How rich are we?
I believe that all who are in Christ are rich beyond measure. But still we see so much poverty around, not only materially, but more importantly, spiritually.
So how can our Bible passages help us here?
There could be 3 ways to look at the statement “you will always have the poor with you” from Deuteronomy 15 and Matthew 26, (see also Mark 14:7 and John 12:11):
- that we can never end poverty,
- that it is the role of Christians, not the government, to try to care for the poor, or
- that Jesus, rather than the poor, should be our concern.
Do these words say that we can never end poverty, or does it support a movement to abolish poverty with the poor taking the lead? In Matthew’s account of the anointing of Jesus, an unnamed woman appears at Simon the Leper’s house with a jar of expensive perfume. Right at the very beginning of this event in Jesus’ life is poverty, for Simon is a leper, an outcast, who lives in Bethany, which means “the house of the poor” in Hebrew.
Mark and John also have an account of Jesus being anointed a few days before His death. John’s account happens, however, before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, whilst both Matthew and Mark place it after this triumphal entry. Whenever it happened I want to suggest that it is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry; it puts Jesus on a collision course with the Roman Empire, a course that leads directly to His betrayal, crucifixion and then resurrection.
Nowhere else in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus anointed. Only the unnamed woman does this. The Hebrew word for anointed is “Messiah”. The Greek word for anointed is “Christ”. So, Jesus is made Christ and considered to be the Messiah only a few days before His death. There are probably multiple meanings of this anointing*, but the obvious one is that Jesus is being anointed for His burial. This unnamed woman in Matthew and Mark’s account is the first person to recognise that Jesus is going to die and wants to ensure that His body is prepared.
(*Jesus is anointed on his head with a special anointing ointment for kings – the same process that David and the other kings in the Hebrew Bible are brought through. It seems that Jesus is set up as an alternative king to Caesar when he’s anointed in this passage.)
When the woman anoints Jesus, she is chided by the disciples for doing so. They accuse her of wasting this very expensive and valuable perfume. They say that if they had sold that perfume, they could have earned a lot of money and given it to the poor.
(Now John’s version is slightly different here: Judas criticizes the woman. And it reads that Judas says this not because he cares about the poor but because he’s the treasurer and regularly steals from the coffers. Judas uses the poor as an excuse to make money for himself. Something that still happens today!)
The disciples’ concerns in Matthew seem to be asserting a common way we still use in addressing poverty. You earn money, or come upon nice things in some way or another which you sell, and then use that money to donate to the poor.
But in this story, Jesus doesn’t praise the disciples for their idea of addressing poverty. Instead, He praises the woman for her alleged waste of the perfume. And then to make matters worse, Jesus then says this classic line:
“The poor are with you always but you will not always have me.”
For someone who’s concerned about meeting the needs of the poor, this sounds pretty bad. This sounds like Jesus is justifying poverty.
But Jesus’ response to the disciples and praise of the woman with the line “the poor are with you always” echoes or actually quotes 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. In fact, this passage 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, – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes 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”), and because of that, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour.” Jesus’ followers would have understood His reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had other plans for addressing poverty.
What we read here in Matthew 26 highlights a main theme of Jesus’ teachings: in caring for the poor, in Jesus’ way, we can end poverty. There are other passages in scripture, such as Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds us that what we do to the least of these, we do unto him. The Old Testament prophets all emphasise our duty to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien, those in need. There is the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4 that tells us that the early Christians had no needy people among them because they shared and cared for each other. Even the Apostle Paul following his revelation of Jesus started a collection for the poor of Jerusalem that he discusses in Romans, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians – more than any other single theological issue.
In Luke 4, Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and announces that He has come to fulfil this passage – to proclaim release to the captives, to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s the first place where He really shows what He’s made of, and what His life on earth is about.
So Jesus demonstrated that poverty would not exist if people follow God’s laws and commandments, i.e. living out the “Sabbatical Year” and “Jubilee.” Jesus is saying that poverty is the result of society’s disobedience to God by following the laws and ways of the world. There is no poverty in God’s Kingdom; there is no exclusion. All of God’s children are valued and all life is affirmed.
But I think in loving the poor, God is not just considering those who have little or no money, for anyone who does not accept Jesus as the Son of God and follow Him as their Lord and Saviour is poor in spirit, and poor in their quality of life! We must claim the confidence to go to these people and say:
“We love you because of who you are, a person created in the image of God, and we want you to know God personally for yourself through the transforming power of His Son Jesus”!
The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany was showing an amazing level of generosity, both materially and spiritually. I believe that she was acting directly on behalf of God, who knew how it was going to end for Jesus, that His body would not be anointed for burial as it should be. (As it turned out there wasn’t time to do the right thing.) So God arranged for it happen before His death. She acted as God called her to act. There was no apathy or tightfistedness here from this woman.
Prompted by God she acted in a way that can inspire us to give what we hold most dearly to the Lord, offering it for His service. I believe God wants us to see all we have, especially the most precious objects we have, our skills and giftings, and our money, as belonging to Him, to be used as an offering to bring glory to Him, even if it means giving them away.
Having such an attitude will demand a sea-change in us. It is challenging to offer our most prized possessions to God for Him as a sacrifice. But when we are prepared to do this we bring glory to Him.
I believe that is the reason why Jesus said, “what she has done will also be told, in memory of her”. In God’s Kingdom there is no apathy or tightfistedness.
As brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ we have inherited a priceless spiritual wealth. So in considering this passage from Matthew’s Gospel about giving, stewardship and fund-raising I conclude with a question:
What of yours is God asking you to be prepared to offer to Him for use in extending His Kingdom here in these villages?
Can I encourage you to find a quiet place and ask yourself that question.
Time to think
This is your opportunity to spend time alone with God. The more time you spend with Him the more you will get to know Him as He reveals more of who He is to your heart, soul and spirit. This time will be personal and wholly unique to your faith journey with Him.
Read again the two passages from Scripture; Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and Matthew 26:6-13, and let them speak to you afresh in light of giving, stewardship and fund-raising as ministry. As God speaks to you why not write down in your journal what you sense God is saying to you.
The benefit of writing down your thoughts helps you to check them against Scripture, and then plants them more firmly in your heart and mind, than just simply thinking on things.
I concluded the sermon with a question:
“What of yours is God asking you to be prepared to offer to Him for use in extending His Kingdom here in these villages?”
Go into a quiet place and invite God to show you how He wants you to answer this question.
As you ponder on it why not write down your thoughts and share your reflections with others.
Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.
St. Ignatius Loyola