Day 4 of Holy Week: the poor will always be with us

"What really confuses me though are the Christians who find any excuse to not work for a better world. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the phrase 'but Jesus said the poor will always be with us' used as a reason why Christians shouldn’t care for the poor and suffering. It’s not that the phrase is even used as comfort to those who feel like their efforts are not doing enough. It’s straight out used as a God-given reason to do nothing. And not just do nothing, but often to actively oppose or resist other Christians who are trying to do something. And it’s usually followed by some sermonette about how the poor are poor because of their own sinful choices." -Julie Clawson (from her post, After Pentecost)
As I read through the events of Holy Wednesday (the 4th day of Holy Week), aside from some of Jesus' most cryptic teaching in the Temple, the one story that jumps out at me is the one from Mark 14: 3-9:
"...During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, 'Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.' And they scolded her. Jesus said, 'Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.'”
Now, this story is one of my most and least favorites in the gospels. I have trouble with it because I find myself siding with the disciples on this one. I don't think I would have scolded the lady, but I'm sure that if I saw a year's wages used on somebody's head, I'd be disappointed. I'd especially expect Jesus to be disappointed. And yet, here's Jesus who's always supposed to be on the side of the poor, who's usually scolding people for misusing funds (as he did in the Temple), sticking up for the woman. And what does he mean, "You always have the poor with you"? Is it just a cop-out, like it is for way too many Christians in America? Is he just trying to confuse us, or what?

So what's the difference? Why is it ok for this woman to pour out all this expensive stuff and it's not ok for the Temple treasury to line the pockets of the rich? When is misusing funds ok? I can see why Judas and some of the others thought Jesus' approach was unrealistic.

What in Jesus makes it possible for him to celebrate this gift, in light of how much it is and in light of what else it could have produced for people in need? Perhaps it's the bigger picture... Jesus know's where this week is headed. He know's what's coming down the line for him. And he knows that ultimately, this woman's uncalculating devotion is purer than the indignation of the disciples who may have been jealous, on a level, in light of their own relative poverty. Indeed, the woman's actions here are purer than the disdain of someone like me, just trying to relieve the guilt I have from not really being all that connected to the poor who are supposed to "always be among" me. Indeed Jesus pokes at their indignation and at my own guilt at the same time. He says, "you will always have the poor among you" ...that means that you're not the center of the universe and it means that if you're not in genuine community with the poor, if they're not really among you because you've isolated yourself in a gated community, then no wonder you don't understand. Jesus' genuine connection to the poor, his true incarnational solidarity with them, makes him above reproach on this one. And it give him the authority to say, "she has done a good thing."

In his commentary, R. Allan Cole points out,
"The reference to the continual presence of the poor, in verse 7, is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11. It does not of course mean that we should accept poverty as an inevitable fact, and therefore do nothing to try to abolish it, for the whole Law is aimed at doing that. ...There will always be some in need, whom we may and should help, as Deuteronomy also points out." (Cole from the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Mark).
Though I have so much trouble with it and though it's a challenge to my social sensibilities, it's one of my favorite passages for the same reason. You see, in light of our American culture in which, as of late, it's become trendy to be socially conscientious (even if we're doing it out of ignorance and thus doing a very shabby job of it), Jesus is making a commentary on causes. A new cause will always come down the line. Slavery, poverty, nuclear disarmament, Aids, cancer, fair trade, disaster relief, homeless shelters, orphanages, clean water, human trafficking, new shoes for kids in Africa...

Two things are true:
1) there will always be something to get passionate about (and things you absolutely should get passionate about)
2) you'll never be able to do something about ALL of it. 

The poor will always be available to you for you to connect with them, serve them, learn from them, teach them, meet their needs, and ultimately love them. And you should do that... but it can't just be out of a calculated cause or set of causes. It has to be out of real compassion and real solidarity and, from a distinctly Christian perspective, it has to be out of participation in the suffering of Christ.

Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world, ultimately comes not from our own hard work to see that needs are met. It comes from Christ's blood shed in solidarity with us. The troubles of the world find their healing when they are caught up in the story of Christ's own suffering, when they're essentially nailed to the cross of Christ and redeemed in glorious resurrection. As Christians, our chief cause is to love Jesus, to participate in and implement Christ's work. All of our minor causes are simply specific manifestations of this chief cause. And if we ever get those priorities out of whack, we're doomed to Judas' fate, the fate of one who couldn't see love beyond his calculations... even if he thought he was trying to help.

So what's really happening in this story? Strip it of it's calculations and what we have is a woman (not a man) anointing Jesus for his task, ultimately for his burial. The woman enters, unconcerned with anything but somehow being a partner with Jesus in what he's about to do. It's a beautiful image of what we're all invited to do: To take what's most precious to us and connected it with the world's deepest need, the need for God and the salvation that comes through Jesus' death and resurrection; to offer ourselves as characters in the divine drama. This woman was becoming part of that drama but the disciples and I couldn't see that.

Call it authenticity, call it spirituality, call it prayer... whatever it is, the disciples didn't have it. Turns out, they (and we) have the same problem that the Temple had; not only injustice, not just abuse of the poor (though those are deeply connected), but a state of being out of tune with the heart of God.

"The poor will always be among you" only becomes an excuse for inaction when we are out of tune with God's heart. But when we are in tune with it, we see the whole story of poverty and pain swirled up in God's story of poverty and pain and we begin to see the cross, not just our wallets, as the means for the healing that the world so desperately needs.

God of attentiveness and solidarity, free us from our calculations and our causes. We don't just want to help people, we want to be characters in your story. We want to let go of our own agendas and outcomes and follow you to the cross, though it may seem counter productive to do so, for the sake of healing the world. What we need is not money, nor food, nor shelter nor dignity, nor clothing, nor water, nor anything other than your body and blood. We remember what you said when this journey began, "people don't live on bread alone but on the words that come from God." Forgive us for forfeiting our imagination. Open us to the new possibilities that come to us through your son. Bring us to life with your Spirit. In Jesus' name. Amen.