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Always the Poor

by Tim O'Hearn

It is a familiar story, told by three of the gospel writers. Jesus is sitting in the house of one Simon the Leper. Martha, sister to Lazarus, was serving the meal. (Was Simon her husband? Or were Simon and Lazarus the same person?) While he is reclining at the meal, a woman (John identifies her as Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus) comes in, breaks open an alabaster container of spikenard ointment, and pours it on the head and feet of Jesus. The disciples (John identifies specifically Judas benShimon of Kerioth) question why the ointment had not been sold for 300 denarii (almost a year’s wages) and given to the poor. Jesus answers that the woman did this for his impending burial, and says “the poor you have with you always.” (Matthew 26; Mark 14; John 12)

On the face of it Jesus is reminding the apostles that he is about to die. There is always a chance to help the poor, but he would only be there a short while. That may even be the way most of the disciples understood what he said. But there is a possibility that he was expressing another message as well. Maybe he was addressing it directly to Judas.

John records that Judas was taking money from the funds entrusted to him. Some have speculated that when he dealt with the priests for thirty pieces of silver he did not expect them to kill Jesus. This theory says that he would turn Jesus over to them, and expected him to go through some sort of trial and be acquitted. That is why, they say, he hung himself when Jesus was crucified. If this is true, then we can speculate even further that he thought that his embezzlement was suspected. The thirty pieces of silver may have been his way of replenishing the bag of what he had stolen. Why would he suspect that his crime was known? Maybe it was what Jesus said about the poor.

Deuteronomy 15 gives the law for the year of release (Sh’mita). Every seventh year was a time to cancel all debts owed by Jews to Jews. Moses states one exception to the Sh’mita year.

Save when there shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it: Only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day. (Deut 15:4-5)

Moses says there will be a time when there are no poor in Israel. But that time can only come if the people “carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord.” The only time there can be no poor in Israel is when the Jews would observe all the commandments in the Book of the Law.

When Jesus says “the poor you will have with you always,” he is saying that the Jews, and particularly those present at the dinner, are not carefully observing all the commands. While there may have been many commands violated by his disciples, a guilty conscience might tell Judas that his main sin, embezzlement, was the one sin that Jesus was saying kept Israel from being without the poor. He might have heard, “because one of you is stealing money from the common purse, you will always have to deal with the poor.”

Even if this speculative scenario is wrong, the conclusion still appears to be valid. If we would all show the love required in following Jesus, we might not eliminate the poor. We could make a serious dent in the problem. But with faith, the poor might not always be with us.