Monday, March 12, 2012

"The Poor You Will Always Have with You" (Mark 14:7)?

Is this your life, Jackie Brown?
Poorly educated and forced to live on the poor side of town.
Is this your daughter, Jackie Brown?
This pretty little girl
In the worn out clothes
That have been hand-me down.
Is this your wife, Jackie Brown?
With sad blue eyes, walking on eggshells so you don't see her frown.
Is this your family, Jackie Brown?

Dream of vacationing on a mountain stream
And giving the world more than it gave you.
What ugly truths freedom brings
And it hasn't been very kind to you.
Is this your life, Jackie Brown?
Is this your meal, Jackie Brown?
Barely enough, I've seen people throw away more than this out.
Is this your home, Jackie Brown?
This three room shack
With no running water
And the bathroom out back.
Is this your grave, Jackie Brown?
This little piece of limestone that says another desperate man took himself out.
Is this your dream, Jackie Brown?

Going nowhere and nowhere fast
We shame ourselves to watch people like this live.
But who gives a damn about Jackie Brown?
Just another lazy man who couldn't take what was his.
One helluva life Jackie Brown.
Forevermore, Jackie Brown
Amen and amen - Jackie Brown?

So wrote—and sang—John Mellencamp back in 1989.[i]  This has long been my favorite Mellencamp song, both for its agreeable tune and for its palpable concern for social justice, which he viewed as being in eclipse during the long years of the Reagan and Bush I presidencies.  I last heard the song a couple of weeks ago, while driving home after picking my son up from the airport.  And it got me thinking once again about poverty, and about the response of American Christians to the poverty increasingly in their midst.

Thinking, let alone talking, about poverty is a tricky business in the somewhat conflicted culture of American Evangelicalism.  On the one hand, as Christians, they recognize that compassion is a virtue they ought to cultivate, and that, as Jesus himself said, they must be merciful people if they want mercy to be extended to them (Matt 5:7).  On the other hand, for many—if not most—Evangelicals, Christianity has become conflated with “conservatism” as a worldview, so much so that being “conservative” is seen as a necessary entailment of being a follower of Jesus.

Here’s the rub: such Christians know they should be concerned about the poor, but poverty and the related concerns about social justice have, since the days of FDR, widely been understood to be “liberal” issues.  As a result, Christian teachers and preachers who have emphasized such matters have, at best, been viewed with suspicion.  At worst, they have been dismissed outright.  I know.  I was raised in such circles, and a significant part of my own Christian discipleship has involved ridding myself of such attitudes and presuppositions.[ii]

Particularly offensive is the widespread assumption of many well-fed, well-connected Christian suburbanites that the plight of America’s poor is due to their own fecklessness, irresponsibility, laziness, and—let’s face it—sin[iii]: “Just another lazy man who couldn't take what was his,” as Mellencamp put it.  They thus demonstrate an unhealthy attachment to an economic Pelagianism of the sort they would excoriate in anyone who thought theologically in those terms.  Many comfort themselves with the consideration that America’s poor do not suffer the same degree of deprivation as most in the two-thirds world do.[iv]  Others point to the existence of America’s frayed safety net as reason not to bother themselves unduly with the poor in our midst.[v]  Worst of all, many—and I have been told this face-to-face on numerous occasions—justify inaction on the basis of the very words of Jesus himself: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (Mark 14:7 et par.).

This saying occurs as part of a climactic utterance[vi] of Jesus after he was anointed with a jarful of expensive perfume during a meal the day before “Palm Sunday.”[vii]  The entire pericope reads as follows:
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of 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. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9, NIV)

One is immediately struck by the (no doubt, deliberate) harshness and apparent egocentricity of Jesus’ rebuke of his fellow dinner guests.[viii]  The concerns of practicality and utilitarianism conspire to make reasonable the judgment that the woman’s extravagant act of devotion[ix] was a “waste” (apōleia) of resources that could have been used, as was commonly done at the time of Passover,[x] to give alms to the poor.  Unlike John’s account, where Judas is editorially accused of using concern for the poor as a pretext for his own aggrandizement (John 12:6), there is no hint in the Markan tradition that the objection levied against the unnamed woman was based on impure motives. Nevertheless, Jesus justifies his defense of the woman by stating that “the poor you will always have with you.”  Does this not downplay the priority of the poor and lessen somewhat the urgency—or even the necessity—of Jesus’ followers working to lessen their plight?  The answer is “No” for at least three reasons.

