"Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?' (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, 'Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'" John 12:1-8
Every time I read these words of Jesus, I wince a little. As a person whose career is focused on reducing the suffering caused by poverty, I can’t help but think that when Jesus tells us that the poor are always with us, it means I personally, and the international development community broadly, have failed and will always fail. Like many of the phrases Jesus uses, this one hearkens back to a teaching from the Torah that his Jewish audience would recognize immediately. Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, which is part of the command by God to the people of Israel to observe debt forgiveness every seven years and to be fair and generous toward the poor. Jesus sees right through the false piety and turns a feigned concern for the poor into a reminder of how precious time with him is.
Of all the characters in the story that precedes Jesus’ difficult words, only Mary seems to fully grasp what is happening. Her act of foot-washing foreshadows both Jesus’ similar act toward his disciples at the Last Supper and Jesus’ burial. Jesus praises her for her discipleship, for publicly (and fragrantly) living out her love for him.
In my role at Lutheran World Relief, I provide support and technical advice to our staff throughout Asia and Africa. This keeps me, unfortunately, one step removed from our project participants, but it does give me the opportunity to watch our in-country staff, most of whom are nationals of the country in which they work, live out their faith. I have seen the program manager in Uganda step out of a training to take phone calls from a project staff member who was frustrated by a decision, and how carefully he treated the concern and discussed it until the staffer was satisfied. I’ve watched a team in Indonesia incorporate new learning into an existing project to ensure that women as well as men were benefiting from project activities. I have listened to a driver in Niger describe with tears in his eyes the strength of the human spirit when handing out LWR Quilts to families who fled violence in their community.
So maybe the poor always being with us isn’t a sign of failure so much as it is a challenge. What better way to live as disciples of Jesus than to show Jesus’ love for those around us, for all the other people on this planet who are also made in God’s image? Maybe we wash their feet. Maybe we forgive their debt or forgive them when they sin against us. Maybe we ask them what their needs are and show up to help them meet those needs. However we respond, Jesus assures us that when we are close to the poor, we are close to him.
Where is Jesus inviting you to live out your discipleship to those around you today?