you will always have the poor with you to help

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; NRSVue

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-11; NRSVue

It is common to use Jesus’s words, “You will always have the poor with you,” as to somehow wave off and dismiss the poor. They’re poor for a reason, someone will say, and they have to suffer the consequences. We can’t bail them out, because it will do no good. But is that what Jesus really meant?

Contrary to that, Judas Iscariot was paying lip service to the tradition ingrained in Jewish religious practice from Scripture, even if not highly valued or valued in the same way in rabbinic tradition, that the poor should be helped. That we should give regularly give alms which means helping the poor is taken for granted in Jesus’s teaching (Matthew 6). And the Deuteronomy passage above is explicit about it, the text which Jesus was probably alluding to in his response to Judas. There will always be some in need which we’re to help. But Jesus’s death and burial was indeed a special occasion, so that money that would have ordinarily been set apart to help the poor, could instead be used in honor of Jesus.

There seems to be a penchant not just in American society, but when you study the history of western society as well, but a penchant to cast the poor into a bad light. And with a tendency to push them aside, more or less put up with them, and definitely not give them the help they need. And since the industrial revolution, those making money for the rich few are more or less grounded in the dust, required to work long hours for unfair wages in often quite poor, unhealthy conditions, doing most difficult work. Societies which don’t have good safety net programs to help those in need do not deserve to be considered humane, much less Christian. The church should make helping the poor a high and first priority. But all societies, as well. Christians and Christianity should be known for lovingly helping the poor, leading the way in it. Never prey to false ideologies which unlike Jesus, disparage the poor. In and through Jesus.

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