About two days before Jesus was crucified, a woman broke open an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment and poured it on his head. Some witnesses were outraged and said, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii, and the money given to the poor.”
300 denarii were worth about a year’s wage and could have fed so many hungry people! No wonder they were upset with her apparently wasteful display of extravagance.
But surprisingly, Jesus comes to her defense. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me…” (see Mark 14:3-9).
These words “the poor you always have with you” are sometimes used to deflect attention away from meeting the needs of the poor and focusing it elsewhere. But is this a legitimate use of this verse? Is Jesus really encouraging his followers to turn from the poor?
Not at all. Immediately after Jesus said, “the poor you always have,” he went on to say, “and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” The issue here is not rejecting the poor, but that this woman sensed something the others did not: Jesus’ immediate, overwhelming need – he is about to die. She acts by anointing him for his burial with an extravagance foreshadowing the extravagance of the suffering he is about to endure, itself a sign of the extravagance of his love outpoured. Soon it would be too late to show such kindness.
The contrast Jesus sets out is between an immediate need that must be addressed now and an ongoing need that can be addressed after. Rabbinic teaching on good works makes a similar point: burying the dead, which must be done today, is to take precedence over visiting the sick, which can be done tomorrow.
The text is clearly not concerned with dismissing the poor. In fact, by using the phrase, “the poor you always have with you,” Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, which is all about caring for the poor. It reads, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land” (NIV).
By alluding to Deut. 15:11, Jesus ups the ante from alms giving (giving proceeds of the ointment to the poor) to social justice (addressing a major structural condition of poverty in Israel: crushing indebtedness). The context of this verse is the Year of Release, the Sabbath Year, when all debts incurred during the previous six years are to be fully cancelled.
Deut. 15 calls the reader to pay close attention, as it contains one of the highest concentrations in the Hebrew Bible of a grammatical construction that lays emphatic stress on what is being said. Here, we’re to be attentive to the twin practice of lending generously without charging interest to the poor whenever they are in need, and then, remarkably, freeing them from the burden of their unpaid debt every seventh year. Here’s how the narrator puts it:
“If there is among you anyone in need… do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your (emphatic in Hebrew) hand, willingly lending (emphatic) enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore you view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give (emphatic) liberally and be ungrudging when you do so; for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deut. 15:7-10, NRSV).
Clearly, concern for the well-being of the poor is important. The text expresses this concern by drawing attention to the hand, the heart, and the eye, calling for compassion and generosity that embraces all that we are and have.
Concern for the poor continues after verse 11, but focuses on releasing those who had to sell themselves into indentured service. Not only were they to be released from their debt slavery on the Sabbath Year, but they were to be released with a bountiful supply of grain, wine and animals (Deut. 15:12-15). Why? So they could begin a new life in the community with adequate resources, without the overwhelming burden of poverty.
Practicing radical generosity towards those in need is not only an act of profound obedience; it can also make a real difference in lived history. If these commandments are carefully followed, then, as part of God’s blessing in verse 4, “there will be no one in need among you.” Astonishing!
Returning to the story of the anointing, it is clear that costly care for the poor is important. The phrase “you always have the poor with you” in Mark 14:7 reaches back to Deut. 15:11’s injunction, saying to Jesus’ followers then and now, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.” And we might add with a nod to Matthew 25, “whatsoever you do to the poor, you do to me.