About two days before Jesus was crucified, while he was in Bethany dining in the house of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman broke open an alabaster jar filled with very costly ointment and poured it on his head. Some who witnessed this were outraged and said, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? It could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” Now three hundred denarii was a lot of money back then, worth about a year’s wage for a fully employed labourer. Hadn’t Jesus earlier told a rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, and then turn to his disciples and say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:17—25)? This wasted ointment could have fed so many hungry people! No wonder they were upset with her apparently wasteful display of extravagance. But surprisingly in this context, Jesus comes to her defense. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me…” (see Mark 14:3-9).1
These words, “the poor you always have with you,”2 are sometimes used to deflect attention away from meeting the needs of the poor and focusing it elsewhere (like evangelism, or church growth, doctrine, or…). But is this a legitimate use of this verse? Is Jesus really encouraging his followers to turn from the poor?
Not at all. Immediately after Jesus said, “the poor you always have,” he went on to say, “and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish…” What is at issue here is not that the poor should be left to their own devices, but that this unnamed woman sensed something the others in Simon’s house did not: Jesus’ immediate and overwhelming need; he is about to die. And the action she takes is to anoint his body beforehand for his burial with an extravagance that foreshadows the extravagance of the suffering he is about to endure, which is itself a sign of the extravagance of his love outpoured. In a few days, it would be too late to show such kindness. The contrast that Jesus sets before his hearers is between an immediate need that can only be addressed now and an ongoing need that can be addressed tomorrow or the day after. Rabbinic teaching on good works makes a similar point: burying the dead (which must be done today), is to take precedence over visiting the sick (which can be done tomorrow).3
There is a good deal more going on in this story, but dismissing the needs of the poor is clearly not even a tangential concern of the text. In fact, by using the phrase, “the poor you always have with you,” Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, a text which is all about caring for the needs of the poor. It reads, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land” (TNIV).
But there is more. By alluding to Deut. 15:11, Jesus ups the ante from alms giving (selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor) to social justice (addressing one of the major structural conditions that led to poverty in Israel: crushing indebtedness). The context of this verse is the Year of Release, the Sabbath Year, in which all debts incurred by any member of the community against another member during the previous six years are to be fully remitted… cancelled. What is remarkable about Deuteronomy 15 is that it contains one of the highest concentrations in the Hebrew Bible of a particular grammatical construction designed to lay emphatic stress on what is being said: the infinite absolute.4 This concentration says to the reader, “Pay very close attention; this is really important stuff!” And what is it that we’re to be especially attentive to? The twin practice of lending generously, without charging interest, to the poor whenever they are in need and then, remarkably, setting them free from the burden of their unpaid debt every seventh year. In fact, so important is this release that God’s material blessing of the people is explicitly linked to it in verses 4-6. And then the generosity expressed in canceling these debts is extended in verses 7-10 to the loans on which they were based. Here’s how the narrator puts it:
“If there is among you anyone in need… do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your (emphatic in Hebrew) hand, willingly lending (emphatic) enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore you view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give (emphatic) liberally and be ungrudging when you do so; for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deut. 15:7-10, NRSV).
Clearly, concern for the well-being of the poor is important here. And this concern is expressed in the text in part by drawing attention to the hand (vv. 1, 2, 7, 8, and 11), the heart (vv. 7, 9, and 10), and the eye (vv. 9, and 18), indicating that our whole being is to be engaged in caring for the poor. Not only is how we act (hand) important. What also matters is how we think and feel (the Hebrew word for heart, lebab, covers both), and how we view (eye) those who are in need. We are warned against using our minds (thoughts) to rationalize against opening our heart and hand to those in need. Compassion and generosity that embraces all that we are and have are what is called for here.
In the section immediately following verse 11, concern for the poor continues, but the focus shifts from canceling debts to releasing those who had to sell themselves into indentured service. Not only were they to be released from their debt slavery on the Sabbath Year, but, the text goes on to stress, they were to be released laden down with a bountiful supply of grain, wine, and even animals (15:12-15).5 Why? So they could begin a new life in the community with adequate resources. The goal of all of this is to give the indebted or enslaved poor fresh start, a new beginning in which the overwhelming burden of poverty is removed.
Far from being an exercise in futility, practicing radical generosity towards those in need is not only an act of profound obedience; it can also make a real difference in lived history. If the commandments in Deut. 15 are carefully followed, together with the other commandments that God has given, then as part of God’s blessing announced in verse 4, “there will be no one in need among you.” Astonishing! Equally astonishing is when the early believers in Acts 4 responded to the Spirit’s prompting and shared their possessions with each other (an act that mirrors the compassionate generosity Deut. 15 calls for), “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” (see Acts 4:32-35). But new needs arose in the early church as they did in ancient Israel. And because of this, the practice of radical generosity that informs the commands in Deut. 15 and the Spirit’s leading in Acts 4 must be enacted again and again.
Concern for the poor is an extremely important issue in the biblical story. In his book, Faith Works, Jim Wallis relates a study he and several of his fellow students in seminary undertook. They examined every mention of the poor in the Bible. What they found was “several thousand verses on the subject. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the second most prominent theme, idolatry being the first, and the two were often related. In the New Testament, one out of every sixteen verses had to do with wealth and poverty. In the first three Gospels, the subject is in one out of every ten verses; in the Gospel of Luke, it is in one out of seven verses.”6 If poverty plays such a central role in the Bible, should it not also be important to us?
Returning to the story of the anointing at Bethany with which we began, and reading Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you,” in light of Deuteronomy 15 to which they allude, it is clear that costly care for the poor is definitely a matter of importance. The phrase, “you always have the poor with you,” in Mark 14:7 reaches back to the injunction in Deuteronomy 15:11 and says to Jesus’ followers then and now, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.” And we might add with a nod to Matthew 25, “whatsoever you do to the poor, you do to me.”
- In Mark 14:3-9, Jesus comes to the defense of the woman who anointed his body with oil before for his burial and explains the difference between an immediate need that can be addressed now and an ongoing need that can be addressed tomorrow. What does this teaching imply to good works today?
- What is your interpretation of the infamous verse “the poor you always have with you?” Why do people use this phrase to justify poverty and how can we respond to this justification? In this context, how does Deut. 15:11 challenge us in caring for the poor? What does it mean to put our whole being, eyes, mind, heart and hand, into serving the poor?
- The Scripture talks about the “Year of Release, the Sabbath Year” as an act of justice in lending to the poor and setting them free by cancelling their debt. How can we practice this radical generosity today? Going beyond releasing the poor from debt, how can we ensure they have access to basic needs to live in dignity?
- Poverty is a frequently mentioned theme in the Scripture and plays a very central and important role in the biblical message. As Christians, how do we respond faithfully to issues of poverty and how can we engage others in advocating for the poor?
Rev. Gary Hauch serves as the priest of Church of the Ascension, an Anglican church in Ottawa. He has a PhD in Old Testament Theology from Princeton.
- 1. This story also occurs in slightly modified form in Matthew 26:6-13 and John 12:1-8 (cf. Luke 7:36-50).
- 2. Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8.
- 3. Tosepta pe’a 4:9; Babilonian Talmud Sukka 49b
- 4. The Infinite Absolute construction is found seven times in the section dealing with release of debts incurred from interest free loans in verses 1-11 (vv. 2, 4, 5, 8 two times, 10, and 11), and once in verse 14 in the section dealing with the release of indentured servants.
- 5. The beginning of verse 14 which the NRSV translates “Provide liberally” reads literally in the Hebrew as “You shall make a rich garland/necklace for him/her.” The intended meaning is as the NRSV translates it, but with the added nuance of beauty and celebration. This liberal provision is to grace the freed slave like a rich garland that bestows honour and dignity on the one who wears it. This release is to be seen as a festive occasion.
- 6. Jim Wallis, Faith Works:Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher (New York: Random House, 2000), 71.