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Tony Abbott, the poor and Jesus

  • 19 February 2010
It 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