Words are powerful motivators. They inspire us to act, helping us muster courage seemingly out of nowhere. They do the opposite too, offering justification for inaction, permission to stay within our comfort zones, almost guilt-free. Of course, if Jesus said it, that’s all the permission we need, isn’t it? If you’re like me, it is too easy to latch on to words that justify what we already think.

We know Jesus loves ‘the poor’. He took on the prophet Isaiah’s powerful words (Isaiah 61:6) and made them his own; I am ‘good news to the poor and release to the captives’ (Luke 4:16-21). He rattled off seemingly crazy words too, like, ‘blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ (Luke 6:20) which, to be honest, seems to be a contradiction. When are the poor ever blessed? The opposite is true. Aren’t those trapped in poverty cursed from the day of their conception?

Jesus said other seemingly absurd words too, yet, for some reason, we have no trouble embracing them. Like ‘ducks to water’, we jump right in and interpret them as words to live by. Yet, our interpretation of Matthew 26:11 has heaped curse upon curse on people living in poverty. How could Jesus say both ‘blessed and cursed are you, poor’?

Will The Poor Always Be With Us?

Having spent two decades living in Kolkata India, walking through the living rooms (the footpath) of people living in poverty was a daily event. On a short stroll, I’d see ten people, which turned into hundreds and hundreds into thousands of people, barely surviving, on the street. In Jesus’ day it wasn’t much different although the numbers of people in poverty today is massive in comparison. Perhaps Jesus was right? Perhaps ‘the poor’ will always be with us?

People living in poverty find their way into our living rooms too. Turn on the TV and there they are—eyes looking deep into our souls demanding a response. It’s too easy to change the channel, isn’t it? We can always turn it off but for people in poverty, there is no turning off their daily reality.

‘For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.’

Matthew 26:11

Have you ever been offended by people taking your words out of context? Jesus has cause for offence here. Personally, I think he should be angry, even regretting the inclusion of this simple phrase in Scripture.

This story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume is told in the accounts of Mark and John too. Couldn’t the Gospel writers have foreseen the potential for misinterpretation here? Jesus’ words have been used to exonerate our responsibility towards those trapped in poverty. The attempt by the Gospel writers to highlight the significance of Jesus and his impending death on the cross have missed their mark for us in 2023. Like the disciples, have we missed the point of a story told in remembrance of an incredible woman?

What Did Jesus Mean?

‘But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ (Matt 26:8-13)

It’s more likely, when talking about ‘the poor,’ Jesus, along with the Gospel writers, had the Torah in mind.

‘If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7,8)

An Invitation Into Outrageous Generosity

Next time you think of Jesus’ words, ‘the poor will always be with you,’ consider the woman’s generosity towards Jesus. You can show the same kind of generosity towards Jesus too.

He said, ‘just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’ (Matthew 25:45).

It’s time to stop avoiding the kind of outrageous generosity Jesus expects from his followers.

For Jesus, this indeed, is sweetest fragrance of all. The anointing (Luke 4:18, 19) to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed began with Jesus and continues with those of us who claim to follow him. As crazy as it sounds, Jesus chose and anointed us to be his agents of restoration.

What a privilege.