I recently read an article that challenged my understanding of the verses of John 12. The first eight verses speak of Jesus visiting his friends in Bethany. While there, Mary lavishes on Jesus expensive, fragrant oil. Symbolically, it is in preparation for his upcoming death. One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot John tells us, objects and says the expense of this act could have gone to help the poor. John questions his motives, but instead of calling him out, Jesus says this: “ 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you,[c] but you will not always have me.” (NIV).
My entire life, I’ve heard these verses used as justification when a person (or group) says, “We will never solve the problem of the poor.” The article I read put forth this point: What if we will always have the poor because we expect to always have the poor?
I hate it when pastors/Christians/religious people or anyone for that matter take stuff out of context to justify their opinions. So, I went back and read the twelfth chapter of John. It struck me that the person who objected to this act was Judas. It was interesting that, in no way was Jesus saying, “It’s OK to always have the poor among you.” In fact, if you know anything about what he lived out in the gospel, you would know that he believed and acted out the exact opposite. He was about meeting needs. Not giving wealth, but meeting the true heart need of those who called out his name.
Often, we’ll throw verse eight around almost as an excuse for our own inaction. “Well, Jesus said we’ll always have the poor, so why should I …” whatever. Pulling just that verse out may make us feel a little better about our failure to meet the needs of those around us, but in my opinion it’s just another way people who call themselves Christians (“little Christs”) rationalize our behavior.
I struggle a lot with the battle within when it comes to this. On the one had (if we’re taking stuff out of context), I could say, “Well, Jesus told us to sell everything and give to the poor.” But we have a quick comeback for that, don’t we? “Well, he was talking directly to the rich young ruler.” (that story is found in Luke 18). But if that’s the case, maybe he was just telling Judas the poor will always be among you? Maybe he was telling the religious rulers who had gathered around him, plotting his death that, because they were too busy focused on things that didn’t involve feeding the poor (like their own position or power or pulling Jesus down because of their jealousy and doubt?) that they could never meet the need that was there?
The possibilities of misunderstanding and rationalization are endless, aren’t they?
Here’s what I know. I don’t think it would be impossible to help everyone at least achieve their basic needs. Even though our deeply ingrained gospel of capitalism (note: I don’t think capitalism in and of itself is bad) tells us “they” deserve it because of their inaction or “they” are responsible to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” (as my Mom use to say) … how do we claim the name of Christ and still be OK with the problem of the poor?
I’m not assuming there’s an easy answer to this. But I do know sometimes “we” want to make ourselves feel better by throwing easy answers at hard questions. And for me, that just doesn’t work. The wrestling is part of the process, getting to what tangible things I am to do.
But I do what to share: I think I have some responsibility. Maybe we all do?