SynopsisIn this passage Jesus goes to the home of a man named Simon. (Verse 6 (ESV) says “Simon the leper,” but presumably Jesus has healed Simon, making him a former leper.) As he is reclining at the table a woman comes up to him and pours a very expensive flask of ointment over his head. (In the version of this story in John 12:1–8 (ESV) we are told that the woman is Lazarus’ sister Mary. The story is also told in Mark 14:3–9 (ESV), and there is a similar story in Luke 7:36–50 (ESV), but that seems to be a different incident, rather than a retelling of this one.)
When the disciples see what has happened they get indignant, since the ointment could have been sold for a large sum of money, and the proceeds given to the poor. But Jesus stops them from “troubling” the woman:
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (verses 10–13 (ESV))
ThoughtsAlthough it’s not important to the passage, I’ll include this little tidbit anyway: The New Testament often talks about people “reclining” at the table, and whenever I used to read that phrase I was always picturing someone sitting in a chair and leaning back on the back legs (like the cool kids do, until their parents stop them for fear of them falling over backwards). But the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that they’re literally reclining: that the custom of the day was to have couches around the table, that people would recline on to eat.
In the version of this story in John 12:1–8 (ESV) we are told that it was specifically Judas who objected to this waste, and are further told that the reason for his objection is that he had a habit of dipping into the funds—so if they’d decided to sell the ointment to give the money to the poor, he could have enriched himself further. However, based on Jesus’ reaction, it seems that the other disciples agreed with Judas, since he addresses them all.
For me, the central phrase in this passage comes in verse 11 (ESV):
“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”This is one of those verses that both “conservatives” and “liberals” tend to get wrong, for opposite reasons. (Whereas I, of course, have it right. Look at how smart I am (he said ironically)…) When “conservatives” see this verse, for some reason they have mangled the meaning to a point where it means something along the lines of, “because you’ll always have the poor with you, you shouldn’t bother trying to help them.” Or maybe it’s more like, “God is more important than the poor, so anything you give to the poor you’re stealing from God.” “Liberals,” on the other hand, tend to only remember the “you will always have the poor with you” part, and use it to remember that we need to help them, but sometimes forget about the “you will not always have me” part. I think both extremes are taking this one verse out of context.
What is the context? Jesus is about to die, and the disciples won’t have him with them for much longer. Although the Bible is constantly showing God’s concern for the poor, the “conservatives” are close to being right when they say that we should care even more for God than we do for the poor; the most important commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and the second most important commandment is to love our neighbour. When we consider that Jesus is Lord God Almighty, in the flesh, it is appropriate to spend money on anointing Him instead of spending it on the poor. Although He came to make Himself a servant, and rarely allowed people to treat him like a king (the only other example I can think of is the triumphal entry back in Chapter 21, though there might be others that are not occurring to me at the moment), that doesn’t mean that He wasn’t a king. He was. So it’s not inappropriate to spend lavishly on Him.
But while it might have been appropriate for the woman to spend this huge amount of money on anointing Jesus like this, we should also remember that He is not physically with us anymore, and that means that we aren’t going to have the same types of opportunities to “anoint” him as she did. Although it’s true that God is more important than anything/anyone else, in a practical, day-to-day sense that will rarely be something that we actually need to take into account—any time that we might be presenting ourselves with a choice between helping the poor and helping or honouring God it’s probably a false choice. Especially since helping the poor does honour Him. There are probably examples of choices people might have to make between helping the poor and honouring God, but I sat here for a bit in front of the keyboard trying to think of some, and I didn’t come up with any. Most of the examples people would come up with would probably involve a pool of money that one has, and a choice between spending it on the poor or spending it on the church/Church, but in many cases my answer to that would probably be: spend it on the church/Church, and then take some of your own money—the money you had allocated for food or entertainment or your savings or something—and spend that on the poor.
If you’re so poor yourself that all you have left in the world is $10, and have to decide between spending that on your fellow poor or spending it on God, then you might have hit on a valid scenario—in which case I have no advice for you, and whichever decision you make I’ll support. (If you’re so poor that you only have $10 and decide to spend it on food for yourself, I’ll support that, too. In fact if I were to give advice, that might be the advice that I’d give—but I wouldn’t presume to do so, in this case.)