“You always have the poor with you, don’t you? But you won’t always have me.” Matthew 26:11
It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for office, because if he were, he’d probably lose. Can you imagine a political leader saying something to the effect of, “The poor are just part of the furniture, but I won’t be around forever?” Weird.
Of course the big difference here is that Jesus isn’t about to win an election. Unless a placard on a cross, with “King of the Jews” as its inscription, qualifies. When he makes this statement, Jesus is preparing to die. Two days from now. At Passover- a time of year that reminds the Jewish people that their God is One who frees God’s people from bondage and oppression. In the same way that God brought Israel out from a life of back-breaking sweat and tears as slaves in Egypt to a wide, open, promised land of milk and honey.
So this scene drips with irony. Because what the disciples and gathered dinner guests cannot appreciate, in their lofty, high-minded “fury” that a woman would waste a whole jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head- (“this could have been sold for a fortune, and the money could have been given to the poor!,” they exclaim)- is that “the poor” in this case are right there in front of them. In the form of a man who will unjustly die a criminal’s shameful death. And in this nameless woman: her extravagant display of worship can only stem from a poverty of spirit; she, perhaps better than all of the others in the room, apprehends that it is only in the saving actions of Jesus that she has a name and identity as a beloved child of God.
“I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus says. “Wherever this gospel is announced in all the world, what she has just done will be told, and people will remember her (26:13).”
But what are we to make of “the poor will always be with you”? What is Jesus really saying here? That we are to ignore the poor when we worship God? That all God cares about is that we spare no expense in our worship? If we were to make these conclusions we would be dismissing a host of passages in Scripture that define true worship as caring for the poor and needy. This misses the point. Of the many things that unite Jews and Christians, caring for the poor vies for first place.
The text provides one clue as to what Jesus is really getting at. When the disciples protest, “What’s the point of all this waste?,” and “This ‘Passion by Liz Taylor’ should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor!,” we read that “Jesus knew what they were thinking (v. 10).”
And they could have been thinking anything. About their own embarrassment and awkwardness over the fact that this anonymous woman was touching Jesus. About their annoyance, like jealous older brothers, that she, the younger sister, had stolen the show and was enjoying all of the attention. About their shame that they had brought nothing to give. About their pride that it was this lowly woman who brought everything.
Whatever the disciples were thinking, it wasn’t really worshipful, as a free, authentic expression of gratitude and awe to God. It wasn’t really beautiful, as an unnecessary, selfless demonstration of service. It didn’t ring out with joy at simply being in God’s presence. At simply being. Like a flower. Or, a butterfly. Or, a baby’s smile or cry.
We, like the disciples, can find it easy to sugar coat our insecurities about the fact that we ultimately exist simply to glorify God. We can do this best by looking at resources and the world around us, including our neighbors, as nothing more than a means to an end. Valued only insofar as they produce something. Made in God’s image only to the degree that they are beneficial to us.
But this mode of being couldn’t be further from reality. Because God created us and our world and saw that it “was good.” Not because we produced anything. Not because we were to achieve something great or selfless or noble, like feeding the hungry or earning the Nobel Peace Prize.
But because God made us and fell in love with the work of His hands. Like an artist or sculptor making out of nothing something that is beautiful. That is how God looks at us. And here Jesus is saying that our gratuitous response of praise and worship is most in keeping with how we were wonderfully made- most in alignment with reality. The flower basks in the sun. Because that is how it was made. The butterfly flits and dances over the flower. Because that is how the butterfly was made. The baby smiles or cries. Because that is how she was made.
And we? We tell God how great God is- and that we don’t know where we would be without God. We do it extravagantly. Without self-consciousness. Without asking whether our expression of worship is politically- or, for that matter,”biblically”- correct. We worship God- and if we’re not worshiping God, we’re worshiping the things we attach divinity to. Because that is how we were made. We were made for God and to worship Him.