‘The Poor Will Always Be with You.’ Worship or Justice?
While [Jesus] was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” —Mark 14:3-9
“‘The poor will always be with you!’ Jesus himself said that,” argued my friend. He was trying to convince me that improving our economic system to better serve the poor was a fool’s errand. “Our job is to worship Jesus, just like this woman. That’s it. He’ll make things better for the poor when he returns. We can’t really change things in the meantime.”
I (no doubt a little self-righteously) bristled with indignation.
Sometimes Advent too can make us bristle with indignation, especially if we are pursuing justice, wholeness, and flourishing for people cast aside by our society. As a season of waiting, it can feel passive. As a season of hoping and longing for Jesus’ return, it can feel like abdicating responsibility for what’s right in front of us. Is Jesus really giving us a pass, asking us to just wait around until he gets back?
Absolutely not! In fact, if we understand Jesus rightly here, we can enter fully into the worshipful waiting of Advent while pursuing justice as Jesus calls us to do in this very passage.
When we dig just barely below the surface, we find that, according to Jesus, the continual presence of need, so far from absolving us of the responsibility to fix the enormous problem, presents us with a continual responsibility to live generously.
A careful listener at Simon’s party would have recognized Jesus’ reference to Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (emphasis added). To underscore the connection, notice what Jesus says right after “The poor you will always have with you.” He says: “. . . and you can help them any time you want”!
Jesus is saying, “You don’t have to choose between honoring me and caring for the poor. You don’t have to choose either worship or justice. Why not do both?! Stop living with a mentality of scarcity and recognize the abundance with which I’ve generously blessed you.” It’s that abundance on which God bases his beautiful poverty elimination plan in Deuteronomy 15, saying that if we only followed it, “There need be no poor people among you” (v. 4).
When we recognize the abundance God has blessed us with, instead of indignantly judging each other for “not getting it,” we can ask what perfume we have at home. We can cancel the debts of those indebted to us—and still tithe. We can give to the person on the street and the person passing the plate down the aisle. We can participate in the world to come. Even while we wait.
Prayer: Jesus, you are the God of Justice who deserves our praise. Spirit, convict me when my worship is devoid of a just life and when my pursuit of justice is not done from sincere service to you. Father, make me daily a new creation, full of faith and diligent in works. For your glory alone and for the good of the world you love. Amen.
Kyle Brooks is a church planter in Oakland, California, at Tapestry Church. Tapestry is a merger of a black church plant and a mostly white church plant in East Oakland, and it’s an attempt to display the beauty of God’s multicultural, socially conscious and racially just vision for his church in an increasingly divided world. Kyle pastors alongside his lead pastor, Bernard Emerson, and is active in serving the Oakland community.