Have the Poor with You Always


Have the Poor with You Always 

What would it look like to live in true community with everyone who lived the town of Cobourg? To strike down the barriers of class, ethnicity, gender and so on. 

The passage from John’s gospel that we look at on this fifth Sunday of Lent has Jesus looking towards the events of Good Friday. However, while in the company of the disciples, Lazarus, Mary and Martha Jesus makes a comment about the poor. That they will always be present, but he won’t. 

Consider again the company he is keeping. None of these individuals were rich or from the upper echelons of society. Should our church communities look a little more like the company that Jesus kept?

Scripture: John 12: 1-8

Every Thursday St. Andrew’s opens its doors for lunch. Between the months of September to May we run a soup kitchen once a week. We are one of five churches in Cobourg that runs such a program and it’s been running for the past twenty years or so. Many volunteers from the congregation give of themselves and their time to help this ministry run.

There is a need within our community in Cobourg to offer such a program. We have people within our community who are homeless. Others deal with the issue of food insecurity, that is they don’t reliably know where or when they might have their next meal. Many are reliant on food banks to make ends meet. The Soup Kitchen fills a required need within our community. It provides a safe, reliable place where people will be welcomed as they as they are fed.

We are reminded of the words of Jesus in our passage from John this morning, “You will always have poor people with you…”

To deal with the poor and disadvantaged isn’t always a comfortable experience. Some are rough around the edges, their language choices are not ours. We might witness aspects of substance abuse and other addictions. Sometimes there is an odour about them which isn’t pleasant. Of course, I could make similar comments about people from the middle or upper class of society.

When we see an individual who is homeless on the street often our inclination is to cross the street before we encounter them. Failing that we ensure that we take a few extra steps around them, to avoid any contact. As if we are worried we might catch something.

“You will always have poor people with you…”

The church is a place where people on the margins of society have often felt comfortable approaching. Because historically we have provided assistance to those who are poor, homeless and hungry. People know that they can knock on the door of a church and receive some form of assistance. And yet, that contact has a clear beginning and ending. If you look around you right now you won’t find anyone here right now who is homeless, no one here right now is a guest at the Soup Kitchen.

It is as if on Sunday morning a magic wall is thrown up that divides these two communities of the church. That both the poor and us would be uncomfortable worshiping together at the same time. This comment should make us think, because try as we might we can’t separate Jesus from the poor. Read through the Gospels and you will be hard pressed to find instances when Jesus isn’t in some way interacting with the homeless, hungry, poor and vulnerable within society.

“You will always have poor people with you…”

The Kairos center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice puts it this way: We are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty; unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance.

“You will always have poor people with you…”

This passage is one of those passages that makes us scratch our heads. The comment by Jesus, “You will always have poor people with you, but you won’t always have me.” It seems flippant, as if poor people don’t matter as much as Jesus. There is a definite value statement attached to it. To be sure, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but something about it still seems off.

If we are unable to separate Jesus from the poor, why would Jesus make this statement? If Jesus spent so much time debating and teaching about how the Law was being interpreted wrong, why would he make such a dismissive statement?

“You will always have poor people with you…”

It seems so defeatist and contrary to what I feel the values of God’s kingdom are. Is it possible we are reading this passage wrong?

Lindsey Trozzo from Princeton Theological Seminary writes, “There’s a funny thing in ancient Greek — sometimes the present indicative form of a word (which just indicates or states something — such as “you always have the poor with you”) matches the present imperative form of the word (which commands you to do something — see also “Have or keep the poor with you always). In this passage exete — which is translated “you will have” can be indicative or imperative … it looks exactly the same. So maybe we should read Jesus’ statement not as an indication of the way things are, but as a command: Have the poor with you always. Or Keep the poor among you always” (reference).

“You will always have poor people with you…” versus “Have the poor with you always…”

A week ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with Greg Paul. Greg is the lead pastor at the Sanctuary church in Toronto. For over the past twenty years Sanctuary church has engage in street level mission to the homeless, hungry and vulnerable in Toronto. Myself and few other local clergy had the opportunity to chat with Greg about the work he does. If you are interested in some of the work he is engaged in or wonder what street level ministry and mission looks like I have one of his books on my shelf, God in the Alley, and you are welcome to borrow it.

Greg wasn’t content to tell us to develop another program that might touch people’s lives. His challenge was far deeper than that. Something truly transformative and he acknowledged how difficult it would be, as it would require wholesale institutional and cultural change.

In a nutshell Greg challenged us to go from a model of church that has us doing ministry or mission to the vulnerable. That is, we engage with people because we have something to give or teach them. We hold ourselves to be better, however we might choose to define that, than the people we are serving. The challenge was to make the vulnerable, the homeless and hungry a core part of the community of faith.

To go from serving a meal once a week and handing out other forms of benevolence to having a truly integrated community that represented all people.

As remarkable a shift in thought and philosophy as the two ways we might translate our passage from today. “You will always have poor people with you…” versus “Have the poor with you always…”

Is that an idea we are comfortable with? If the answer is no, why not? Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This