Mark tells a story of Jesus visiting Simon the leper in Bethany (Mark 14:3-9). During the visit a woman came in the house with “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard” and poured the ointment on his head. Some asked why the ointment had been wasted in this manner since it could have been sold for a large sum of money, and the money given to the poor. They then scolded the woman for her seemingly wasteful act. It appears they had a point, as nard was expensive – the nard used by the woman would cost about for 300 denarii. This would be about the annual income of a minimum wage worker – equivalent to around $15,000 dollars in today’s economy. Nard had several uses, including as a medicine and to prepare of a corpse for burial. Jesus was neither sick nor dead so the woman’s act appears to be at least misguided if not wasteful.

“But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 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. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.’” (Mark 14:6-8)

I have heard people claim that Jesus’ statement, “you always have the poor with you,” means that it is impossible to eradicate the financial needs of the poor. That’s what the statement seems to say. But I think that understanding is a failure to look deeply into the story. I do not think that Jesus is telling us that programs to erase hunger or homelessness are doomed. Instead Jesus is telling us something about the nature of human life. What he wants us to understand is that each of us has around us people who are poor. No matter how little you have, or how low your status in society, there is someone who needs your help, and you can help that person. The help may be money or food or clothing, but often it is something else. It may be an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes it is the important task of being someone who believes that the one in need is worthy of dignity as a person, and should be treated with respect and courtesy. In these situations, the person is poor – has a lack and needs something – and you can supply that need. You and I always have the poor with us.

There is another side to Jesus’ insight. It is also the case that no matter how much you have or how exalted your status, you sometimes need the help of another. We are all poor at some time in our lives, in some situation, or in some area of life. We all need others to help us, and we all can be (and ought to be) a help to others. Don’t think that this is a metaphorical use of the word “poor”. We are all literally poor, that is ‘in need’ or ‘lacking’, in some area, sometime in our lives. To deny this is to exhibit the worst poverty of all: the poverty of misunderstanding the reality of the totality of human life.

Our Gospel story illustrates the point of need very well. Jesus needed the woman’s ministration: the Son of God, the Savior of the World, needed this woman’s acknowledgment of his imminent suffering and death. His disciples, that is the Twelve, continually failed to understand the certainty of Jesus sacrificial death, and the suffering he would freely endure for our salvation. Jesus was voluntarily heading toward his death, and his closest friends didn’t understand that. In this way he was poor, and what he needed was not the monetary value of the nard, but it’s significance as a perfume for preparing a body, his body, for burial. He needed the woman’s kindness to help him in his journey to fulfill God’s plan.

We always have the poor with us, because we, all of us, are poor. We must recognize our needs and our ability to meet the needs of those around us. Many of those needs are social or emotional, not financial, and each of us has the means to address those needs. Meeting social and emotional needs doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give money to the financially poor. We should. We must. There are people who are dying from hunger, disease, and homelessness. Sometimes our gift of food, clothing or shelter literally means the difference between life and death to a person. We are called to give financially, but we are also called to give of ourselves. Giving our time or talent or money to another affirms the value of the person’s life and can help the person along the road to wholeness and well-being. A kind word, a warm embrace or a gesture of acknowledgment can help a person continue their journey, just as the woman’s anointing helped Jesus on his journey.