How do we balance caring for the poor with Jesus’ statement “The poor will always be with you?”

When Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” he is responding to Judas’ objection to a woman’s lavish gift of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. His whole statement is, ““Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a noble thing for me. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. By pouring this perfume on my body, she has prepared me for burial” (Matthew 26:10-12). He is clearly setting up a ranking of priority: worship should always come before social action, because God is eternal and this world is not.

At the same time, Jesus is clearly quoting Deuteronomy. There, the perpetual existence of the poor is given as motivation to increase in generosity toward the poor: “There will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Paul says “let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). The Bible repeatedly tells us to care for needy people, and especially fellow believers. Here are five reasons why:

1. Because God himself loves the poor
In James 2, it tells us not to ignore the poor people in our church and show preference toward rich people just because we might gain something from them. And the reason James gives us is this: “Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). God disproportionately calls poor, insignificant, unimportant people to salvation (1 Cor 1:26-29).

2. Because Jesus modeled life among the poor
As Paul says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He went from spiritual riches to rags so we could go from rags to spiritual riches. That’s a model for us to embody.

3. Because God pursues justice for the oppressed
If you read the Old Testament prophets, they say two things over and over again: stop doing evil, and start caring for needy people

  • “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
  • “If you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

4. Because physical poverty reminds us of our spiritual poverty
You can see this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It was probably a sermon he preached many different times in many different places, and he tweaked it a little bit each time he preached it. And so we have two different versions recorded: one in Matthew 5 and one in Luke 6.

In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But in Luke he simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” In Luke, it’s just, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.”
There’s a parallel between physical and spiritual need, so being around people who are physically poor and needy and dependent on the generosity of others is going to remind us that we’re spiritually poor and needy, and dependent on the generosity of God and his grace.

I think that’s why Jesus commands us in Luke 14, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” That’s because their presence will remind us that we’re spiritually poor, and crippled, and lame, and blind. When God invites us to feast at his table it’s not because of anything we’ve done, and it’s not because we have anything we can repay him with.

5. Because it proves your godly grief
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul tells us that there are times when grief is a good thing. When we see our sin, and we’re grieved by it to the point of repenting and turning back to God, that’s godly grief (as opposed to worldly grief, which is when we grieve the consequences of our sin and change nothing). When we experience godly grief, then Paul says we’ll have a zeal and a longing for holiness that will result in visible fruit in our lives.

And the first example of this kind of fruit is what Paul mentions in chapter 8: compassion for the needy and oppressed.