We have heard this phrase before, “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me.” As a matter of fact, we, as a society have lived that out pretty well, haven’t we. I mean there has been poor people in this world since biblical times hasn’t there? We have stories in our scripture called the “Widows Mite.” It is a story about a poor woman looking for a coin. In most recent times (by that I mean the 1960’s) there was this legislation called “the War on Poverty.” It is still going on today!
In fact, poverty is alive and well, so to speak. Theologian Lindsay Trozzo quotes the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in pointing out that 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty. Another 97 million are designated “low-income. The total is a staggering 48% of the United States population is living in poverty or are defined as low income!
And today, we are greeted by these words from Jesus. In one of the parishes that I served, I was confronted with poverty in a different way than what one might think. When we think of poverty, we might think of the inner city and people living on the street, in their car, etc. This poverty was different. I was the pastor in a rural community. All you could see was farmland and farmhouses for miles. There were no Park benches to sleep on. There were no areas that would be known where the homeless would gather together, and no bridges or abandoned buildings that would be obvious places. I would caution us all not to assume that the owner lives in the farmhouse that we see.
So, today’s reading, brings out that all too familiar phrase that Jesus speaks: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. So, I have a question: What does that mean for us today? Trozzo points out that if, going back to our Greek grammar, the original language of the New Testament. This phrase is in the “indicative form” means that what Jesus states is a fact and is the present condition. Meaning, basically, this is the way it is and nothing is going to change. It also means that there is nothing to do to change it. Accept this as our reality and then “let’s move on.”
In this light, Jesus’ words do not bring much comfort! If we just accept this premise then move then we do Jesus and ourselves a disservice. We have spent the last several months reading from the Gospel of Luke. In Luke’s Gospel as our confirmation students are learning that when Jesus speaks of the poor, Jesus speaks of those who are actually poor. If we accept that as the reality then we diminish Jesus ministry to those who are the least, last, lost, and lonely. We diminish the story of the Widow’s Mite to Just someone who lost a coin.
We diminish ourselves if we accept this statement as a statement of a present condition. Meaning, we become complacent in our daily lives. By accepting this as the reality we tend to ignore the very people that Jesus interacted with. We become so complacent that we use Jesus’ words as an excuse not to help out our brothers and sisters who are in need!
I believe that we look at this phrase in an alternative way that Lindsay Trozzo suggests. She suggests that we look at this phrase in what is called the “imperative” form of language. Meaning, This is a command from Jesus. It sounds the same in sentence form. The difference is that where the present indicates a current status, the imperative is a command which requires action. This all means that Jesus is basically saying “Keep the poor with you always.”
Why is that so important and what does it mean. It is important because it tells us a lot about Jesus. Throughout his ministry, he is reaching out to the poor! He is continually interacting with those who are outsiders by society! In other words, we cannot separate Jesus from the poor, the sick, the outcast. Through this imperative, Jesus is showing us what it means to keep the poor with us: by lifting up, supporting, treating the poor as equals in the kingdom of God. Giving dignity and respect to those who might be deemed unworthy of God’s love…let alone mercy! Through Jesus’ example, we get a glimpse of how Jesus speaks up for those who do not have a voice in the world. Jesus doesn’t write letters or send messengers. Jesus dives into the care for all God’s children. He gets down to the nitty gritty and walks with all of us. No one is better than the other, no one is loved more or less than the other; but, we are all loved equally by God and in the sight of God.
I believe that we are trying to live out this imperative phrase! We are not complacent in just saying, Jesus said, there will always be poor.” Every week we gather to feed the hungry, We have disciples who offer to listen and pray with people when they are in need, we reach out to our brothers and sisters who are living on the streets to make sure they have something to eat, a new dry pair of socks, and we gather with one another to lift up and support each other when needed. We know the blessings that we have been given in order to dive in, ourselves, to be non-complacent people; to not use the poor as an excuse in our lives. I believe that we are affecting others in bringing our brothers and sisters into this imperative living.
Our ministry of Victor’s Vittles has become well known in our community. People see us getting in to do the difficult work of giving the hungry dignity and friendship, and lifting them up as valuable members of the community. To the point where businesses want to be a part of this helping. As Jesus continues to show us, there is more to do in lifting up our brothers and sisters who are in need. And God calls us to that imperative of finding other ways to lift up and support the poor in our community. So, my prayer for us all is that God reveals to us ways that we can speak up for the poor in our community and be God’s hands and feet in this part of God’s kingdom: Thanks be to God.