The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.
--John 12:8 RSV
It was early in my career as an ordained minister and I had just preached a sermon about economic injustice to the “fiscal Republican” crowd at the church I served in a Wall Street bedroom community on Long Island. Afterward, a member who happened to be a great guy engaged with me in a friendly manner. We talked about my sermon in which I said basically to be Christian means working to eliminate poverty. He pointed out to me that Jesus himself said, “The poor you always have with you,” meaning, he felt, it’s an inevitable law of the universe that some will be poor so why bother? I was flabbergasted. It was the first time, but far from the last time, I would hear this verse used to suggest Jesus wanted us to NOT care about poor people. It’s a bit of bad biblical interpretation that politicians, pundits and snobs like to throw around.
I bring up this verse today because it is Holy Wednesday. In Christian tradition, Wednesday night of Holy Week focuses upon Jesus being anointed at Bethany by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (NOT Mary Magdalene as tradition has confused the various Marys of the Gospels—go read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and he will explain it to you). In John’s version (Matthew, Mark and Luke all have different details), Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, Judas objects (because he wanted the money himself according to the narrator) and Jesus explains Mary was preparing him for his burial. Then he drops his words about “the poor.”
Yesterday, I shared some background on why Jesus became angry enough to disrupt the merchants at the Jerusalem temple—the exploitation of the poor. Now, here Jesus is the next day talking about “the poor” again. It’s almost as if Jesus cared about poor people and wasn’t promoting a private individualistic piety as so many Christians think! I bring “the poor” up not because I’m such a great social activist or even particularly generous but because Jesus won’t stop talking about poor people even the days before his impending death. It matters, because Christianity has made Jesus’ teachings and ministry about an otherworldly ticket to heaven rather than about concrete acts of love in the here and now.
Recently, I’ve come across a sermon the writer Kurt Vonnegut preached on a Palm Sunday. I’m sure folks better educated than I are well aware of it, but it’s new to me. Vonnegut described himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic” which in my book is better than self-identified Christians who ignore Christ’s teachings. In his sermon, the author chose to focus on the verse containing the phrase “the poor you always have with you.” His interpretation is the same as my interpretation, and if Christ’s death and resurrection are to mean anything in the here and now, then I think this matters greatly if one wishes to follow Jesus. Here’s some of what Vonnegut had to say:
Whatever it was that Jesus really said to Judas was said in Aramaic, of course-and has come to us through Hebrew and Greek and Latin and archaic English. Maybe He only said something a lot like, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me." Perhaps a little something has been lost in translation. And let us remember, too, that in translations jokes are commonly the first things to go.
I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation "For the poor always ye have with you."
I am speaking mainly of my youth in Indianapolis, Ind. No matter where I am and how old I become, I still speak of nothing but my youth in Indianapolis, Ind. Whenever anybody out that way began to worry a lot about the poor people when I was young, some eminently respectable Hoosier, possibly an uncle or an aunt, would say that Jesus Himself had given up on doing much about the poor. He or she would paraphrase John 12, verse 8: "The poor people are hopeless. We'll always be stuck with them."
The general company was then free to say that the poor were hopeless because they were so lazy or dumb, that they drank too much and had too many children and kept coal in the bathtub, and so on. Somebody was likely to quote Kim Hubbard, the Hoosier humorist, who said that he know a man who was so poor that he owned 22 dogs. And so on.
If those Hoosiers were still alive, which they are not, I would tell them now that Jesus was only joking, and the He was not even thinking much about the poor.
. . .
If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.
"Judas, don't worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I'm gone."
Shall I regarble it for you? "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me."
My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.
As we look towards the death and resurrection of Jesus, let us remember that Jesus wasn’t offering us just a heavenly afterlife but a way to help people escape Hell on Earth so that God’s will might be done “on Earth as it is in heaven.”
Grace and Peace,
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.