The Poor Ye Have Always
© 2022 C. O. Bishop
John 12:7, 8
7 Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. 8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.
Compare Deuteronomy 15:7, 10, 11
7 If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:
10 Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto. 11For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.
In the immediate context of John 12:8, if we only see the criticism of Judas and the response of Jesus, we could arrive at a wrong conclusion. It would be easy to assume that Jesus’s reply relegates the care of the poor to a lesser order of importance. And, compared to our immediate need to follow and worship Jesus (which Mary was doing, in this passage) all other things are secondary.
But Jesus was not diminishing the importance of attending to the needs of people around us. He was simply putting priorities in order. When we look back to Deuteronomy 15:10, 11, we see that Jesus was quoting His own Word, regarding the Poor. He had commanded the people of Israel to take care of their poor. It was not an option. It was also not just a “government function” such as welfare or food stamps. It was a personal responsibility, for every believer.
Why did Judas condemn Mary’s gift?
Mary, the sister of Lazarus, brought the very expensive perfume and anointed the feet of Jesus. Judas claimed to be offended that the money had not been used for something utilitarian, specifically, feeding the poor. (John gives us the inside story on that. He points out that, in reality, Judas was not at all concerned about the poor. He was a thief, and ironically, he was the “treasurer” for the group. He was jealous that the money was not being put in his own hands.)
But Jesus responded to what Judas claimed as his concern…the care of the poor. He said, in effect, “That is a constant need—no one denies it. But this is a “one-time-only” special gift. She has been saving up money for this act of worship, looking forward to my burial.”
Did Mary know that her action was looking forward to His burial? I rather doubt it. None of the disciples truly understood the plan and purpose of Jesus, in coming into the world. They simply loved Him for who He was, and what He was in their lives. That is a pretty good way to relate to Jesus, today, by the way. He does not demand that we understand all that He is doing. He wants our Faith and Love, each of which will result in obedience, which, in turn, will result in His being able to bless us even more.
What about the Poor?
As we read through the Old Testament, there is no question that God not only cares for the poor, but He expects His people to care for them as well. We should also notice that Israel was to care for their own poor. They were not told to try to meet the needs of every person in the World. They were taking care of those within their own sphere of responsibility.
Proverbs 29:7 says,“ The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it.”
Psalm 112:5-9 says, “ 5 A good man sheweth favour, and lendeth: he will guide his affairs with discretion. 6 Surely he shall not be moved for ever: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. 7 He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord. 8 His heart is established, he shall not be afraid, until he see his desire upon his enemies. 9 He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness endureth for ever; his horn shall be exalted with honour. “
The Church is not to turn a blind eye to the needs of people in our communities. We are to “consider” the cause of the poor: their needs and their problems. And we are to see whether there is some way for us to be a genuine help. We, as a church, continually look for ways to do just that.
As we study the New Testament, we see that this task has not changed. We are to care especially for other believers in our sphere of responsibility, and, as far as we are able, to care for unbelievers around us as well. In the same manner, God sends His rain, His sunshine, and His general supply to everyone, not discriminating between “just and unjust.” Remember, however, that we are not God, and while we can contribute, we are also limited in ability and wherewithal. We have to let Him lead us.
James 2:15, 16 underscores the responsibility of believers to other believers. In arguing the requirement that faith must carry through and produce action, James says, “15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
“Shoe Leather Faith”
We are encouraged to “be practical” in our care for one another. The entire book of James is directed toward “practical holiness.” It means “putting shoe leather on your faith.” Our faith is not only supposed to “talk the talk,” but also to “walk the walk.” James tells us to function in practical ways, and not just be “posers,” with a show of piety, but no substance.
We are to seek to reach out to those around us with the Gospel of Christ, as we are commanded to do. Paul says, regarding the Gospel of Christ, “I am a debtor….” He considered that to be the one thing that he owed to all people. But we also want to make an effort to meet practical needs. The only question we need to ask is regarding “balance” and “priorities.” Paul pointed out that his primary calling was to reach the world with the Gospel.
Priority of Jesus
Jesus demonstrated the same thing in His ministry. At Sychar, in Samaria (John 4:34) Jesus told His disciples, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His Work!” (And what was that work? Was it feeding the poor? He did feed them on more than one occasion. Was it to heal the sick? He certainly did a lot of that!) But, as the Living Word of God, the primary ministry of Jesus, daily, was to lead human souls to God. And His final goal was the Cross, to offer Himself as the satisfaction of the Righteousness and Holiness of God so that the human race could approach God and be saved.
The “harvest” he pointed out to the disciples, and the work He wanted to complete as “the task at hand,” was the harvest of souls. In that same passage, He said, “Lift up your eyes! Look on the fields! They are white already unto harvest!”
