One of the things I’ve learned in seminary (or adjacent to seminary) is to be aware of patterns that occur in life around me: particular words, themes, struggles, or bible verses that keep occurring day after day. In my final week of interning at a church here in Austin, I was bombarded by the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew: “You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.” I’ve probably heard this verse a million times, but have glossed over it because it occurs right before the last supper, the passion, the resurrection…it gets lost in the larger story of the final chapters of Matthew. But lately it’s been at the forefront of my life.
The words first appeared in my Sunday school class, even though we were studying the minor prophets. They showed up again in that morning’s sermon, even though we were in the book of Exodus. The following day I was visiting with an elderly woman in an assisted living facility and she had brought up the passage in our discussion of the city of Austin. To add icing to this frequency cake, it was brought up by my dad in a phone conversation that week as we discussed the poverty situation in my home town.
Truthfully, it’s a tough verse to swallow because it seems like we’ve been given a task we cannot complete, and Jesus’ words acknowledge this fact. Moses spoke similar words in Deuteronomy: “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and needy. That’s why I am commanding you to be generous with them.” It seems that no matter how much we work to end poverty, it will always be a constant in our lives.
One of the reasons I have yet to run a marathon is because I know I wouldn’t complete it (and the fact that I hate running and am terribly out of shape…but that’s another discussion). I rarely start things that I cannot take to their conclusion because I don’t like leaving things incomplete. Up until two weeks ago I was fine with helping the poor and thinking of ways to end poverty…then I read Jesus’ words and my energies were immediately depleted. Why would I dare take on something that I cannot finish? Why would I put my time and energy into something that is never going to be finished? Why does God call me to help the poor but doesn’t give me the ability to end poverty?
Our noses are constantly in our field of vision, but our brains have this mechanism (unconscious selective attention) that allows us to sort of ignore seeing our noses: “It’s thought that your mind does this because is considers the sight of your nose unimportant, so it unconsciously puts your attention on other things in your field of vision.” Perhaps Jesus’ words are to remind us to keep the poor in our vision because we can so easily gloss them over – we can get so used to seeing them that we sort of ignore them like we do our noses.
The fact that the poor will always be with me opens my eyes to the fact that this work is never completed. And it’s more than just the poor that will always be with me: it’s the hungry, the tormented, the terrorized, the fearful, the needy, the angry, the immigrant, the rich, the harassed, the discriminated. As much as I would like to check a box as complete on my “Christianity To-Do List”, Jesus’ words remind me that He didn’t leave a set of chores to get done before his return. Jesus’ words give me a task to work on, but also gives me a clarity of vision. I must not lose sight of those who need help, I must not get used to those experiencing homelessness, I must not shrug my shoulders in cynicism and give up on helping.
The poor will always be with me – with us. They are not a distraction and must not be forgotten. Instead, we should show them mercy and compassion, working every day for the restoration of the children of God’s kingdom. May we never lose sight of the poor who are always with us, and may we diligently work towards bringing them what they need – food, shelter, compassion, restoration, safety, security, and peace.
much love. sheth.