If the Poor Will Always Be Here, Why Bother?
Throughout his life Jesus was to be found among the needy. Toward the end of his life at the home of Simon the Leper—whom Jesus probably had healed, an unnamed woman comes to anoint Jesus with costly ointment. This woman probably was not rich herself and her offering represented an outrageous gift: “Why couldn’t this be sold and the money given to the poor?” some of Jesus’ disciples wanted to know.
Surely Jesus would agree with such sentiments. But his response has both surprised and troubled Christians for centuries: “Why are you troubling her?” he said. “She has performed a beautiful work for me; the poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me” (vv. 6, 7). What could Jesus mean? That serving Him is more important than serving the poor? Or that since poverty is a perennial problem, we should not worry about it too much?
These views, while widespread, misunderstand Jesus’ intention. Biblical scholar Ched Myers proposes that verse 7 be translated: “You will always be with the poor”—as Jesus himself was always to be found there. In an important sense, then, after Jesus’ departure, service to the poor is service to Jesus.
Evidence for this is in the Old Testament background of this passage. Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15, especially verses 7 to 11. There God says through Moses, if any among you are in need you should “open your hand” to them, so that the Lord your God will bless you. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you: ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land,” (v. 11). You are to be the kind of people who are looking out for those in need around you.
Why is this important? According to the creation account in Genesis 1:26-27, the man and the woman are created to be like God, "in his image" as the Scriptures say. Among other things, this surely means that our behavior should reflect God. And the Old Testament is very clear that God is always looking out for the poor and needy. God’s words to Job are typical of many other passages: “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the wretched came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (Job 29:12-13).
Jesus consistently helps those who have no helper. In many ways, the anointing of this woman was the “blessing of the wretched” coming upon Jesus because of his love for the poor. If we want to show our love for God, Jesus is saying, indeed if we want to be like God, we will always be among the poor. As Jesus says in another place: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).