This woman – who had just anointed Jesus with expensive perfume – has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. Matthew 26:11
These words of Jesus have often been taken to mean that our chief concern should be our devotion to Jesus; concern with the poor and needy, who will always be part of our social landscape, is peripheral.
It does sound a bit like that, doesn’t it? That is until you look at the context. A woman comes in (to a leper’s house) with a jar of perfume. The perfume is highly expensive nard, typically used for anointing the dead. She then proceeds to anoint Jesus, just hours before his betrayal by Judas and consequent death. Some of the disciples give the woman a hard time for wasting such expensive perfume on Jesus: ‘the money had better been spent on the poor’. And that’s when Jesus rebukes them, as above.
Women in those days would never have led any formal expressions of worship, but Jesus defends her performing this act of devotion in front of a lot of self-righteous men. There is also the significant symbolism of her action: she is preparing Jesus’ body for death and thereby proclaiming that he is the Messiah. He is both priest and sacrifice. Jesus thereby fulfils Old Testament themes. This is the focus in Matthew’s Gospel, not mission to the poor.
But we must be clear, Jesus was not saying that the poor are peripheral; he was saying that the poor should not be used to rubbish this woman’s prophetic act of devotion. In fact, in reminding his disciples that ‘the poor would always be with them’, Jesus was actually referring them to an Old Testament saying (Deuteronomy 15:11) There will always be poor people in the land. And by implication the words that immediately follow: Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
The plain fact of the matter is that the poor play a highly significant part in Jesus’ ministry and thus constitute a significant focus of God’s mission. Nowhere more so than in the writings of Luke. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus in Luke 6. And he means those who are without financial means. This is illustrated by story after story in his Gospel, from the Shepherds near Bethlehem to the parable about Lazarus and the rich man. But we see the same thing in Acts too. Acts 6 records that caring for widows, by distributing food to them, was a basic role of the new church. A little later we are introduced to Dorcas (aka Tabitha) who we are told was always helping the poor. Cornelius likewise took care of the poor, as a matter of habit, as indeed did Paul himself, see Acts 24:17.
The poor are a focus of God’s mission because they are outside the establishment: they are not considered by rich Jewish men, in this case, to be quite up to standard. Of course, the poor are not unique in this. In Luke’s terms, women and Gentiles are also outside the Jewish establishment. What we catch a glimpse of here is God’s passion to bring inside (into the Kingdom) those that others have placed outside. In other words, with God there are no outsiders. He includes everyone and, most especially, those who have been excluded by human institutions and traditions.
There is another side to this of course: the Scriptures are rich with challenge to those with power, with money and with knowledge. In fact, this probably consumes more words and time in Luke’s Gospel than words directly about the poor. This critique of those who wield power is why Christians get, and arguably should get, involved in the political arena. Concern with the welfare of those that society excludes inevitably leads to confrontation with those whose actions, often unwittingly, do the excluding. How far we go in this is not prescribed; I am inclined to think it should however be a matter for healthy discussion within the church. This too is part of God’s mission.
All this to say, concern for the poor is most definitely a focus in God’s mission. It should therefore occupy our thoughts too. We find it easier to know who the poor are, the further away they are from us. I lived in Africa amongst some of the world’s poorest, but it was often not obvious to me in situ what was the best or most effective way to help them. In the end, I believe helping community leaders to be trained both in matters of the faith and of the world has proved most effective in bringing long-lasting change. At CCC, we are aware of people being poor in Albania and have developed a few programmes to assist there. As a church we support TEAR Fund which explicitly seeks to provide relief and help to the poor. They movingly describe themselves as Christians passionate about ending poverty! This can be about helping provide clean water, sewage systems, health education or just better housing. All this is good.
But what about in our own community? Who are the poor? The elderly, the asylum seekers and new immigrants, the unemployed may all fall into that category. It is good that we have been able to distribute some financial assistance following the Carol Service. However very often, people do not want to be described as poor. It may well be a shameful category. Who is left outside the system? There are systems to take care of people, but who are the Daniel Blakes around us?
These are questions we should be asking as a church engaged in God’s mission.