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One of the most commonly-referred-to passages in the New Testament when it comes to Christianity and finance has to be Mark 14:1-9:

14  It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast,lest there be an uproar from the people.”

Jesus Anointed at Bethany

 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii[b] and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

How Mark 14:1-9 is Often Used

Unfortunately, this passage isn’t appreciated for the bigger context. In fact, I would venture to guess that is most often used to support inaction. In other words, people use this passage to support not giving to the poor because they understand this passage as support for the inevitable existence of poor people or poverty.

While that may sound absurd to some, it makes sense to a certain degree. After all, Jesus did say, “For you always have the poor with you.” 

Isn’t it plain and simple. It says it right there.

Possible Reasons Poverty Could be Inevitable – Can We Get Rid of Poverty?

While I think this understanding of the passage, I think it is important to first consider the possibility. History has long had the existence of a lower economic class. It was around in Jesus’ time and it certainly is still around today. It isn’t just in the U.S. either. It’s around the world. Side note: If you will recall my new definition of rich, wealth should be something that is considered world-wide, not just within the U.S. One of the easiest ways to see that there are large groups of poor people is to see the growth of payday loan companies, whose primary market is poor people.

I can’t help but ask then if poverty is inevitable? Since it seems that there has always been poor people, is there any hope to change the world for a better place? Is there any hope in a more equal world?

Why Is there Poverty?

While I still believe there is hope (you should never give up hope), there is something to say for how the world is constructed and why poverty exists. In fact, when you view the hierarchical structure of our financial world, with CEO’s making significantly more than the average worker. In fact, a Huffington post article relates how CEO’s pay grew 725 percent from 1978 to 2011, while worker pay grew only 5.7 percent, meaning that a CEO’s compensation grew 127 times faster.

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that this isn’t right. While some may be against more equal pay, there is a huge inequality in these figures. But it only gets worse. This is indicative of the economic hierarchy. The rich are using their influence to get richer and the poor are only getting poorer. I believe that poverty, at least in its extreme form that in which it currently exists, is a direct result of the economic structure. Major organizations’ intentions to maximize profits by decreasing labor costs (through outsourcing jobs to developing countries), is only one example of the corruption we face. It is clear that the companies that participate in said international networks are not intending to help those particular regions where they are getting their laborers, but instead are doing so to pad their wallets with more money.

This current existence of neo-capitalism, full of greed, makes me question whether Jesus was right when saying the poor will always be with us.

A Better Way to Understand Mark 14:1-9

Yet, as I said before (and despite my misgivings about the current economic structure), there seems to be a more appropriate way to understand this passage. While it may seem clear what Jesus’ intention was, if we take this one sentence and separate it from the rest of the story, we are taking it out of context. Taking passages out of context is an recipe for disaster. This is how interpretations are twisted to fit a particular perspective.

We must honor the greater context of this story. When doing so, we understand what the author is really trying to communicate in writing this story.

The first thing to note is that this is happening at the house of Simon, the leper. A social outcast. Jesus often associated with social outcasts. It was a part of his radical vision for the Christian Kingdom. This setting isn’t accidental – it’s a part of the message that this story is trying to convey. We understand this when we see the woman enter the story. It becomes clear that she is not supposed to be there, by social standards because some of the people there began questioning what she was doing. Some even tried to go the “righteous route,” saying that there could have been better use for the perfume.

These types of statements happen all of the time, don’t they? Even today, I hear similar statements. This person goes on a mission trip, but the money would have been better spent just sending money to the people that they visited. All of that money was wasted on the airfare, when it could have been put to better use. While some may be concerned about the best use of money, these statements are often made our of ulterior motives.

It wasn’t about the perfume. It was about the woman being allowed to do what she did. The social status of women was very low and social guidelines often restricted them from being present at certain meals or meetings. I am pretty sure this is the case here. Her presence is being questioned.

What does Jesus do? How does he respond?

He affirms her, saying that she has done a special thing. He does mention the poor, but only to diffuse the argument. So, while we make a bigger deal out of his one statement, Jesus true message seems to be one of inclusion and equality. When we read the passage this way, it only indirectly deals with the issue of poverty. Jesus isn’t saying poverty isn’t important or something that we should work to get rid of – he is just placing the value of this woman over the political stance. We shouldn’t be so strict with our finances that it reinforces systems of injustice.

This is what the passage seems to be about. When we understand it this way, we aren’t asking if there will always be poor people, but how to eradicate poverty with compassion for the socially marginalized – the outcasts – the poor. That’s what Jesus did and what he was communicating here.

       Poverty has been on my mind for some time now. What is poverty? How do we measure it? How do you overcome it? How do you live in it? Each of these questions (and more) warrants a post or several posts of its own. But that last one is what I want to talk about today.

       I’ve been wondering what it would look like if my wife, Michelle, and I had to live in poverty. What would we have to give up? What would we spend our money on? What would life look like living in poverty?

Poor Family from the 1940s

Defining Poverty

       In this case, I’m going to define poverty according to the 2009 U.S. federal poverty level guidelines. For two people, the poverty level is $14,570/year. This level applies regardless of where you live in the U.S., which doesn’t make much sense to me since the cost of living varies so much by location. But perhaps the areas with a higher-than-average cost of living adjusts the poverty level guidelines for their assistance programs. That’s something I’ll have to look at in another post!

