“The poor you will always have with you”

In trying to explain to other Christians why I believe that helping the poor is extremely important, I have occasionally been (somehow) debated and disagreed with. The one verse that is thrown at me is Matthew 26:11/Mark 14:7/John 12:8.

“For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11, ESV).

Supposedly, this is an argument in favour of not doing anything to help the poor. A crude interpretation of Jesus’ sentence here leads some people to believe that there will always be poor people; therefore, helping them is ultimately fruitless. Since there will always be people in poverty, what’s the point of trying to do anything? Apparently we can never eradicate this problem.

First of all, it’s a weak moral argument. Since we can’t eliminate all homicides, should we not have any laws and enforcement that reduces homicides? Secondly, and most importantly, this isn’t what Jesus is trying to convey here. The verse needs to be understood in context.

The verse occurs two days before Jesus’ crucifixion. He was at a party when a woman (Mary in the John version) takes perfume and “poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). (In the Matthew and Mark accounts, the perfume is poured on Jesus’ head.) Some people called this a waste, saying that the perfume could be sold and the money used to help the poor.

First, the person getting indignant (Judas Iscariot in the John version) “did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief” (John 12:6). Second, the perfume was already intended to be used on the day of Jesus’ burial (John 12:7). Third, and more to the point, Jesus was simply saying here that there will be time after his death to serve him by serving the poor. But he would only physically be there for two more days, so it is understandable to want to serve him that way while there is still time.

The end of the verse is quite important. People will often just refer to the part that says “The poor you will always have with you,” but we need to remember that that’s not the end of the sentence. Jesus continues, “…but you will not always have me.” In other words, you can serve me forever by helping the least among you, but for now it is okay that this woman chose to do something for me, the person. And it is this kind of compassion and kindness that is necessary if we’re going to tackle poverty. So instead of being an argument in favour of not helping the poor (which is an absurd argument by any Christian who claims to follow Jesus), it is actually just another argument in helping the poor. Serve me after my death, Jesus says, by helping the poor.

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