She stood by the side of the road holding a sign telling us she was homeless. She asked for help. “God bless you.” I’d guess her to be in her early twenties.
Jesus said: The poor you will always have with you. (Matthew 26:11.) The context: a woman has just bathed Jesus in a generous amount of expensive oil. The scene is evocative on several levels; but it’s the economics of it that the disciples quibble about. The oil could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
The Book of Deuteronomy admonishes the people to take hold of the opportunity to be generous toward the poor. Even if the “year of jubilee” is near, the writer cautions his readers not to “harbor the wicked thought” that the poor can wait. (Deuteronomy 15:7-11.)
And Switzerland … The Swiss are about to hold a national referendum on “Guaranteed Monthly Income”. (See links below.)
Ahhh … it’s the perennial, proverbial problem of “The Poor”. Whatever the context, Jesus was right. They seem to always be with us. And we debate what to do about it – in our families, our communities, our state, our nation … the whole world over.
In the scene from Matthew’s gospel, that line quoted above does not have a “period” after it. It has a “comma”; and then the line continues: … but you will not always have me. There is the potential here, suggests Jesus, to miss the opportunity to do some act of comfort to him as he anticipates the suffering to come with his passion and death. To walk with Jesus is to be on a path of opportunity and endless potential. There is no “dead end” that cannot be circumvented. There is no “dying” that can’t include the possibility of a dramatic “rising”. The act of this woman pouring oil on Christ is one of the several stories that everyone seems to know. It’s just as Jesus said it would be – his story and her actions are joined together. She had not, as the disciples had surmised, missed an opportunity. Quite the contrary – she had seized it and responded to it generously, daringly, brilliantly. One of life’s greatest challenges is to discern at any given time what exactly is the opportunity staring us right in the face.
The writing of the Deuteronomist proves two things. The poor have been around for a very long time. Having always had them with us, it is safe to assume we will always have them among us. But a second point needs to be made. Are the poor a “problem”, or an opportunity? Deuteronomy 15:11 reads: There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy. If we continually think of poverty as an endless problem for which there is no lasting solution, we might miss another approach toward our neighbors. Is there something here that could benefit all of us? While that can sound utilitarian in its approach, perhaps there is something of the gospel there as well.
Switzerland is not known for its large population of poor people. I’m sure they are there, but in my seven trips to Switzerland over a four-year period (2008-2012), they were not in evidence on the streets of Nyon, Lausanne, or Geneva. It is an expensive place to live. But there are two things about Switzerland that I find of particular interest. It is illegal not to have health insurance. And they are about to vote on a “Guaranteed Minimum Income”. The amount under consideration is 2,500 Swiss Francs per month. This would give each adult citizen a guaranteed amount of income at right about the poverty level.
Such an idea was recommended in the US in 1795 by Thomas Paine. It was recommended in 1963, 1966 and 1967 by Robert Theobald, the Cloward-Priven Strategy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. respectively. Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested it in 1973.
She stood by the side of the road holding a sign telling us she was homeless. She asked for help. “God bless you.”
Should we tell her to go get a job, and let it go at that? Is she lazy? Or are we too quick to judge? And if she had the modern day equivalent of an expensive container filled with ointment or oil, would she just go out and squander it?
We only raise the questions here because they keep coming up. In our politics, our charitable giving, our theology – What to do with the poor is the single most important question before us.
You might recall in Matthew’s gospel – just before this passage of the woman’s action on Jesus’ behalf, Christ has taught the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, tending to the sick. When you did it to these, he says, you did it to me.
We drove by her … It was inconvenient at the very least, and dangerous at worst, to stop the car in that busy intersection. And I am left wondering … Did we miss an opportunity …
Thoughts on Rev. Frank Shaefer’s loss of credentials coming in Special Friday Post.