This photo was taken by Kevin Carter in 1993. The child pictured in the photo survived for fourteen years before dying to malarial fever. Carter won a Pulitzer prize for this image, but his memories of it and similar scenes he witnessed caused him to take his own life the very next year. This terrible, haunting image forces us to ask the question: when Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, did He mean that there will always be people in the world that are doomed to suffer in the way the child in the photo suffered? Starving as a child and dead fourteen years later from malaria? Is that what Jesus meant?
Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard [Perfume], and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii [300 days wages] and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”John 12:3–8
When I have made posts about how the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer and how Christians need to follow the example of the prophets and stand up against those injustices, I often have people tell me, “Well, Jesus said, ‘You always have the poor with you.'” It almost seems as if this is said as an excuse or justification to not care for the poor or to support policies that keep people poor while corporations get break after break, but this totally misses the point of what Jesus was saying.
So, was Jesus' statement a universal truth, something we should work to ensure stays the same, or… something else?
I believe when we consider the wider, biblical context of what Jesus is saying, we will see that this is not a pessimistic statement of fact, but it serves as a challenge to the church to minister to the poor with the knowledge that there is enough for everyone and that it doesn't have to be this way.
Before we do that though, we need to see why Jesus said what He did, and we will find that there is a much more simple meaning to His words that can be understood just by reading the context of the passage without having to consider how we may understand these words in applying them secondarily to ourselves.
This passage is first and foremost a jab at Judas. He didn't want to actually help the poor. What he wanted was to skim off the top, so he saw the perfume as a perfect way to get rich quick! He probably figured up the calculations of the cost of the perfume as soon as he saw it in Mary's hands. So, the text says, “Therefore, Jesus said…” Jesus's statement that the poor will always be with them was a critique of Judas' attitude. Jesus is basically saying that he's had plenty of opportunity to care for the poor, and he would have more opportunities to come, but what Mary was doing was sacred. As the perfume filled the house, the smell wasn't pleasing to Judas because it was a sign of his greed that he was forced to compare with Mary's benevolence that he interpreted as her stealing from him.
So, just from this, one can see that Jesus is not making some universal declaration concerning the poor. He is especially not suggesting that we become content with people going without because “that's the way the world works!”
But to see that, we have to go a little deeper.
Jesus's comment about the poor always being with them is actually a quote from the book of Deuteronomy.
For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'Deuteronomy 15:11
To understand this text, we need to go back a little further. This entire chapter is about the Sabbatic Year which was a year when debts were forgiven and they didn't farm the land but relied on what it naturally produced. The first three verses say,
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD'S remission has been proclaimed. From a foreigner you may exact it, but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother.Deuteronomy 15:1–3
Notice the capitalization of the word LORD in the passage above. This is a call back to God's introduction to Moses in the story of the burning bush. He tells Moses to go tell the people that “The LORD has sent me to you” and “This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations” (Exodus 3:16). So, when Deuteronomy uses this word, it served as a reminder of what God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt. In the Leviticus account of the Sabbatic Year, Moses reminds them that they were to practice it “for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 25:17, 38, 55). In other words, they were to extend the same mercy towards the poor as the LORD had shown towards them when they were poor and strangers in a foreign land!
Now, why was this command in Deuteronomy 15 important? It seems kind of odd to us because so many Americans consider it normal to be in debt their entire lives: mortgage, car, student loans, credit card, etc., etc.
This command was given to protect the poor among them. They were to give liberally without expecting anything in return, and they weren't to charge interest. The text says that they would have so much abundance that there shouldn't be any poor in the nation at all!
However, there will be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess…Deuteronomy 15:4
How would this be a potential reality for them?
If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.Deuteronomy 15:7–8
In other words, the only way there would be poor among the people is if the people that had an abundance held back from the people that didn't have. If they closed their hands to the poor, then they were in direct violation of the law. In fact, Moses had to warn them that they better not hold back from giving just because the seventh year was close.
Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,' and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.Deuteronomy 15:9–10
If they held back from taking care of the poor, the poor brother would have the option of crying out to the LORD which is, as you can guess, yet another call back to the people in bondage in Egypt (Exodus 2:23). It actually goes back to the book of Genesis as well, but the point is that God hears the cry of the oppressed.
The land was to be so plentiful that everyone should have gotten everything they would ever need. If they didn't get what they need it is because someone was not doing their part!
This is why the prophets of God focused so much on justice for the poor:
They cause the poor to go about naked without clothing, And they take away the sheaves from the hungry.Job 24:10
They took away sheaves from the hungry by refusing to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and by going back to glean the vineyard and pick up any fallen fruit (Leviticus 19:9-10). The corners of the field and that which was left behind after the first go-over belonged to the needy and the stranger.
Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness And his upper rooms without justice, Who uses his neighbor's services without pay And does not give him his wages…Jeremiah 22:13
He plead the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” Declares the LORD. But your eyes and your heart Are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, And on shedding innocent blood And on practicing oppression and extortion.Jeremiah 22:16–17
To plead the cause of the afflicted and needy is a sign that one knows the Lord. This is why James says that pure religion includes caring for the fatherless and widows in their affliction! This is also why the criteria of judgement in Matthew 25 was based on how they treated those in need and not doctrine.
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.Ezekiel 16:49
People love to misuse the story of Sodom to talk about homosexuality when they are complicit in supporting a system that refuses to help the poor and needy. Then, they justify it by quoting Jesus out of context! As the passage in Jeremiah said above, these people do not really know the Lord, and they don't practice pure religion.
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts.Malachi 3:5
How many of these sins are we guilty of today? Turning aside the alien? Oppressing wage earners?
Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.James 5:4
They hate him who reproves in the gate, And they abhor him who speaks with integrity. Therefore because you impose heavy rent on the poor And exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, Yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, You who distress the righteous and accept bribes And turn aside the poor in the gate.Amos 5:10–12
So, this comment by Jesus that the poor would be with them wasn't an excuse for them to be content with “the way the real world works” but was a challenge for His disciples to seek out the poor so that they could help them. Sometimes questions come up about what to do if someone comes to the church building asking for assistance. I think we should try to beat them to the punch and try to eradicate poverty and homelessness in our communities through the gospel of Jesus. As was said in Acts 17, the gospel has the ability to turn the world upside down.
Let's see how the early church dealt with this challenge.
After 3000 people responded positively to Peter's sermon, many were displaced from their homes, lost their communities, and even were kicked out of their families as Jesus said would happen. So, here is how the church responded:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.Acts 2:44–45
After around two thousand more were added to the church, the disciples didn't throw their hands into the air and say, “Oh well. The poor will always be with us.” Instead, they doubled down.
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.Acts 4:32–37
Notice the subtle reference to Deuteronomy 15 in this passage: “there was not a needy person among them.” The church, for one of the first times in Israel's history, was practicing Deuteronomy 15 like it was meant to be lived. They put their total faith in God and counted everything as a gift from Him. The rich gave up their mansions in order that fifty people could have huts. The powerful gave up their Cadillacs so those who didn't have transportation could afford a used car to get them to their doctor appointments. They took Jesus' words about the poor as a challenge, and that is what we should do in our churches.
To leave you with one final note, Jesus referenced some of the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures in this teaching:
If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.Luke 6:30–36
In the church, every year is the seventh year. We wouldn't want God to wait seven years to forgive us, so why should we wait seven years to be merciful towards others?
The poor will always be with us? Bring it on. We'll see about that. But we may have to flip over some tables in the church buildings to wake people up!