For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
— John 12:8 —
What does the cross of Christ have to do with the relief of poverty? Does the gospel address the issue of economic justice? When Scripture speaks of Jesus paying our debt is this spiritual in nature, or material too? How did Jesus think about his cross and what his cross was meant to accomplish? These questions and more can be asked when we think about the gospel and its relationship to poverty and justice—a theme that continues to confront us these days.
Thankfully, Scripture gives us clear direction, recording Jesus’s words about his cross and his concern for the poor. In a passage found in all four gospels, we find Mary anointing Jesus’s feet in preparation for his cross and burial. And from this encounter, we learn much about what Jesus thought about poverty. Let’s see three things.
Three Truths from Jesus about Poverty and the Gospel
1. Jesus showed personal and tangible concern for the poor.
To begin with, we know that Jesus cared for the poor because in John 12:6, we hear that Jesus had a money bag dedicated to providing for the poor. Moreover, as a true son of Israel, Jesus would have be taught to love his neighbor and care for the orphan and widow. In the Old Testament, the sojourner, orphan, and widow were people whom the Law set apart as especially needy. Israelites were instructed to care for and protect them. Even more, if Jesus’s father died while Jesus grew up in Nazareth, Jesus would have spent years of his life caring for his widowed mother.
From these evidences, we learn that Jesus cared for the poor whom he encountered. In other words, his care was personal and tangible, not abstract and ideological. Though he was the Creator of the universe who had the power to raise the dead and call a coin out of a fish’s mouth, he did not use his authority to end poverty or overturn Rome’s extortion. Instead, he obeyed the Law of God and carried a money bag to meet the specific needs of those whom he encountered. In this way, Jesus models a very small and local approach to helping the poor, one that any of his followers can imitate.
2. Jesus’s mission was not to end poverty, but to save sinners.
When Jesus confronted Judas for his disapproval of Mary’s lavish use of anointing oil, Jesus made a strong contrast between care for the poor and care for the Lord. “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). This statement indicates how Christ would soon be taken away through his death on the cross. And it firmly communicates that Jesus was and is more important than anything in creation.
Additionally, we learn in this statement why Jesus went to the cross. He did not come to patch up this evil age, but to bring life through his death. His death was not first and foremost a model of service to those in need. Jesus came to serve others by dying in their place for their sin. Hence, in Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:3–9, when we find a woman (Mary) pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’s head, we see again where the disciples misunderstand Jesus’s purposes.
In response to Mary’s beautiful act, Judas and the disciples protest the misuse of this expensive ointment (John 12:1–8). (Don’t miss how the disciples and Judas, at this point, both have the same understanding of money). In reply to Mary’s act, Jesus says this anointing was to prepare for his burial (Matt. 26:12; Mark 14:8). Jesus clearly knew where he was headed. Yet, in the debate that ensued, as the disciples complained of misusing this perfume, Jesus identified the importance of his death.
For us, Jesus’s direction of this conversation towards the cross teaches that humanitarian concerns for the poor provide wonderful opportunity to speak of the greater realities of Christ’s cross. Yes, care for the poor is important, but it is not as important as the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, care for the poor and the message of the cross are not one and the same.
We learn from Jesus’s contrast that the best-laid plans for helping the poor will never eradicate misery in this world. This is because money-keepers like Judas pilfer from the money bag—a reality that continues in our own day. And because human efforts cannot undo the overwhelming effects of sin in the world. For that, it will take God himself, which leads to a third truth.
3. Jesus commitment to his glory exceeds his concern for the poor.
This may sound harsh, but only if we are avidly man-centered. Christ’s words are anchored in the truth that the entire world was created for the Son of God to rule and reign. Even more, the contrast between God’s glory and man’s misery is not adversarial. Instead, Christ’s commitment to his own glory means that he will end poverty, as his death and resurrection result in a new creation (cf. Isa. 55:1–3).
In John 12:8, Jesus’s statement does not deny his concern for the poor (again see point #1), but it does mean Christ’s cross was addressing something greater than poverty and economic injustice. Economic injustice is not the most important item on Jesus’s agenda! And redemption for Jesus means something greater than merely improving the material well-being of those destined to die.
We know this because he says, “you will always have the poor.” This means that Christ’s death is not a solution for poverty in this age; it is a solution to a problem that gives rise to poverty—namely the sin that innervates human nature and results in individuals and systems whose actions results in all manner of human plight.
Jesus was going to the cross, so that he might redeem people condemned to death for their sins. Jesus goal in the cross was not to lift people out of poverty into riches; it was to lift people from death to life. Thus, Jesus words provide a necessary corrective to the pervasive view that caring for the poor was the most important thing Jesus did. It wasn’t. Defeating death, satisfying the justice of God, sacrificing himself for his sheep, and glorifying the Father with his perfect obedience on the cross—these are central to Christ’s mission to the cross.
Accordingly, this message of justification by grace and eternal life by faith in the Lord must be the first priority for followers of Christ too (see 1 Cor. 15:1–3). While Christians should follow Jesus’s lead in caring for the poor who cross their paths, the mission of the church is not to end poverty. It is to proclaim Christ and call sinners to repent and believe in the good news. Disciples of Christ will learn how to care for those in need, but this is the fruit of the gospel not its chief message.
Seek First Christ and His Kingdom
Christ makes it clear with his words to Judas and his disciples, that we are to seek him first. And this is a truth we should not ignore or obscure, for the gospel itself is at stake. If we combine the message of the cross with care for the poor, we strip the power from the gospel along with its transformative effects on believers. At the same time, if we prioritize poverty relief and other matters of social justice, we will weigh down Christians with a task they are not able to fulfill. Jesus said, you will always have the poor with you, which means we cannot, with our best efforts, eliminate poverty as we might like.
We can, however, point people to Christ and the spiritual riches found in him. For rich and poor alike, Jesus is the treasure to which we are all created to seek. Therefore, we must not be ashamed to seek Christ first, even as the world and many in the church invite us to spend all our efforts focusing on the poor. When we receive this invitation to turn from Christ to the poor, we must remember, Christ and his cross are the hope of the world. And if we want to do something lasting for the poor, it must be in helping them seek Christ first too.For indeed, this what Jesus taught his disciples when Mary anointed him for burial, and it is Christ’s death and resurrection that continue to bring a sweet aroma into all the world.
May God help us to seek him first and to avoid adding works of social justice to the message of the gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds