Mission “Because”: You’ll always have the poor…

11 03 2012

There’s a puzzling little story that appears in all four gospels about a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume.  As the story goes, the other guests are angered by her act; after all, they reason, she’s literally poured out her entire savings in one night!  Wouldn’t it have been better to sell the perfume and donate the profits to the poor?

But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

I’ve never quite been able to explain this story away.  It does NOT jive with my image of Jesus as a tireless champion for the poor and marginalized.  In Sunday School we like to put special emphasis on John’s version of the story, which criticizes Judas’ motives (he wasn’t really concerned with the plight of the poor; he just wanted to steal the money for himself).  But as much as I hate to side with the Bible’s ultimate traitor, I still think his question is valid!

Of course, there’s the theological explanation: we can’t get so wrapped up in “helping the poor” that we forget to give honor and glory to Christ.  Christ must come first, and mission must be seen as an expression of worship.

But in light of yesterday’s post, I wonder if there may be another, missional explanation for Jesus’ words.

Jesus didn’t just care about the “poor,” he cared about individual people.  In the middle of a busy crowd, he felt the touch of one bleeding woman.  He had compassion on two blind men sitting beside the street. He took notice of a widow placing two copper coins into the Temple treasury.

Perhaps, when Jesus rebukes the skeptics, he is intentionally contrasting “the poor” (impersonal, cause-focused) and “me” (personal, people-focused).  Maybe it’s good to give to “the poor” … but it’s even better to give to the individual people whose needs you are able to recognize.

In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes: “The great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Sometimes, like the lawyer in Scripture, we find ourselves asking Jesus, “Just who exactly is my neighbor?”  But we’re not ready for the response…because once we know who are neighbors are supposed to be, then we’re called into the harder, messier work: of knowing our neighbors and loving them.



3 responses

12 03 2012
Mission “Because”: Birthdays and Basketball « Creative Theology

[…] (See previous posts here and here) […]

15 03 2012
Ted Scheuermann

My wife and I are currently serving as missionaries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We have been called to help deserving students advance their education (Masters, PhD.) by providing student loans. We are currently sponsoring two very deserving men as they pursue their Masters’ degrees.
We walk the streets of Addis Ababa every day and are constantly approached by beggars and other representatives of the poor. Since we have been here for over one year, we have found ourselves less concerned about these people. And it has made me worry that my heart has become hard. Now I think differently.
The story does indeed call us to honor and serve Christ above even the wretchedly poor we see around us. But I have come to believe that we are not to be distracted by the existence of the poor at the expense of whatever our called ministry is. I believe we are often seduced by concern for the poor and as a result lose our focus on our calling, whatever it may be.
I would never ignore someone who was injured or starving. I actually check out the physical condition of beggars and fortunately, at least in Addis Ababa, no one I have seen is close to starvation. Ethiopia is changing and its old culture, coupled with its new vision for the future, is making great strides in caring for the hungry.
Our list of deserving and qualified students awaiting the opportunity to advance their education and thereby improve their lives and the lives of many around them is very long. We must continue to serve the poor with love, provide them with dignity as opportunity presents, and continue to honor our calling to educate a noble people, equip them for the future, and thereby show them the true meaning of Christ’s love.

17 03 2012

That’s a really great point, Ted! Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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