The poor you will always have with you
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.
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.
‘The poor you will always have with you’ is one of many Biblical phrases which have passed into the secular English lexicon. It is also one of the more uncomfortable statements of Christ. However, as one commentator put it, it hasn’t yet been proved wrong. In many ways, poverty doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast. The gap between rich and poor keeps getting wider, rather than narrower. Drought and flooding are becoming more frequent, not less. International development charities are as necessary now as ever they were.
This can generate the lingering sense among some that hunger, disaster and disease in ‘developing countries’ are somehow inevitable. That it’s because the climate of developing countries is intemperate. Or because developing countries are riddled with fault lines where earthquakes and tsunamis occur. Or because there just is less food and water there and there’s nothing we can do about it. ‘The poor you will always have with you.’
But my experiences this year and my reading of scripture say something else.
If we see the phrase ‘you always have the poor with you’ as the focus of the passage above, I think we might be missing the point. Jesus’s words were crucially a defence of a woman, someone with few rights and little social status, from hypocritical and envious criticism. Far from a justification for doing nothing, this was a challenge of the status quo on behalf of the disadvantaged.
The Bible isn’t really the place to go if we’re looking for ‘laissez-faire’ attitudes to poverty. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’s words, in Deuteronomy we find the passage: ‘There will always be poor people in the land.” But it goes on: “Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.” Later, the responsibilities of the wealthy towards the poor are more far-reaching: “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9) – to give but one example among many. Hopeless inactivity before the challenge of poverty doesn’t seem to be an option.
Moreover, while some places are of course hotter or more ecologically fragile than others, there is no inevitability about hunger, disease or disaster. The World Bank offers the rather staggering statistic that low-income countries account for only 9% of the world’s disasters, but 48% of the fatalities. Something more than nature is at play.
A key focus of Concern Universal in many of its country programmes is something called ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’. The idea behind it is simple: there is no such thing as a 'natural' disaster, only natural hazards. What turns an earthquake, a cyclone or a flood into a disaster are human factors. If people know the signs of an impending extreme weather event and if they can build infrastructure which can withstand it, many of the disastrous consequences can be avoided.
I was reminded of this again last week when the Guardian reported that “The conflict in South Sudan has set the country on course towards a ‘hunger catastrophe’, with almost 4 million people already in dire need of food and humanitarian assistance, and aid agencies warning of a possible famine later this year if urgent supplies do not get through.” It is not the ‘dryness of Africa’ or even a ‘natural disaster’ but the tragedy of human conflict that is causing hunger in South Sudan on such a catastrophic scale.
While ‘natural’ factors contribute (and, with climate change, not all of these are as ‘natural’ as they may seem), it is very often the absence of peace, education and infrastructure which keep people in the grip of crippling poverty. These are not inevitable facts of nature but wounds to creation for which we are called to seek healing. And we are to follow the true example of Christ, exemplified in Mark 14 as in many other places: to defend the powerless through love.