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Tony Abbott, the poor and Jesus

Detail from 'Mary, Lazarus' Sister, Anoints Jesus' by Harold CoppingIt is a commonplace to associate Tony Abbott's politics with his Catholic faith. He certainly refers easily to the Catholic tradition in his speeches. This is helpful because it provides one gate to reflection on his policies.

Last week at a meeting of Catholic Social Services he was asked whether he would commit himself to Kevin Rudd's pledge to halve homelessness in Australia by 2020. He declined.

He expressed the desire to improve the present situation, but said many people chose to be homeless. He also expressed scepticism about the value of large gestures of commitment by politicians to heal social problems, contrasting it with the remark of Jesus, 'The poor you have with you always'. He set this within a Catholic tradition of realistic social commitment to do what is possible, but not to expect to make the world perfect.

As casual remarks, Abbott's comments were commonplace. But together they suggested that he does not see homelessness as a major priority. His remarks also provided the skeleton of a Christian justification for that position. So it may be helpful to look in a little more detail at the argument embodied in Jesus' statement that we always have the poor with us. The phrase has often been used in Christian conversation to diffuse the claim that the poor make on us. But in context it is much richer in meaning.

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.

We may ask, then, whether Rudd's large commitment to halve homelessness by 2020 or Abbott's large expression of concern for the poor without making any specific commitment is more consistent with Christian faith. The question will receive different answers. Ultimately another phrase of Jesus may provide a better test, 'By their fruits you will know them'.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. Image: Detail from 'Mary, Lazarus' Sister, Anoints Jesus' by Harold Copping.

Topic tags: tony abbott, homelessness, choice, gospel, The poor you have with you always, charity



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Existing comments

"By their fruits" (Mt 7:16) also has its context: prophets, specifically false prophets. We may judge our leaders' worth by the outcomes of what they promote, rather than by their rhetoric. Also: if your son asks for bread, do you give him a stone?

Hal Cain | 19 February 2010  

Perhaps a dose of "Do unto others ... " might solve the problem??? Simple!!!!!!!!!!

Judy | 19 February 2010  

What is it about 2020 and the spell it casts on Labor Prime Ministers - first with Hawke promising to end child poverty in Australia and now Rudd vowing to halve homelessness by then?
The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. I recall Rudd's pre-election visits to homeless refuges...ostensibly heartwarming...followed by his personal reported spending of $10,000 to rent a beach house.

Mr Rudd's "large" commitments are many but the actual realities are very different. A visit to today's issue of The Australian makes useful reading in that regard.

Mr Rudd's commitment this week of $10 million to the mentally ill at risk of homelessness was pure politics..trying to edge out Abbott from an increasingly interested media... and measly at that, contrasting sharply with the government's decision to give $250 million to television networks for no specific return.

Andrew's reference to fruits is on the money but we should always remember that forbidden fruit is always tempting...offering that which may only be a lure. Just ask Adam and Eve..and then think...Grocery Watch!!

Instructional also to reflect on the microscopic degrees of poverty...which is why the story of the widow's mite will always remain with us.So much focus on so little which is, in itself, so much.As Gandhi said, "there's more than enough for everyone, but never enough for one".

Brian Haill | 19 February 2010  

Context is everything. Thanks, Andrew

Denis O'Leary | 19 February 2010  

Hamilton's liturgical explanation of Abbott's biblical quote is both enlightening and disciplined. However, thereby lies the shades of doubt about Abbott. Firstly was it a Freudian slip or deliberate? If it was the former, one can deduce that Abbott has always been interested in his own political ambition for a very long time (the fact that the media did not pick up on this is remarkable) at the expense of everything else; if it was the latter then we all need to wonder whether this is the man we would want to lead our country.

Alex Njoo | 19 February 2010  

As a comfortable middle class Australian I do not often 'see' the visible poor, though I sometimes attend to the needs of those around me. As with you Andy, the importance in this is to see the people and not just the policy. Thank you for opening my eyes to what lies at the heart of the gospel.

Barry Soraghan | 19 February 2010  

I do get quite frustrated when politicians use Christian wisdom and Gospel verses as sound bite adornment. Thank you Andrew for teasing out he context.

