By Russell Waldrop
Jesus’ disciples have always struggled with the harshness of his teachings on wealth and poverty. Some have rejected them as a “social gospel;” others have upheld them for that very reason. A few have lived them out in ways that challenge, even embarrass, the rest of us. Most of us have found some spot “in the middle” that is somewhat sacrificial, yet probably too comfortable for radical Christianity. Yet, is there any other kind?
It was Judas, the group’s treasurer, who framed the famous objection to overly generous giving to poor people. When a woman poured a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus, he asked why it couldn’t have been sold and the money given to the poor. Yet, that apparent call to financial accountability — reasonable as it sounds — was asked by the one who was also stealing from the treasury (John 12:3-7). Greed hides well in mathematical camouflage.
It got worse in that very meeting. Jesus’ response, taken out of context then and now, included the words: “You will always have poor people with you.” Before those words, he had defended the woman’s generosity, saying: “Leave her alone!” After those words, he said: “You will not always have me,” limiting whatever value of Judas’ objection to this one event around Jesus’ upcoming funeral.
If “the poor are always with you,” as poverty is justified today, we must ask the church: “Who moved?” Has the church scurried away from them, or have poor people given up on the church and left it? Either way, the togetherness that Jesus taught between church and poor people seems not to be applied to the situation.
On another occasion, Jesus expanded this teaching on poverty, saying: “You will always have poor people with you and you can help them anytime you want to” (Mark 14:7). “Helping them” draws us alongside poor people to be “with them” — as Jesus said on both occasions. That requires intentional relationships.
“You can help them anytime you want to” is difficult to rationalize away. Where else would we help people in poverty except out of it?