The poor will always be with you…

An often quoted, sorely misunderstood saying of Jesus found in Matthew 26:11. The entire verse says, “For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Hmmm…This verse comes as part of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. A poor woman walked into the house where Jesus and his disciples were hanging out, breaks a bottle of expensive ointment, and pours it over Jesus’ head. Now the disciples are mad because this ointment could have been sold for some serious cash and that cash could’ve been give to the poor. Jesus asks the disciples why they are giving the woman trouble and says what she has done is a beautiful thing. He then makes the statement about the poor always being with you…

Now, I’ve heard this verse used to explain way what I would say is every follower of Christ’s call to serve and love the poor. I usually get a little upset when I hear people use this verse to simply avoid caring for someone. It just seems so ridiculous.

I really like Shane Claiborne’s response to this verse. He simply asks, “Well, are the poor with you?” Consider the people that were following Jesus and his disciples around…they were sick, outcast, and poor people. So yeah, Jesus and his disciples had poor people with them all the time. The question is…Do we?

I read this passage tonight in Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt

     Our closest relationships are built on what we have in common. We build relationships at work, school, church, and in our neighborhoods. We meet people while we serve on the board of some local charity or in a service club. Thus we form a social sphere of people who are like us and do not feel like actual strangers. The problem with this manner of forming relationships is that we may exclude those who are not like us. We don’t exclude them intentionally, but our worlds tend to be small and homogenous. We don’t go looking to be made uncomfortable.
     As a spiritual discipline, Bendict understood the importance of encountering those who are different from ourselves because it stretches us; it dislocates stiffness and opens us up to new possibilities. He meant for the monks to do so intentionally.
     When we create a life surrounded by people just like ourselves, it is a very narrow life. We will not be challenged by such a life. We cave in on ourselves; our minds and spirits shrink to the pea-size of our own world. A spirituality centered in such a life will drift into laziness and complacency. It is the kind of life that allows us to settle for easy answers based solely on personal experience. Letting ourselves believe that our experience constitutes normality and that other ways of doing life are abnormal is delusional and dangerous.

So, how small have our little world’s become? I am afraid that the perspective expressed when using Matthew 26:11 to avoid caring for someone is the norm. It’s my prayer to be challenged by Jesus’ words, to seek to be faithful to opening my heart and life to strangers both rich and poor, to break out of the homogenous world that I find myself in. The poor aren’t with me, are they with you?


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