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June 30, 2018

The Poor You Will Have with You Always

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

For June 30, 2018

Texts: Deuteronomy 15:6-11, John 12:1-8

Poor people are much in the news. Here in Seattle we’re confronted by burgeoning homelessness. On our nation’s southern border there is the ugly spectacle of legal brutality intended to terrorize poor people in Central America to deter them from seeking sanctuary in our country. Across Europe there is fierce debate about how to respond to waves of desperate poor people fleeing Africa and the Middle East. Even Canada is roiled by arguments about poor people seeking sanctuary. Poor people. They are a big problem.

The media world is full of passionate words about poor people. Since we are Christians, it is good for us to consider what the Bible has to say about poor people.

Let’s begin with the story that includes the famous phrase uttered by Jesus:  “The poor you will have with you always.”

The story:

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus–the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.  But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said,  “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.”   This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

[John 12:1-8 NLT Accessed via Blue Letter Bible. Com].

Judas used a publicly-professed concern for the poor to argue against an extravagant personal gift for Jesus. But he wasn’t really concerned about the poor. He was concerned about the pocketbook that he managed. This reminds me of contemporary protestations: We should care for our veterans before we give money to lazy people on welfare. I agree that veterans should be first in line, but many who say such things actually oppose giving “their money” to anyone through the agency of government–including veterans. More recently I have read protests that we should spend money on citizens instead of on desperate foreigners. I think this prioritization is correct. However, the protest is disingenuous because many of those speaking this way oppose giving their money to anyone through the agency of government–especially those Americans who need food stamps.

Many who oppose spending “our money” to help the poor cite these words of Jesus: the poor you will have with you always. They interpret Jesus’ words this way: poor people exist. Always have. Always will. Jesus was telling not to stress over poor people. Leave them alone. Let them figure it out themselves.

But this flies in the face of the explicit meaning of the passage of Scripture Jesus was quoting.

The LORD your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you. 7 “But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. 9 Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the LORD, you will be considered guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. 11 There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:6-11 NLT. Accessed through blueletterbible.com]

God’s preference is for people to be rich. God wants all of us to have enough money for housing and food and transportation and birthday gifts and vacations and medical care and art supplies and music lessons. Especially music lessons.

This is what God prefers for people.

God’s call is for his people to be generous. As we are blessed we are to bless. We are to be partners with God in generosity.

When we see poor people we can recall that God wants people to be rich and see the poor people as those who are outside God’s favor. Cursed. Or we can see people who are poor and remember that God’s call is for us to be generous. Two radically different visions.

In the Bible God never takes the side of the rich against the poor. Never. Why? Is it because God doesn’t like rich people? No. It is because God sees the rich as an extension of himself. Just as it is God’s duty to be beneficent, so it is our duty. The passage we have just cited clearly declares God wants his people to be rich. Rich is good.

God doesn’t take the side of the rich, because God does not take his own side. God does not defend himself. And rich people are an extension of God. God imagines the rich as his partners, as his people, as his staff. And since we who are rich are God’s people, God’s partners, God’s staff, we are obliged to practice God-like generosity to the poor. We are to represent God to the poor. According to the Bible writers in both Old Testament and New, when rich folk fail to practice generosity to the poor God is outraged. Why? Because neglecting or abusing the poor is an act of treason against the Kingdom of Heaven. If we neglect the poor we are siding with the enemy of God. It was the enemy who delighted in oppression. It was the enemy who used people for his own benefit without regard for their needs.

The rich are supposed to be God’s allies, members of the royal court. Our behavior reflects on God. Repeatedly, over and over and over again, God is declared to be the champion of the poor, the friend of the poor. And we who are rich find our place closest to God when we act as champions of the poor and friends of the poor.

When we embrace poverty as a call for us to act with God-like generosity, this does not automatically provide a simple, clear path to a solution for the problems of the world. But it will shape our hearts and words as we work on solutions. Sometimes we must practice tough love and leave people to bear the consequences of bad choices. Sometimes a “fix” is impossible. I have friends with severe physical limitations. They cannot work. They will never, ever be able to work. Still we must care for them. I have friends who are bound up in addiction, friends whose minds are gripped by mental illness. There are no simple solutions to these problems. Still, we are called to see in every instance of human brokenness and desperation an invitation to go more deeply into the heart of God and practice seeing these people as our brothers and sisters. They are family members God eagerly desires to come join us at the table.

Here in the family of God we do not speak of poor people or desperate people or foreign people as enemies. We carefully guard against using language that expresses disdain or scorn. We speak of them as children of God in need of special care. Even criminals are still the children of God, worthy of deliberate, wise, lawful intervention. Because of their brokenness we need the services of law enforcement. We cannot have a civil society without the service of our police officers. There are human problems that cannot be solved with gentleness. Still, at every point we remember that the people we are dealing with are the children of God, brothers and sisters for whom God has reserved a place at the table.

As we wrestle with the daunting challenges of poverty and human desperation may we act as partners with God, as allies with the Supreme champion of the poor. May we do all we can to make a place at our table for all the children of God.

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