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I want to talk about my favourite Bible verse. It’s one of a few you’ll find in both the Jewish scriptures and in the New Testament. I’m cheating, of course: the verse in question is one that Jesus quotes from the Jewish scriptures. It’s this, from Mark’s gospel:

“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”

Or, if you prefer from Matthew’s gospel

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

On the surface, this looks like a statement from Jesus basically belittling what many demean as the “social gospel”. He’s saying that yes, it’s a shame there are poor people; but, well, focus instead on your relationship with God.

I’ve had two or three conversations recently where I’ve heard variations on this, ranging from confusion through to excuse. It’s confusing, of course, because in all kinds of other parts of scripture, God – in both human form and otherwise – actively campaigns for the plight of the poor and compels us to do something about their circumstance.

The rational explanation seems to be that Jesus is saying – look, the poor are there, you can’t do that much about it, so focus on me instead.

As usual, there’s a better explanation than the conventional wisdom. And that better explanation comes from – as always – context.

Jesus is doing the equivalent of a shorthand reference. Much like when you or I might half-use an idiom, such as “nailed it” (from “hit the nail on the head”, meaning, getting it exactly) – we know what we mean at each stage because it conforms to a series of cultural norms.

Jesus is not saying something new or original. He’s quoting Deuteronomy 15:

“There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today. The LORD your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you.

“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the LORD, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. The poor you will always have with you. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with them and with other Israelites in need.

What Jesus is doing is evoking the spirit of this passage. Now, we need to look at the original story in context, too:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I will admit that on first reading, I’m a bit puzzled by what Jesus is saying. He does seem to be suggesting that they should focus on him and not those in need. But if we read this along with the passage he is quoting we get a much clearer picture.

In the Deuteronomic text, we see God getting progressively more disparaging about the chances that the Israelites have of looking after those in need. He starts off with “there should be no poor”, moves on to “if” and then finally ends with “the poor you will always have with you”. In line with this, God pleads more and more intently with the Israelites to look after those in poverty.

So when Jesus says this, he’s evoking this whole passage – written in the context of freedom from debt and slavery – to a people just freed from debt and slavery – reminding them that helping the poor is such a vital part of the mission of God.

I also think there’s something else a little more subtle going on here. Jesus often rebuked the pharisees by turning their attacks on their heads. I think he’s doing the same here. The disciples think they’ve got the hang of Jesus’ teaching – so they jump in to the situation and suggest what seems like the obvious answer. Jesus reminds them of their obligation to the poor – likely reminding them of how much of a failure their society is in that regard – and reminds them that for as long as he is around, everything is a bit different. Of course they should prioritise Jesus, just like the woman does.

The big difference for us today is that we don’t have Jesus here with us in bodily form. We don’t need to use expensive perfume to prepare him for burial or to fill his churches with while we prepare for mass. We don’t have the same context as the disciples in this very particular regard. So instead we must rely on other scripture, and indeed the original passage in Deuteronomy, to guide our thinking around those less fortunate than us.

This is the same Jesus, after all, who told one man named Nicodemus to go and be born again (which we’re all told we need to do) but told the rich young ruler, and his disciples, to sell their possessions and give their money to the poor – as a prerequisite to following him and finding the Kingdom of Heaven. But to quote Rich Mullins, that’s why God invented highlighters – so we could ignore the bits we don’t like.

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