“For the poor always you have with you, but me you do not always have” (John 12:8, my translation). Our appointed text ends with this quote from Jesus which produces confusion for many readers and interpreters. And it produces apathy and excuse for many of us who have some measure of wealth. It produced enough confusion and consternation in the earliest church that the verse is omitted from a number of manuscripts.
That omission may be explained by innocent scribal errors. It may have been added to a text that originally didn’t have the verse, although the Metzger textual commentary notes that this is not a strong argument. The commentary declares an overwhelming amount of manuscript support for the original placement of this verse within the text, in spite of other arguments to the contrary. So, there it is. We need to deal with it.
In addition, this quote from Jesus shows up in different contexts in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:17. It could be that the Johannine author remembers the quote from “earlier” work. But the relationships between the Johannine account and the Synoptic gospels are many, varied, and unclear. It is just as possible that the original Johannine memory, in oral form, influenced the Synoptic accounts. It is equally likely that this text comes from Jesus’ mouth to the disciples’ ears and passes into the general Christian tradition. Once again, there it is. We still need to deal with it.
The text has been read as a justification for treating ministry to and with the poor as a matter of some Christian indifference. After all, the argument goes, Jesus puts the need for this anointing ritual ahead of relief for the poor. Judas may have had bad motives. But that doesn’t mean his argument was wrong. In fact, perhaps Judas was smart enough to use an argument everyone could buy in order to cover his thieving tracks.
Since that’s the case in this text, the argument continues, we don’t have to be so terribly concerned about ministry to and with the poor. It sounds like Jesus is saying that no matter what we do, we will always have poor people in our midst. Therefore, we can exercise some moderation in our concern for the poor and pick our spots judiciously in offering help.
It’s a great way for me to hang on to my money in the face of another’s need.
On the way to our weekly worship, we pass an intersection regularly staffed by an unhoused person seeking donations. I don’t know how it goes for him on other days of the week, but I hope Sundays are productive of generous donations. We have planned that into our route and pray that the light is red so we can stop without causing an accident (that’s usually the case).
I know folks who sneer at such efforts as tantamount to spitting into the ocean to raise the water level. “No matter how much you give and how often,” they might say, “it won’t make any difference. There’ll always be another beggar at the corner. After all,” they might conclude, “Jesus said we would have the poor with us always. Why do you bother? For all you know, you’ll do just as much good tossing your money down a rat hole.”
Let’s take on the scriptural issue first and see where that leaves us in terms of behavior. This is an example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. Jesus quotes the words of Deuteronomy 15:11a (NRSV) – “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…” The text begins with “since,” so we should get a clue right away that this won’t work as a proof text all on its own.
Deuteronomy 15 contains teaching and guidance for the implementation of the Sabbatical Year. During this year, debts from Jew to Jew are to be forgiven. The purpose of this practice is to make sure that long-term and systemic poverty does not get a foothold in the Jewish community. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” Deuteronomy 15:7 (NRSV) exhorts, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.”
Those who have means should be open-handed and generous toward those who do not have means. Those who hold the debts of their neighbors should not put the screws to them in year six so that they have nothing to remit in the Sabbatical year. Giving is to be liberal and without ill feelings. This will result in blessing from the Lord upon all of the work those with means do.
Because there will always be some economic inequity, since there will never cease to be some needy on the earth, the Lord commands those with means to open their hands to the poor and needy neighbor in the land. This extends up to and includes setting free those Jews who have sold themselves into slavery to satisfy a debt. Hebrew slaves shall be set free, without condition, in the Sabbatical year.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis offers comments on this and related texts in a 2015 presentation available online. She notes that in response to the question, “What is the most famous biblical text about the poor?” the most common answer is our text – “The poor you will always have with you.” Of course, the majority of respondents are those who have financial means they wish to protect. The self-serving response is thus not surprising.
The response is typically expanded in three ways. We can never end poverty. Christians can and should respond to poverty, but the government should not. And we should pay more attention to Jesus than to the poor. “But I believe the phrase ‘the poor will be with you always’ and the larger story of the anointing at Bethany actually means the exact opposite of how it has traditionally been interpreted. Indeed,” Theoharis argues, “I believe ‘the poor are with you always’ is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”
She suggests that the disciples (and even Judas, regardless of his real intentions) operate with the common understanding of how to respond to the poor. Collect sufficient resources for yourself and then give from the leftovers to assist those who are in need. But that’s not the way things are outlined in Deuteronomy 15, she continues. Instead, the emphasis in Deuteronomy 15 is not on how to help the poor but rather in how to have a system where poverty is eliminated.
“Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty,” Theoharis notes. “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,” she continues, “’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 neighbor.’”
Judas and the rest of the disciples are getting things backward in their understanding of the Jubilee system of economics. A biblically just system is not content to continually fix the problems that an unjust system inevitably produces. Instead, a biblically just system does not produce those problems to begin with. “So when Jesus said this line to his followers, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty,” Theoharis argues. “Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. The woman anointed Jesus as king of an empire,” she concludes, “that had Jubilee and Sabbath at the center. What God demands of God’s followers is justice not charity.”
Therefore, if we use John 12:8 to make our giving a competition between Jesus and the poor, we will find ourselves on the Judas side of the conversation. Theoharis reminds us a great quote from Dr. King in this regard:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
It’s not the case that I should stop giving money to our new friend on the way to worship. But it is certainly the case that this is not the limit or definition of Christian virtue, ratified by a loose proof text from John. Instead, Theoharis writes, “The rules and norms of God’s kingdom are set by the Jubilee. There is no poverty in God’s empire; there is no exclusion. All of God’s children are valued and all life is affirmed.”
It is no stretch at all to extend this argument in other directions. Since we have with us the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed – all who suffer from systematic and systemic injustice, our call is not exhausted by individual acts of “charity.” Our call may begin with such acts but can only be addressed when we go after the systems that make such acts necessary in the short term.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.
Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.
Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.
Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Kindle Edition.
Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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