We can easily see that “feeding the poor” is also within the scope of His will for us, but Jesus was not telling them to go “feed the poor.” He was telling them, “These are people who need the Savior: Let’s get busy, and lead them to the Lord! The Harvest is right there in front of you!”
What is our Priority?
Can we go too far into “social work?” Yes, I believe we can lose sight of our objective, and begin to feel that “we exist to feed the world.” Feeding the poor is only a part of what we are to do: the actual assignment was to take the Gospel to the whole world.
Consider a fireman, working in a fire department: he may be given the daily task of organizing the map box. Or he man be assigned to change the oil in the fire trucks or to cook a meal for the fire crew. But that task does not change his prime directive; his job, which is to fight fires!
Our “prime directive” is to preach the Gospel. Jesus gave His “last request” several times. It always involved taking the Gospel of Christ to the lost world. All the other “tasks” are incidental to the prime directive. If we are failing to draw people to Jesus Christ, then, no matter how many “hungry mouths we feed,” we are not doing what we were told to do!
If the fire alarm rings, and the firefighter in our example above says, “Sorry, I’m busy organizing the maps!” then he will no longer be a firefighter! We are called to reach the dying World with the hope of Eternal Life. As we go, we are to meet people’s other needs as well. The other needs are not the primary goal.
Jim and Judy Burdett, the missionaries we support, spent 40 years doing just that. The result has been three fully functioning churches, several pastors and Bible teachers and evangelists, as well as the entire New Testament translated into the Dom language.
But! Every morning, Judy got up, and, on her porch, she cared for the minor medical needs of the people. Jim helped with their physical building projects, and he provided transportation to the nearby town on occasions when people had needs. Judy taught literacy so that the people could read the portions of the New Testament as they were completed. Jim and Judy met people’s physical needs as God provided, and, in their hospitality and generosity they proved themselves to be good neighbors.
But they never forgot their prime directive. Their priorities were correct: They were there for one reason: to reach those people with the Gospel and, in doing so, to translate the New Testament into their language. And that is what they accomplished!
Similarly, we are called to set our priorities. We are not to lose sight of our stated purpose, but, as a part of that given assignment, we are to “be good neighbors,” to “love the unlovely,” to “feed the poor,” to “care for widows and orphans,” etc. Those are the “side tasks” that demonstrate the Love of Christ. They accompany the Gospel we are commanded to share. The “side tasks” are not to be ignored, but they are not to replace the preaching of the Cross.
In Judas Iscariot’s case, there was no question: The scripture tells us that he had a “hidden agenda.” He was a thief and he wanted access to the money. But we can have hidden agendas, too. We may hope to do enough of the supplemental things that we escape responsibility for the central assignment. (Sorry: that is not possible!)
Entire church denominations have become servants of a “social gospel,” as opposed to the preaching of the Cross, the message of Salvation. In fact,“Sunday Schools” were begun in England, not as a tool of the Gospel, but as a means to get children out of the factories, and educate them. They were to teach them to read and write and use arithmetic. They were schools, and the government required the shop owners to release the children from work every Sunday, to attend those schools.
Were the schools valuable? Absolutely, they were! Were they fulfilling the Great Commission in any way? Possibly, but marginally so, at best, unless the people providing the education had the personal goal of leading people to Christ. In that case, perhaps it really was a means by which to reach souls for Christ. (And. yes, in learning to read, they were also reading scripture, so probably some became believers that way.) But the goal was social reform, not evangelism. By the way, the British commonwealth schools still teach Bible classes in some places. But they are not often taught as the Bible being the Word of God.
The “public schools” that emerged as a result of that initial move toward “educating the masses” were initially run by God-fearing men and women, so they probably still had a good effect. But the public school systems have deteriorated until the government schools finally have become enemies of the Gospel.
It is easy for a missionary organization to forget their prime directive as well. Many missions have failed in that way. (Some missionaries in history have even been drawn away to become government spies!) The key to avoiding such “derailments,” is for each individual to personally remember that the Great Commission is still in force today. We are to remember that it applies to all believers individually. It is unlikely that a large group of believers who each hold that core belief could easily be diverted. Without that conviction, we can be distracted by politics or social reform and collectively forget our assignment.
There is a saying, that, “When you are up to your armpits in alligators, it is hard to remember that you originally went in to drain the swamp.” That saying is intended to be humorous. But it is still a pretty accurate assessment of why we become distracted by the various alarms sounding all around us. It tells how we tend to lose sight of our objectives.
Lord Jesus, refocus our attention on our prime directive, the Great Commission, and fix our hearts on honoring Your written Word and living in Obedience to You as the Living Word.