Jesus and the poor with us always: Reading Matt. 25-26 with Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon

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June 14, 2013 by jmar198013

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

. . .

When Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease, a woman came to him with a vase made of alabaster containing very expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ head while he was sitting at dinner. Now when the disciples saw it they were angry and said, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold for a lot of money and given to the poor.”

But Jesus knew what they were thinking. He said, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. By pouring this perfume over my body she’s prepared me to be buried. I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 25.13-46; 26.6-13 CEB)

One of the worst misunderstood and most-frequently abused Scriptures in the New Testament is Jesus’ word in Matt. 26.11: You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. There is, unfortunately a school of thought that uses this verse to wiggle out of our responsibility to the needy (but see Mark 14.7:  “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me,” NRSV). This can be done one of two ways. One is to contrast the physical, embodied needs of the poor with the supposed “higher calling” of serving Jesus, whether it be “soul-winning” (in truth, God wants to “win” the whole person, so 1 Thes. 5.23) or simply doing something “nice” for Jesus (whatever that might mean). The other way this is done is to see Jesus’ word, You always have the poor with you, as a sort of prophetic utterance meaning that it is futile to try and correct the problem of poverty, because Jesus has more or less ordained it. And then again, the ethical application is shifted from taking care of the poor and correcting injustice to “soul winning” or the even-harder-to-pin-down approach of doing something “nice” for Jesus. 

I can’t help but come away from readings of Matt. 26.11 such as these without thinking mean thoughts. Mostly, “You perverts are actually saying that the poor are poor because God wants them to be. You’re using Jesus as a cloak for your stinginess.”

The problem with ways of encountering Jesus’ word in Matt. 26.11 that lead us to believe that Jesus resigns the church to the sin and injustice in the world that makes and neglects poor people is that they place an inappropriate emphasis on You always have the poor with you.* The emphasis should be placed on but you won’t always have me. The woman has lavished (some would say wasted) a wild gift borne of deep sacrifice on a man who is homeless, tired, and harassed. She has given up a year’s worth of wages to extend grace to a poor person. And that poor person is Jesus.

Stanley Hauerwas has written along these lines:

The disciples become angry and protest the woman’s action, pointing out that the ointment was valuable and could have been sold and the money given to the poor. They have, after all, just heard Jesus commend those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. But Jesus commanded them not to trouble this woman because they will always have the poor with them, but they will not always have the bodily Jesus with them. The woman has anointed Jesus’ body in preparation for his death and burial. (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 215).

Note that Hauerwas connects Jesus’ word, You always have the poor with you, in Matt. 26.11, with the parable he has just finished relating, about the sheep and the goats, from Matt. 25.31-46. James McClendon offered some helpful insights into that parable:

[I]n the sheep and goats parable, some are condemned because they have not met the needs of hunger, thirst, aid to prisoners, and the rest. But the further explanation is that the needy are brethren of the Son of Man, the King, while the hearers are his subjects, so that those social relationships constitute the premises for their daily conduct . . . [T]he needs are not everything, but they are the fundaments in shaping Christian witness . . . [T]he privileged status ‘in God’s eyes’ of the poor is exactly an appeal to this fundament. For ‘the poor’ are those whose elemental needs are flagrantly denied fulfillment, and who have in that degree a prima facie moral claim upon us. (Ethics, Systematic Theology Vol. 1, rev. ed. [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 103-04)

In other words, caring for the needs of the poor–and that includes work to combat the sin and correct the injustice that makes and neglects poor people–is an ongoing facet of the church’s witness, because disciples are the subjects of God’s kingdom, and the poor are the brothers of Jesus. Jesus has claimed the poor as his brothers and sisters because he cast his lot with them when he lived bodily in this world. Whatever Jesus may have meant by You always have the poor with you, he could not have meant that a watchful care of the poor was of secondary concern for Christians. Rather, his next word, but you won’t always have me, qualifies and defines what is at stake in that moment: some of the disciples fail to see that this woman is caring for the poor man Jesus in a way fitting for that very particular time and circumstance. She is preparing him for a proper burial when he is at death’s door. There is a lesson to be learned here. We will meet those among the poor whose cards are already punched; we cannot fix them or heal them. But nothing kind we do for the poor–no matter how extravagant it seems–is ever wasted. 

Of Matt. 25.33-46, Hauerwas writes:

It is significant that the righteous have not known that when they ministered, provided hospitality, and visited that they did all of this to Jesus. They have done what God would have us to do and so doing have ministered to Christ himself. All people, whether they are Christians or not, know all they need to know to care for “the least of these.” The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid “the least of these” . . . [A]ttempts to create a “better world” without being a people capable of the works of mercy [cannot] help but betray Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question of what sign there will be of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. The sign is that they will have time to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison. (Matthew 211-12)

Therefore, Hauerwas locates Jesus’ admonition of his disciples’ protest about the woman’s gift and his gratitude towards her for it in his solidarity with the poor of the world. Jesus himself was among them–and is among us–as a poor person:

Jesus’ response to the disciples has sometimes been used to justify Christian wealth. Jesus’ observation that we will always have the poor with us seems a counsel to justify ways of life that assume there is nothing we can do to eliminate poverty. Yet Christianity is a faith of the poor. The woman poured precious ointment on a poor person. The poor that we will always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all the extravagance is to be given. The wealth of the church is the wealth of the poor . . . The church’s wealth, the precious ointment poured by this woman on Jesus, is never wasted on the poor.

No doubt such an account of the church’s wealth can be an invitation to self-deception and a justification of injustice. Yet “the poor you always have with you” is not a description of a legitimate lack of concern for the poor, but rather a description of a faithful church. This woman, this unnamed woman, has done for Jesus what the church must always be for the world–precious ointment poured lavishly on the poor. (Matthew 215).

The church cannot faithfully read these words from Jesus–I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me, and You always have the poor with you–without remembering that they were spoken by a poor man, born in a backwater town that wasn’t on any map to an unwed mother; who said of himself, Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head(Matt. 8.20 CEB); and was ultimately arrested and publicly executed between two criminals. Whatever Jesus says, he says as a poor man among peers. He came to the world–and comes to the church–as a hungry, tired, homeless, and harassed person. And he remains present with us that way still. For his final words to his disciples in Matthew are: Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age (Matt. 28.20 CEB). One of the fundamental ways Jesus remains present with his church is through the poor who are with us.

__________________________________

*But I do have to commend the CEB for rendering it thus. Many other translations give themselves too easily to the idea that Jesus is prophetically forecasting poverty for as long as the world turns. So the following:

  • You will always have the poor with you (CEV)
  • You will always have the poor with you (Names of God Bible)
  • You will always have the poor with you (NCV)
  • For you will always have the poor with you (NET Bible)
  • The poor you will always have with you (NIV)
  • You will always have the poor among you (NLT)
  • It is good that you are concerned about the poor, but the poor will always be with you (The Voice–yuck!)
  • You will always have poor people with you (Worldwide English NT)
  • For ye shall ever have poor men with you (Wycliffe)

That little word “will” can morph Jesus’ words into something he didn’t intend.

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