Sunday, 21 September 2008

Always the poor

(Click on image to see text)
I’ve always struggled with that bit in the gospels where Jesus says, “you always have the poor with you.” (Matthew 26:11) It seems so out of place with both Jesus and the story it comes in.

The story itself appears to make a lot of sense, apart from that bit. It starts with chief priests and elders of the law plotting the covert arrest of Jesus. Next, Jesus is placed in the house of Simon the Leper! The location is hardly inconsequential. Jesus is rehabilitating a leper, treating an outcast with human dignity by eating at his table. In a society where lepers were expelled from the city, to eat at his table is remarkably humanising.

Then, in startling contrast to the elders and chief priests, a woman shows real love and care for Jesus. She pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ head (quite odd if you ask me!) Somehow Jesus sees this as providing his body with a proper burial. (again, slightly odd) One of the reasons crucifixion was considered shameful was because the deceased were seldom buried. They were usually simply left for carrion or thrown on a rubbish tip. It was a point of enormous anxiety that Jesus’ body would be so shamefully treated. Whether or not the woman literally knew that Jesus was to be crucified, we can, at least, see in this gesture an attempt to give human dignity to a man who is about to be denied it. She gives Jesus the kind of dignity he was giving the leper and modelled throughout his life. He knew he could go to his grave knowing that at this juncture in his life he was cared for and his body, in a way, embalmed.

I also love the way Jesus (as usual) defends a woman (who would have experienced put downs from men on a regular basis) from the disciples’ criticisms. “Why are you bothering this woman?” he asks.

Yet, for all that is liberating and inspiring about all this, I’ve always thought Jesus’ words, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me with you” appear to undo it all. They sound like an excuse for not prioritizing the needs of the poor in our giving and our politics. It seems to justify some kind of worship of Jesus, over against providing for the needy. It seems so out of step with the Jesus who came to “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).
Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11,
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in the land."
In Deuteronomy the on-going presence of the poor means that there must be on-going, structural relief for them. Jesus, though, appears to turn this upside down: the on-going presence of the poor means that the poor can be helped later – poverty will never be history, so don’t get too hung up on it.

But, here’s where I had an epiphany…It suddenly occurred to me: Who is the poor in this story? Isn’t Jesus the needy one - about to be made a victim of cruel crucifixion and potentially left to the mercy of the elements? Is not Jesus the one whose humanity is about to be denied him? Yet, the disciples show no concern. One of them, Judas, is about to betray him for money. When a gesture of appreciation and love is shown Jesus, all they do is shun it. What’s more, they talk about the poor in the abstract – no names are mentioned, no human face is put to them. “The poor?”, says Jesus, “who are they? You don’t even know any. Don’t talk to me about the abstract needy, especially when you have a real living one right in front of you, for whom you are showing no apparent concern.” In this story the woman saw Jesus as the one who was about to be dehumanised in front of the world by the torture of crucifixion and then left to an inhumane disposal, as though his body was no more than meat. The woman treated his body with dignity, but the men showed no such concern.

In many ways, this is a story about looking for the needy under our noses. In our globalised world, where we engage with the poor through a TV set or an Internet connection, its easy to forget the needy on our doorsteps. Us, Generation Xers, are in danger of such ‘global’, issues-based, but impersonal social action. There is definitely a place for it, but let’s not forget the poor on our doorsteps.

It’s also a story about being concerned with more than handouts, but being concerned about valuing people. It is a story about caring for the human. Isn’t this why we are taking action against the dehumanising of people at Guantanamo? Because Jesus taught us to treat people like human beings and with dignity?

I think the Guantanamo event will be great and I’m really looking forward to, but lets use it as an opportunity to think about how we are giving dignity to our partners and our children, our work colleagues and that homeless guy we walk past on the way to work.

(PS. Apologies if this is all really obvious to everyone and also, apologies for getting a bit preachy at the end!)

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