Fifth Sunday in Lent

The poor you always have with you.

John 12:3
"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 7, 2019

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Commentary on John 12:1-8

The poor you always have with you.

As the Kairos center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice puts it:

We are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty; unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance.

The poor you always have with you.

At least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people are officially designated as low-income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.

The poor you always have with you.

The top 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth; the top 5% own 72% of wealth and the bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth. At the same time, racial and gender inequality remains as deep as ever.1

The poor you always have with you.

Sometimes inequality feels like an indominable foe, especially when we recognize that we are fighting an entire network of systems — and we are not just fighting those systems, we are fighting the deep-set values that constructed the problem and continue to contribute to them.

What does it mean to fight against poverty, when we face the reality: The poor you always have with you?

Maybe we should start by considering where and how we’ve heard this phrase before. Maybe we should work to re-imagine its meaning. I for one have heard this phrase used to justify apathy or inaction in the face of poverty, to account for outrageous expenditures in luxurious church buildings, to criticize movements that work for systemic change.

If Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” — so the argument goes — we should attend to spiritual needs over, above, or instead of tangible needs. “Just a closer walk with Thee” instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism. But immediately this interpretation presents significant problems:

1. We can’t separate Jesus from the poor. Jesus brought good news in tangible ways to the oppressed and vulnerable. The Christological truth of who Jesus was is bound up with the theological reality that he challenged oppressive political and social systems. Even with his particular and short-lived mission, he recognized and responded to the tangible needs around him. John 12:1-8 shows us that even the poor, homeless, ragtag group of disciples kept a common purse and saved money to give to the poor. The other Gospels make even more explicit Jesus’ attention to tangible needs like hunger and illness.

Jesus’ actions and words consistently challenged the oppressive political system of his day. Right after this story in John, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a new kind of king (12:12-19). Although the Empire promised peace and prosperity, it did so through systems that polarized the distribution of wealth, padding the pockets of the elite and leaving the majority impoverished. Sound familiar?

Jesus resisted these systems to the extent that he was executed as a rival of Ceasar and an enemy of the Roman Empire (John 19:12). To focus on Jesus is to focus on the poor; to work for the kind of kingdom that Jesus established is to challenge systems of oppression and to always side with the vulnerable.

2. We may be reading this wrong. There’s a funny thing in ancient Greek — sometimes the present indicative form of a word (which just indicates or states something — such as “you always have the poor with you”) matches the present imperative form of the word (which commands you to do something — see also “Have or keep the poor with you always). In this passage exete — which is translated “you will have” can be indicative or imperative … it looks exactly the same. So maybe we should read Jesus’ statement not as an indication of the way things are, but as a command: Have the poor with you always. Or Keep the poor among you always.2

With this in mind, let’s return to the story. The disciples and some close friends of Jesus are eating dinner. And Mary (friend of Jesus, sister to Lazarus) brings in a pound of expensive perfume (amounting to what a day laborer would make in an entire year). She pours this perfume on Jesus’ feet and his head. This is an anointing scene. Two big events in ancient Palestine would call for an anointing like this: a coronation and a burial. This scene shows that Jesus is a king, and it shows that he is about to die. He will be leaving soon. Even though he is leaving, his mission remains in the hands of those who follow him. “I am going away,” Jesus says, but the poor are always with you. Keep the poor among you always.

Perhaps this statement, which has been used to justify disregard for the poor is actually a direct command to always have Jesus’ mission for and among the poor at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. Keep the poor among you always.

3. John hints at a Jubilee. Jesus’ words about the poor here echo Deuteronomy 15:11: “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” The context of Deuteronomy 15 reads: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…. I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Deuteronomy 15 outlines the practice of a Sabbatical year in Israel’s tradition. Every seventh year, the people of Israel were instructed to forgive all debts. In light of the fact that they were also instructed to give generously in the years leading up to the Sabbatical year, this was an outrageous occurrence.

Every 50th year, after four Sabbatical cycles, they’d have a year of Jubilee — which had even greater generosity and debt forgiveness involving ownership of land and release for the enslaved. This context reminds us not to take Jesus’ words about the poor as a reality to be accepted but as a charge to hold up a different value system despite the failings of the system we are in. It reminds us to work toward systematic change in revolutionary ways.

The poor you always have with you.

Read in light of Jesus’s mission to overturn oppressive systems and viewed in the context of Israel’s practice of Sabbatical and Jubilee, this statement challenges us to live in the tension between the hope of an ideal world where no one suffers from poverty and the reality that poverty is part and parcel with the way our world works today. Our mission is to cultivate endurance even when it may look or feel like failure.

Keep the poor among you always.


  1. Excerpts from
  2. “Ending Poverty is Possible” by Liz Theoharis. First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT. January 4, 2009.