Andrew | 19 February 2010  

Well and truly said, Andrew.

Is it Abbot’s lack of imagination that leads to a lack of compassion for the homeless or political ideology? Either way he has missed the entire “love thy neighbour as thyself” message and given us crystal clear insight into a mindset unrelated to that of the empathic Christ.

Here’s hoping fervently that Rudd actually delivers on his commitment to the poor. His failure to do so will be the ultimate hypocritical betrayal.

Patricia | 19 February 2010  

Being biblically illiterate, I would be interested to hear from Andrew what Jesus Christ had to say about first identifying and then addressing the causes of homelessness?

Sandra Blackmore | 19 February 2010  

As a practising Catholic, I cringe when Abbott expresses his Catholic tradition and at the same time evidences his lack of commitment to Gospel values in most of his policy speaches. Andrew, this is well written and expresses what happens when biblical verses are isolated and taken out of context. Tony Abbott needs to check What would Jesus do, if he is to claim his commitment to the poor. To acknowledge that they will always be there, is no response at all. Certainly judging by a flippant comment like that, he has no interest in the poor. One can't claim to be a Christian with any integrity, if they ignore the people spun to edge of society in this world, many as a result of Government policies.

dave | 19 February 2010  

"As casual remarks, Abbott's comments were commonplace. But together they suggested that he does not see homelessness as a major priority. His remarks also provided the skeleton of a Christian justification for that position."

Sorry Fr Andrew, but I think you have been very unjust towards Mr Abbott. When I read what he said, I hear him warning about people like Mr Hawke - "No child shall live in poverty by 1990."

Your article and Dr Falzon's article yesterday seem like a fusilade in the Church culture wars that both of you seem addicted to.

How about less condemnation of Mr Abbott's practices of Catholicism and a more genuine rendering of Christ's words - the poor, will always be with you, interpreted for this issue - that mere glib statements from prime Ministers won't guarantee an end to child poverty or homelessness, only personal commitment from all Australians prepared to make the sacrifices through their taxes and, more importantly, their desire to be in personal relationship with the 'neighbour.'

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 19 February 2010  

The poor people are poor not because they want to Mr. abbott, they are victims of this social economic system where we live, which only a minority live in abundance and the rest of the people are struggling with this financial burden.Homeless should be a priority for any politician who govern in this country, why a country is so vast and an extensive territory deny to give a house for every australian in an affordable price. I live in a place where people have been homeless due to several reasons, violence, economical problems, lack of work, they lost their homes due to the high interest,etc.

It seems to me that Mr. Abbott does not want see the reality and is ready to serve to a minority group of people typical liberal person, well God help us if this man is becoming the new prime minister.

Roberto Monterrosa | 19 February 2010  

A good and timely treatment by Andrew Hamilton. I have often been asked to respond to this particular expression by Jesus when teaching.

I comment by first sounding a general warning about how we use and read the scripture. No one phrase from the Gospel should be used in isolation from everything else we read and know. To those who hope to use this text to diminish the social Gospel I reply by asking is 'your reading of this text consistent with everything else we know about Jesus?'

Further, as Andrew Hamilton points out, the phrase itself is a quote of an earlier, First Testament verse in which commitment to the poor is paramount. By referencing the passage Jesus reaffirms this commitment.

Finally, I like to note the particular circumstances in which Jesus offers this phase. It is in immediate proximity to his death. His critics are not motivated by compassion for Jesus or the poor. More than likely they are irritated by the woman's presence more than the cost of the ointment. What we see here perhaps is the fractious politics of the early Jesus movement.

Jesus' remark is dismissive - but not of the poor. What he dismisses is the less than subtle attack on the woman and his followers' staggering inability to read the moment for what it was.

MIchael Elphick | 19 February 2010  

Well said Andrew...and a pity there is so much empty rhetoric around these days especially from the Labor Party

Penny | 19 February 2010  

I have a son, 46 y.o. who has schizophrenia and has been homeless at times for many years at present I have no idea where he is because he has moved between states. I believe we assist those less fortunate than ourselves because we are human and share the resources of this earth. Politicians who represent those who vote them in should provide assistance from those most needy, not the millionaires as they do, both sides of the House

margaret o'reilly | 19 February 2010  

Politicising of the gospels by politicians is nothing new, but to say homelessness and poverty are not a priority saddens me in today's age when there are so many poor around us.To say some people chose to be homeless is a total cop out! Abbott should be more specific in what one could say is an achievable benchmark!

