There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (NIV)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages."
He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me." Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (NIV)
I was telling someone the other day about an experience I had in my first pastorate. A lady came into my office, asking for help. She looked desperate. She was dressed in dirty, old clothes. She had a baby in her arms. She was a single, unwed mother. She was 15 years old when she became pregnant, and she’d run away from home. She’d been gone for 2 years, but the night before coming to my office she decided to return home to her parents--baby and all. She told me she came to the church hoping I could give her money for a bus ride.
I hesitated. The church usually tries to help people like this, but as a general rule, it’s usually best not to simply give away money.
Besides, I only had ten bucks in my pocket. There was no money around the church. Normally, with cases like this I’d call the treasurer of the local minister’s fund. All of the ministers in that town tried to use a common fund for things like this. But it was 5:00 on a Friday and I knew I’d have trouble getting the money from the minister’s fund.
Then the baby started crying. I finally gave her what money I had and wished her well.
About a week later, I saw her. I was at the Salvation Army visiting the minister there – you know they call ministers “Captains” in the Salvation Army. He and I were talking when I caught sight of her in the far corner of the room. So I asked the Captain, “You know that girl?”
“You bet I do,” he told me. “Let me tell you. She has quite a scam. Every Friday, she has a baby sitting job. And she takes the baby she’s caring for and drives around town from church to church, giving ministers a sob story and asking for money. And if the ministers show any hesitation at all, she’ll reach down and pinch that baby on the behind. Makes the baby cry!”
I looked at the Salvation Army minister and said, “You know, it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for that!”
What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?
That is one of the issues raised by the Gospel of John as we read this passage and watch how Christ enjoys an expensive anointing of perfume on his feet, and as we listen to a harsh rebuke by Judas.
What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?
Sometimes we feel like avoiding the whole subject. After all, it is easy to get the feeling that these people are not poor and needy, but lazy and conniving.
That young lady with the baby, she swindled me out of ten dollars! She wasn’t poor and needy. She was just creative!
It is so easy to drive through the intersections and see the poor panhandling from car to car. It is easy to see the homeless huddled around bridges and old buildings in downtown Miami. And it is so easy to think – they’re lazy.
My wife told me that she saw a homeless man the other day. Not that unusual. He was panhandling. Again, not that unusual. He was at an intersection going from car to car, can in his right hand, collecting donations. And in his left hand? He had his left hand pressed up to his ear – with a cellular telephone.
One of the frustrations of poverty is the struggle of whom to help.
But that is not the only frustration with dealing with the poverty around us.
Another is the feeling of being overwhelmed. We notice the homeless man asking for a handout who has a cell phone. We become irratated at seeing people in front of us in the grocery store buying food with food stamps, and then driving away in a Lexus.
But we also know that there are a lot of people who are deeply hurt by the reality of poverty.
You can’t watch an evening of television without seeing the commercials asking for donations to help sponsor a child. The bodies are little more than skin and bones. Drive through areas of this city and you see people who are terribly and desperately poor.
What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?
To that question you often want to just raise your hands in frustration and say, “Nothing can be done. There are too many of them.”
Sometimes we want to say – “The poor will always be with us.”
Which might be an interesting thing to say.
Because that is what Jesus says.
Jesus says it in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
Jesus is in a private home, at a gathering held in his honor. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. What might have been planned as a wake has suddenly become a celebration. Jesus is there. The disciples are there. Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, are also there. Martha is busily serving everyone, while Mary is at the feet of Jesus.
Mary takes a container of very expensive perfume and anoints the feet of Jesus.
She pours the perfume on the feet of Jesus and dries it with her hair.
One aspect of this action is that Mary is giving Jesus a gift that is a way of relieving stress. Now that is a wonderful gift in any society.
I remember last October, the church celebrated Pastor Appreciation Month in a wonderful way – Jason and I both received gift certificates to visit a spa for a massage and a pedicure. You gave us those gift certificates on Sunday. I don’t know about Jason, but when you gave me my certificates on Sunday, I used them on Monday.
And that is the kind of gift Mary gives to Jesus. A relief from stress. Understand that in that culture, people walked everywhere. Very seldom did Jesus ride anywhere – on a chariot, wagon or on an animal. He walked. We always see him walking in Scripture. He’s walking here, he’s walking there.
And he’s walking with sandals. No Doctor Shoals footpads. No nice shoes. His feet would grow tired and dirty.
To have someone pour oil or perfume on your feet and to wash them and massage them dry was a wonderful way of relaxing.
And into this wonderful moment, comes the voice of reason. The voice of reality. The voice of responsibility.
“We could have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!”
And that is the voice of reason, the voice of reality, the voice of responsibility.
Of course, it is also the voice of Judas.
But forget for a moment who raises this issue.
It’s a good issue.
It’s an important issue.
What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?
When Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you,” there is a danger that many of us will misinterpret what he says.
We will always have the poor.
Can’t do a thing about it.
