More often than not, when I am out speaking or giving a talk on God’s heart for the poor, I am approached or confronted by a well-meaning brother or sister who reminds me that Jesus once said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I have been asked about this enough that it warrants a short blog post to clear up some common misunderstandings about the verse.
This statement is plucked out of the “Anointing at Bethany” story found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. I will focus on Mark’s version and it will probably be helpful to know the story before reading further – you can find it below.
Here are three things to consider while you read this passage.
1. The initial reaction of the disciples to “help the poor” gives us rich insight into Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus, up to this point, made “the poor” (and helping them) central in His teachings to His followers. Because of this, we should not be surprised that the first reaction the disciples had in this story was thinking of how to help the poor with the expensive resource. The disciples were only responding with what Jesus had been teaching them all along. This is insightful and telling. The fact that this is the reaction of the closest followers of Jesus shows us that this is not an argument against helping the poor, but rather an argument for helping the poor.
2. “…and you can help them anytime you want.”
There is always a danger in plucking one line out of a story or context in order to make a universal statement about the world or a theological claim. This example is no exception. Right after Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” he continues with, “and you can help them (the poor) anytime you want.” The point Jesus is making here is that we will always have opportunities to help the poor and that we should do it – not use “the poor will always be with us” as an excuse to not help them because “poverty will always be with us.” This is a classic example of Christian escapism (let alone sloppy interpretation). For many, the fact that poverty will never end is used as leverage to not do anything about it. But, Jesus says we can help “anytime we want” – therefore, we should.
3. “But you will not always have me.”
The woman who anointed Jesus did it as an act of worship. Jesus applauds this because she recognized the immense value of wholly and sacrificially worshipping her Savior while He was still present with her – though He was going to the Cross shortly thereafter. But, Jesus is no longer physically on earth. Now, as He teaches us in Matthew 25, when we give sacrificially to “the least of these” (i.e. the poor), we are giving to Him – a similar act of worship in the absence of Jesus’ physical presence on earth.
Hopefully these three reflections on “the poor you will always have with you” provide you with a fresh perspective on this passage and on Jesus’ heart for the poor.
The Anointing at Bethany – Mark 14
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “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 they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time 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.”