Someone shared with me on Facebook an article from a site that calls itself The Conservative Trubune,* under the headline “SICK: Obama Just Openly and Proudly Condemned the Words of Jesus Christ Himself.” I don’t have any need to defend the reputation of the President; he’s pretty good at doing that on his own. But I believe this article slanders Jesus, and I do feel called to defend his reputation.
Here’s the story. At one point, Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you.” This seems to be a strange thing for Jesus to have said, since he repeatedly advocated care for the poor as one of his followers’ primary moral responsibilities. Yet, for 2000 years since, the “haves” in society have used this particular saying of Jesus to justify their indifference to the suffering of the “have nots” around them. In their thinking, Jesus said the poor are a continuing reality, so there’s nothing we can (or need to) do about it.
The President, in discussing his initiatives to address the hopeless poverty some American families face, alluded to the words of Jesus in this way: “I think it’s important for us to guard against cynicism and not buy the idea that the poor will always be with us and there’s nothing we can do, because there’s a lot we can do. The question is, do we have the political will, the communal will to do something about it.” The author of the article said Obama was “taking issue with” and “correcting” Jesus. He was “accusing Jesus of being overly ‘cynical’ by making this claim.” The underlying implication in the article seemed to be that Jesus was affirming poverty as a reality of life that must be accepted, and the President was labeling Jesus as “cynical” and going against his teaching by trying to alleviate poverty.
Let’s look at the incident that gave rise to Jesus’ comment. It was a couple of days before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, and everyone could sense the buildup of tension, anger and conspiracy. During a quiet moment in a small town away from the noise of the city, this happened:
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)
In the light of the short time he had left with them, the woman’s lavish expression of love and devotion was the right thing to do. She seemed to sense the impending chaos and valued this moment of celebrating Jesus for who he was. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed,” the story about her anointing of Jesus would inspire other believers to set aside time and energy in their busy lives of service just to stop and worship him.
However, “wherever the gospel was proclaimed,” all over the world, through the many generations since, these strong teachings of Jesus would also be presented as an imperative for all his followers:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21).
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14).
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36).
Jesus’ word to his followers is, after you’ve poured your ointment in worship, it’s time to get up and go to work on the many problems of inequity, injustice and human suffering.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*The slogan under The Conservative Tribune’s title is “In Defense of Western Civilization.”