Greetings!Â It is great to see the discussion which has gone on this past weekend while I was out, directing music for my church’s Great Banquet weekend.Â Since this past week seems to have been more centered on orthodoxy, I think I’m going to (at least attempt to) steer part of this week’s discussion toward practice (though I’ve got some -doxy posts in the works, as well)…
In this light, I’ve had a few RL conversations this past week on the poor, and what Jesus believed and taught as our response to the poor.Â To start this off, here is a repost of a scriptural study I put together last fall on Jesus’ comments along the lines of ‘you will always have the poor…’
It is interesting how the Spirit works – I don’t know about you, but I cannot count the times that I have read a passage of scripture, a chapter in a book, or listened to a sermon and *BAM* within the next day or so I find that I need exactly what I heard/read. What if I hadn’t taken the time for personal study and devotion? It is a sobering thought.
Interestingly, when I hear/read scripture being misused (particularly by literalists), I often bite my tongue, waiting for that ‘leading’ or ‘tugging’ that seems to then happen when I see the exact passage misused multiple times by multiple individuals in multiple forums.
Today is just such a day, and the passage(s) in question are the three gospel accounts where Jesus states that ‘the poor you will always have with you’. These are located in Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8. Where these scriptures seem to be (mis)used is in casting aside calls to be ‘missional’, particularly relating to serving the poor and addressing poverty at home and abroad. Usually, the misuse is along the lines of “We should be far more concerned with eternal issues, rather than temporal ones. Besides, Jesus said that ‘For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.’”
So, what is Jesus’ point here?
First off, let’s look at the context. All three accounts are of the same event in Bethany, where Jesus is eating at the house of Simon the Leper with Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Judas and at least some of Jesus other disciples. There, a woman (identified by John as Mary) took expensive perfume and anointed Jesus with it (two accounts accentuate her use of it on his head, the other account accentuates the use on his feet – possibly indicating that she was anointing the head, heart, hands and feet, as with a miqvah.)
Then, Judas criticizes Mary’s actions by saying ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages!’. However, John also includes this statement about Judas’ motives:
He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:6)
So, we can already see that the question being put to Jesus isn’t really a genuine one in the first place. It was one that was self-serving with the appearance of appealing to service to the poor. And so, Jesus answers:
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)
As I’ve discussed on a number of occasions, Jesus was a master rabbinical teacher, using PaRDeS and Parable as his key methods. As such, this teaching contains (at the very least) P’shat and Remez.
The P’shat (or ‘plain meaning’) is often expressed in contrast and placed second (like with ‘you have heard it said X, but I say to you Y’). In John 12:8, the emphasis (or plain meaning) is after ‘but’. The key is ‘you will not always have me’ and not ‘you will always have the poor’. So, to give the proper interpretation to Jesus’ words, you would see that he is agreeing with the sentiment (you will always have the poor), but making an exception based on his physical presence and the significance of Mary’s anointing with the perfume to be used in his burial. This is not a callous statement that ‘we will always have the poor, and therefore we have no responsibility to do anything about it’ – that is 180-degrees apart from His teaching!
To emphasize this, we need to look at the remez (the ‘hint’). When Jesus says ‘You will always have the poor among you’, he is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11, which states ‘There will always be poor people in the land.’ If you will remember, to understand remez, we must look at the verses immediately before and after the one quoted. Jesus’ audience, who had the Torah memorized, would have been able to do this instantly -
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. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 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. (Deut 15:7-11)
So, if it wasn’t obvious from the P’shat, the Remez should not only put the lie to those who misuse Jesus’ words, but show us, once again, that – while the eternal destination is not unimportant – our temporal responsibility is to care for both the physical and spiritual needs of those less fortunate.