Bishop Stacy F. Sauls reflects on one of the most challenging and difficult-to-explain of Jesus's statements: "You always will have the poor with you."
Once, in the home of Simon the Leper, “as [Jesus] sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (Mk. 14:3). With their minds on caring for the poor, some of the disciples complained and scolded her. In her defense, Jesus said, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (v. 7).
I have always found that a very strange thing to say, especially for Jesus, who had devoted so much of his life to the care of people who were poor and who was, at the time the event occurred, transgressing social boundaries by dining in the home of a leper. It makes a little more sense in Jim Wallis’ paraphrase:
You know who we spend our time with, who we share meals with, who listens to our message, who we focus our attention on. You’ve been watching me, and you know what my priorities are. You know who comes first in the kingdom of God. So, you will always be near the poor, you’ll always be with them, and you will always have the opportunity to share with them. (God’s Politics, p. 210)
When you put it all together, could it be that Jesus was not advocating a narcissistic waste of assets held in trust for the poor, which doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me, but something much more radical—that he and the poor are one? Could it be that Jesus was saying that the point is not the poor as if the poor were an abstraction and the point is not poverty as if poverty were nothing more than a social issue? Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to stop wasting time on the poor as an unidentified mass of humanity or on poverty as a subject rich white people talk about over cocktails, to stop dealing with poor people, who have a tendency to be anonymous, and start dealing with people who are poor, who do not? Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to start being with the poor, indeed to start being the poor?
If that’s right, it is no wonder that some of the disciples found this such a difficult thing to hear.
And here’s the most interesting thing. This event, and this teaching have a context in the story. We don’t usually associate them this way, but they are the beginning of the passion. These are the words that lead directly to Jesus’ suffering and death. These are the words that lead to the completion of Jesus’ entire purpose. This is the story that is the beginning of the end—the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross as well as the resurrection and the glorification of Jesus to the right hand of God.
The very next verse after this story, after all, is this: “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (v. 10). The end begins here.