While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.
"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:3-7).
For someone who speaks and writes regularly about Jesus’ heart for the poor and about the powerful connection between “true religion” and our generosity toward the poor, this is an uncomfortable passage. Was Jesus saying that our compassionate giving to the poor doesn’t really make any difference in solving the problem of poverty? Was he suggesting that we resign ourselves to the permanence of poverty?
Before getting too far into understanding what Jesus may have meant, let me simply say that I believe poverty is less a failure of money as it is a failure of love.
As much as I grieve the hemorrhaging of money out of poor communities and into the pockets of the rich, as difficult as it is for me to see the incredible pressure that keeps the world’s lowest wages at unlivable levels, and as useful as it may be to stimulate economic growth among the poor, I simply do not believe the chief problem with poverty is money.
One of the problems exacerbating poverty, however, is most certainly greed – which has very little to do with money. Greed is a sickness. It is an itch which is never satisfied. Greed is not as much about money as it is about the “love of money,” which Paul says causes us to wander from the faith and pierce ourselves with many griefs (I Tim. 6:10). Greed is the act of rejecting God as master in favor of another (Luke 16:13). Greed is spiritual, not material.
When Jesus asked the rich, young ruler in Mark 10 to sell all he had, give it to the poor and come follow him, Jesus was not attempting to solve poverty, he was attempting to cure this young man of the greed that had killed his soul. He was trying to resuscitate his spirit and give him real life.
Money has the power to trap us but it does not have the power to truly free us. A solution to poverty may include the need to re-think economics, but the end of poverty will not be rooted in the growth of economies but in the growth of love.
So given that poverty and greed are spiritual more than material, let’s look again at Jesus’ statement.
- The context of this passage was the fleeting, physical presence of Jesus Christ on earth just before his death and resurrection. The focus of the passage is centered on worship not poverty and wealth. If his second coming included his physical appearance at my house for dinner, and if I were privileged to pour him his first taste of wine since the last supper, I would not hesitate to spend my retirement savings for a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam.
- His statement was in response to the berating this woman received, particularly from Judas who was greedy for the money this perfume might have fetched to line his own pockets (John 12). He was defending this woman’s act of worship. Perhaps he was suggesting that our acts of worship would be to pour our alabaster jars of perfume upon the heads of the poor after his ascension, essentially saying, “This woman has done a beautiful thing to me now while I am physically present, you will have many chances to do beautiful things to me later when I am present in the form of the poor.”
- Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15. This is a stunning Old Testament passage which says both, “You should have no poor among you,” v. 4, and “There will always be poor people in the land,” v. 11. God set up an economic system that, if followed, would make poverty virtually unheard of. The acknowledgement in verse 11 that there would always be poor in the land is either a prophetic denouncement that Israel would never fully obey the commands, or that the flourishing nation would be so economically solid that it would attract the poor from the nations around them. Either way, in his quote Jesus harkens to a passage which essentially says that poverty was never meant to be a thriving condition among God’s people.
Just because it may not be possible to eradicate all sexual aberration from earth does not mean that child prostitution is acceptable and cannot be made a bizarre and rare occurrence, or that we should accept it and not work towards its end. Can we eradicate greed from humanity? Probably not. Can we create a world where it is hard to get into poverty and easy to get out? With God’s help I believe we can.
Jesus was not saying that we must accept poverty as normal and OK, he was reminding us of the primacy of worship and calling us back to the Deuteronomic blessing of living out God’s commands for Jubilee, forgiveness of debt, and generosity toward those in need.