You’ll always have the poor with you


Scripture: John 12: 1-8; Nigel Bunce

Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you,” when he visited Martha and Mary.  What was the context, and what did Jesus mean? And how does it influence the use of limited parish resources?


Jesus’ dinner with Martha and Mary

Today, John’s Gospel relates that Jesus went for dinner with Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus. It’s rather similar to another story by Mark in which Jesus visited Martha and Mary. In that, Mary listened to Jesus, while Martha made refreshments in the kitchen.

For Martha, her culture made it essential to provide hospitality. However, when Martha complained about Mary not helping, Jesus was unsympathetic. He said she could do housework any time. But, she would not always be able to listen to Jesus.

God’s kingdom has different rules than earthly norms

Hence, Jesus criticized Martha for taking on the conventional, dutiful role. That seems unfair. Likewise, the treatment of the dutiful older son seemed unfair in last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son. But, in both stories, Jesus’ point was this. 

Nevertheless, today, Martha is again in the kitchen. This time she’s serving dinner. Meanwhile, Mary still isn’t helping. However, Mary did something very tender and rather erotic. She used a costly ointment to anoint Jesus’ feet. Then, she dried his feet with her hair.

You will always have the poor with you

Again, Mary got criticism. This time, by Judas. He said that Mary wasted the ointment. They should have sold it and used the money to help the poor. But Jesus disagreed. He said that Mary was symbolically anointing him ahead of his death.

That’s because Jesus knew what would happen the next week in Jerusalem. Thus, he said, “You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.” Plainly. Jesus was saying, “I won’t be here after next week.” Too often, people take this saying out of context.

Perhaps they use it as an excuse. Maybe, as an expression of hopelessness. What’s the point of trying to help the less fortunate? Even Jesus said that they will always be with us. There’s no point supporting the Food Bank. The people who use it will be hungry again next week! 

St. Paul can be a tough read

At this point, I want to touch on the passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Let’s face it. Paul isn’t always easy to understand. Actually, he wrote something very relevant to us today. He begins by noting his credentials.

He’s a Jew in good standing. And, not just a Jew. A Pharisee. But he realizes that status isn’t relevant. His righteousness, his privilege, doesn’t come from the Law – meaning Jewishness. What matters is that he tries to follow Christ. He hasn’t reached that goal, but he continues to try. The hymn When I survey the wondrous Cross makes use of Paul’s words.

Behaviour, not privilege

Similarly most of the people of our parish are Canadian citizens. Also we are mostly white, racially. Like Paul, we don’t have any righteousness – today, we use the word privilege – from being white or Canadian.

Any righteousness – or good – we have comes from our behaviour, not privilege. In Paul’s words, from trying to follow Christ. Immediately, that raises the question of how we, the people of St. George’s Lowville, can try to follow Christ.

What is mission?

Many people use the word ‘mission’ to describe this. In the sense of, ‘What is your church’s mission in the world? We can’t just say ‘to follow Christ.’ That just restates the question. However, thinking about St. George’s mission brings to mind what we often call ‘visioning’.

And, it’s a long time since we have done that. Therefore, perhaps coming out of the recent pandemic is a good opportunity. And it happens that our Diocese as come up with a tool to help parishes to envision their future.

They call it a Mission Action Plan. A MAP, for those that like acronyms. I have to tell you that I was very put off when I looked at the documentation. It’s 80 pages. Arrrgh!! However Jn an and I attended a 1 hour presentation that set my mind at rest. 

Synopsis of the Mission Action Plan

First, the whole thing can be done in just four 1 hour meetings. Each of them has very clear goals. Anyone can attend any or all of the meetings (in-person, Zoom, hybrid?) to offer ideas.
Second, small parishes like ours don’t have to come up with a whole raft of ideas / plans. As few as one or two will be enough.
Third, the ideas should be manageable. Low-hanging fruit. Not fancy plans that will be impossible to achieve. In other words, don’t set ourselves up for failure.
Fourth, the whole program will be led by laity. If the ideas come from the clergy, why should anyone else buy in?
Fifth, very important. The 1 hour presentation will be available again on Monday April 25th. PLEASE, sign up to hear the Coles Notes version of what it’s all about.

I believe that we can get this all wrapped up by our summer break if we begin in May with meetings at 2 or 3 week intervals. As a I said before, now is an excellent time to rethink where we might be going as a parish.

In a sense , the MAP idea ties in with today’s Gospel reading. The disciples faced a dilemma. Should Mary use the costly oil to anoint Jesus feet? Or, should they sell it to buy food for the poor? Doing both was impossible. The resource was finite. Like our resources at St. George’s.

But, “You will always have the poor with you.”

Judas thought that helping the poor was more importan than anointing Jesust. Because Judas later betrayed Jesus, the Gospel writer John wants us to dismiss Judas’ argument. Mary concluded that service to Jesus was more important. Because the opportunity would never come again.

Therefore, I hope the parish will enter into the MAP process wholeheartedly. Not be like Judas and grumble? Instead, we can take the opportunity to enhance our service to Jesus.

Incidentally, the MAP process allows us to be like both Martha and Mary. Because not everyone will serve Jesus the same way. Martha types will likely look towards social justice. Martha keeps the show on the road. With Marys more into faith development within and beyond the parish.

I hope that you will want to get involved. This could reinvigorate St. George’s. And after two years of the pandemic, we badly need reinvigoration!! Amen