“Rebecca Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts:

The Poor With You

You always have the poor with you.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The North Texas Food Bank serves 13 counties in our community in which more than 853,000 people live in food-insecure households. One in every four children in our community is without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.[1]

You always have the poor with you.

The Institute for Urban Policy Research, together with Children’s Health, reported in November 2017, inter alia, that one in five children in North Texas lives in poverty, and rates of uninsured children in our community are twice the national average.[2]

You always have the poor with you.

The title of Scott Womack’s article in D Magazine this past November says it all: “Dallas Isn’t Helping Its Poorest Residents Escape Poverty, and Neither Are Its Neighbors.”[3] In the article, Councilman Mark Clayton, who represents the area surrounding White Rock Lake, is quoted saying: “The reality is … people don’t care.”

Faced with facts about poverty in our community and nation, I feel defeated. To fight poverty is to fight a network of systems and deeply-held, implicit values (and biases) that existed throughout recorded history. Our Lenten series, “Who’s My Neighbor?”, has connected many of this with this same sense of defeat as we’ve seen how systems of oppression at work in our midst have escalated numbers of asylum seekers, geographically-embedded racism, and driven human trafficking. Each week as we’ve looked at neighbors in need of love, we’ve found poverty.

You always have the poor with you.

To make matters worse, Jesus’ statement often is used to justify apathy and inaction in the face of such monolithic, systemic oppression. Lindsey Trozzo, New Testament scholar at Princeton University, aptly summarizes this thinking. If even Jesus admits that poverty will always exist, then we the church are free to

attend to spiritual needs over, above, or instead of tangible needs: “just a closer walk with Thee” instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes … individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism.[4]

Many Christians, myself included at times past, agree that this is the right result. And yet, as Trozzo observes, Jesus’ identity “is bound up with the theological reality that he challenged oppressive political and social systems.”[5] Immediately following the dinner party in our passage today, Jesus will enter Jerusalem and be hailed as king by a crowd of Jews fed up with the dichotomy between Rome’s promised peace and prosperity and the reality of its rule which left the majority poor and oppressed. There – as he has done his whole life – Jesus will resist the powers that be, Roman and Jewish alike, who either maintain or tolerate this status quo. He will pay for this resistance with his life.

Let us make no mistake: whatever Jesus up to in saying “you always have the poor with you”, he is not condoning apathy toward and acceptance of systemic poverty. Which begs the question: what is he up to?

Seeing Mary’s extravagant use of nard worth a year’s wages to anoint Jesus’ feet – a gesture acknowledging both his kingship and his impending death – Judas reproaches her. The nard should’ve been sold and the proceeds placed in the common purse – their ministry fund for the poor. In responding to Judas, Jesus quotes half of a verse from Deuteronomy: “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (15:11a). He’s speaking in shorthand, but our relative lack of familiarity with Torah leads us to miss what those with Jesus certainly would have heard: the rest of the verse. Think of it this way: if in conversation, I concluded a point with the phrase, “For God so loved the world,” you’d fill in the rest of John 3:16 and understand me to be sharing the good news of eternal life through Jesus. After Mary anoints him with nard and Judas reproaches, Jesus responds with a portion of Deuteronomy 15:11 in which Moses is instructing the Israelites on how to live in the promised land: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

See how complex Jesus’ response to Judas is? “Leave her alone. She bought it … for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you.” Connecting Jesus’ response to its origin in Deuteronomy 15:11, we see Jesus both admonishing Judas for missing the theological meaning of Mary’s anointing and affirming Judas’ stated concern for the poor. If we connect his response more broadly to this part of Deuteronomy, looking back six verses or so, we find Moses telling the Israelites:

“There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today” (Deut 15:4-5).

There will be no one in need among you. You always have the poor with you. Who’s right: Moses or Jesus? (Remember what I said a couple weeks ago about Jesus being a good guess when you don’t know the answer? That’d be a good guess here, too.)

Why is Moses wrong and Jesus right? Why are the poor among us when Moses said no one would be in need? If you were listening closely, you heard conditionality in Moses’ words: “There will … be no one in need among you … if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” And what commandment is that? Let me read you the whole paragraph from which Jesus quotes:

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts … every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor … because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. … There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. … If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. [And, finally, we arrive at the verse from today’s reading …] Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

What commandment did God give, obedience to which eradicates poverty? The jubilee commandment: cancel all debts every seven years, give liberally to everyone around you, meet the needs of the community. And how God’s people do in observing this commandment? You’ve read the prophets, right?

In the people’s defense, I get it. You know, there was once a man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and heard in response: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”[6] That man walked away grieving because he had many possessions. I get it. I have many possessions, too.

You always have the poor with you.

Why? Because you’re not meeting their needs.

There’s a funny thing about translating that verse, Lindsey Trozzo reminded me this week. In Greek, the word translated “you have” is ἔχετε. Translators face a challenge when it comes to this word (and others like it) – they have to choose between translating it as an indicative or an imperative. In Greek, they’re the same word. If Jesus is speaking in the indicative, you always have the poor with you. But if he’s using the imperative, he actually says: “Always have the poor with you. Keep the poor with you.”[7] In other words, at the eve of his entry to Jerusalem for the final time, he may be saying something more akin to:

“Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

Would all God’s people say … ?

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[1] https://www.ntfb.org/learn-more/learn-more-about-hunger, accessed online on April 5, 2019.

[2] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171114005519/en/Children’s-Health-Releases-15th-Edition-ABC-Comprehensive, accessed online on April 5, 2019.

[3] https://www.dmagazine.com/frontburner/2018/11/dallas-isnt-helping-its-poorest-residents-escape-poverty-and-neither-are-its-neighbors/, accessed online April 5, 2019.

[4] Lindsey Trozzo, “Commentary on John 12:1-8” for Working Preacher.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mark 10:21.

[7] Lindsey Trozzo, “Commentary on John 12:1-8” for Working Preacher.