The poor you will always have with you…
The words of Jesus. And like so many of his words, they have been frequently twisted to justify the exact opposite of what he taught.
In Matthew, Mark and John the story appears of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus, a few days before he would be killed. When some protested that the act was wasteful, and that the perfume could have been sold to raise money for the poor, Jesus responded: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
This comment has been used by many through the centuries to justify a fatalistic attitude toward poverty, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus preached repeatedly to the contrary. Some would use his words to conclude: “Yes those people are in poverty, and no we’re not doing much to help them, but as Jesus said, there will always be poor people.” (or words to that effect)
It might surprise a lot of folks to know that Jesus was actually quoting from the Old Testament when he said there will be poor always. And if that quote is seen in its original context, it becomes clear that Jesus was not suggesting that poverty was just a fact of life.
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs….Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
In that context it is clear that Jesus was not saying that we shouldn’t bother acting to eliminate poverty, or to help the needy. To the contrary, what he was saying is that there is no shortage of folks who need our help.
There is another interesting angle to this as well. Jesus was telling his followers that the poor would always be among them, and Mark reports that Jesus added “and you can help them any time you want.” Let’s not forget that Jesus was in the home of a leper when this happened. Jesus was essentially telling his followers that they would always be among poor people, just as Jesus had been. Unfortunately, in our safe world of cultural Christianity we really aren’t among the poor very often, if ever. We really don’t have them “with us.” Some would argue that what Jesus was saying was that if you are a follower of his, you’ll be around poor people all the time, with plenty of opportunities to help them.
A final thought from the Bible geek (well, actually a generic geek with an interest in the Bible). This episode does not appear in the gospel of Luke. Luke–sometimes called the Social Gospel–particularly emphasized the fact that Jesus came for the poor, and that the gospel was specifically intended for them. Maybe Luke worried that these words lifted from the ancient Hebrew command to help the poor, could be twisted to justify indifference to the poor. If so, his concern, it seems, was well-founded.