So why try?
But that interpretation is inconsistent with the whole of Scripture.
In the Old Testament, the Word of God says, "If in any of the towns in the land ... there is a fellow Israelite in need, then do not be selfish and refuse to help him. Instead, be generous and lend him as much as he needs. Do not refuse to lend him something." (Dt. 15:7-11)
In Psalm 82, we are reminded to "defend the poor and the fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and the needy."
Proverbs 28 says "Give to the poor and you will never be in need. If you close your eyes to the poor, many people will curse you."
We hear Jesus say, "The poor will always be with us," and we hear that as permission to let it go at that; to do nothing. The poor will always be with us, can’t do anything about it. Forget about them. But that is not an acceptable attitude to take toward the poor.
Which still leaves us with the question, what does the Christian do about the poor in our communities?
Getting back to the Gospel reading for this morning, it is actually a mistake to say that Jesus said that the poor will always be with you. He said it, yes, but he was actually quoting an Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 15, which is our Old Testament lesson for today.
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is a collection of speeches that Moses delivers to the Jews before they entered into the promised land. In the portion we read for our Old Testament lesson, Moses is addressing a number of economic subjects. He makes the bold statement, “There should be no poor among you.”
Well, that would make it easy for us to deal with poverty in our community. We just don’t have any!
But almost as soon as Moses says what Jesus will later quote in John’s Gosepl – “There will always be poor people in the land.”
Now in between the statement of the ideal – there should be no poor among you, and the statement of the reality – there will always be poor among you, Moses answers the question, “What should the Christian do about the poor in our communities?”
Our tendancy is often to close our eyes to them.
Become frustrated because we can’t tell the poor and needy from the lazy and conniving.
Against those approaches, Moses says, “if there is a poor person among you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs … Give generously and do so without a grudging heart.”
And in the context of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that this is not a case in which this is "Ho hum, we always have the poor with us," But rather it is a case of "Great news, we always have the poor with us!"
This is not a burdon, "you always have the poor with you."
It is a gift, "You always have the poor with you, you always have before you opportunities to give, you always have before you opportunities to serve God."
This is the key to understanding our Gospel lesson for today.
Service to Christ is a joy.
This is the answer to what we are to do with the poor.
We serve them with joy.
We give to them, not with a grudging heart, but with generosity and pleasure.
But this is also the answer to much more.
This is the answer to how we deal with almost any situation.
This is what Mary does. She takes the expensive ointment and anoints the feet of Jesus. She serves him with joy.
This is what Martha does. She serves the people gathered at the dinner that is being held in honor of Jesus.
The one exception to this is Judas.
Unlike nearly everyone else in this text, he is not serving anyone with joy. He is, in fact critical and complaining. But of course, Judas is often the exception to Christian conduct.
When Judas rebukes Jesus and reminds him that this perfume could have been sold for a large amount – a year’s wages. In response Jesus reminds him that the poor will always be with us. As we have said, when Jesus says this, he is quoting the Old Testament, and in the Old Testament, that statement went onto say that we therefore always have the opportunity to serve God by serving the poor.
Jesus is reminding Judas to look for the opportunity to help the poor, and to serve them with joy.
I will confess that there is a part of me that doesn’t want to hear that Word of God.
I’ve told you the story of being swindled out of $10 early in my ministry by that young lady who brought that baby into my office. She had a great story, and she had me pegged pretty well, knowing that by pinching that baby’s rear end I’d cough of that money just to see them go on their way.
I’ve been swindled out of more than that over the years.
I know there are people out there who are lazy and conniving.
I’ve met them.
You’ve met them.
But I also know there are many people in this community who really are in need. They really are poor. They desperately need help.
It’s OK for us to enjoy life. Jesus did. He enjoyed the benefit of that expensive perfume being rubbed on his feet.
But it’s not OK for us to turn our back on those in our community who need our attention.
There is in Jesus’ response to Judas, a bit of a rebuke. “Judas, you always have the poor – so what have you been doing for them lately?”
We always have the poor.
We always have the opportunity to serve.
What opportunities have we taken lately?
And if you are afraid of being swindled, afraid that “Well, they’ll just use the money for drugs or alcohol,” then don’t give money. Give food.
We collect food all the time here at Sunrise and through your gifts we are able to say that we never turn anyone down who needs food.
The two cents a meal program – it goes to help fight hunger here in South Florida and in other nations.
A portion of the tithes and offerings you give every Sunday go to the work of the Presbyterian Church, USA, and a part of that goes to fight hunger all over the world.
But there are also times when you as an individual have the opportunity to help someone, one on one – to help someone get job training, or to find a job.
This past month, some of our members were involved in a wonderful outreach to help provide nice clothing, make-up, and a hairstyle so homeless or impoverished women could make a better impression at job interviews.
Jesus was right – you always have the poor with you. You always have the opportunity to serve with joy and generosity.
W Maynard Pittendreigh