Three of the four gospels record Jesus’s statement to His disciples that the poor aren’t going away. Here’s Mark’s version (interestingly the other two are Matthew and John, not the third synoptic gospel, Luke):
For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. (Mark 14:7)
Jesus was defending the actions of the woman who anointed Him with costly perfume. Some of His disciples — not just Judas — complained that she was wasting a valuable asset. Let her alone, Jesus is saying. What she did is good and right. You can focus on the poor any day, but you aren’t going to have Me here in bodily form very much longer. Her sacrificial act of worship is good.
Today the phrase, the poor you have with you always, is almost cliche in Christian circles, but unfortunately it seems to reduce the urgency of meeting the needs of the poor. Too often we think of the poor living half way around the world — inaccessible to us apart from our dollars which we drop into the offering, trusting that some portion of what we give is going to missions and to meet the needs of those babies with bloated bellies we too often see in commercials appealing for more donations.
How shocking would it be to realize that we have the poor with us here in a wealthy country like the US? I know I’ve been skeptical. I live twenty minutes from downtown LA, and what I see around me most are $150 athletic shoes, cell phones, satellite dishes, and tricked out all-but-new (and some of them, too) cars. Of course I know there’s also money floating around that ends up in the drug trade, so how poor can the urban poor really be?
Not that I don’t see the homeless, too. Depending on the time of year, there can be a bearded man with ragged coat pushing a shopping cart of belongings down the sidewalk a block or two from where I live. A couple weeks ago, I pulled up to a light and on my left was a man on a bicycle that had … the equivalent of training wheels, with a basket built on the back. Inside was a dog, standing patiently behind his master — a scruffy-haired, ragged-coated individual I assumed to be homeless. He and his dog.
On Sunday as part of my church’s missions month, we learned a bit more about the urban poor. Dr. Keith Phillips, president of World Impact preached from Luke 4:16-19.
And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
18 “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”
This passage is important, Dr. Phillips said, because it reveals Christ’s purpose, which includes preaching the gospel to the poor; because it serves as a model for us to follow; and because it gives us a mandate to go to the most needy in our society: the poor, captives, blind, oppressed.
He went on to say that a barometer of the health of the Church might be how we treat the poor. The cool thing is that “how we treat the poor,” according to World Impact’s core principles includes a holistic approach that unashamedly declares the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But I’ll be honest with you: I was still back there at the point of wondering how poor are the urban poor. And then he gave us a statistic that opened my eyes. Not about average income or number of homeless children or anything like that. He told us that in the downtown Los Angeles area there are forty-two Planned Parenthood Clinics (think, abortion clinics) and one World Impact mobile Crisis Pregnancy Clinic.
Think about that for a second. When we turn “care” of the poor over to government agencies, which is exactly what welfare has done, we, the followers of Jesus Christ, adopt the Mitt Romney attitude that we don’t have to worry about the poor — they have their safety net already in place. But what kind of a net? One that dictates the “care” a pregnant girl receives, that locks a family into public housing with no way of actually earning and saving (because when you make “too much,” that’s the end of “benefits”), that keeps kids in public schools where their very safety is compromised and actual learning is at a minimum.
But here’s the thing. World Impact believes in “Incarnational Ministry” — that believers should go into urban centers and live with the poor, in the same way that a missionary to Tanzania or Laos or Guatemala would go and live with the people in their village or town. In other words, ministering to the urban poor isn’t for everyone. Or is it? At their web site in the drop down menu under “Involvement” the first option is “Pray.” Right away, I know I, too, can be involved in a ministry to the urban poor.