In a discussion at the ExII blog on the Church’s recent decision renovate downtown Salt Lake, a commenter named Dave justified his support of the Church’s position this way:
The poor ye shall always have with you. An appealing urban landscape, however, is a rare thing, and requires effort, vision and money to make it happen. A billion for humanitarian aid is like spitting at the ocean, but a billion to upgrade SLC will actually make a big difference.
If you want to discuss the Church’s recent actions, join the fray over at ExII because I’ll delete any comments to that effect on this post. This post is about Dave’s argument and its legitimacy.
Short answer: he’s reading it wrong. Jesus’ statement occurs in the context of an objection made to his anointing. (More on that story here, here, and here.) The objectors had pointed out that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii (or: about a year’s wages for an average working person) and that the money could have been given to the poor. In reply, Jesus states:
For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.
First note that he is not making a contrast between himself and the poor but rather a temporal contrast: in a few days, it will no longer be possible to do what this woman has done to/for him, but the poor will still be there. More importantly, however, note that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11:
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.
The context of this verse is the practice of the seventh-year release, which, according to the text, is designed to alleviate social inequality in Israel (i.e., the result of the sabbatical is that â€œthere will be no poor among you,â€? Deut 15.4 RSV). Deuteronomy 15.3-11 focuses on oneâ€™s motivation for lending money (which should not be to gain wealth by accumulating interest but rather to assist someone in need) in light of the knowledge that the sabbath year is impending. The text suggests that one who refuses to lend money because of the impending release is sinful. (The next time a member of your Sunday School class sneers at ‘the lower law’, ask them how many loans they have made recently with no goal other than to help the poor.) The relevant passage reads:
. . . but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, â€œThe seventh year, the year of release is near,â€? and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. (Deut 15.8-10 RSV)
Jesus is suggesting that the woman, although aware that his death is near and that she is, therefore, unlikely to have her kindness â€œrepaid,â€? has â€œgive[n] to him freelyâ€? and thus contrasts with those whose hearts are â€œgrudging,â€? despite the fact that it is not their ointment that has been used. Their motive is comparable to those who do not lend money for fear of the impending year of release.
If you are whining and I tell you “the grass is always greener . . . “, I expect that you realize that I am not talking about grass. I’m expecting you to fill in the second half of a well known phrase and to realize its greater meaning. The same is the case with Jesus’ words in this passage: the color of the grass isn’t relevant, and the continual existence of poverty is not being justified. When Jesus says, “ye have the poor with you always,” what he is implying is, “therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, the poor.”
Again, this isn’t a discussion of the SLC plan. It is a discussion about the meaning of Jesus’ words.