While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, which she poured on His head as He reclined at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and asked, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price, and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus asked, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful deed to Me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. By pouring this perfume on Me, she has prepared My body for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.
Recently, I was mulling over that confusing and disconcerting statement of Christ's. The poor you will always have with you.
It's a statement, first of all, of resigned realism: despite our attempts at creating a kingdom of justice on earth, it is clear that there will always be sin, there will always be broken human relationships, there will always be systems of injustice and inequality. There will always be those who are the victim of these unjust systems and broken relationships. There will always be the poor.
Yet, complacency is certainly not the correct response to this cruel reality, nor can it be the response that Christ is advocating.
It also strikes me as odd that Christ, the suffering servant, born among shepherds and sheep, is drawing a delineation between Himself and the poor. He, who certainly would count Himself among the poor, who says: that which you do for the least of them, you did it to me, usually suggests that He is found in the poor, rather than apart from them.
Maybe what Christ is rebuking here is a false concern for "The Poor." C.S. Lewis says [somewhere] something [to the effect of] that it is quite easy to love Humanity, in the abstract. But not so rarely, those who profess a love for Humanity do very little to love the actual, particular human in front of them. Humanity, The Poor, these are abstractions that have no meaning.
It is easy to say: we could have helped More People! Something better could have been done with this perfume for the sake of the Greater Good. And Christ dispels this notion for the self-satisfying little pipe dream that it is. There is no common mass of humanity that we can play savior to: there is only our neighbor in front of us. Our task is to concretely love that neighbor, not imagine how we might hypothetically love that neighbor best.
All of our charity must be placed at the feet of Christ. All our self-righteous social concern must meet the crucified one. And we must anoint his feet with our most precious possession. We must offer not just our resources or our money, our material possessions and worldly goods. We must offer Him our very selves.
Christ is always unexpected. This is certainly a statement that seems jarringly out of place. It seems to be at odds with the portrait of Christ as a tamed do-gooder. What Christ is calling us to is an act of worship. This act of worship and reverence that the woman at Bethany performs is the correct action. It is an action of love for our Creator and Savior. This is an action that fulfills our deepest vocation. And all of our actions of love for one another must spring from this attitude of reverence.
Christ calls us to a life of service. Christ calls us to a radical commitment to serving the poor, to serving our brothers and sisters, to lay down our lives in love. But, even more than this call to serve one another, Christ calls us to Himself. How can we feed others if we do not (quite literally) feast on Him? If we are not nourished by our relationship with Him, how can we enter into life-giving relationship with others? Christ thirsts for us, for our love, for our gift of tears and our very heart. He will not stand to be anything less to us than our all-in-all.