscariot who elicits this response from Jesus.
Scripture must be read contextually—and this applies to every single verse in the Bible.
No one is arguing that “Build an ark” applies to everyone. No one defends “Come down immediately, I must stay at your house today” as a universally applicable lunch statement for short people. No one believes “Pick up your mat and walk” applies to all non-ambulatory folk. So why does this statement about poverty get a universal application?
When Jesus says the poor will always be among you, he is not speaking to us but to them. And who are they? An audience of peasant disciples stuck under corrupt Roman and Jewish temple rule.
Lastly, let’s consider the setting of the story.
This takes place in a destitute village named Bethany, which means “house of the poor,” “house of affliction,” or “house of misery.” It lies directly in the shadow of Jerusalem, the national headquarters for exploitative Romans and the unfathomably greedy high priestly House of Annas. And where exactly does Jesus say these words? In the house of Simon the Leper (Matt. 26:6), one of the poorest of the poor in a village full of poor people.
Given the specific audience to whom Jesus addresses this statement, the meaning is obvious: The poor will always be among them because the rich will always be above them.
Now, let’s return to read the rest of the verse, which people often neglect: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11, NLT; emphasis added).
If we’re to believe this verse is a universal statement for all people at all times, then it means we’re forever surrounded by poor people and we no longer have God. We don’t get to keep the first half of the verse and discard the rest. Is not God still with us? Clearly, then, Jesus is speaking about his physical presence with this specific group of people.
Now, let’s turn to the parallel story in Mark 14:7 (emphasis added): “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.”
If churchgoers think “the poor will always be among you” is a universal statement that somehow lets them off the hook from trying to eliminate poverty, Mark 14:7 would obliterate that interpretation.
Not only that, but early on in Israel’s formation, God explicitly promises that “there need be no poor people among you” (Deut. 15:4). Yes, there will always be poor in the land, but there should be no poor among the house of Israel—that is, if the Israelites “fully obey” God’s commandments (Deut. 15:5), which included numerous economic stipulations.
Likewise, Micah 4:4 envisions a day when “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree,” and God promises that economic obedience will pour down blessing “until there is no more need” (Mal. 3:10, ESV).
Now let’s flip forward to the Book of Acts, where there are around five thousand Christians in the Jerusalem faith community—probably well over ten thousand including women and children. In the early Christian church, we are told that “there were no needy persons among them” because everyone shared their resources with “anyone who had need” (Acts 4:34–35).
“The poor will always be among you” is not a universal proclamation, as faithful followers of God in both the Old and New Testament prove.
Yes, poverty will always exist in groups that suffer economic injustice from the tyrannical caesars and the corrupt high priests of this world—and among individuals and communities who make foolish decisions, disobey God’s teachings, or contain thieves like Judas Iscariot—but perpetual poverty is decidedly not one of Jesus’ promises to his church.
What if Matthew 26:11 is not a fatalistic statement but a challenge to all of us as Christ’s disciples? Really put into practice biblical economics and see how quickly poverty can evaporate. Perhaps there are still poor people in our churches only because our interpretation of this verse is so intolerably poor, and our financial faithfulness even more so.
Jared Brock is the director of several films including PBS’s Redeeming Uncle Tom featuring Danny Glover, and the author of A God Named Josh: Uncovering the Human Life of Jesus Christ.