Was Jesus concerned about the poor?


John 12:1-8

Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me (12:7-8).

Was Jesus concerned about the poor? The answer to this pointed question is both a “No” and a “Yes” On the one hand, Jesus categorically said no to Judas’ way of dealing with this issue. On the other hand, according to what he said about poverty and what he did for the needy, Jesus was indeed intensely concerned about the poor. These contrasting views are implied in our Gospel lesson and Scripture passages related to it.

According to our Gospel lesson (John 12:1-8), a few days before his passion, Jesus made a stopover in Bethany en route to Jerusalem and stayed with Mary and Martha. In gratitude to Jesus for raising their brother, Lazarus, from the dead, they hosted a dinner for Jesus. As they were enjoying a hearty meal that Martha prepared, Mary surprised everybody with an act of extravagant love. She quietly arose, sat down before Jesus, anointed his feet with costly perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.

What Mary did raised a question that troubled not only Judas but also other well-intentioned Christians since the time of Jesus until now. The question was this: How much of our possessions should we share with the poor, and how much should we keep to ourselves? Very likely, with this tough question in mind, Judas rebuked Mary sharply. Setting aside for the moment his motive, Judas seemed to have a legitimate concern. Make no mistake about it. Three hundred denarii or US$12,000.00, was the equivalent of a year’s earnings of an average workman in those days. It was enough to keep a poor family alive for twelve months or feed a lot of hungry people. For Judas, Mary was guilty of doing two related and horribly wrong things: her extravagant demonstration of love for her master and her apparent neglect of the poor. Jesus sprang to Mary’s defense. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She brought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (NRSV). Jesus’ comment seemed to suggest that he was insensitive to the poor. Or was he?

As the Son of God, Jesus was a diviner of human hearts. He must have seen the insincerity of Judas’ concern for the poor. On the surface, Judas’ rhetoric about a right way of using Mary’s scare resources was an unassailable truth. Beneath it, however, lay an ulterior motive. As the keeper of the common purse, he saw another golden opportunity of pilfering money to line his pocket. Judas did not have reservations of a pained conscience about using the poor to promote his self-serving agenda (John 12:6). Judas is not alone. He stands for all others, including Christians, who have used the poor to their personal advantage.

In the light of what he said and did, Jesus was concerned about poverty in holistic terms. His mission was to meet both material and spiritual poverty, about the blessedness of the poor and of the poor in spirit. In John chapter 6, for instance, we read about Jesus feeding five thousand hungry people with five barley loaves and two fishes. When the crowd wanted to take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew. Later they found him talking about the “living bread from heaven.” Assuming that Jesus meant something similar to the manna the ancient Israelites ate in the wilderness, the crowd demanded, “Sir, give us this bread always.” In response, Jesus went to say, “I am the bread of life.” The people were perplexed, astonished. They argued and complained. “This teaching is difficult;” they said, “who can accept it?” Eventually, many of those in the crowd turned their backs on Jesus. The point is this: When John reported Jesus as saying “the poor will always be with you,” he meant that while not ignoring the need of the poor for material bread, Jesus also made it very clear the people – rich and poor – should acknowledge their problem of spiritual poverty for which He, alone, was the answer.

“You always have the poor with you.” If the poor are always with us, how should we respond to their needs? Let me suggest a theological point of view as the basis for our action to serve the poor. I refer to the Christian doctrine of incarnation. In Jesus, God became truly human in all aspects except in one, namely, that he was not a sinner. Jesus was immersed in our human situation, sharing our pain, suffering and limitations as well as our joys, triumphs and success. He saved us from bondage to sin from within, not from a distance. The incarnation model “…means that we live our whole life with the understanding that we have been called to a life of suffering servanthood in behalf of a needy world” (Jirair Trahjan). This means that our mission of serving the needy in love does not begin and end when we donate food during Thanksgiving and Christmas or used clothing to thrift stores. This means that in concrete human situations, we should use a variety of effective and “doable” action strategies. There is a place for Mother Teresa’s approach of ministering to the needs of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. There is a place for each of us living simply so that others may simply live. We could refrain from buying hamburgers or soft drinks so that we can save a few dollars to contribute to a fund drive in support of the work of the Wider Church such as building artesian wells for dirt poor people in rural Africa. Without waiting for a comprehensive solution to poverty at the national and global level, we can minister to the needy.

Should we be concerned about the poor? We had better be for as Jesus says in Matthew 25, in the day of judgment, God will demand an accounting of whether we have ministered to the world’s poor. As servants of our Servant Lord, the challenge is that we should be disciplined and intentional in emulating Mary’s example of quietly, faithfully, obediently, humbly,, lovingly and sacrificially do “what we can do where (God) has placed us.”