(Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Matthew 26:6-13)
Alright, friends, so how about this: every now and again I’ll offer a sermon that’s like a public service announcement about a piece of scripture that’s often used – or misused, abused – to mistreat people, or to excuse the mistreatment of people. Unfortunately there are a few to choose from here. So from time to time I’ll give a sermon that’s a public service announcement. These public service announcements will be warnings against these misuses and abuses that’re out there, and they’ll advise on the healthy use of these pieces of scripture for folks who are trying to be faithful to God and their fellow human. So there’ll be good news here, as always.
For this week, let’s not start with the nastiest case, but let’s start with a more innocent – or seemingly innocent – misuse and abuse of a piece of scripture:
“The poor will always be with you.”
We hear it a lot.
Just a while back I was talking with a colleague here in town, for whom I have a lot of respect and support, though I know there’s a lot we don’t see eye to eye on. I asked them, “What do you think of the county and city’s plan to address homelessness here in Walla Walla?” I was expecting, maybe naively, to have a conversation about what’s the most effective way or combination of ways to address homelessness, to talk about the housing first model, and so forth.
But instead they said, “Well, you know what our Lord said: ‘The poor will always be with you.’ So it’s just hubris to say that they’re going to take chronic homelessness down to zero.”
The poor will always be with you. This is a talking point – that seems to be the right word for it, unfortunately – very widespread, to say that any attempt to use our common-wealth to address poverty is a case of us acting like we’re God – and actually defying God. It’s idolatry, looking to government when we should be looking only to God.
Whether someone is rich or poor is for God to mete out according to what people merit, according to this view. God, as a matter of fact, has ordained poverty. The poor are blessed in their poverty – or maybe they’re cursed in their poverty, sometimes we aren’t so sure –but what’s most important is that it is not for us to take responsibility for root causes but rather to demonstrate how righteous we are in our charitable pity for the needy. (You can already tell what I think about this).
The other argument here is that if you think that poverty is a social sin that we should struggle to overcome, if you’re pursing a hope that no one should suffer poverty because we can be free of poverty, well, you’re just trying to achieve salvation through good works. Whereas the truth is that we only have salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
As good Protestants, we can’t argue against that, right?
Plus, Jesus said it himself, “The poor will be always be with you.” We heard it in our reading in Matthew. It’s also in Luke and John. So isn’t Jesus saying here, “Don’t pay attention to the poor right now. They’ll always be around – trust me, I know God’s plan. What’s important is that you pay attention to me, your Messiah”? Well, it’s easy to think that’s what’s being said here.
But my public service announcement to you today is: that’s got Jesus all wrong. Jesus is saying something very different here. There’s a better interpretation that also happens to be a more hopeful interpretation, something we can even say is good news.
First of all, don’t forget, as we try to understand this story in Matthew, that Jesus is a master. He can be tricky. Move by move he’s trying to teach people about God, about themselves, about himself (Jesus), about the coming of the Realm of Heaven on Earth.
Second of all, Jesus is a Jewish master. He’s steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures – the Laws of Moses and the books of the Prophets – and he’s revealing to his people something startling about the fulfillment of those scriptures.
Okay, so let’s go through this story move by move.
Jesus is in Bethany, which means “The House of the Poor.” Hmm, maybe that’s significant. He’s visiting a man named Simon, who has leprosy and is therefore an outcast and therefore most likely poor. A woman – who is unnamed – comes in and poured expensive oil on Jesus’ head. The disciples are angry about this and say, “Hey, we could’ve sold that oil and given the money to the poor.” But Jesus says, “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.” Here’s our line. “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.”
Back in Lent last spring I offered a sermon about this same story, which focused on what Jesus told his disciples to focus on here, and told them to remember and tell over and over again. Which is that this woman was the first person to honor Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. And more than that, she was the only person to honor that his anointing was not to be a king or a conqueror the way that everyone wanted, but rather to be a humiliated, degraded victim of execution whose shared lot is with the lowliest in society.
That’s the point of this story, not that poverty is somehow ordained by God. It’s an irony: we don’t remember what Jesus asked us to remember, which was the act of this compassionate and insightful woman and the startling revelation that Jesus’ mission is to go into the depths of suffering that people inflict on each other. Rather we remember a side comment Jesus made along the way. And we don’t even remember it straight.
