By Bob Lupton “The poor you will always have with you,” a man in the audience quoted. He was reacting to a talk I had just given on the need for more effective charity. I had heard his argument before.
Since souls are eternal and our earthly bodies merely temporal, should we not be about saving souls rather than alleviating poverty? And besides, Jesus himself said that the poor will always be with us.
The passage from Mark’s gospel (which the man was lifting a bit out of context) was Jesus’ defense of a woman who was being criticized for anointing Him with expensive balm. Such an extravagant offering should have been donated to help the poor, the woman’s critics grumbled.
“Let her alone; why do you trouble her?” Jesus defends her. “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” The detractors in the crowd might well have faulted Him for supporting a misappropriation of valuable ointment. But there was certainly no hint in His response that caring for the needs of the poor was unimportant.
As a matter of fact, He was actually quoting from Torah a command which all Jews knew well: “For the poor will never cease from being in the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, 'You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.'”
Caring for the needs of the poor was obviously a bedrock mandate for the faithful followers of Yahweh. The theme is dominant, woven throughout all of scripture. Where then did this idea originate that God’s primary interest is in disembodied souls rather than in whole people (body, mind, and spirit)? Or the whole of creation, for that matter?
I suppose the Gnostics had something to do with it – the group that believed that matter (the flesh) was of a lower, imperfect world whereas the realm of God (the spirit) was the upper world associated with the soul and perfection. This Greek infiltration into early Christian thinking convinced some that the realm of God is spiritual and not part of the physical.
Thus the material world is to be shunned and the spiritual world pursued. It’s not hard to see how such thinking could lead to the conclusion the man in my audience was making: God is primarily concerned about eternal souls rather than the temporal needs of people.
The God of scripture, however, seems to have a more holistic intention for humankind. Shalom. Peace, flourishing, wholeness. People rightly related to God and to each other. Shalom has a “here and now” orientation.
The Old Testament had little to say about the after-world. Mostly it concerned itself with how people were behaving in the present. When Christ appeared on the scene, He dramatically expanded “hereafter thinking.” His bodily resurrection opened an advent of understanding about the inseparability of soul and body.
His resurrected body would be the first-fruit of a theology His disciples, His Church, would embrace. “I believe in…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” the Apostle’s Creed declares. The body is important. Feeding, clothing, healing were no insignificant issues to Christ. And the body – not just the soul – somehow has a connection with eternity.
Caring for those in need has eternal implications. Eternal rewards are conditioned upon it. Care for the hungry, the ill-clad, the alienated is synonymous with love for God, Jesus explained. It is worship in its purest form. Do this and we find ourselves aligned with Divine purposes. Ignore it and we are in danger of judgment.
“The poor you will always have with you.” Yes, there will always be those who need a helping hand. Which is to say: there will never be a time when our compassion, our generosity, our thoughtfulness is irrelevant. It is tied to eternity.