Peter M | 19 February 2010  

A couple of remarks in the hope of clarifying what I was trying to say in my article.
I was not engaging in 'culture wars'.I don't like the phrase, because it enables us to dismiss our opponents as concerned for the triumph of their party and not as concerned to let the truth appear. Conversation gets reduced to shouting.

If it has a meaning, culture war means that you begin with the rightness of your position and in reflection are only interested in trying to demolish your opponents. In fact my starting point was my awareness of the growing visibility of homelessness in Melbourne and the high incidence of the mentally ill among the homeless. They can be helped or harmed by government and opposition policy. I am not in a position to compare these policies.

Nor was I interested in attacking Mr Abbott as hypocritical, unchristian or whatever.Why should I lose my self-respect in order to destroy a reputation? Personally, for whatever it is worth, I believe he is genuine in his attempt to relate faith to political life. In declining to accept a benchmark for reducing homelessness, he introduced an number of Christian references that seemed to me to make a consistent position frequently adopted. I assumed that they came from a considered position, however lightly they were introduced. That position did seem to me to represent an inadequate version of the Gospel.I have argued my case. Mr Abbott and others may disagree with it.

Jesus did not reflect on the causes of homelessness and how to address it. But he did suggest how we might respond to it, and that may have implications for the abstract enquiry into causes. He suggested that we begin by forming a relationship with homeless people and responding to them as human beings. That is the necessary first step for anyone to analyse safely causes and ways of addressing homelessness. That also suggests that the test of our decency as a society and as government is the priority we give to the needy, based on the human relationships that we form with them.

aham@zipworld.com.au | 19 February 2010  

Dear Andrew and fellow readers,
I found both the article and Andrew’s follow up response to the criticism about “Culture wars within the Church” to be very insightful.
As a Christian I'm always challenged by the call to interact with the poor around us. Unfortunately I often fail to truly acknowledge the poor, to understand poverty, to embrace the poor as Jesus did. I fill my life up with busyness and achievements, often failing to acknowledge my own poverty.
Thanks again Andrew and Eureka St for frequent useful and challenging articles.

Peter Igoe-Taylor | 19 February 2010  

I find you an analysis lacking in robustness. Get in touch with me and discuss.

How does she know "She has anointed him in view of his imminent death."

Kenneth Mortimer | 19 February 2010  

Fr Andrew has performed a subtle exegesis of the context and point of Jesus' remark that I find persuasive. Mr Abbott on the other hand was clearly not proposing to make a comprehensive analysis of this particular episode in Jesus’ life and teaching. He merely accepts a premise of the discourse (“The poor” etc) and uses it to argue to a different – but not incompatible – conclusion.

An irony of this post that many above who appreciate Fr Andrew’s analysis refuse to apply the same care in analysing Tony Abbott’s remarks, but climb over each other to hang him as “heartless”. Since he clearly stated that we can and must do better with regard to homelessness, I fail to see how Mr Abbott’s remarks, taken in context, can be construed as anything but a disagreement with Mr Rudd not about what is desirable, but what is practically possible.

What’s going on? I think an underlying issue is that “conflict of visions” Thomas Sowell described: the “optimists” (the “left”, Godwin, Marx, social democrats, Labor etc) who believe in the perfectibility of man and society through the state, versus the “pessimists” (Jefferson, Burke, Acton, Hayek, Thatcher, Abbott) who are highly suspicious of optimists’ “grand plans”, grandly enforced.

Right now, for us pessimists, pink batts come to mind.

Hugh | 19 February 2010  

A qualification to my previous post: Godwin makes Sowell's list of "optimists" by dint of his belief in man's/society's perfectibility, not a confidence in social engineering by the state: he was, of course, an anarchist.

Also, Sowell refers to constrained vs unconstrained visions. I think the optimist/pessimist dichotomy better captures the idea.

