‘The poor will be with you always’ is a phrase found in Matthew 26:11, John 12:11 and Mark 14:7. And it is a phrase I have seen used to support the ideas that we can never end poverty and that it is Jesus, as opposed to the poor, which should be our concern.
I think we should instead consider the place this little phrase holds in the story of the anointing at Bethany (which is in all of the gospels – placed in the Passion narrative before the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection) because it is possible to see this event, the anointing of Jesus, as a turning point.
This is a turning point in which Jesus is placed in opposition to both the Roman Empire – because it establishes Jesus as king of a new sort of Empire – and to Judas and the disciples – because it speaks to Jesus’ total overturning of the existing social and economic structures.
Understood in this context, ‘the poor are with you always’ is one of the strongest statements of our mandate to end poverty.
A turning point: Jesus placed in opposition to the Roman Empire
In Matthew 26, an unnamed woman appears at Simon’s house with a jar of expensive ointment, which she pours onto Jesus’ head.
This anointing should be read as part of the Passion narrative. Not only is Jesus effectively being anointed for his burial (placing this woman as the first person to recognise that Jesus is going to die) but Jesus is anointed through the same process that David and the other kings in the Hebrew Bible. As such, Jesus’ anointing sets him up as an alternative king to Caesar – placing him in opposition to the Roman Empire and positioning him closer to death.
Most significantly, it should be noted that the Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah, while the Greek word for anointed is Christ.
This moment, then, is the point at which Jesus is made Christ and considered Messiah.
A turning point: Jesus overturning existing economic structures
It is significant that at the point Jesus is anointed, the issue of economic, not just spiritual, impoverishment is made central. This is the case from the very outset: the anointing is in Simon’s house, and Simon is a leper, an outcast, living in Bethany, which means ‘the house of the poor’ in Hebrew.
Most obviously though, the response of the disciples to Jesus’ anointing is revealing – they rebuke the woman on the basis that the ointment she uses could have been sold to give to the poor – because they importantly give a line of reasoning that we still follow/use in addressing poverty (i.e. what poverty demands of us is charity, earning money to donate to those in need).
(An extra detailing, which follows the same concern is given in the gospel of John – where the disciple who criticizes the woman is Judas. In John 12:6 we are told that Judas “did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Judas, then, is revealed as profiteering from alleged concerns for the poor.)
A New Spiritual, Political and Economic Order
When we superficially read this passage, it appears problematic that Jesus doesn’t praise the disciples for their idea of addressing poverty but rather praises the woman for what appears to be wastage. This issue is then compounded by Jesus saying: ‘The poor are with you always but you will not always have me‘.
Importantly however, Jesus’ response to the disciples and praise of the woman with the line ‘the poor are with you always’ references Deuteronomy 15 – one of the most liberating ‘Jubilee’ passages in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty (read: poverty is a result of society’s disobedience to God). It lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty. (for more on this)
The conclusion of the passage is that because people do not follow what God has laid out, ‘there will never cease to be some in need on the earth‘ (or, ‘the poor you always have with you’). The response to this is given clearly – because of this, it is our duty to God to ‘open [our] hand to the poor and needy neighbour.’
Jesus, then, is referencing a passage about God’s plan to ensure that no one is poor. When Jesus said this line to his followers and disciples, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 as implicating a different way of addressing poverty: rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be establishing their society to enact the Jubilee.
We can then understand that when the woman anoints Jesus, she anoints Jesus as king of an empire with Jubilee and Sabbath at the centre. Rather than an empire of superficial commitments to charity, existing in a broader structural system which systematically dehumanises and impoverishes, Jesus’ empire was to be a new empire with principles of justice and social transformation.
This new empire is a spiritual overturning (exchanging the law for an offering of grace and mercy), a political overturning (exchanging the Roman Empire and imperfect human rule for the anointing of a truly Just King and Prince of Peace), and an economic order, (exchanging the exclusion and impoverishment with social inclusion and the fullest sort of prosperity).
And it starts at the Cross, where Jesus is crowned King of the Jews, the king he is anointed to be in Matthew 26.
“a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head” Matthew 26:7