       I could use a different measure for poverty – a global measure, for instance. But the disparity between the global poverty level guidelines and the U.S. poverty level guidelines is extreme. Based on a $2/day/person poverty guideline (World Bank threshold), we’d be looking at $1,460 or 1/10 of the income for the U.S. poverty level. I can tell you right now that would mean giving up everything except food. No shelter, no transportation, no clothing purchases – absolutely nothing but food…and not much of that.

       So for this article, I’m going to use the federal guideline of $14,570/year which is pre-tax. I’m not going to include food stamps, federal/state health coverage, or tax refunds (namely, the Earned Income Credit). Some studies have shown that the poverty level income would be 30-40% higher if such benefits were included, but I’m going to stick to the $14,570 number for the sake of simplicity.

What Would Our Spending Look Like?

       If our annual income were $14,570, our monthly income would be just over $1,214. Here’s what I think our monthly budget would look like. Some of these numbers are based on actual expenses now and some are based on what I estimated after making changes to our lifestyle. I’m assuming we keep our current jobs.

Category Amount
Income $1,214.17
Giving $130.00
Saving $106.70
State & Local Taxes $39.46
Health Insurance $76.93
Rent $400.00
Renter’s Insurance $11.08
Groceries $150.00
Utilities $120.00
Auto (Gas, Maint., & Ins.) $130.00
Other (Household & Personal) $50.00
Total Expenses $1,214.17

What We’d Have to Give Up

       So the next question is how would this differ from our current lifestyle? Well, first we’d have to move. We’d have to find a place for 2/3 of the rent we’re paying now, and it would need to be closer to Michelle’s job to cut down on gasoline costs. A different place would also likely cut down on our utilities. This would be a major change since we’d have to move away from our family, friends, and church but not very far – just far enough to make it inconvenient but doable. We’d also likely be living in someone’s basement or sharing a place with another family for rent that cheap.

       We’d have to give up the excellent health insurance we have through Michelle’s work and buy a no-frills $10,000 deductible plan that doesn’t cover office visits or prescriptions. It would only cover serious catastrophes like cancer. In contrast, our current insurance has a very low deductible ($150/$300, I think?) and covers office visits and prescriptions for a low co-pay. We’d also be giving up our dental insurance, though I’m not sure that’s much of a deal anyway.

       Speaking of insurance, we’d have to decrease the coverage on our auto insurance to the state minimum levels and increase the deductible on Michelle’s car to $2,500. We’d also have to think about selling my car but that wouldn’t be completely necessary. Decreasing the coverage limits could expose us to some serious risks if we were to have an accident – likely resulting in bankruptcy if it’s a major accident.

       I don’t mind that we’d be paying less in taxes. But our giving would have to go down and that wouldn’t be so great. We’d have to make some tough choices there. All of our saving would most likely be short-term savings to cover the deductibles for our insurance policies.

       We’d have to spend less on groceries but not much less than we currently spend. I don’t imagine there would be any problems there. We’d just have to limit our meat intake and replace it with beans instead and shop a little more carefully. Eating out would be out of the question. We’d also need to cut our household and personal spending in half.

       Beyond that, we’d have no cell phones, no Internet connection, and no TV (that last one’s not any different from now, but I’m just saying). We wouldn’t be able to pay my student loans unless we gave up saving or giving (or some of both), but forbearance or an income dependent plan would be an option at that point. We’d have no money for entertainment or travel of any kind, and every dollar would need to be meticulously tracked and spent with care. As it is now, I don’t track what we spend our ATM withdrawals on completely so that would have to change.

       So while it wouldn’t be easy or “fun” to live on this budget, it would be possible. But we’d have no chance of saving anything for retirement, buying a house if we wanted to do that, or doing anything that required money outside of this budget. (That means no more sewing or jewelry making for Michelle. My hobbies don’t really require any money right now I think.)

Living Off Uncle Sam (or You, Rather)

       I didn’t include government benefits in that budget, but if I had things would have worked out quite a bit better. Between Section 8 housing, tax refunds, food stamps, health coverage from Pennsylvania, and utility assistance programs I think we could live at pretty much the same standard we currently enjoy. (Except for the housing part…that would likely be a major decline.)

       These benefits would probably comprise at least 25-40% of our budget in this scenario. At that rate, we could probably afford cell phones, an Internet connection, auto insurance at our current coverage, our normal household and personal spending, my student loans, and even some entertainment. Or we could choose to save that money, invest in ourselves (to increase our income), or give to people in more need than ourselves.

Possible But Not Enjoyable

       I’m not making light of this scenario. I’m certain it would still be stressful and emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t be impossible to live this way. (Though I’m having difficulty convincing Michelle of this. :))

       I think the reason I can say this is because Michelle and I are pretty content. We don’t have to have the latest gadgets or fashions. We are naturally frugal people who don’t enjoy spending tons of money. We have low-key hobbies, can entertain ourselves, and know how to cook. We’re also disciplined enough to say no to ourselves on the non-essentials. All these factors combine to make it easier for us to live on less than most people in America. (I don’t say this to boast but to simply point out facts. Many people get sucked into the culture and go with the flow without question. Neither Michelle nor I have ever been ones to follow the crowd.)

       I’m thankful we’re in a situation where we don’t have to make these choices. God has blessed us with all that we need and then some. But I struggled with creating a sample budget for this scenario, and I now have a slight understanding some of the choices people are forced to make when they’re living on so little. I say slight understanding because I don’t think you can truly comprehend what it’s like to live on that kind of income until you’ve done it.

Your Thoughts

       Do you think you could live at the federal poverty level? What would have to change for you? What would you have to give up? Share your thoughts in the comments below!