'The poor you will always have with you'
I have always been troubled whenever Jesus' words, "The poor you will always have with you," have been quoted because I usually hear them as a justification for poverty.
It is a justification that often comes from the lips of those who have more than enough.
I spoke recently to a large gathering of people of faith on the issue of economic justice and the need for the church to lead the way in that effort.
I was aware of the latest report concerning the number of people living in poverty in America. That number stands at 46 million, with half being children.
Background on Jesus' words
But let’s be clear about the context that caused Jesus to utter those words in the first place.
Mark sets this event within the backdrop of the Festival of Passover. Jesus is at the home of Simon the Leper. While Jesus is eating, a woman comes up carrying a bottle of expensive perfume. She opens it and pours it on his head.
Her action anticipates that this Passover would take on a greater significance. Jesus' body would be broken and his blood shed to deliver us from the bondage of sin.
The simple and extravagant act done by this woman underscores that what Jesus will do will be just as extravagant and foolish in the eyes of those who do not understand who he is and what God is up to.
Those who objected to her act, complaining that the money used from the sale of the perfume could have been used to feed people who were living in poverty, have some credibility if they were really concerned about that group of people.
But as I read this passage there is no evidence that those who objected were really concerned about people.
They were angry with Jesus, and this act simply gave them more ammunition to string him up.
Yes, as Jesus says in Matthew, "you always have the poor with you" and we ought to begin to wrestle with why that is.
I remember a question posed by Dom Helder Camara, a Latin American theologian and churchman, who asked: "When shall we have the courage to outgrow the charity mentality and see that at the bottom of all relations between rich and poor there is a problem of justice?"
This single and momentous event of the Christian story, the cross, tells us that in the face of greed, violence and self-centeredness God is up to something.
The one who went up that hill, who suffered, bled, died and rose -- indeed rose with healing in his wings -- came to reorder our economy and reshape our economic priorities.
The cross of Jesus points to God's extravagance, his generosity. God in Jesus makes room.
God in Jesus even changes our language. Hear the words again -- when we pray, we pray to "Our Father," and we pray "give us this day our daily bread."
So whenever I look out and see a family sleeping in their car, or pass a young person with all of their earthly belongings in their backpack, or sit across from someone that I've just bought a meal for because their unemployment has just run out and in a matter of days they will have to vacate their apartment, I become keenly aware of the presence of Jesus in every one of those bodies.
Equally, I become keenly aware of the need for the collective Christian community to act with faith and boldness to turn the nightmare of poverty into a table where there is enough for everyone.
Ken Wheeler is pastor of Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.
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