“The Poor You Will Always Have:” It’s Not A Prediction!June 28th, 2013
If I hear one more person take the phrase “The poor you will always have with you” out of context (almost always as an excuse to avoid asking the hard questions about poverty), I may have to scream. I have heard this statement used countless times as Jesus’ prediction of the state of the world. The poor will always and forever be here, so don’t worry about trying to eliminate poverty. It’s clearly God’s will. Jesus said so.
NO, HE DIDN’T!!!!! Please, read the entire sentence. What Jesus in Matthew 26: 11 said is, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (my italics) This is not a prediction, it is a comparison. The disciples are criticizing the woman who has come in and anointed Jesus with expensive oil, saying that the money could have been given to the poor. Perhaps they thought they were saying what Jesus was thinking, since Jesus was certainly all about helping the poor and marginalized. They might have been very surprised by his response to them.
Jesus is not telling them not to worry about the poor because they are an intractable social ill. What he is saying is that he himself is not going to be around much longer. (We call this foreshadowing or a prediction of his crucifixion.) This woman is anointing him as he will be anointed at his death. Jesus is making a statement of comparison: she is doing this now because I won’t be around much longer. It would be similar to saying that we should send aid to rebuild a storm-damaged city right now because the need is immediate and grave. This doesn’t mean that we then forget about the urban poor or accept their plight as inevitable. It just means that we have an immediate and pressing need to deal with, while keeping the more chronic issues on our radar.
The dinner is at the house of Simon the leper, whom Jesus had cured. I think this is important to keep in mind. Jesus doesn’t throw band-aids at problems. He fixes them. Jesus cures, he restores people to full participation in society. He heals the sick. He eats with sinners. He changes the social order—and is killed for his efforts. He is never complacent with human suffering.
For the poor, a place in society clearly implies being lifted out of poverty and given dignity in the form of jobs and housing and all of the other benefits that give autonomy and a voice to the powerless. That is why it is far too facile to use these words out of context. They allow us to think that charity is enough. Charity is important to address immediate needs, but it does not solve problems in the long run. Jesus knew it. We need to believe it too, or we miss the true challenge of the Gospels.