News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

James L. Evans

How Jesus felt about the poor

"The poor you shall always have with you." These are among the most misused and misunderstood words ever spoken by Jesus.

Sooner or later, in debates about taxes, someone is sure to throw them into the mix.

They will come out sounding something like this: "Why are we getting all worked about the poor. Jesus said there's nothing you can do about them." Let's set the record straight — that is not what he had in mind at all.

Here is how the saying came about.

During the last week of Jesus' life he went to the home of his close friends Mary and Martha.

On this particular evening, Mary came to Jesus and poured a fragrant ointment on his feet and began wiping them with her hair.

We cannot be sure what motivated her to do this. Jesus said she was preparing him for his death.

At any rate, this incident is recognized universally among Christians as a lavish outpouring of love and adoration.

The smell of the ointment was potent and it didn't take long for everyone in the house to learn what Mary had done. The perfumed ointment was also very expensive.

A family might spend as much as a year's wages for the stuff. Imagine spending $40,000 for a bottle of cologne.

Judas was there and began to complain openly about waste. He said, "This could have been sold and the money given to the poor."

We know from the Gospels that Judas was an insincere person. He did not really care about the poor.

He just wanted access to the money. Later on he would find yet another way to get some cash.

Jesus, of course, was aware of all this and said to Judas, "The poor you shall always have with you."

This is where arm chair interpreters step in and try to cast Jesus as a major cynic concerning poverty.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Jesus was actually referencing Scripture that calls for generous and consistent compassion for those who struggle economically.

The biblical verses in question are found in a long speech by Moses in Deuteronomy 15. Moses was literally laying down the law for community behavior.

During the speech he makes several references to helping the needy, and finally says, "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'"

Most biblical scholars view Jesus' comment as a sort of shorthand reference to this Deuteronomy passage.

In effect Jesus was saying that Mary should not be asked to give up her act of worship in order to take care of the poor.

The poor should have already been taken care of by provisions made in the wider community. Jesus' words were not cynical about the poor, they were critical of a community that had failed to care for its own.

Any honest and careful study of the life and words of Jesus leaves little doubt how he felt about the poor.

No one who really knows anything about Jesus would ever believe he dismissed the poor as a lost cause.

On the other hand, there is a long history, beginning with this very incident, of those who are willing to twist the words of Jesus for their own purposes.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached at

James L. Evans James L. Evans

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