When Jesus told his friends “You will always have the poor among you” he was preaching a sermon straight from the words of Moses in one of his final messages to the Israelites.
Moses assured God’s people that the new land God brought them to would be so full of abundance that there was no reason for anyone to live in poverty.
Of course there won’t be any poor persons among you because the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, but only if you carefully obey the Lord your God’s voice, by carefully doing every bit of this commandment that I’m giving you right now. (Deuteronomy 15:4-5.)
And yet just a few sentences later Moses said:
Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11.)
So which is it? Will there be poor people or won’t there be any poor among God’s people?
It appears that Moses is telling them that there is no reason for anyone to be poor due to the abundance in the new land, and yet there will still be people in need. The point he is making is that there is likewise no reason for that need to go unmet. This is a land of plenty where everyone is to make sure everyone else is taken care of.
Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8.)
This message to the people of Israel would likely have been familiar to some if not all of Jesus’ listeners at a dinner party thrown by some of Jesus’ friends.
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. (John 12:1-2.)
The scene reminds the reader of the earlier party where Martha served while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, and this bothered Martha so much she asked for an open rebuke of her sister. (Luke 10:38-42.) But this time the story takes a surprising turn, leading one of Martha’s guests to call into question an extravagant gift Mary lavished upon Jesus.
Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) (John 12:3-6.)
I’m Not so Far from Judas
Judas probably had the nerve to ask the question because he was focused on his greed, even if he did not think of it in those terms. He wanted the money in his care so he could take it for himself. Yet Jesus spoke not to his greed but to a more basic issue found in Judas’ attempt to deflect attention away from himself by invoking the needs of poor people.
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” (John 12:7-8.)
The phrase “You will always have the poor among you” echoes “Poor persons will never disappear from the earth.” The point was not to make excuses (“Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?”) but to use what has already been given in abundance to care for those in need.
Most people reading this blog live in abundance compared to those who experience daily and chronic poverty. Being generous with that abundance is what God promises will address the needs of the poor among you: “you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.“
The ability to help is there, and the need is there. This help is not restricted to those who are in God’s family, but to anyone needy or poor. Moses said to be generous to all, and all meant all when looking at the list he then gave. If you see someone in need and you have the means to provide, Moses said that’s what you do.
The problem is that I am sometimes more like Judas than Moses. I might not be stealing from the money box, but I admit I sometimes welcome excuses not to jump in and help. Jesus was having none of it. As you can see, he didn’t tell Judas not to steal or not to be greedy. He reminded Judas and everyone else of a deeper principle: you know there will always be people in need and you are supposed to be doing something about it already.
I’d Rather Be Like Mary
There is a person in this story I want to emulate, though. Look at Jesus words about Mary: “Leave her alone.” Her lavish use of an extraordinary amount of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus is honored by Jesus himself. Yet Jesus does not give the impression he is preening in the spotlight. Rather, he is commending her faithful service in preparing him for the hardest moment of his life: his betrayal, beatings, crucifixion and death.
Did Mary know what she was doing? Jesus’ statement of his upcoming death might have stunned her as much as anyone else in the room. But she – along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus – knew who he is and that he is worthy of worship. Jesus had raised Lazarus from death to life after all, and as Mary confessed while her brother still lay in the grave: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27.)
Mary’s choice to use the perfume on the Messiah of all the world was not a rejection of the instruction to care for the poor. It was a recognition that there are many ways to do so. Jesus had no money of his own, after all, and made sure those who chose to follow him as their rabbi knew it:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57-58.)
In the title Son of Man (or the Human One, as the CEB puts it), Jesus aligns himself with all people everywhere. Every woman and man, girl and boy, every child in the womb and (as he would soon join them) every person in the grave is a person Jesus identifies himself with. This is God in the flesh; as Isaiah said, this is Immanuel who is God with us. (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23.)
Mary is not rebuked but celebrated, and knowing what we do of her and her family in the Bible I would venture that their faith extended to all aspects of life including caring for the poor. Mary knew that God had provided abundantly for her family and they were in a position to help those in need. She also knew that out of this abundance she could follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit (as I suspect she must have in her decision at that dinner) to pour the perfume upon Jesus.
If you live in abundance, how do you help others to live as well? Do you use your resources to meet their needs, whether in their poverty or when they face difficulties and death? This is the call of God and these are the words of Jesus:
Freely you have received; freely give. (Matthew 10:8.)