The poor you MUST always have with you

Remember when Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you”?  In the immediate context he was rebuking Judas for his suggestion that a bottle of perfume be sold to the poor instead of poured on the feet of the Messiah.  You’d think that if he was concerned for the poor he wouldn’t have sold the perfume to them.  Jesus affirmed that giving the poor things like perfume would have been a noble thing to do at any other moment, but at this moment the son of the living God was with them, and he wouldn’t date let even one of his own followers criticize a woman for pouring out perfume on his feet in a gesture of worship.  No matter how shocking a thing it was to see her do it, it was an act of pure devotion to a God that delivers people, delivers the poor, raises up servants, praises women, saves us from our depravity.  Wiping his feet with her own hair, she was unashamed of the taboos inherent in that moment.

[Correction: Judas actually says to sell it and give the money to the poor, not to sell it to the poor.  But the text reveals that Judas’ true motive was to sell it, give some money from it to the poor, but mostly to take some of the profits.  That’s the Bible’s way of saying trickle-down economics comes from the same people who betray Jesus.]

It’s also interesting that Jesus was referring to a passage from the old law:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut. 15:11)

There is no permanent solution to the problem of poverty: that is the underlying statement.  Because of that, poverty will always be around us, whether next door, across the street, or across an ocean from you and me.  The old law gave an injunction to be openhanded, not just to give money, but to have an open hand, to be willing to give of whatever it took.  The only time-bound phrasing in the passage is “always”, thus it must be assumed that we “always” are open-handed.  Jesus even takes this to another level, arguably the same level it was always meant to be.  The poor “will always be with you”, in essence.  They will be in your midst.  They won’t go away.  Driving them off is an abomination, not a solution.  In fact, in the statement “you will always have with you” implies a command to have them with us.  As in when a syllabus says “the student will” or a judge pronounces that as part of a sentence a person “will” perform such-and-such service.

The importance of this distinction is that the command is not just about always being willing to give, but to do so in an environment in which the poor are WITH us.

I was reminded of this when my unofficial agent and editor Trae Bailey, to whom I owe approx. 9,536 words of praise, showed me this article from Mission Frontiers:
Projecting Poverty Where it Doesn’t Exist
The more distant we are from the poor, the less we are in tune with their needs.  Cultural values also influence this.  What we may deem as a sign of poverty, another culture may deem merely a reflection of the culture.  Are the Amish in poverty because they have no electricity?  Granted, that is fully their decision.  In many developing countries it’s not necessarily a decision of communities not to have what we have, but sometimes, even amidst adaptation to poverty, cultures make an adjustment that are comfortable with, leading us to assume that every “need” we seek to provide is one they yearn for.
Steve Saint’s example of orphans demonstrates this difference.  In America, we call a child with no parents an orphan.  In South America, an orphan is a child with no family at all, no caretakers.  In many of the cultures there, children whose parents have died are cared for by even the most extended family.  This poses the question: Is an orphanage what they need?  Imagine the cost going into an orphanage when the real problem in a community may be the water quality.  Families already take care of their children, but these children are growing sick from bad water.  To be in tune with a community’s needs, we need people deeply rooted in the community to know how to meet them.  And we want to help empower the poor to be in a place where they can sustain their own needs as much as possible.
I don’t know if I agree with Saint that we should avoid handouts.  Sometimes a handout is just what a person or community needs, particularly in the event of a disaster or tragedy.  But sometimes that open hand is a real hand, holding theirs.  Sometimes an open hand is a hand that teaches and models how to do a task to help the community and self.  Sometimes that open hand is a hand giving up income for a policy one is taxed to promote to protect poor communities from having their food and water supply poisoned.  Sometimes that open hand is working to put together a  food or medicine package.
One example I think of is Love In Stereo’s effort to help the children of Haiti.  If you purchased the album “My Heart is in Haiti“, money from the purchase went to feeding a child in Haiti.  But that’s not the end of the project, otherwise this would be mere slacktivism.  Brad Montague, who was behind the project, also spearheaded GO! Camp.  Children from all over the region attended GO!  One of their many projects was packing together 100,000 meals for these children.  This is one of the many things they are involved in.  This is a network of relief and aid.  And the money from the album purchases didn’t just go to a random organization.  They went to help an individual, Roberta Edwards, who founded Sonlight Children’s Nutrition Center, and lets orphans into her home.In this growing network of global connections, we can use our resources to use these networks to let our hands open to the poor around the world.

Get involved.  Know these needs of the poor.  How do we know?  They are with us.  They are always with us.  Are they?

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3 responses to “The poor you MUST always have with you

  1. Just a technical note: Judas wasn’t arguing that the perfume should have been sold TO the poor, but sold FOR the poor. I.e., the more resources we can garner from economic activity, the more we have to share with the poor. Interestingly enough, the text also tells us that Judas was greedy and just wanted a cut of the money for himself. I think one issue we have in capitalist America is that we tend to side with Judas. Our core belief is that if we generate more profits, more capital, more revenue, we have more to help the needy. Oddly enough, in practice, when our economy is doing spectacularly, that money never actually does seem to “trickle down” as promised–everybody else gets their cut until only crumbs are left for the communities and people most in need. Perhaps “trickle down economics” should rightly be called “the Judas Iscariot economic model.”

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