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The poor you will always have with you

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A while ago during fellowship, someone said, “well Jesus said we will always have the poor.” I wasn’t sure what we were talking about.  Maybe it was about the poor.  Then we talked about something else.

For the longest time, I felt there’s something not right when it comes to using this line.  What does it really mean when we say that we will always have the poor?  More importantly, what does Jesus means when He said that?  What is He implying?

This had been nagging in the back of my head for the longest time.  First, let’s go to the Bible and see where Jesus said this.  We find this line in Mark 14:

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “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 rebuked her harshly.

Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”Mark 14:3-9 (NIV)

Side note, this is also mentioned in John 12:7.

From the passage in Mark, we noticed a few things:

  1. Jesus was in Simon the Leper’s house (verse 3).  A leper in Jesus’ days is considered a social outcast.  This means that financially he is not well off (aka he is poor).
  2. Notice what it says in the rest of verse 7 (The poor you will always have with you,  and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me).  Jesus is implying that the disciples should help the poor whenever they want.  This means that as disciples of Jesus, it is regular practice for them to help the poor.
  3. Lastly, this is a unique circumstance because the woman is preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  If we look at Jesus’ ministry, He always help those who are in need (feeding the five and four thousands, healing the blind etc.)

Earlier this week I was reading The Hole in the Gospel by Richard Stearns (President of World Vision).  In one chapter he quoted the same line in Deuteronomy 15:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.Deuteronomy 15:11 (NIV)

My eyes nearly popped when I read this.  The whole chapter 11 focuses on erasing debt, compassion and generousity when it comes to helping the poor.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (NIV)

When we say there will always be poor people, what are we implying?  More importantly, how should we respond?

There are two ways…

  1. We see that the poor is always with us. The problem is too big for us to do anything about it.  Therefore we do nothing.  We continue to live our lives and let other people and maybe the government to do something about it.
  2. We response with generousity and in compassion.  We help those who are poor and needy.


From my own experience whenever this line is use, we tend to do the first option.  Yes, there are many people who are in need.  But didn’t Jesus say the poor is with us?  Let’s move on to something else.

This line should encourage us to help each other to be more generous and compassion.  Both Wai Jia and I are learning how this looks like in our lives.   Recently among our busy schedule, a friend, Dennis, contacted us that he needed help.   We went and visited him a few weeks ago. Due to his financial situations, he had to move into a one room flat (that is one room living space and a washroom) with a stranger.  As we visited his place, he told us that he needed a washing machine and a bedframe.

After talking among ourselves, we decided to help Dennis.  Wai Jia asked for help on her blog and we were able to raise the funds to get what he needed.  The bedframe and the washing machine was delivered to his place last Friday.  He couldn’t be happier.  It was an early Christmas present for him.  

Sometimes when these circumstances come my way, I know that it is very easy to have excuse. I am too busy. I am too tired. I have other things I need to do for God.   I have my own responsibility.
May we never become so self focus that we neglect the poor…

…because the poor we will always have with us.


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