First, Mark 14:7 deliberately alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, which explicitly demands relief for the poor.  Indeed, the entire context (Deut 15:1-11) was in time used as “the basis of an extensive and carefully regulated system of donation to poor relief”[xi] in ancient Judaism.  The verse in question reads as follows:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

The point should be obvious that, far from discouraging concern for the poor, the perpetual presence of the poor in our midst should be the motivating factor to encourage almsgiving.[xii]  As always, attention to the contexts of Old Testament passages either quoted or echoed pays great interpretive dividends.

Second, Jesus’ teaching as a whole manifests a characteristically biblical concern for the poor.  He described his message, in part, as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  More significantly, in the triple tradition pericope of the so-called “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22 et par.), Jesus exhorts the young man, as a condition of discipleship—and of inheriting eternal life!—to sell his possessions and redistribute the proceeds to the poor (10:21).[xiii]  As Jimmy Dunn notes trenchantly, “What is of particular interest at this point is the way the story cuts across the sentiments of the … earlier Markan [narrative]: the protest echoes Jesus’ exhortation to the rich (young) man!  And it is Jesus who now demurs.”[xiv]  This alone should point us in the direction of realizing that Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples for criticizing the woman is situationally specific.  In other words, good as charity to the poor may be, there are some occasions that dictate it to be the second-best option.  On that occasion, Jesus is saying, his fellow dinner guests had a case of misplaced priorities.[xv]

Third, Jesus explicitly commends meeting the needs of the poor in the following clause.[xvi]  The expression, “whenever you want,” is not meant to render the giving of alms optional, but rather to highlight the main contrast of the verse: the poor will always be around, but Jesus won’t.  The point is simply that the poor, as permanent members of society, can—and should be—cared for at any and all times.  However, they would not similarly have Jesus in their midst, as the twin framing stories of the Jewish leaders’ plot and Judas’s treachery, which set in motion the inexorable wheels of injustice leading to Jesus’ demise, indicate.  The woman, whose extravagant display of love for Jesus aroused such indignation, “rose to the occasion,” as it were, prioritizing the Messiah over the needs of other people, no matter how worthy.  The disciples, on the other hand, seem strangely unattuned to their historical circumstances and fixated, like Mary’s sister Martha (Luke 10:38-42), on mundane responsibilities.

Jesus explains why the woman’s actions were so praiseworthy: she was acting in advance to anoint Jesus’ body for his upcoming burial.[xvii]  There is no need to attribute such a symbolic concern to the woman.  Nevertheless, it is quite possible that her spontaneous display of love could have been a response to a recognition, to which the disciples still appeared obtuse—indeed, they remained so up until the betrayal and arrest of Jesus a few days later—to the very real possibility that Jesus could be arrested and condemned by the Jewish and/or Roman authorities.

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you ….  But you will not always have me.”  These words cannot be used as a pretext for a blasé lack of concern for the poor.  Nevertheless, as good as charity and almsgiving are, there will be times—less rather than more often, to be sure—when doing what is good may not be doing what is best.  The trick is developing the discernment necessary to know when these occasions present themselves.

