Mark 14:3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
The competing biblical interpretations of conservative and progressive Christians is a lively playing field. This competition has been active since the piecing together of the New Testament canon in the 2nd and 3rd centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus. From the 4th century, Christians have squared off against each other on perhaps the most vital question: Is it a triumphalistic religion of right belief [Constantinian] or a radical lifestyle of alternative practice [prophetic strands from the monastics to the Waldensians to the Anabaptists to the Black Church in the US]?
I have heard Constantinian Christians [although they would never use or understand that label] quote the above episode from Mark's Gospel to shoot down any sort of active Christian stance to fight structural poverty. Why would we waste our precious time attempting to change laws when Christ clearly tells us the poor will always be with us? Bam! We're off the hook--next topic! This highlights the difference of Constantinian and prophetic reading strategies. For Constantinians, by and large, the Bible is a self-evident resource of timeless truths and principles, universally mined to buttress our spiritual lives. For prophetics, the Bible is a script that we live in, a complex collection of documents that transforms our socio-political lives--interpretation is best done in a community of fellow disciples who have scandalously committed to subversive living.
A closer look at the passage reveals that Jesus is quoting from the Hebrew Bible...Deuteronomy 15:11:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’
As YHWH piloted Israel through the wilderness to the edge of the promised land, God's People were instructed to care for any poor brother: 'and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be' [Dt 15:7]. In fact at the beginning of this word from God to the large family of Israel on the brink of becoming a nation, it is clear that there need not be poor in the land... as long as they are obedient to God's will, which must mean the constant care for the poor, the stranger, the widow and orphan [Dt 15:4-5]:
There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.
There are two key takeaways from Mark's story of the woman anointing the soon-to-be-crucified-Messiah in the home of the leper:
1. The disciples wanted to partake in charity. This is always what Constantinian Christians settle for. Sell the perfume, give it to the poor and let's get on with saving people. Jesus was and is all about fighting against structural injustice. That's what he was doing in the Temple [Mark 11:15-19], the protest that ultimately put him on the cross. Prophetic Christians raise their voices against societal injustice so that those oppressed can save themselves.
2. Jesus' proclamation that 'you always have the poor with you' is not an apathetic future promise, but instead a pronouncement concerning the social location of the church: we must live close to the poor and be their advocates. Focusing on charitable giving while the wider political and economic systems go unchecked, keeps the poor in a cycle of oppression and is exactly what God warned his people against on the edge of the promised land in Deuteronomy 15.
The American Empire is the land of high child poverty rates and low economic mobility [when compared with other industrialized nations]. While our brown and black citizens strive for home ownership at last, they are discriminated against with higher interest rates [from banks receiving billions from the federal government] than their white and Asian counterparts. And meanwhile, our farmers are given billions in government subsidies, an unfair advantages that sidelines their Third World competitors. And millions of Christian Americans cry 'beware the government takeover' and roll their eyes at those who get unfair 'government handouts' while their pastors get their own government welfare in the form of the 'clergy housing allowance.' Here's one well-known Constantinian Evangelical pastor who writes a letter advocating for pastor welfare while, at the same time, philosophically opposing 'salvation by government' in a recent interview.
Prophetic Christians seek to obey God's will by envisioning a just society with opportunity for all. When those who are consistently on the verge of poverty have a realistic chance to work for food, clothing, housing and medical care--without the burden of oppressive laws or corporate hoarding--then (and only then) will we rid the poor from among us.