By Doug Walker
The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. Mark 14:7
The scene was a dinner party, and Jesus was the guest of honor. Everyone was reclining at the table, sharing stories and enjoying one another’s company. Then a woman, perhaps an uninvited guest, approaches Jesus, and without a word breaks an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume and pours it on his head. This strange and extravagant gesture brought strong condemnation from the others around the table: “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her for her foolish act and poor money management skills.
Many of you are familiar with this story from Mark 14, and you might remember that the main point is the “beautiful thing” she did for Jesus, without concern for what it might cost. It’s also the passage where Jesus points to her action as a preparation for his own burial – another foreshadowing of his atoning death. But it’s the statement Jesus made in verse 7 (seen at the beginning of the article) that often leaves folks scratching their heads. If the poor will always be with us, does that mean that God has no intention of changing the plight of those in poverty?
Despite what seems like an ever-increasing population of the poor around the world, God is at work (and always has been), bringing forth outposts of his coming kingdom in the communities on earth. The problem is, unless they take the form of a huge relief shipment of food, or direct financial aid, we don’t recognize these outposts as ministry to the poor. That’s because our notion of helping the poor is one dimensional, limited to changing their economic condition. If we can put a roof over their heads, food in their mouth and a few dollars in their pocket, then they are no longer poor. While this type of relief certainly helps, it doesn’t address the much larger issue of poverty.
Remember how John the Baptist was confused by the way Jesus conducted his mission? Jesus was expected to launch a campaign of God’s justice against the echelons of wealth and power, but it didn’t seem to be going in that direction, so John inquires whether he should be expecting someone else to come as Messiah. In Matthew 11, Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” He was healing broken lives and communicating the freedom and forgiveness of the gospel to the poor. This mission to the poor is the same mission Jesus would later turn to the people of all nations – and the outcome is promised to be a triumph of God’s justice in which the nations will have life and hope.
You see, ministry to the poor must be holistic – addressing physical needs, but also emotional and spiritual poverty as well. The outward face of poverty is easily recognized as the lack of basic resources – food, shelter, clothing – but there’s so much more under the surface. Spiritual darkness, injustice, political corruption, social oppression, crime, addictions, and a myriad of other factors contribute to being poor. At the root of all this is sin, and the only remedy for sin is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Christ is the only comprehensive approach that brings lasting, life altering change to the plight of the poor.
This biblical hope should inform and free us to be more active in the fight against poverty. We often turn our attention away from despair and suffering, finding it difficult to gaze very long at the magnitude of hurt in the world. But a closer inspection of what God is doing actually reveals there is not a “God Forsaken Place” on the earth. God sees and anguishes with every person who suffers, and is active in sending help and healing in Christ’s name every day. It’s not so much about analyzing needs and opportunities as much as it is anticipating the progress of the gospel, and seeing the hope that brings to the poor. Of course, it should also compel us to action – not because of the overwhelming need, but because everything we do to love and care for the poor spreads the glory of God throughout the earth.
One of the final statements in the bible is “behold, I am making all things new.” That sums up what God has always been doing: making the entire world new. The gospel begins the re-creation by transforming people from the inside out. But the transformation doesn’t stop until a sample of God’s new kingdom is on display throughout communities and villages around the world. And that’s where we come in – notice the second half of Jesus’ quote from Mark 14. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. Poverty is everywhere, and if you possess the truth of the gospel in your heart, you can bring hope and help – anytime you want.