I’m reading a new book by Richard Hiers titled Women’s Rights and the Bible: Implications for Christian and Social Policy. Interestingly given the subtitle of the book, Hiers’ focus is on the Old Testament and what it teaches about the status of women and women’s rights. Hiers challenges the conventional wisdom that women in biblica times were considered inferior and subordinate to men. (I will be writing a book review on the book for the Journal of Law and Religion later this year.)
There is an interesting point that has nothing to do with women per se in the preface of the book. Illustrating that Christian ethicists draw on the New, but not the Old, Testament as a source of insight for moral and social policy matters, Hiers refers to the oft-quoted line in Matthew that “the poor you will always have with you.”
I have heard some people, as Hiers has, use this line as justification for indifference to (or at least minimizing our need to be concerned about) the needs of the poor. It is easy to do that when one looks at the line alone.
Very few people, if any, every pay attention to the Deuteronomic test from which Jesus was quoting, a text that makes it impossible to justify indifference. The passage reads
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand to him, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be…For the poor will never cease out of your land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.
Reading things like this reinforces in me the sense that I need to do more Old Testament study. Our understanding and interpretation of the New Testament would be greatly enhanced by that study.
Taking one line or a single verse of scripture out of context and making it “doctrine” is called “proof texting,” and as you accurately point out, misleading and will lead to incorrect exegesis of God’s Word. Scripture was always intended to be understood in context, meaning that the totality of the book must be considered before interpretation is made.
Looking at the whole chapter of Deuteronomy 15 – on remission of debts in the sabbatical year – one other text stands out, in verse 4: “There will be no one in need among you.” As I read it, verse 11 is almost a lament on the failure of the people of God to care for the needy. It’s not an excuse; it’s a challenge.