Over tea one day, a friend tells me a story about visiting a fiscally conservative Christian church. During the sermon at this particular church, the piece of scripture where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” is used to support the argument that Christians really need not concern themselves with delivering charity to those who are economically disadvantaged because such charity would not effect a substantial change around the broader and ongoing issue of poverty.
My friend’s story reminds me how far we, as individuals, are capable of straying from the Grace of our shared humanity in an effort to protect, defend or uphold our sometimes selfish comforts, myopic philosophical positions or even personal idiosyncrasies.
When sacred scripture is taken out of context, misread or interpreted solely to support our comfortable social positions and views, it can cloud the very Light which binds us as One. (I would note here that such attitudes toward scriptural interpretation(s) are not unique to Christians, but that this phenomenon exists among peoples of a wide variety of religious and philosophical traditions, where individuals or select groups desire to safeguard certain of their habits, decisions and/or lifestyle traits.)
Looking at the larger context in which Jesus makes this statement about the poor, we learn that Jesus is receiving the gift of an anointing from a woman, who clearly wishes to honor Jesus’ work through her generous ritual, physical act. The perfumed oil she uses on Jesus’ body is expensive. The disciples do not give voice to discontent regarding the act of anointing, but to the discontent they feel about the use of an expensive gift of perfume. From the disciples’ perspective, such an expensive commodity could have been resold; and, then, the money from that sale could have been used to alleviate suffering among the poor.
It is only after the woman and, indirectly, Jesus are admonished by the disciples that Jesus, in turn, admonishes the disciples themselves by stating, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” [Mark 14: 3-9]
There are a great number of interpretive readings or lessons that might be derived from this piece of scripture.
Jesus may be reminding us that working for “social justice” is an ongoing task and that those doing this work need to take care of themselves—physically. (Remember that the anointing is not the issue here.)
In another interpretive reading, Jesus may be asking us to honor each other as individuals, because none of us knows how long we have on this earth, even as we concern ourselves with issues of deep social concern in our Grace-centered lives.
Another aspect of this narrative is Jesus’ reminder to receive gifts graciously and humbly from those who wish to give from the seat of their open and generous hearts, because God alone knows about the timing and leadings which precede an individual’s actions of compassionate generosity.
In the gospel according to Mark, Jesus concludes, “She hath done what she could: she is coming aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel is preached throughout the world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”
God knows us by our mitzvahs.
Using the more complete scriptural context, the greater lesson may be that we, as individuals, will be remembered for the selfless acts of kindness we perform and that those outside of said acts should not judge them for being extravagant or out of place.
However this narrative in its various interpretations may speak to us on a given day or in a given moment, this reader cannot find anything in the text to support the idea that we should abandon caring for one another or that consistent, conscious and kind acts of charity should be denied to anyone–poor or not.
There will always be a need in this realm for social action which acknowledges the sacred nature of the physical frame, through which we may choose to serve the Light, and that of Grace which resides in each of our hearts.
See also Matthew 26: 6-13 and John 12: 2-8.