Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Poor Always With You

“For you always have the poor with you,
but you do not always have me.” —Jesus

This saying of Jesus has elicited a fair amount of comment over the centuries. The woman, remember, had anointed Jesus’ head (feet, in John) and had spent a small fortune doing so. Some disciples (Judas, in John) took umbrage at her extravagance and chided her for “wasting” the ointment when it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

Perhaps our first clue to Jesus’ saying is the near parallel in Deuteronomy 15:11: There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and the poor, in your land. Although it offends our ideas of “War on Poverty” (LBJ) and “Freedom from Want” (FDR), it seems that Deuteronomy is right; there always will be poor, in every land. For the Bible, however, this does not produce some philosophical theory that the poor are suffering from bad karma, or that they have been predestined to destruction, or that their poverty is necessary in order for the rest of the world to prosper. In biblical terms, that’s garbage. Since there will always be poor in the land, we must always open wide our hands, always be prepared to be generous, always give alms, and never imagine that our duty to do so is finished.

Jesus’ saying has often been used to justify large expenditures on church ornamentation even though we all know Jesus was poor. I don’t think that we can draw that sort of parallel; our expensive vestments are not quite the same as the woman’s precious spikenard. Yet, there is an argument to be made for beautiful worship. Imagine someone were to say, “You’ve got a million dollar stained glass window here. You could sell it and give the money to the poor! Wouldn’t that be what Jesus wants?” A good first response might be: “You don’t think the poor are uplifted by stained glass? The window, available to the sight of all worshippers, rich or poor, performs a valuable service to the poor by being in a church rather than in a gallery. What’s more, the window does not stop you from giving to the poor, does it? So give!” I would be inclined to add that gifts “to the poor” quite often fund large bureaucracies. This is to some extent necessary, but we should be clear that money to a program may or may not actually benefit real poor people.

The eloquent John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople in the fifth century, has left us fiery sermons about the Christian’s obligation to serve Jesus in serving the poor. This becomes the best argument of all. We imitate the woman of the Gospels precisely by caring for the poor since Jesus makes himself tangible to us in the poor. Here’s some of what John said:
Would you do honor to Christ’s body? Neglect him not when naked; while you honor him here with silk garments, do not neglect him perishing outside from cold and nakedness. For he who said, “This is my body,” and by his word confirmed the fact, also said, “You saw me hungry, and fed me not;” and, “Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”

So honor him with this honor, which he ordained, spending your wealth on poor people. Since God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls.

Do you make Christ a cup of gold, while you give him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish his table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to himself you afford not even the necessary covering?

And these things I say, not forbidding munificence in these matters, but admonishing you to do those other works together with these, or rather even before these. Because no one was ever blamed for not having done these, but for those, hell is threatened, and unquenchable fire. Do not therefore while adorning his house overlook your brother in distress, for he is more properly a temple than the other.

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