The context of the controversy is that last week at a meeting of Catholic Social Services Tony Abbott was asked whether he would commit himself to Kevin Rudd's pledge to halve homelessness in Australia by 2020 and he declined. While he expressed a desire to improve the present situation, many people he said chose to be homeless. He contrasted large gestures of commitment by politicians to heal social problems with the remark of Jesus, 'The poor you have with you always'. We should try to do what is possible, but not expect to make the world perfect.
Hamilton takes up the issue of interpretation of the phrase "the poor you have with you always" and places it in the context of the gospel story and its original location in Deuteronomy that together combine to suggest a meaning very different from its commonplace usage.
The phrase, 'The poor you have with you always' occurs in a story told in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John. The story occurs late in the Gospels when the hostility towards Jesus is moving to his arrest and death. A woman comes up to Jesus, breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed oil and pours it over his head. This leads to criticism of the extravagance of the gesture — the jar should have been sold and the money given to the poor. The criticism is variously attributed to bystanders, to Jesus' disciples and to Judas who, it is noted, was a thief. The critics, plainly, are not the heroes of the story.
In response to the critics, Jesus contrasts their general concern for the poor, who are always with us, with the woman's specific compassion for him. She has anointed him in view of his imminent death. The story also implies that right thinking about charity — concern for policy — must arise out of an immediate compassion for the people whom we meet. The saying does not relativise our commitment to the poor. It makes absolute our commitment to the poor person in front of us.
This becomes clear if we look more closely at the remark about the poor being always with us. It is actually a paraphrase of a verse from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. God is represented as saying, 'For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you: You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.' Here the perennial existence of the poor does not entitle us to turn to other issues. It demands that we address it constantly in practical terms.
When taken together, the story from the Gospels and the instructions in Deuteronomy encapsulate the Christian attitude to the poor. It is based in effective solidarity with those in need, and this solidarity in turn is grounded in compassion. In Matthew's Gospel, the twin themes of compassion and solidarity come together in the picture of judgment, where Jesus says that what we do to our neighbour in need, we do to Christ. Solidarity with the neighbour is solidarity with Christ. The woman in the Gospel story was a model of commitment to the poor.
It follows that Jesus' words are not directed against sweeping commitments to the poor, the context in which Abbott cites them, but against generalised statements of concern for the poor which do not express themselves in care for poor people. It is directed against a political rhetoric that is not grounded in effective compassion.