Jesus famously said to his disciples that the poor will always be with them (Mark 14:7). A woman came to the house of Simon the leper and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume from an alabaster jar. Some complained at the extravagance of this act of devotion and worship, protesting that it could have been sold and the money shared. Jesus defends her actions, saying that the poor will always be there, and those watching can express their kindness to them at anytime.
People have struggled with this episode, seeing it as Jesus being resigned to the economic injustices of his day, simply offering the hope of a bit of charity. Others have suggested he was colluding with those very inequalities. However, I believe it’s a very frank description of how human nature works – that there will be winners and losers economically in this life, and human selfishness and greed will make those divisions more acute and extreme.
Poverty has many causes, of course, and in Jesus’ time, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. The wealthy self-righteous often saw the poor as responsible for their own fate. However, in Jesus’ world (as in ours), poverty was much more a consequence of where in the world you were born. Now as then, the weather, wars, natural disaster, lack of opportunities, or even unjust trading practises leave so many in circumstances where they depend on others for help.
In Jesus’ time the best the poor could hope for was support from family, or the charity of strangers. Jesus clearly expected his followers to be generous. In the early church, widows and orphans were supported. The people held possessions in common (Acts 2:44-45), and eventually organised a kind of welfare system so some could concentrate on spreading the message, and others on caring for the poor (Acts 6:1-6).
Today churches again find themselves on the front line of helping people in need. In Morecambe, the Foodbank and other centres for help, such as our friends at West End Impact have been set up by Christians. Many who volunteer and donate come from the churches. Here at MPC, we are supporting Morecambe Bay Community Primary School in providing meals for children who need them during the school holidays. It would be great to think that one day these resources won’t be needed. But in the meantime, Jesus’ words that the poor will always be with us should prompt those of us who can to campaign, give, volunteer or help to do what we can to meet needs close at hand, as well as those far away.