As Jesus is being cared for by Lazarus and Martha’s sister Mary, Judas chastises Jesus for allowing Mary to consume the expensive oils on himself rather than give to the poor. In a curious statement, often used to this day, Jesus says “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8)
As I’ve spent nearly the past decade dedicated to working in social ministry, I find this a disturbing and controversial statement. It sounds defeatist and I’ve heard it quoted many times with figurative hands in the air as if there’s little we can do. After all, Jesus did say we’ll always have the poor, so why try so hard? We can’t win the battle on poverty.
The importance of the world-pivoting events at the time he said this seemed clearly to be on Jesus’ mind. He prophesized his own death more than once leading up to this moment. Now, on the eve of what we now call “Holy Week”, when the Passion begins, Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem and start in motion the series of events that change all of history. What was he really speaking of?
Jesus acknowledged we will always have the poor. He performed several healing miracles but he didn’t heal everyone. Jesus as God totally had and has the power to have healed everyone and eliminate poverty in the blink of an eye! So why didn’t he? And don’t forget what happened to all of the people he healed – they all died later anyway.
So what is the point of healing people only to allow them later to die? Is the statement about the poor really, primarily about the poor?
Over and over Jesus points out that he is the point – meaning – the point is not the miracles or healings but that he alone is the point. The “I am” statements Jesus said reveal who he is in his own words.
Sure, Jesus said there will always be poor people. True. I wonder if the key point at that time is that he wouldn’t be with us much longer in a physical sense. Jesus is someone to be cherished, honored and loved. And as we attempt to understand and apply this saying today, we are putting our focus on him while he diverts our vision so we have a new understanding; he provides the means and love in our hearts to do his bidding, even and especially to care for the poor, struggling, hungry, homeless, sick, elderly and all others that are vulnerable.
His focus becomes our focus. He proved his concern for others through the miracles and acts of compassion he did while living as a man. When we focus on him, then his focus becomes ours and he activates us to meet the needs of others.