Jesus’ Indifference to the Poor?

I’ve heard Jesus’ statement in Mark 14:7 cited to brush off the importance of ministry to the poor.

This is entirely inappropriate, since Jesus is not uttering an economic truism—that on any measure of a society there will always be the poorest 20%.  Nor is he saying, “look, I do realize there will never be a final solution to the problem of poverty, so don’t knock yourselves out serving the poor.”

Far from endorsing complacency about looking after the needy, Jesus is contrasting his imminent death with the fact that there are always going to be opportunities to serve the poor—opportunities that his disciples ought to jump all over!

I’ll cite Mark 14:1-11 in full to give the sense of what’s happening in the context.

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”  While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.  “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.  She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.  They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (Mark 14:1-11).

Jesus is responding to those who have rebuked the woman for anointing Jesus.  He knows that those who object are insincere.  In fact, just after Jesus speaks, Mark mentions Judas’ actions in going to the chief priests.  It was probably Judas who objected to the waste of the valuable perfume, but only so that he could make money from it himself.

Jesus is defending and dignifying what the woman has done.  In fact, she, unlike other actors in the immediate and wider contexts, sees clearly who Jesus is and what he’s about to do.  The others are blind to his identity and mission.

This is an act of profound worship in view of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Jesus receives it fully and brushes aside manipulative rhetoric by urging that while this act must be dignified and welcomed, his disciples ought also to be faithful to create opportunities for service to the poor.

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14 responses to “Jesus’ Indifference to the Poor?

  • pltk

    Our pastor preached on this passage last year and used it to establish a hierarchy of worship acts–with “extravagant worship” such as Mary’s at the top (a worship act wholly for God alone), and service to the poor, etc under that (acts oriented to other people). I was very uncomfortable with the approach, as the modern extravagant worship examples given in the sermon all were art or building focused. While I do believe that art and buildings can glorify God, to see these as worshiping in the same was as Mary’s gift seemed a bit of a stretch — as we cannot get away from the fact that they are also generally “us-centered” gifts.

    • timgombis

      That’s tragic, as worship is the re-orientation of the human toward God in all its facets. So, service to others, doing good, caring for creation, making community fruitful, and countless other human pursuits are all worship of the one true God. It seems to me that certain aspects are prioritized over others typically to endorse the ‘norm’ of how we already have decided to do things–self-justification.

  • Michael Pahl

    There’s also the echo of Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Enlightening, especially in the wider context with its anticipation of the seventh year, the year of remission of debts.

    • timgombis

      Excellent, Michael–so the presence of the poor doesn’t endorse complacency or resignation, but the necessity of purposeful action.

    • pltk

      I always had the idea that the Deut. verse was in some ways a condemnation of God’s people’s failure to act–there will always be poor people in the land BECAUSE you do not follow my laws (particularly applied to how we treat others who are also followers of God).

  • Andrew

    Wasn’t it also a tacit recognition that addressing eternal needs were somewhat more important that addressing earthly ones (since Jesus was about to go to his death – which was of far greater benefit to all poor of every age, than anything his disciples could have done then)?

    • timgombis

      I don’t think so, Andrew. I’d be hesitant to draw that principle from this episode, as unique as it is. And I do think that the typical bifurcations with which we operate (distinctions between spiritual/eternal needs and physical needs) are inappropriately imported into texts like these. It just seems that Jesus is ruling out rhetoric that masks greed while also dignifying what the woman does. I don’t see this text pointing toward any differentiation in values of this or that form of worship, especially as abstracted from this episode.

  • Andrew

    Perhaps, but I see it in the same light I see Jesus calling Peter ‘Satan’ [Matt 16:23][Mark 8:33] – an equally strong and shocking response to something seemingly natural that was happening at the time.

    • timgombis

      I’m not sure about the connection between the Mark 14 passage and the Mark 8 one. Certainly Jesus sees Peter’s words as the embodiment of the Satanic temptation, but I’m not sure how that carries much import for reading Mark 14.

  • James

    We are to give period.. As a Christian giving should be buried in ones heart and the decisions should come quite easily.

    You should do an article on ChristiansUpFront,org a fast growing free community website for all

  • Around the Blogosphere (06.15.2012)! « Near Emmaus

    [...] Tim Gombis, Jesus’ Indifference to the Poor? [...]

  • Patrick

    That interpretation is myopic. The entire narrative is about God, man, what He desires for us, what He does for us, what He expects of us. He desires His people do as He would do.
    That means helping the needy, praying for all, loving all, giving to all, being kind to all, forgiving all, etc.

  • Weekly Meanderings

    [...] be it for 2012. Dear Everyone, that’s a redemptive movie and we need more like it. Dadgummit!Tim Gombis, on that Mark 14:7, that we will always have the poor with us: “Far from endorsing [...]

  • Kurtis Griess

    I recently met with a spiritual adviser of mine and talked about the expenses of my upcoming wedding. I decried the huge expenses required for just one day of celebration rather than using the funds for more practical matters (like part of a down-payment on a home). Likewise, the money spent on the wedding could go towards helping the poor.

    My friend encouraged me with this story of the woman pouring the nard on Jesus. He called the gift a “beautiful waste”. The gift may have been considered a waste by some, but the act demonstrates an extravagant love that goes beyond worldly values. He said not to be afraid of spending a little more than I would like and, in doing so, show my future wife extravagant love by giving her the wedding she desires. With the right intentions, a waste can become a “beautiful waste”… a gift of extravagant love.

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