The poor you have with you always

As muddled theology follows Joel Osteen, when the subject of helping the poor arises some well-meaning person follows with “The poor you always have with you.” It is often inserted into conversation like a wannabe theological mic-drop, but typically impresses only the one who says it.

This verse fragment–for indeed that’s what it is–is found in toto in the gospels of Matthew (26:11), Mark (14:7), and John (12:8). The all important context is the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with her costly perfume, worth approximately a year’s salary. Those sharing the meal with Jesus were incensed about the incense, waving away the woman’s brave and contrite act of worship with their legalistic assertion it might have been sold as a fundraiser for the poor.

If that dinner was like the average church dinner more money sat greedily ungiven in the checking accounts of the cynics than the woman could have spilled on the feet of the Savior in another whole lifetime. Criticism being the blood-sport it is they harangued her.

It is in the face of this spectacle Jesus spoke a couple of sentences, a stinging rebuke to the legalists, an incredible solace to the “dirty” woman washing His feet. If we did not have the gospel record, we might be led to think Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you,” a detached commentary of the downside of capitalism.

That, however, is not what Jesus said, or at least not all of it. From Mark’s gospel we have the scene and Jesus’ full response:

Then Jesus said,”Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a noble thing for Me. You always have the poor with you, and you can do what is good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have Me.” (14:7, emphasis mine)

It seems reasonable to conclude Jesus was not saying, “You’re never going to solve poverty, so concentrate on the gospel.” It seems clear He meant at that instant honoring Him was the right thing to do, and using the perfume was the right kind of offering to give. Jesus juxtaposes His imminent departure with the ongoing presence of the poor. “Honor Me now,” He says, “because you can do good to the poor whenever you want to.”

Jesus’ response does not get us off the hook–it sets the hook firmly.

It is possible Jesus is quoting scripture in His response. Deuteronomy 15:11 says,

For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, “You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.”

Bringing Jesus into a conversation about the poor in an attempt to avoid helping the poor is a remarkably dull strategy.

There is a place to discuss how any society handles its poor citizens. We are not, after all, ancient Israel.

It does seem, however, if the collective societal conscience is to be informed by followers of Jesus we should demonstrate the attitude toward the poor He had. At the very least the conversation should include, “How can we best do good?” “Are unjust laws a problem?” “Is waste an issue?” “Is our own pride an issue?”

One option we do not seem to be given is: doing nothing. As Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett write in the seminal volume When Helping Hurts,

We believe that the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth–even just within the household of faith–is an affront to the gospel. You see, what is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people–as important as that is–but rather the very authenticity of the church’s witness to the transforming power of the kingdom of God. Hence, the North American church should have a profound sense of urgency to spend ourselves “in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isa. 58:10). p. 16

Perhaps this is why, when Paul defended his calling before the Galatians (2:10), after relating his meeting with the Apostles (including their blessing on his ministry to the Gentiles), ended with this simple request:

They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.

It should be thought impossible to read the Bible in any meaningful way without concluding, from Old and New Testaments, God bears witness to Himself as His people help those who have little by way of this world’s goods.

Those of us in the West live in complex times with complex relationships between complex countries, each having complex racial issues, complex cultural issues, complex economic issues, and the like. But, there is one issue that is not complex: followers of Jesus are to be concerned about, and engaged with, helping the poor. That one is easy.

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Featured image: Miner and kids

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • R2D3

    The Bible contains almost 2,000 references to poverty and economic fairness. According to the Oxford Companion to the Bible, the Bible teaches that the fundamental responsibility of rulers is to help those unable to help themselves. The Bible portrays those who oppress the poor as wicked.

    Jesus’ statement [“The poor you always have with you”] has often been misused by churchgoers and others as an excuse not to do anything about the poor. According to The Dictionary of Biblical Tradition, most Christian theologians say the statement should be read in light of the Hebrew admonition to always assist the poor.

    Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian who leads the Sojourners movement, devotes a chapter to Jesus’ statement in his book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (2005). Wallis says his audiences only remember the first part of the verse, not the part about being kind to the poor, and miss the whole context and meaning.

    Wallis points out Jesus doesn’t make his comment while eating with business executives or top politicians. Jesus says it while sharing bread with a leper, a social outcast.

    Instead of being someone who remains physically distant from the poor and writes them off, Wallis says Jesus was in effect telling his followers: “Look, you will always have the poor with you because you are my disciples…. So, you will always be near the poor, you’ll always be with them, and you will always have the opportunity to share with them.”

    According to Jack Mahoney, emeritus professor of moral and social theology at the University of London, the parable of the workers in the vineyard allows us to think of the just employer who pays “a daily living wage.”

    Read: “Jesus was a lefty” by Mehdi Hasan