You always have the poor with you

Sermon by Bishop Dominic Walker at St Mary’s, 7th April 2019

  1. You may not have heard of the Parish of St Blodwyn (because it’s not in this diocese) but it is a typical Anglican parish church managing to pay their parish share and to keep the church building water tight and in good repair. One of the parishioners, Miss Maisie Roberts died and in her Will she left her house to St Blodwyn’s PCC and thankfully she left it without any strings attached – there were no particular instructions or restrictions and the PCC met to discuss how they should spend the money.
  2. Mrs Myfannwy Jones, a member of the PCC and a friend of the late Miss Roberts argued that Miss Roberts so loved her house that they shouldn’t sell it but keep it in memory of her and put it on the rental market. She was shouted down by Huw Owen-Jones who quoted what Jesus had to say about people who store up treasure on earth and the Vicar quickly intervened to say that they would need to spend a lot of money on the house to be able to put it on the rental market and they didn’t have that kind of money, so the sensible thing would be to sell it.
  3. Twenty year old, Tammy Williams said she thought they should sell the house and give away all the money to help the homeless. Morgan Evans (who liked to quote scripture) spoke against that idea and said, You always have the poor with you. Then Andrew, the young curate (who thought he knew everything) took Morgan to task by telling him that because we always have the poor with us that was no excuse for not helping the poor.
  4. Then seeking to be helpful, Rowena, one of the churchwardens pointed out that in recent years they had put in a new heating and lighting system and now they could see the ancient roof so perhaps they could spend the money having the carved figures re-gilded. This proposal was shot down by those who thought that would be an extravagant waste of money and they should spend it on mission, but when pushed, none of them had any idea of how they might do that, so Rowenna defended her corner and said that re-gilding the bosses and woodwork with gold leaf would be to glorify God and she quoted how when Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume others complained about such extravagance but Jesus defended her and told them to leave her alone and he said, You always have the poor with you but you do not always have me.
  5. At that point Stanley, the treasurer proposed that they should agree to the sale of the house and when they had the money they could have a further discussion about how to spend it. The proposal was carried Nem Con. and they moved on to discussing if publishing the flower rota complied with the new data protection regulations.
  6. I tell you that story to show the difficulty of understanding the words of Jesus You always have the poor with you and how that text has often been misused either as an excuse for not helping the poor or else to justify extravagance. So let me give you three things to consider.
  7. Firstly, if we look at the bigger picture in the New Testament, Jesus’ bias towards the poor is self-evident and as we read in today’s Gospel even Jesus’ motley gang of disciples kept a common purse so that money could be given to the poor. The other gospels are even clearer about caring for the poor and outcast and the dangers of being rich – camels and needles come to mind.
  8. Secondly, the Greek is open to another possible translation. For the classical scholars among you sometimes the present indicative form of a verb matches the present imperative form as it does here exete, so instead of translating it as You always have the poor with you, could be translated as a command with Jesus saying Have (or keep) the poor with you always.
  9. We need of course to remember the context. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used a very expensive ointment – it would have cost a year’s wages – and she used it to anoint Jesus. This ointment was used for coronations and burials and so we see it as acknowledging Jesus as a king and also preparing him for his death, so perhaps Jesus is saying, ‘What you are doing is appropriate here and now but in the future make sure you look after the poor’ Keep the poor among you always.
  10. And thirdly, Jesus’ comment about the poor always being with us hints at the Jewish practice of Jubilee with its roots in the Hebrew scriptures (Dueteronomy15:11) where we are also told that those in need will always be with us. To help alleviate their needs there was the practice of Jubilee. Every seven years all debts were cancelled and every 50 years there was a Year of Jubilee when land reforms and release from slavery kicked in, so the poor were released from the oppressive rules and systems that kept them in poverty.
  11. So in conclusion (as they say), The text You always have the poor with you should not be used as an excuse to do nothing to alleviate poverty or as an excuse to justify extravagant spending.
  12. What I think it is saying is that on the one hand You always have the poor with you is a plain fact of life and no religious or political system will totally eradicate it although that is not to say that we shouldn’t try – and on the other hand we have here and now a duty to care for the poor and to keep them with us.