You will always have the poor
A Reflection by Jerry Finney
Gospel Jn 12:1-11
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served,
while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
So Jesus said, “Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came,
not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus,
whom he had raised from the dead.
And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too,
because many of the Jews were turning away
and believing in Jesus because of him.
When I first read our Gospel reading for this morning, I thought it was about two things — Mary’s love and worship of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead and Judas’ criticism of actions because of his greed and corruption. In preparing this reflection, I found that there is much more.
The scholar Fr. Raymond Brown points out that the anointing of Jesus’ head and feet is symbolic of his being prepared for burial following his crucifixion. It also is symbolic of what was believed by many at that time of what was necessary for resurrection. Rabbi’s would discuss the greatest act of mercy — almsgiving or burying the dead. Those who believed in proper burial thought it an essential condition for sharing in the resurrection. Spending large amounts of money for a proper burial, just like today in our society, happened and happens where people want the best for their loved one.
So there is a hidden discussion of the greatest mercy. Jesus tells Judas that in this case it is better to save the fragrant oil for his burial. Jesus was not negating the value and necessity of almsgiving. Jesus’ other statement to Judas of, “The poor you always have with you,” on its surface, might seem cynical or uncaring. But, that would not fit with the rest of Jesus’ manifest concern for the poor, the oppressed and those at the margins of society. Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy and is reflecting a reality. Even if everyone started out even in life, sooner or later some will end up with more and others with less, much less. Chance, disaster, ill health, environmental changes, laziness, cheating, bad decisions — all will produce disparities.
Galilee, in Jesus’ day, was an occupied country, and the Hebrews were a religious minority. The mostly illiterate population, that flocked to Jesus’ teaching and healing, were barely surviving on subsistence farming and they were subject to the whims of the landholders and the powerful elite ruling from a distance. The poor and oppressed were the ones to whom Jesus ministered. He told those who had more than they needed to share their excess so as to bring about God’s kingdom.
Deuteronomy, reflecting God’s mercy and wisdom, recognized that disparities were inevitable and, to deal with it, proposed a system of periodic redistribution of resources and forgiveness of debt. It was a system of how people who had been rescued from slavery and given so much were to deal with one another.
It is certainly no less true today that all our resources are gifts. God gave his people the ability both to smooth out those inequities and prevent some of them altogether. That’s what’s behind Jesus’ reminder that we will always have the poor with us. That is why we must share and redistribute resources.
In his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis urges us to, “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which entails learning to give, and not simply to give up.” It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what “I want” to what “God’s world needs.” It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion. As Christians we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation…”
Pope Francis said that St. Francis’ actions and words “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”
The message — from Deuteronomy, from Jesus, from Pope Francis — is that those who have resources must use them wisely and must help those who have not, not out of generosity but out of responsibility. Jesus and Pope Francis did not say how to do, just to do it. Getting that sharing right is not easy. We each must work at it as best we can and where possible implant God’s values in our economic systems.