[i] In his somewhat underappreciated album, “Big Daddy,” which saw him incorporating more and more folk elements into his music as he was drifting farther and farther from the pop/rock that had made him famous.
[ii] Fortunately, what appears to be a growing number of Evangelicals recognizes the problem.  Many see the solution in an increased role for the church in private charity.  Other, more daring (in their cultural and ecclesiastical context) individuals, without denying the necessity of charity, believe that government policy can help in ameliorating the plight of the poor.  This is not the place or time to adjudicate between these viewpoints.
[iii] This is not to deny that these are often legitimate factors contributing to poverty.  But it is to deny that these are invariable factors.  Moreover, such attitudes manifest an inexcusable naiveté regarding the historical, social, and structural realities that contribute to both economic success and failure, realities that often breed behaviors that critics point to as causes of failure.
[iv] This, of course is true, but somewhat irrelevant.  If one needs a dollar to function adequately in a given society, having a quarter is not much more helpful than a nickel, especially if there is not reasonable expectation of being able to attain the needed dollar.
[v] So, famously, presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  When, on Facebook no less, I called Romney on this comment, I was predictably lambasted for “taking him out of context.”  To be sure, he did say that he would “fix” the net if broken.  But the larger question is whether or not his stated policies would have that effect (for one argument to the contrary, cf. the following by the Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, @  Be that as it may—Krugman is a “liberal,” so what he says will be dismissed a priori as “biased” by many—my concern is with Christians who use the safety net and existence of numerous charitable organizations as excuses for personal inaction on behalf of the poor.  Christians on both sides of the political divide should be able to agree on this.
[vi] Vincent Taylor famously described the pericope as a “Story about Jesus which is on its way to become a Pronouncement-story” (The Gospel according to St. Mark, 2nd ed. [London: Macmillan, 1966] 529).
[vii] The chronology comes from John, who explicitly says that the event occurred “six days before Passover” (pr x mern to psca).  Mark narrates the event three chapters after the so-called “triumphal entry” (Mark 11:1-11), preferring to “sandwich” it thematically between the twin narratives of the chief priests’ and scribes’ hatching of a plot to kill Jesus (14:1-2) and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus to the chief priests (14:10-11).  This incident is recorded in three gospels from two parallel traditions (Mark 14:3-9 [followed by Matthew 26:6-13]; John 12:1-8).  There is a second story of a woman anointing Jesus, recorded in Luke 7:36-50.  Though Luke’s story shares many interesting features with Mark’s (note as well that Luke does not record an anointing incident during Passion Week), and may indeed have been verbally influenced by it at places, he almost certainly presents a different incident in the life of Jesus.  John’s account, on the other hand, clearly speaks of the same incident as that of Mark, though certain interesting details may manifest crossover influence from the Lukan tradition.  For discussion of the details, cf. C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 1963) 162-73; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII (AB 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 449-52.
[viii] Whereas Mark says “some” (tineς) were indignant at the woman (identified as Mary of Bethany in John’s account), Matthew identifies these companions as “the disciples” (Matt 26:8). John specifies Judas Iscariot as the chief agitator (John 12:4).
[ix] Mark (14:5) specifies the estimated value of the contents as “more than 300 denarii” (ἐpnw dhnarwn triakoswn).  Since a denarius was the typical daily wage earned by a day laborer (Matt 20:2), this justifies the NIV’s translation, “more than a year’s wages.”  This was a very extravagant display of devotion indeed.
[x] Cf., e.g., m.Pes. 9.11. This was first brought to my attention by Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (tr. Arnold Ehrhart; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966) 54.
[xi] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002) 554.  France helpfully cites Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (E.T.; London: SCM/Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) 126-34, which details the measures taken.
[xii] Cf. Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 814-15.
[xiii] Matthew also places the well-known parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in which eternal life or its opposite are granted in accordance with one’s treatment of the (Christian) poor, almost immediately prior to this story (Matt 25:31-46).
[xiv] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making, vol. 1; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003) 523.
[xv] Davies and Allison nicely point to a conceptual parallel in Matthew 8:21-22: “[T]here allegiance to Jesus means leaving one’s father unburied; here allegiance to Jesus means not being prudent with resources, even when they could benefit the poor” (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988-97) 3:446.
[xvi] ka tan qlhte dnasqe atoῖς e poisai.
[xvii] Following J. K. Elliott (“The Anointing of Jesus,” ExpT 85 [1974] 105-107), many have argued that Mark and Matthew, at least, understood Jesus’ anointing to be his being marked out as Messiah (thus, e.g., Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark [BNTC; London: A & C Black, 1991] 329; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 [WBC 34B; Nashville: Nelson, 1999] 359).  Three considerations make this unlikely: (1) anointing to kingly office was performed with olive oil, not perfume deriving from pure nard (cf. texts in Gundry, Mark, 813); (2) none of the gospels use the term crw; and, most importantly, (3) all of the Gospel accounts provides an alternative symbolism, namely, that of anointing for burial, in which all the perfume in a jar was emptied so as to cover the stench of putrefaction.


  1. Good post :) This post makes me think of one of my favorite Stephen Colbert quotes- “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

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