“You will always have the poor with you…”
How many times have I heard this line used as justification for accepting the prevalence of poverty and homelessness.
When we cherry pick this (or any line from our sacred texts) we can justify a lot of terrible things. We can always find that one verse that will allow us to gloss over the injustices of this world.
When Jesus spoke these words, he wasn’t telling his disciples to passively accept poverty. Even the most cursory understanding of Jesus’ life should tell us that theology doesn’t line up with his lived example.
Jesus was constantly in ministry to people in the margins. He was healing the sick and the outcast–the people who didn’t have access to the life-saving resources the wealthy in their society had. Jesus loved them, touched them when no one else would, and was constantly going to them.
Helping the poor was so important to his ministry that he and his disciples carried a purse with collections they would use to alleviate the needs of those most in need.
So what did Jesus mean?
Jesus was commending Mary on her response to the movement of the Spirit in her life. She used the best of what she had to show her love and devotion to Jesus for reasons that might have even escaped her ability to explain. But in that moment she saw that Jesus was set apart for a special purpose and she anointed him for that purpose.
When one of his disciples expressed concern about the wastefulness of the action, he pointed out that he wasn’t always going to be there amongst them. He’d been telling them about his pending death and resurrection, but they didn’t understand it.
Mary instinctively did, however. And she acted.
But as for Jesus’ admonishment to Judas about using the poor as an excuse to condemn Mary’s actions, he was actually pointing out that we would always have opportunities to do the sorts of acts of justice Jesus exemplified with his ministry.
This wasn’t a cop-out, allowing his disciples to shrug off the needs of others. Instead, it was a exhortation: Every day you will encounter those who need you in some way. Every day you will have the opportunity to find ways to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, to restore the outcast.
Mary understood that Jesus was about to make his last journey to Jerusalem and she anointed his feet for that sacred journey.
We now have the distinction of living in his footsteps, and he’s made it clear: We will always be called to care for those around us. We will always be called to carry out acts of justice. We will always be called to live as he lived–loving our neighbors, even when they are strangers.
Who might be in your life that is in need? Where might the outcast in our community be? What might be their needs? How might you carry out acts of justice for them? How might you serve the poor in your community? How might you serve the poor in this world?