How convenient that the New Testament gospels tell us Jesus said, “The poor are with you always”! By a perverse misuse of that brief sentence, the financially comfortable (not to mention the truly rich) can excuse themselves from concern over the large number of poor and desperately poor people in our nation and our world. Reading slightly further in the Gospel of Mark, we find, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:7 NRSV) There’s the perfectly convenient combination of assurance that there will always be poor people (as though it were right and proper that there should be) with a reminder to give them charity at our leisure, right? No, dead wrong!
The brief quotation, “For you always have the poor with you,” has been taken out of context to produce a falsehood radically at odds with the overall message of the Bible and, especially, with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and with his ministry. Context matters. Context always matters.
Below is the context within the passage in Matthew’s version. The tellings of the story in Mark and John are much the same except for identifying differently who it is that objects to the alleged waste of the expensive ointment (in Mark it is a vague “some who were there” and in John none other than Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would become the traitor).
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:6-9 NRSV)
I have chosen to use Matthew’s account to point out that the objection does not have to come from non-disciples or a bad guy.
Clearly within its context, Jesus’ remark about the poor does not mean there should always or must always be poor people. It does not justify any system that by design keeps some people poor for the benefit of others. It does not say it is okay with him that some people should be poor. It certainly does not suggest that poor people have a place in society ordained by God, a place where they belong (in poverty and servitude), a place they have no right to leave. Nothing could run more contrary to the message of the Bible, from Exodus to Revelation!
What is the message in context? If I want to help someone, give that help at my own expense. The woman acted at her own expense in devotion to Jesus. In effect, disciples, mind your own business in such a personal matter! She has not instituted a program throughout the land for lavishing expensive stuff upon the rich while ignoring the poor. No, she has given a one-time gift for a very special reason to someone she regards as a very special person.
Two very popular but extremely wrong and dangerous beliefs are fed by the misuse of Jesus’ comment about the poor. One is the belief that conditions within society are as they should be, that the status quo is right, proper, and likely ordained by God, and that nothing should therefore be done to change the social, political, and economic systems that keep many people in poverty. The second is that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Jesus rejected both beliefs in his own society, and as his followers, we need to reject them in our own. People are not poor because they deserve to be poor. Neither are the financially successful rich because they deserve to be rich or because God has rewarded them with wealth.
The New Testament gospels provide us with many teaching of Jesus that bring hope to the poor and warning to the rich – not because poverty is some weird sort of blessing but because the coming reign of God means conditions and systems on earth will be changed. The first will be last, and the last first. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich sent away empty. The lowly will be raised up, and the high and mighty cast down. It is not the will of God that some (indeed, many) should endure poverty so that some (relatively few) may live in luxury.
Thy will be done on earth! That is a prayer for change.