“You will always have the poor.” It is not uncommon for people to use these words from Jesus in John 12 to dismiss the plight of the least among us. I get why, at face value, it sounds like they are saying just that. After all, if Jesus says we will always have the poor then trying to end poverty is an exercise in futility. Why should we even try? Some could even interpret it to mean that human plans to end suffering works against God’s declaration. But is that what Jesus means?
The Poor and Jubilee
Upon closer reflection, Jesus’ words echo part of Deuteronomy 15. There God tells the people through Moses, “There will always be some in the land who are poor.” God goes on to say, “That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.”
The larger context of Deuteronomy 15 is the year of Jubilee, where every seven years the Israelites were to forgive all debts. But this forgiveness is only part of God’s plan to eliminate poverty. Deuteronomy 15 also calls for extreme generosity towards the poor. So much so, that if someone needs help as the year of Jubilee approaches, the lender should still grant the loan. To be clear, this means the lender gives the money fully aware repayment will not happen. Instead, the there will be loan forgiveness.
This also means that Jesus does more with these words than denounce Judas’ greed. Instead, Jesus reveals that poverty, where the poor perpetually lack resources, is a choice. The people rejected the society God calls them to embrace, one where acts of extreme generosity are normal. The only reason people can play offense at Mary’s generosity, where you either express heartfelt gratitude to Jesus or take care of the poor, is social systemic failure.
In other words, if the people embraced Deuteronomy 15, they would care for the poor, there would be no concept of lifelong debt, and they would celebrate Mary’s generous act of gratitude towards Jesus.
A New Call to Jubilee
But there is more. Mary’s gift, which preemptively anoints Jesus for burial, sets the stage for a new call to embrace the rule and reign of God, partially laid out in Deuteronomy 15. Mary is preparing Jesus to take societies’ ways, its power structures and inequalities, the injustice and marginalization, the greed and oppression that rejects Jesus’ way of love, to the grave.
Then, on Easter Sunday, Jesus returns and once again invites us all to embrace Jubilee.