One of the most commonly-referred-to passages in the New Testament when it comes to Christianity and finance has to be Mark 14:1-9:
14 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast,lest there be an uproar from the people.”
Jesus Anointed at Bethany
3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii[b] and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
How Mark 14:1-9 is Often Used
Unfortunately, this passage isn’t appreciated for the bigger context. In fact, I would venture to guess that is most often used to support inaction. In other words, people use this passage to support not giving to the poor because they understand this passage as support for the inevitable existence of poor people or poverty.
While that may sound absurd to some, it makes sense to a certain degree. After all, Jesus did say, “For you always have the poor with you.”
Isn’t it plain and simple. It says it right there.
Possible Reasons Poverty Could be Inevitable – Can We Get Rid of Poverty?
While I think this understanding of the passage, I think it is important to first consider the possibility. History has long had the existence of a lower economic class. It was around in Jesus’ time and it certainly is still around today. It isn’t just in the U.S. either. It’s around the world. Side note: If you will recall my new definition of rich, wealth should be something that is considered world-wide, not just within the U.S. One of the easiest ways to see that there are large groups of poor people is to see the growth of payday loan companies, whose primary market is poor people.
I can’t help but ask then if poverty is inevitable? Since it seems that there has always been poor people, is there any hope to change the world for a better place? Is there any hope in a more equal world?
Why Is there Poverty?
While I still believe there is hope (you should never give up hope), there is something to say for how the world is constructed and why poverty exists. In fact, when you view the hierarchical structure of our financial world, with CEO’s making significantly more than the average worker. In fact, a Huffington post article relates how CEO’s pay grew 725 percent from 1978 to 2011, while worker pay grew only 5.7 percent, meaning that a CEO’s compensation grew 127 times faster.
It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that this isn’t right. While some may be against more equal pay, there is a huge inequality in these figures. But it only gets worse. This is indicative of the economic hierarchy. The rich are using their influence to get richer and the poor are only getting poorer. I believe that poverty, at least in its extreme form that in which it currently exists, is a direct result of the economic structure. Major organizations’ intentions to maximize profits by decreasing labor costs (through outsourcing jobs to developing countries), is only one example of the corruption we face. It is clear that the companies that participate in said international networks are not intending to help those particular regions where they are getting their laborers, but instead are doing so to pad their wallets with more money.
This current existence of neo-capitalism, full of greed, makes me question whether Jesus was right when saying the poor will always be with us.
A Better Way to Understand Mark 14:1-9
Yet, as I said before (and despite my misgivings about the current economic structure), there seems to be a more appropriate way to understand this passage. While it may seem clear what Jesus’ intention was, if we take this one sentence and separate it from the rest of the story, we are taking it out of context. Taking passages out of context is an recipe for disaster. This is how interpretations are twisted to fit a particular perspective.
We must honor the greater context of this story. When doing so, we understand what the author is really trying to communicate in writing this story.
The first thing to note is that this is happening at the house of Simon, the leper. A social outcast. Jesus often associated with social outcasts. It was a part of his radical vision for the Christian Kingdom. This setting isn’t accidental – it’s a part of the message that this story is trying to convey. We understand this when we see the woman enter the story. It becomes clear that she is not supposed to be there, by social standards because some of the people there began questioning what she was doing. Some even tried to go the “righteous route,” saying that there could have been better use for the perfume.
These types of statements happen all of the time, don’t they? Even today, I hear similar statements. This person goes on a mission trip, but the money would have been better spent just sending money to the people that they visited. All of that money was wasted on the airfare, when it could have been put to better use. While some may be concerned about the best use of money, these statements are often made our of ulterior motives.
It wasn’t about the perfume. It was about the woman being allowed to do what she did. The social status of women was very low and social guidelines often restricted them from being present at certain meals or meetings. I am pretty sure this is the case here. Her presence is being questioned.
What does Jesus do? How does he respond?
He affirms her, saying that she has done a special thing. He does mention the poor, but only to diffuse the argument. So, while we make a bigger deal out of his one statement, Jesus true message seems to be one of inclusion and equality. When we read the passage this way, it only indirectly deals with the issue of poverty. Jesus isn’t saying poverty isn’t important or something that we should work to get rid of – he is just placing the value of this woman over the political stance. We shouldn’t be so strict with our finances that it reinforces systems of injustice.
This is what the passage seems to be about. When we understand it this way, we aren’t asking if there will always be poor people, but how to eradicate poverty with compassion for the socially marginalized – the outcasts – the poor. That’s what Jesus did and what he was communicating here.