You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.John 12:8 (NIV).
How often I have heard this quoted along with the vague suggestion that giving to the poor is futile! Can this really be what Jesus meant? Did he mean that our efforts to eradicate poverty can never succeed, that giving cash to poor people is like trying to carry water in a sieve? Such thinking misses two very important yet obvious facts.
The first is that Jesus—as he often did when making a point—was referring to the Law of Moses. Take a look at what Moses commanded concerning the poor:
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.Deuteronomy 15:7–11 (NIV). Emphasis added.
Moses commanded generosity toward the poor for the very reason that poverty was ubiquitous. The purpose of giving was twofold: it opened the hearts of those who gave to see the poor as fellow humans, and it alleviated their suffering. The purpose of giving to the poor has never been to eliminate poverty but to soften the blows of its buffeting. Moreover, those who give to the poor are promised God’s blessing in all their work and in everything they put their hand to.
John’s account also calls out the hypocritical concern of Judas Iscariot. He was the one who complained that the expensive perfume with which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet should have been sold and the money given to the poor. “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” As treasurer, Judas saw a lost opportunity to embezzle more funds from the common stock of Jesus’ followers. In the end, his greed led him to betray Jesus to the authorities who sought to kill him.
The second obvious fact is that Jesus was comparing the uniqueness of the situation to the quotidian concern for the poor. There are occasions in every life that call for extravagance, when we feel impelled to give a gift of extraordinary value because the occasion is extraordinary. What made Mary’s gift all the more luxurious was its utter uselessness. No one’s life was made better by it. No one received any lasting benefit from it. But, of course, that is characteristic of perfume. Its use is always a waste—unless you are trying to cover up the stench of death. Jesus regarded Mary’s costly perfume as a preparation for his own burial, then only a week away. By her gift Mary showed her gratitude to Jesus, who just a few days before had raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead. Extravagant? What she gave was paltry in comparison with what she had received. Was any price too great to pay to show her devotion to the one who had restored her brother?
Everyone present knew what had happened: how Lazarus had died, how Jesus had risked his own life in returning to Judea, how Jesus had called the dead man out of the tomb, how Lazarus was restored to life, how Lazarus himself was there at the table with Jesus and his followers. No one could fail to appreciate the rarity of the situation. Except Judas. He evinces a sudden concern for the poor, and Jesus deftly exposes how improper that concern was under the circumstances.