I can’t prove it, but after many years of pastoral experience, including numerous conversations on the subject with believers and non-believers alike
, I’m convinced this is the best known reference in the Bible concerning poverty . For believers especially, this is frequently quoted as proof that poverty will always exist and cannot be overcome. Because this is believed to be so, there is often little urgency in dealing with the physical poverty of the poor. It is safe to say that it is widely considered of secondary importance in our living out the Gospel.
Taken out of context
A friend and fellow pastor often said, “a text without a context is a pretext.” He is right. In this case, the context in Matthew 25: 31–26:13 and John 12: 1-11 is crucially important for understanding what Jesus meant. This teaching concerning the poor, found in these two passages and in the Gospel of Mark, is almost always taken out of context and does not mean what many Christians take it to mean.
Judas trashes Mary
The context from the John 12 passage is this: Mary, sister of Lazarus, takes an expensive jar of perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Judas Iscariot, identified in the same passage as having no concern for the poor, regularly stealing from the common purse and on the verge of betraying Jesus for money, castigates Mary, saying, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”
Jesus defends Mary and says to Judas and (according to parallel passages in Matthew and Mark) the disciples whom Judas had apparently influenced, “You will always have the poor among you,but you will not always have me.” [John 12:8] Unlike the poor, whom Judas would still “have” if he really cared to do anything about their poverty (which he didn’t), he would not always have Jesus because Judas already intended to betray Him. This “outing” of Judas and his lack of concern for the poor,
when taken to teach that physical poverty is an insoluble problem and thus a secondary Kingdom concern, totally misses the point.
The Sheep and the Goats
The true Kingdom priority of addressing physical poverty is found in the extended teaching of Jesus starting at
Matthew 25: 31 ,where the “sheep” are separated from the “goats.” It is unambiguous and provides the immediate larger context for understanding Jesus’ response to Judas and the disciples influenced by him. The sheep address the physical poverty of the poor, the goats do not. The point of this teaching is not to identify who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. It is to underscore the Kingdom requirement to respond together to the poverty of the poor.
At the end of time, looking back over history, if the Gospel has not led us to tangibly address the physical needs of those in need, then it has not accomplished one of its central purposes for our lives.
Please check out the Food for the Hungry website for opportunities to make this Kingdom priority a reality.