Rethinking “You Will Always Have the Poor Among You” : Studies in Mark, Pt. 64

Tucked away in Mk. 14.17 is a verse that, while hidden, is well known. Indeed, I have heard this verse cited many, many times—usually in a pejorative or individualistic sense. In Mk. 14.17, Jesus makes the statement: “The poor you will always have with you and you can help them any time you want, but you will not always have me.” In a recent roundtable discussion with a group of people, here are some conclusions that people arrived at concerning the meaning of this statement:

1. It is a timeless truth, spoken by Jesus, asserting that the problem of poverty cannot be overcome.
2. Jesus is suggesting that we should do some nice things for ourselves because regardless of how much we help there will always be poor people.
3. There is a time and a place to help those in need.
4. Jesus’ statement is actually a critique of Judas’s and others’ complaining about the use of the anointing oil.

Not to let the cat out of the bag but the fourth conclusion is my own. In what follows, I will show why the other ideas are flawed and why I think my explanation is best. To begin, while Jesus uses the term “always” (pantote) here, He is not making a “truth statement” but rather, a point. More on this in a moment. Furthermore, it runs counter to much of what Jesus said and did to suggest that He did not think poverty could be eradicated. Indeed, much of His message was that if people treated one another honestly and without greed, there would be no poverty.

Secondly, there is no way that Jesus could be suggesting that we do some nice things for ourselves here—not least because this was a collectivist, limited good society. Besides, the woman who anoints Jesus is not doing something for herself and likewise, Jesus is not doing something for Himself. In fact, Judas, the one Jesus critiques, does want the money for himself and as we can see, Jesus is not fine with that; He rebukes the idea.

Thirdly, the verse is not simply suggesting that there is a time and a place to help the poor. If anything, in this episode, it is one poor person (probably a slave-woman or a Gentile peasant, see Lk. 7.39) doing something for another poor person (Jesus). Thus, if Jesus meant to say that “there is a time and a place” for this type of thing, it would render the woman’s action moot. This approach only adds confusion to the story.

Fourthly, my approach to the text is to read it in its socio-literary context. Such a reading suggests that in this scene, Jesus is criticizing Judas (and other complainers) who was stealing money out of the ministry’s community purse (see Jn. 12.1-8). By doing this, Judas stifled the ministry; it wasn’t able to help everyone it could because it lacked in finances. In other words, Judas’s actions (like Levi’s before him) helped make Judas richer while it made the poor even poorer. So, when Jesus says “you will always have the poor…” He is saying it against Judas. It is akin to Jesus saying, “Judas, who are you to complain about helping the poor, you’re the one who is stealing from the ministry purse?! And it is for that reason that you will always have the poor—greed and selfishness. As long as there are people who think and act like you, there will always be poverty.” Thus, it is a point, not a timeless truth statement.

Notice that at the end of the scene, in Mark’s account, the text says that Judas after this run-in with Jesus, left to betray Jesus. Why would he betray Him if Jesus was saying “Do something nice for yourself”? Just as well, Jesus would be standing in agreement with Judas’s complaint if He were stating a “timeless truth” about the poor. In Jn. 12.6, we are told that Judas didn’t care about the poor when he issued his complaint but that he was a thief, thinking about himself. It is my view that when Jesus said this to Judas, Judas was humiliated and embarrassed. That is why Judas not only betrayed Jesus but went on to hang himself. The truth is, Judas not only betrayed Jesus once but many times; he also betrayed his fellow Jesus-followers.

In the story where Jesus makes this statement about the poor, He is not making a timeless statement. Similarly, He is not saying do something for yourself. Instead, Jesus is critiquing a mentality and lifestyle of greed. In the scene, the woman sacrifices for Jesus; she does something for someone else and it is acknowledged. This is meant to act as a contrast to the selfish motives of Judas and the other complainers. The picture is of selflessness versus selfishness. So, no longer can we use this verse to get out of helping those oppressed and forced into poverty. Moreover, we can no longer attempt to use this verse to achieve selfish ends—such a reading goes against the grain of the point of the story. What we should do, however, is take Jesus’ critique of Judas seriously and as much as we can, seek to eradicate the oppressive bonds of poverty being forced upon people. We can also take seriously the other half of the point Jesus is trying to make: As long as there are greedy people, there will be poverty. So, when people stop being greedy, there will not be poverty. Maybe one day, to God’s great glory, there will be no poor among us-but first, there must be no greedy among us.


  1. I agree with your starting points, but not so much with your ending ones

  2. Doug,
    Here is part of my response, which I also posted on your blog:

    "...I think it is absolutely clear from Mark's literary and social context that Judas was a thief and doing things in secret!!! How can you say this? Mark couldn't have made it clearer that Judas was responsible for selling Jesus out and for complaining about the money. Just as well, in the end, I think your theological reasoning (e.g. ransom) does not fit here. Yes, it fits in Mk. 10 but not so much here. The woman is prophetic and she seems to understand that Jesus' impending death has great significance but she certainly acts as a contrast (a literary foil to some degree) with Judas and the complainers. From a literary perspective, Mark often contrasts women with faith with disciples/men who lack faith/trust, etc. I think you certainly raise some good questions and cautions Doug, but I also think that you miss some things. I am also, at this point, not in agreement with the theological conclusion about ransom (although, if this is a slave woman, that argument could possibly be built on a bit more)."

  3. I like your points and have never really looked at that story beyond the literal words. I do agree that when there is no more greed there will be no more poverty, but I don't think that will happen this side of the second coming. Even the best of Christians aren't perfect, and the level of depravity and exploitation that occurs all over the world, be it from governments or people, won't end until Christ returns, and very well, may get much worse than we see right now. I also feel that charity should not be an ends to itself, but should point to the gospel. As I heard it from a pastor last week, we don't want to send people to Hell with a full stomach. No matter how hard it is for me to think with an eternal perspective, which would totally change the way I live my life, I would rather die cold, naked and hungry than spend an eternity without Christ.

  4. Tim,
    Thanks for the compliments and I'm glad this post helped you see things differently!  Context matters so much!!!  RE the rest of your response, you are not alone in sensing the tension between evangelism and social justice; this is a huge deal and something we must continue to think about!  Thanks so much for responding, hope to dialogue with you more on other matters in the future.