What Jesus meant when he said, “You will always have the poor among you” – John 11:46-12:11, Part 4

What does extravagant generosity to Jesus look like in our day? In John 12:1-11, Mary dumped $70K worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. While Jesus doesn’t expect us to do precisely what Mary did, he does expect us to be extravagantly generous. Why doesn’t he expect us to do what Mary did?

Mary lived, for a short time at least, with Jesus right there with her.  We don’t live in that situation.  In fact, that’s what Jesus is getting at when he makes one of his most curious statements in John 12, verse 8.  “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” 

This is one of Jesus’ most frequently misinterpreted and misapplied teachings.  I’ve heard people use it as if Jesus was being negative or callous about poverty.  I’ve heard people use it as a justification to ignore poverty because there will always be poor people.  I’ve heard people use it to support the idea that Jesus really wants us to preach the words of the Gospel and not preach the Gospel by deeds such as caring for the poor.  

Jesus is not communicating anything of the sort. 

Instead, Jesus is only saying that his time was limited.  Given what he said in verse 7, about his burial, there is a sense that he is cluing them in to the real possibility that his time is very short, that his burial is near.  You and I know from hindsight that his death and burial was only a week away.  Very near. 

Jesus, therefore, is not referring to all poor people for all time.  He is saying that it was right for Mary to use the perfume that day because his time with them was limited.  Likewise, they would have plenty of time to care for the poor.  Meaning that they should care for the poor.

We know this because Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament Law here, Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 is a powerful teaching about God’s heart for the poor.  In that chapter God says that where his people live there should be no one in poverty because God’s people will be so generous.  Starting in verse 7, we read this:

“If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

Rightly interpreted, then, Jesus is actually making a case for his disciples to be very generous to those in poverty.  There is also a possible textual connection between Mary’s extravagant gift and ministry to the poor.  Because Jesus was there, it was more appropriate for Mary to give extravagantly to worship Jesus, preparing him for burial.  Likewise, because Jesus is no longer here in the flesh with us, it is now appropriate for us to give extravagantly to the poor. 

And because Jesus also taught in Matthew 25 that when we help those in need, we are helping him.  So if we are as extravagantly generous to the poor as Mary was to Jesus, we are being extravagantly generous to Jesus!

I want us to think further about ministry to the poor, but first let’s finish the story.  The passage concludes with a bit more context to the story of the testy relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders. 

“Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.”

Now let’s return to what we can learn from this passage.  In this passage we see a demonstration of sacrificial extravagance.  Mary worships Jesus, from a loving heart, sacrificially and extravagantly. 

My concern is that many of us give far more extravagantly to ourselves and our loved ones, who probably don’t need our generosity, than we give to those in poverty.  We’ve talked about this a lot over the years.  When this topic comes up in my church family, the regular question that I hear is “But what about the beggar?  Should I just give them money?  How do I know they’ll use it wisely and not wastefully?  After all, I am supposed to be a good steward of God’s money.”

Those are good questions.  There is no doubt about it, sometimes our helping hurts.  In fact there’s a book by that same name, and it has much wisdom for how to be generous in a way that helps people. 

We do need to see our money as God’s money that should be used how he wants us to use it.  We don’t want to use God’s money in a way that will hurt people in the long run.  What often happens, then, is we get frustrated and just do nothing. 

So what should we do? In our final post in this five-part series on John 11:46-12:11 we attempt to make some applications to guide us in practicing extravagant generosity.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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