“The poor you will always have with you…”

A US congressman from my home state of Kansas attempted to use the teachings of Jesus to convince others that some people; frequently the poor and homeless, “just don’t want healthcare.”

Roger Marshall, a former doctor, said in an interview with STAT News: “Just like Jesus said, ‘the poor will always be with us.’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.” He added, “Just, like, homeless people…I think just morally, spiritually, socially, {some people} just don’t want health care. The Medicaid population, which is {on} a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventative medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising.”

This isn’t the first time that a Christian figurehead or the church in general has dismissed serious poverty. To be fair Jesus did say, “The poor you will always have with you.” But can Jesus’ words be used as a license for Christians and the church to ignore the needs of the poor?

This story is found in three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John). Jesus was reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper. A woman came with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, made of pure nard. This perfume was worth a year’s wages. Some of the guests present were gossiping to one another and saying, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And it was said that they, “rebuked her harshly.”

Jesus defended the woman by saying, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? What she has done is a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9).

Jesus declares to the synagogue leaders at Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,” but the statement to the dinner crowd concerning the poor seems like anything but good news. Why would Jesus say something that seems contradictory to the character of the Messiah?

It sounds like Jesus is insinuating, “The poor you will always have with you,and you can help them any time you want” or “the poor will always be here so don’t try too hard to help them.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11 which says, “there will always be poor with you in the land.” To this God also adds this radically challenging ending, “(to the poor) do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.”

The context of this passage of scripture is that every seven years is a “sabbatical year” where all debts are cancelled and all slaves are set free. When slaves are released the passage continues, “you shall not let them go empty handed, but rather you should “supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:13-15). Giving generously is established deeply in God’s Law. The temple and synagogue leaders would have been educated enough to know just what Jesus was talking about. There is no way that they could have heard “the poor you will always have with you,” and not think of the radical nature of Deuteronomy 15.

As Christians, our commitment and our allegiance to Jesus must always take precedence over everything else. Even though the other disciples were indignant about the lavish gesture brought about by the alabaster jar of perfume Jesus recognizes it as “beautiful.”

The poor will always be with us, but this does not release us from our responsibility as Christians. I hear story after story of people who, through no fault of their own, end up in poverty. The most heartbreaking stories are of elderly people who end up in the hospital with a severe health incident, and while they are in the hospital they get evicted. These folks lose all that they have and end up unwell, destitute, and completely dependent on the help of other people. Most folks, even those who are Christian, walk by and don’t even give a second thought to the deep-seated needs of those around us. We care for our own, but only give our pity to the challenges of other people. Some of us go to the extreme of blaming the poor and destitute for their situations. We must remember that not every destitute person made choices that eventuated in their poverty. As Christians, we are called to serve even those who did make bad choices that led to their poverty. We are called to be people of the open hand and not the tight fist. We are called to not only see the needs of those around us, but also to act generously on behalf of the poor.  Let us be open handed and open hearted to those in poverty around us.

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