Resources: workingpreacher.org for Apr. 7, 2019; Excerpts from http://kairoscenter.org/poor-peoples-campaign-concept-paper/ “Ending Poverty is Possible” by Liz Theoharis. First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT. January 4, 2009. http://kairoscenter.org/ending-poverty-is-possible-sermon/
Meditation: Open our hearts to Your heart, O Lord, that we may feel what You feel. Amen.
The poor you always have with you. That’s what Jesus said, days before His execution as a revolutionary. Seems pretty straightforward observation of what we see every day. The poor have always been, and will always be there. It’s just obvious.
But there’s a funny thing in ancient Greek. The Greek word exete can mean two different things. It can mean “have,” or it can mean “keep.” So that sentence can legitimately be read as either, “The poor you have with you always” or “Keep the poor with you always.”
One is the present indicative form of the word- which means you’re just stating an obvious fact. Of course there have always been poor people. The other translation is in the present imperative form of the word- which means we are commanded to do something. Keep the poor with you. It’s not an observation; it’s a commandment.Keep the poor with you always.It’s not a command to give up, because there will always be poor people. No, it’s a command to keep them close to you, where you can protect them, care for them, help them get a leg up. Keep the poor with you always. It sounds like something Jesus would say.
It is what Jesus said., when He was quoting His own scriptures, Deuteronomy 15:11, where it says,
“there will always be poor people in the land. That is why I am giving you this order, ‘You must open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.’”
But it’s easier to say, “The poor you always have with you,” and leave it at that. There is no demand in that, no all to challenge the systems that keep people in poverty.
In the gospel of John, Jesus is sitting down to one of his last meals with His disciples and His closest friends- with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They know things are coming to a head. Unless he changes course, Jesus is going to be executed by the state for treason.
Now, why would Rome bother with an itinerant preacher in an out-of-the-way place like Jerusalem? They wouldn’t execute him for preaching, “Be nice to everybody and be a good person.” No- Pontius Pilate LIKES nice people; they are more compliant. That’s not why Jesus was crucified. Jesus is crucified because what He is preaching is the coming of the Kingdom of God: God’s realm of justice and compassion, where there are no rich and there are no poor, there are no wolves eating the lambs. The old empire of violence and corruption that Rome epitomizes? Jesus is preaching that that’s got to go.
Jesus is charged with treason because He’s preaching that God commands us to change our relationships, our society, so that the poor and vulnerable are of equal status and opportunity with those of wealth. “Care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger among you.”
I know I’ve said it before, but that phrase, “Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” is in every single book of the Bible, except for the two books that never mention God: The Book of Esther and Song of Solomon. You’d think God means it. Stand with the small farmers whose land is being taken from them by powerful landowners and the banks. Stand up for the local fishermen, who are being denied access to their fishing beds. Those are the issues in Jesus’ time, the things His own disciples struggle with every day. That is Jesus’ culture, and economics, and needs, against which Jesus preached.
In the US today, at least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty. That’s an increase of more than 9 million people since 2008. Twice as many- 97.3 million people- are officially designated as low-income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.
Keep the poor with you always.
Some think I’m preaching politics, but I’m not. I don’t preach politics from the pulpit; I preach the Bible from the pulpit. I teach about ancient Israel from the pulpit, and what Jesus had to say about it. If there is any parallel to what I’m talking about in our own day, that’s not politics. No- that’s just trying to obey God in our own time. Because that’s the thing about the Bible: it’s about what God wants us to do in a world of injustice, whether it was ancient Israel or modern America. It’s about loving people into life.
So Jesus is sitting there at dinner with His disciples at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ home. And suddenly Mary gets up, and picks up a bottle of incredibly expensive perfume- pure nard, worth about a year’s salary. And she washes Jesus’ feet with that perfume, and then uses her hair to dry His feet. Judas Iscariot, who keeps the common purse used to help the poor, says, “What are you doing? Think of all the good you could have done if you’d only sold that perfume instead!”
The traditional argument goes: Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” therefore, we should attend to spiritual needs over, or instead of tangible needs. “Just a closer walk with Thee” instead of a march on Washington; Thoughts and prayers instead of votes and legislation.
Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of working real change. At worst, it sends the poor off without anything: it’s what they were born to.
- It’s what they brought upon themselves.
- If only they’d work harder, they’d be better off.
- You see, that’s just how the system works.
- God helps those who help themselves. (Ben Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” 1733)
- And if the poor can’t get ahead because the paycheck loan shops take over half their salary
just to get a loan to help them make it to the end of the money- well, that’s their problem. Not my monkey, not my circus.
- Because you know- we’re always going to have THOSE kind of people around us.
- It’s just the way of the world.
That’s the way the world thinks. The world of violence and greed and injustice. The world that God is trying- through us- to change. And in preaching against that way of thinking, Jesus is executed.
When Mary pours that perfume on His feet as an expression of her boundless love for Him, Jesus refuses to let Judas or anyone else throw a cold bucket of guilt or blame on her.
“Keep the poor close to you always,” Jesus says, “but let Mary show her love, for you will not always have Me with you.”
God’s love is shown in so many ways:
- In the warm hospitality of opening our homes;
- In the extraordinary gift which anoints someone for their future;
- In always keeping those in need close to us, and not pushing them away;
- In being willing to hear the cry of the poor, and the call God makes to us to change
our communities, our nation, our world into a place where all can live in dignity.
Keep the poor with you always, Jesus tells us, His disciples.
And even though I die, I will never leave you.
In the Name of the One who keeps us close, and will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE FOR APRIL 7, 2019 JOHN 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus,
who Jesus had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for Him.
Martha served, and Lazarus was one of them at the table with Him.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped His feet with her hair.
The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples
(the one who was about to betray Him), said,
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii,
and the money given to the poor?”
(He said this not because Judas cared about the poor,
but because he was a thief; he kept the disciples’ common purse
and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said,
“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for
the day of My burial. You always have the poor with you,
but you will not always have Me.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.