From the Gospel of John, chapter twelve, verses one through eight:
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The Word of God.
There are so many ways I could go with this one, beloved community, none of which would be particularly original, but I’ma focus on Jesus’ statement about the poor because I count myself as one of them – though I’m not nearly as poor now as I once was and not nearly as poor as many people I see every blessed day who ain’t gotta pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, and because I’ve heard this passage referenced on numerous occasions by people with whom I share a sizable portion of DNA to justify their own selfishness, which is not what our Savior meant, and because it’s one of the passages where Jesus gets off a pretty dark joke, which I find endearing.
One of my kinfolks used to be a member of a supposedly “benevolent” organization, a men’s club whose members did some charitable works when they weren’t drinking and playing poker. He tells a story whenever he thinks of it about some men who were supposed to distribute gift baskets to poor people one morning near Christmas. The two gentlemen stayed up all night drinking and playing poker and when the sun came up, one of them said, “I’m going home.”
T’other said, “What about the poor people?”
And the answer was “Fuck the poor people.”
At this point in the story, my relative nods sagely and intones, “And that’s what it comes down to: fuck the poor people.”
I’m never quite sure how to take it. It seems like it’s supposed to be some kinda statement about the human condition, some sorta wise proclamation, something other than “This guy I know is an asshole.” The same relative – it’s my dad, if ya really wanna know – has referred to our Scripture in the same sorta way, saying things like “God said there’s always gonna be poor people, so there’s no reason to try to do anything about it.” Which is hard to argue with because God – Jesus – did, in fact, say that. And it is certainly true that not doing anything about poverty ensures that it will continue – self-fulfilling prophecy – and it is quite certainly true that doing something about poverty that might actually make any fuggin’ difference at all would require many people to make some tiny sacrifices or at least change the way they think about some things and that ain’t happening anytime soon. Don’t be fooled – the majority of people you see everyday would prefer to let you starve than to change anything about their own lives. They – we – allow many, many people to starve everyday and you are not special or different.
Jesus certainly knew what people were like. He lived among them. He actually was one. He knew, when he said that thing about the poor, that he was gonna get nailed to a couple beams in less than a week for the crime of telling people to love their neighbors. He prob’ly knew that His words were gonna be twisted and used to justify all kindsa despicable mayhem and murder for thousands of years. When ya think about that, it ain’t surprising at all that he sometimes got a bit miffed and started kicking over tables or saying things like “How much longer do I havta put up with you fuckin’ people?” or words to that effect. I’ll be straight up with ya – if I’d been in His position, I’da gone back to Heaven and said, “Father, those people suck. Wipe ’em out and let the bears take over”, because I do not love people nearly as much as Jesus – prob’ly not even as much as you do. I actually just plain don’t love people.
So I interpret Jesus’ statement about the poor as Him sayin’ something like “Ain’t like the poor’re goin’ anyplace” – a very dark joke about the self-evident fact that people were and are perfectly content to watch others suffer needlessly. It doesn’t have to be that way, by the way. If enough of us were actually willing to follow the instructions and example of Jesus, poverty would be eliminated – along with a buncha other problems. Maybe all of them. I’ma go ahead and commit to that – if a critical mass of people actually followed the directions and example of Jesus, all problems would be solved. I ain’t even talking about the miracles – just the “love other people” stuff and the living simple bits. ‘Course that’s a mighty big “if”. You and me and everybody we know ain’t anywhere close to enough people and there is nothing indicating that humanity will suddenly start giving a shit about each other, so the poor ain’t goin’ anyplace real soon. Except for my friend, Will. He’s goin’ back to prison because he can’t keep a needle outta his arm or even imagine a life for himself that doesn’t involve such crushing poverty that his only opportunity for anything better is the temporary relief of a shotta dope. I’ve talked with him at times when he was lucid – when he had a few days or weeks clean – and I’ve suggested he get himself a community college education and become a foreman on a work crew or something and he looked at me like I was suggesting he open his own brain surgery clinic because he can’t even think of doing anything other than shoot dope, sell dope and go to prison. He’s never had any reason to believe anything else is possible. That’s really the worst part of poverty – that it creates generations of people who have no ability to hope for anything better. They’re not wrong. Will might be able to work his way up to the bottom of the middle class, if he was able to get his brain around the concept and stay straight for a change, but most of the people born in his level of opossum-eating poverty will never be able to rise up out of it. They can’t even fantasize about it because they have no idea what it’d be like. They’re like an experiment in selective breeding for addiction, hopelessness and crime.
Jesus loves them of course – somebody has to. I wish I loved them – us – as much as Jesus would have me do, but I just ain’t got it. I can imagine things being better, but can’t do fuck-all about it. Thinking about it always lead me to a sorta resigned despair.
Jesus offers something better than whatever you could buy with the price of a pound of nard, I know that. I’ve received it – salvation from my many and diverse sins, of course, but also some reason to keep going, to keep trying. I can’t really picture myself ever having anything like financial security, but I know that peace of mind and a sense of purpose are more important than confidence in one’s ability to pay the rent. I might, someday, somehow, reach the bottom of the middle class, but if I don’t, it won’t really matter. If I did, I’d just give money away – donate to charities, which don’t ultimately help, but which can alleviate some little suffering in the short term. That’s about all I can hope to do.
Maybe there was someplace I was gonna go with this. Prob’ly not. Usually when I start one of these things, I really got no plan – I just sorta figure it’ll go someplace. With this one, it goes to hopelessness about the human condition. I’d love it if there was more I could say, but I guess it does come down to “fuck the poor people”, after all.
Praise the Lord.