Jesus is, argumentatively, the most influential person in history. Everywhere He went people listened and took note. He spoke each parable, phrase and word with intentionality, which is why Matthew 26:11a is so thought-provoking.
“The poor you will always have with you…”
Jesus’ unrelenting love, care and hope for the poor is undeniable. The Bible is heavy with verses that command us to speak up for those in poverty, give the shirt off our back, seek justice…the list goes on and on. Yet this verse, “The poor you will always have with you…” is the one we preach from pulpits as a reminder that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, poverty will always haunt the earth.1
This verse has led Christians to a place of subtle acceptance and underlying apathy in the face of an urgent need. Because if Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” then who are we to make a global change—maybe a drop in the bucket, sure, but nothing more? Still, we have to ask the question, did Jesus actually mean physical poverty would always be with us?
In order to understand this verse in its entirety, we need to examine it in context.
Three days before Jesus’ death, Mary washes His feet with an expensive bottle of perfume as an act of worship. This was a sign of her understanding of His love and forgiveness freely given—which Jesus accepted as preparation for His burial (Matthew 26:6-13). In the midst of this personal moment, however, Judas interjects…
“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” (John 12:5)
Jesus, knowing Judas’ statement was coming from a place of greed, with no concern for the poor, looks at him and defends the sweet Mary.
“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Matt 26:10)
He goes on, speaking directly to Judas, and says,
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (Matt 26:11)
Now, Jesus never contradicts Himself, so when He says, “…but you will not always have me,” what gives? Because in Matthew 28:20b He assures us, “…and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And He is. As Christians know, we have the Holy Spirit who is constantly with us. Which means, when Jesus said, “…but you will not always have me,” He was speaking to the people in the room—to Judas specifically—in reference to His physical body.
Scott C. Todd put it this way in his book, Hope Rising, “He told Judas and company that they would always have opportunities to help the poor, but this was one of their last chances to worship Him personally—in His physical presence. Jesus might have been saying, ‘I’m about to die.’ He did not ordain endless poverty.”2
So if Jesus was not saying economic poverty would always be with us, is it realistic to think extreme poverty could be eliminated? We’ll talk about it next week…
1Because of the context of this verse, revolving around the cost of the perfume, we can make the assumption Jesus is referring to physical/economic poverty.
2If you have more time, Scott C. Todd gives a beautiful account and explanation of this story in his book, “Hope Rising.” I could not give this Biblical account the full justice it deserves in this limited space, so I recommend you read it!