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.