“The Poor will Always be with You…” – Jesus’ Call to a Deeper Life

Aug 12, 2022 | News

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By Nicolas Laing
Mission Partner serving in Uganda

“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 will always be with you…”
These words are so pro­found I can’t do them justice, but here goes!

The Dis­ciples’ Per­spect­ive: “Why this waste?”

It should both empower and chill us to the bone that much of the money we spend on ourselves would be better spent by someone less well off. This makes intu­it­ive sense. One extra dollar won’t even buy us a coffee and we barely notice if one extra dollar enters our bank account. But imagine if you only earn one dollar a day. That extra dollar buys the pen and book which allows your child to go back to school. So much value, relief, and joy from just one dollar! This util­it­arian think­ing is behind that effect­ive but oh-so-cringe fun­drais­ing technique:
“For the cost of just one coffee a day, you could feed/clothe/educate/save/empower….”

Exper­i­ence, the dis­ciples and science tell us that once we achieve a middle-class income, every extra dollar we spend only increases our hap­pi­ness by a tiny amount. As a 10-year-old I was over­whelmed with joy when I bought an ice cream with my pocket money. I remem­ber the euphoria of buying a watch with my first pay cheque from a summer job. This dwarfs the neg­li­gible sero­tonin hit I get these days every time I buy a new Ferrari…. (Joking!)

Credit: The Happy Philosopher

So, if we have this remark­able power to love others with our money more effect­ively than we can love ourselves, perhaps the best thing to do is to give away every dollar we earn over a certain amount. The extra money will hardly help our hap­pi­ness, but imagine what it could do for someone else? If we earn 70,000 dollars a year, how can we justify keeping more than say $50,000 when that extra 20,000 dollars could trans­form the life of someone less for­tu­nate? Whenever we spend excess money on rel­at­ively frivol­ous things, the dis­ciples’ cry of “why this waste?” rings in our ears.

Mary shocks the dis­ciples when she pours out a half litre of high-end nard perfume on his feet. Imagine the cost of a half-litre of Chanel no. 5. How would you react when it was poured out in front of you It’s hard to argue with the dis­ciples’ logic “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

But Jesus imme­di­ately replies “Why are you both­er­ing this woman? She has done a beau­ti­ful thing to me.”

Jesus sees her loving heart. What was a flag­rant (fra­grant?) waste of money was also an instinct­ive, self­less act to honour someone who had turned her life around. If someone had pulled you out of poverty and an abusive life con­trolled by men, would you not have done the same?
Jesus knows that we are com­pas­sion­ate human beings, and there are moments when we will lavish our resources on things that don’t make util­it­arian sense. Maybe this isn’t the most logical or strictly ‘best’ thing to do, but it’s deeply human and hey, we aren’t perfect. But straight after affirm­ing Mary’s lavish love, Jesus’ chal­lenge goes deeper than we could ever expect.

“The Poor will always be with you.”

This is where the rubber hits the road. At first reading Jesus might seem flip­pant, dis­miss­ing the plight of the poor, but only because (unlike the dis­ciples) we don’t know what he’s quoting. This is a direct quote from a 3000-year-old Deu­ter­o­nomy passage, which calls for the kind of radical eco­nomic justice that would shock even a modern-day left-wing politician.

“The poor will always be with you. There­fore, I command you to be open­han­ded toward your fellow Israel­ites who are poor and needy in your land.”

In Deu­ter­o­nomy 13, God com­mands that his people should cancel ALL debts every seven years (what?!), and they should lend people “Whatever they need” even in the year before the debts are for­given. After six years of service, richer Israel­ites should not only release any ser­vants working for them, but send them off with animals, crops, and wine to kick-start their new life. This eco­nomic agenda is so radical and so far ahead of its time, it’s no wonder the Israel­ites did a pretty bad job of actu­ally imple­ment­ing it.

Through invok­ing this passage Jesus goes deeper and takes us beyond simple argu­ments about whether a lavish act of perfume pouring makes logical sense. What matters is not whether this par­tic­u­lar pot of perfume was wasted on a lavish act of love. What matters is that we devote our entire lives to eco­nomic justice. His point is that the poor will always be with us so poorer people will always be needing our love and help.

Serving others is a long game.

Becoming a person of generosity and love is not primarily about criticising others who might be wasteful, or virtue signalling on social media or voting for what we see as ‘progressive’ political parties, but about living whole lives of integrity and love. Lives bent towards those who are struggling and marginalised. Not just today, but tomorrow, and tomorrow next.

Jesus’ chal­lenge “the poor will always be with you” is an invit­a­tion to follow him into a deeper journey, beyond the hustle and bustle of trying to ‘Make it’, the dis­trac­tion of social media, and the polar­isa­tion of modern polit­ics. A journey which will cost us much, but give us so much more. Are we willing?

It’s also not a sur­prise that this whole thing happened while Jesus was vis­it­ing Simon, a man with leprosy, a crip­pling disease full of social and reli­gious stigma.

This article was taken from Nic’s blog Uganda Panda. Learn more about Nic and Tessa Laing here.

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