Hugh | 20 February 2010  

I find this analysis of the story unconvincing. It ignores the particular role of the character of Jesus in the narrative and the nature of the act that was performed on him. Firstly, Jesus is not portrayed as one of those in need of our alms. So a comparison between the wider poor and the ‘poor person’ in front of us is not found in the story.

Secondly, the act of the woman is not one of relieving the suffering of poverty - she is anointing a god-man. So it is hard to see how the woman in the story constitutes a model of commitment to the poor. A more reasonable reading would have it that the comparison Jesus is making is between the value of helping the poor and that of performing religious ritual: one where the poor come off second best.

Brian | 20 February 2010  

Thank you for your enlightened commentary Andrew.

I frequently find myself frustrated by those who quote text, especially religious verse, without due consideration to the true meaning of the words.

I am not a religious person but a quote taken out of context is disturbing regardless of the source from which the quote is taken.

It is refreshing to hear a discussion in which a greater picture of the context for the quote is presented. Well written.

L | 22 February 2010  

I wanted to see what a theologian would make of what I saw as clumsy remarks by Tony Abbott - and I was pleased with what Andrew wrote. Also reminded of a reflection by Jim Wallis at the recent Parliament of the World's Religions that this passage also means we (people of faith) are with the poor always - that is our place.

Leigh | 22 February 2010  

Many of us hold our faith dear and private. Tony Abbott has chosen to enter the public domain having foregone the pulpit. He should be judged by his public actions and not by the halo of truthfulness, honesty etc which seems to be attributed to him. Our competence is judged by our actions not by our religious faith. So should his. One can sit in Cabinet and regard the parable of the Good Samiritan as a fairy tale. Thereby hangs a tale.

blaise braganza | 23 February 2010  

Although this article and its related threads may be becoming stale by now, I would still recommend an article in the Australian by Christopher Pearson. It shows that Tony Abbott's comment about the poor being with you always has been scandalously taken out of context.

The link to the article is here. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/reality-is-some-folk-hard-to-help/story-e6frg7ko-1225833112337

For those that would still like to see Tony Abbott as hard-hearted and compassionless, don't bother reading. You would not want your comfortable stereotype disturbed.

Patrick James | 25 February 2010  

Much of this discussion seems related to the nature of goodness and the greatest commandments of the law - loving God and loving one's neighbour.
To vilify the poor for being poor is, in effect, to avoid the duty of love and also to avoid the duty to the community - a duty implied in the concept of commonwealth. We live in a political entity in which all are meant to contribute towards and share the fruits, as well as accept the responsibilities of the community. In any system, there will be advantaged groups, disadvantaged groups, and many between, so it probably is true to say that the poor will be ever-present. Of those who are poor or unable to contribute, surely few would choose to be thus disadvantaged. A small proportion may regard the pursuit of wealth as a grubby preoccupation, but the rest are simply overwhelmed in one way or another.

Loving one's neighbour and sharing community responsibility for the condition of society add up to the duty to help people in need.

If Jesus gave up his life for all - and that could have included even Judas - then this example of the nature of goodness imposes a duty to the poor and disadvantaged. While it may ne right to point out apparent errors made on the political stage, perhaps we need to be careful about vilification - even of Messrs. Rudd and Abbott - for failing to love their neighbours.

Goodness is a severe test for us all.

John Hanan | 26 February 2010  

In the accompanying artwork it looks like the woman is doing a well considered scientific experiment on Jesus. Perhaps trying to get rid of that unaccountably ginger hair.

Penelope | 07 May 2010  

In the accompanying artwork it looks like the woman is doing a well considered scientific experiment on Jesus. Perhaps trying to get rid of that unaccountably ginger hair.

Penelope | 07 May 2010  

You warned us about his lack of pre-election compassion by emphasising what Abbot would actually DO. His "fruits" have been neglect and cruelty to the poor: the homeless; the sick; the disabled; and all those keen to acquire their necessary education. The rich, such as the mining magnates, double-income parents, and elitist private schools of diverse denominations with their own swimming pools, buses,tennis courts and air-conditioned classrooms, are being given millions for 'pin money'!!! Oh Andrew, I wish they had listened to you. Other editors were either gagged or like Abbot, lacking in compassion - as well as common sense.

Annabel | 08 April 2014  

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