This side comment about the poor is important. But it’s important to get the meaning right. First of all, it’s surprising, right? When we first hear this story we may side with the disciples at first. We’d expect Jesus to be all about selling off something you don’t need in order to help folks with things they really do need. That’s what we as a church this past week have put tremendous effort into, with our rummage sale that funds our free meal program. We know that this is part of what Jesus calls us to do. So why does he make this comment?
“You will always have the poor with you” – the way Jesus uses this remark in this story is cutting. It’s a sharp way of puncturing how puffed up the disciples are getting in their self-righteous anger against this uppity woman who comes in all bold and extravagant in her devotion to Jesus. Jesus is saying here, “Get over yourselves. You all don’t see what she sees. You all aren’t seeing me the way she sees me. That’s what you’re angry about, being upstaged by a woman. You’re confused about the true nature of what’s really going on here. You’re not fooling anyone. You all don’t really care about the poor like that, you’re just using them to score points off this woman.” They’re getting called out, like they pretty much always do. But Jesus loves them … thank God, because the disciples are stand-ins for our own foolishness, more often than not.
In the Gospel of John the way this story is told actually has Judas complaining about how much that oil is worth. John even adds that Judas has his hands in the common purse and he makes this comment because he’s always looking for ways to fatten that purse and therefore his own pockets. So it’s really clear in John that Jesus’ intention with this remark about the poor is to call out Judas’ hypocritical concern for poor folks.
Okay, but there’s even another layer to what’s going on here. I said earlier that Jesus was a Jewish master. So while he’s ripping on the false pretenses of his disciples (God bless them), he’s also riffing off of scripture. He’s smart like that.
Now we get to our first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Laws of Moses.
Chapter 15 is the beginning of the Jubilee laws. The first Jubilee law: every seven years everyone has to forgive each other’s debts. Wow. What would that be like? By the way, you aren’t even supposed to lend at interest in the first place.
Notice what Moses says here, “There will … be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you … if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” That commandment does one to say, if “there is any in need among you”, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted,” “willingly lend enough” and on the seventh year if that they haven’t paid it off, forgive it. “Give liberally and be ungrudging.”
But then, it’s interesting, Moses says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” So Moses goes from saying, “There won’t be any in need among you if you keep to these laws for living together,” to “Well, there will always be those in need” and what’s implied is, “because I know you won’t do so well keeping by these laws.” They’re hard, especially for hard-hearted humans in hard-hearted societies, which can have a hard time giving up advantages over the disadvantaged. Nonetheless, Moses is saying here, that’s no excuse: you must keep that spirit of compassion, of freedom, that flows through these Jubilee laws, let it always breathe new life where new life is needed in defiance of the forces that try to choke it off – be generous and merciful despite the forces of greed and fear and violence.
This is what Jesus is riffing off of: You will always have the poor with you … because you all aren’t abiding by the Jubilee laws. And that’s a testament against us, against our society. We’re being hard-hearted and tight-fisted, and when someone is knocked down we keep kicking them, with collections agencies and debtors’ prisons, which we’re in danger of going back to, and broken windows incarcerations, the criminalization of poverty. So charity is not enough. It’s important, but not enough. We have to talk about systems and laws and policies for how we use our common-wealth and organize our society to be just and equitable.
Yesterday we had a very beautiful memorial service for Phyllis and Bob Pulfer, long-time leaders in this church and leaders in the community. The term that came up for Phyllis is “public citizen.” She was so passionate about public life, about the common-wealth, how we organize ourselves to make this world a more just and peaceful place. She and Bob were profoundly Christian in both their private and public lives, in their commitment to the least of these, the last, the lost.
We must never forget that Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming in public the Jubilee. He declared that he was all about bringing release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and good news to the poor. This is the call to Jubilee. This call is a bold challenge, and a public challenge, in defiance of all the forces of greed and fear and violence at work in our world. But it is at its heart a call of hope, that the vision of the coming of the Realm of Heaven on Earth is a true vision that can guide us as we try to live faithfully in this world, knowing that our hearts are rooted beyond this world.
So let us hear that good news, and share it.
Here ends the public service announcement.
Thanks be to God.
(This sermon is entirely indebted to Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. I will do my best to repay that debt within seven years, otherwise I will have to plead Jubilee. This sermon was delivered October 23, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla.)