By the Rev. Sara Lilja
Director, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey

saraThis line from the Gospel of John, “you always have the poor with you,” has been often misquoted. I hear this text cited as justification for inadequate public policy efforts to eradicate poverty. But it is a misread of the text.

Lazarus hosted a dinner six days before Passover. After the meal, Judas criticized Mary for having spent nearly a year’s wages to purchase beautifully perfumed oil to anoint Jesus’ feet.  Jesus defended Mary’s actions; he reminded the gathered disciples that he would not be with them much longer (knowing that his arrest was near). So Mary’s anointing was appropriate. Continuing, Jesus added that there would be many more opportunities to address the needs of the poor in Bethany.

The narrator of this story, John, comments that Judas was mad because he kept the “common purse,” which was money to be used to care for the poor. John asserts that Judas had been stealing money from this purse. Judas would have liked Mary to make a large donation into the purse rather than spending it on oil, so that he could skim more for himself.

Jesus never teaches that God intends or is pleased with an economically stratified society where some are wealthy and some poor. Jesus’ acknowledgment of the needs of the poor should never be understood that he condoned poverty. No, over and over again we learn of Jesus’ intention to close the wealth gap by paying workers a fair wage, forgiving debt, and welcoming the disenfranchised into community.

The conversation that might appropriately grow from this text is: What are the opportunities to serve the poor in Bethany and within my neighborhood so that all people might be economically self-sufficient? A pastor friend of mine recently wrote to his senator, “I’m hoping to work my way out of the food pantry business. Not because I don’t care, but because I believe finding a solution for hungry families is not to continue sharing food, but to help all people buy their own. Equity, love and unbiased fairness are essential to ending the gap between those [who] eat and those [who] don’t. We are committed to feeding families, but we are also committed to advocating for policies and legislation that work for the good of the whole.”

A prayer for people:

For people in poverty, who live in a state of illiteracy and frustration.

For men whose labor is less valued and exploited because they are unskilled.

For boys who have migrated to cities, other countries and continents in search of  jobs to improve the economic conditions of their families, but they are landed in the most strenuous, the dirtiest and lowest paid jobs.

For women who suffer at the hands of their in-laws, because of her dowry and other cultural and family traditions.

For children who are suffering in pain and misery because of illness and malnutrition due to poverty.

For couples who are deprived of mutual love and close bonds of fellowship because of separation and divorce.

For the differently abled who struggle for dignity, equality and for meaningful work.

For public officials who are working in affairs of policy and decision making.

For all people who endeavor to eradicate poverty.


Based on Beulah Shakir’s prayer, who lives in Pakistan

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