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The poor you always have with you

Editor's Note: The following originally appeared in the September edition of the South Carolina Advocate and has been reposted with the editor's permission.


“Why all this talk about the poor?” a protestor asked defiantly. “There is no point in helping the poor! As the Bible says, ‘The poor you always have with you.’”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard the Bible used to justify neglect of those who live in poverty. Nor was the protestor’s obvious frustration with poverty’s intractability new. Complex personal, social, economic and political factors account for the existence of poverty; and efforts to address those factors often result in frustration and discouragement.

Sensing the frustration behind the protestor’s outburst, I decided to respond by inviting him and the audience to pause and look at the context of the statement by Jesus, “The poor you always have with you.” Rather than it being a justification for resignation and neglect of those who live in poverty, it is an invitation to meet and serve Christ in the poor.

According to Matthew’s account (Matthew 26:6-13), Jesus is having dinner in the home of Simon the leper. A woman came with an alabaster jar of costly ointment and poured it on Jesus’ head. The disciples were angered by the apparent “waste” and protested that “this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”

Their argument makes sense, at least on the surface. The disciples knew Jesus’ friendship with and compassion for the poor. He was quick to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome those pushed to the margins by debilitating personal, economic, political and religious dynamics. The lavish actions on the part of the woman seemed such a waste in the face of pressing economic needs.

But Jesus countered, “She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.”

Rather than offering justification for neglecting the poor, Jesus is identifying with the poor and defenseless and affirming service to them. In an act of spontaneous and lavish love, the woman ministered to Jesus as he faced the ultimate vulnerability of death. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve Jesus directly.

Jesus reminded the disciples they would not always have him physically present to serve and adore. But you will always have the poor!
Jesus tells his disciples that in his physical absence, the poor are to be seen as those on whom you lavish your love for me. The point is made explicit in Matthew 25 when Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did to the least of these you did to me.”

“The poor you always have with you” is not a resignation to the intractability of poverty or a calloused excuse to ignore the plight of the poor. It is an invitation to meet, love and serve the Crucified and Risen Christ in “the least of these.”

Mother Teresa knew the truth of Jesus’ invitation when she affirmed, “If you want the poor to see Christ in us, we must see Christ in the face of the poor.”

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Bishop Kenneth L. Carder

Bishop Kenneth L. Carder is a retired United Methodist bishop now living in South Carolina and a member of the S.C. task force on the Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty. As the primary author of the foundation document of the Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, the task force asked him to write a series of articles on the biblical and theological foundation for engagement in ministry with children and the poor.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.