Will we always have the poor among us?

Poverty in Uganda
Poverty in Uganda

Is extreme poverty inevitable? Is it possible to eliminate it? Will we always have the poor among us or will people eventually say, “it is no longer acceptable to have others living this way”?

Jesus was in the home of Simon the leper. A woman came with a jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head. Judas Iscariot objected and said the perfume, worth a years wages, could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

Jesus replied with a verse that is often misquoted, or quoted out of context.

“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me”
(John 12 verse 8)  

Some questions

  • Was Jesus just talking to Judas and those present, or was he making a prophetic statement for all time?
  • Is it true that Jesus will not always be with us?
  • Is it correct to take the first phrase (you will always have the poor among you) as an all-time declaration and yet contextualise the  second phrase (but you will not always have me)?

It seems clear to me that he was talking to his disciples who had the privilege of knowing Jesus as a man. They were soon going to lose him as a man though he also promised to be with them always! (Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:20)

We must be very careful to interpret the whole verse in the context that it was given. If we took the whole verse as a prophetic statement, then we could not claim to know Jesus now!

So the disciples must make the most of the time that they had remaining with him. They would have plenty of other opportunities to remember the poor! Certainly all their lives the needs of the poor would concern them.

Sometimes this verse is used as an excuse not to care for the poor and certainly not to seek to abolish poverty in our communities. Let us use another example.

Poverty and Slavery

Slavery has existed for most of human history. It still exists in some forms but nowhere in the world is it legal. In Jesus’ day the Roman Empire depended on slavery.

The bible neither condemns or condones slavery. It accepts it as a fact of life for the era it was written in. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. But the underlying principles of righteousness and justice meant that eventually men like Wilberforce would say that it is no longer acceptable. When the mass of ordinary people agreed, the politicians had to take action and slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. So when Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, is he making a prophetic statement for all time?

The end of Poverty

I believe that Jesus was talking to his disciples and not making an all-time prophetic statement. We should not use a single verse as a disincentive or excuse for inaction. Extreme poverty should be, and can be, eliminated.

It is time to abolish poverty, or at least extreme poverty. We need to put right the injustice of people being trapped without sufficient means of feeding their families and seeing their children dying of diseases which are quite preventable and curable.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

8 thoughts on “Will we always have the poor among us?”

  1. Hello George.

    I’m being frivolous here although I agree that this is a serious subject. My 86-year-old aunt said to me at Christmas when I asked her whether she would agree for her present to be a gift to the poor of the world via a Christian charity – “The poor you will always have with you but ME you won’t always have”!


  2. Surely Judas was right (on this occasion!)? The perfume could have been sold and money given to the poor. Is this an act of selfishness on Jesus’ part? He was happy for perfume to be poured over his head rather than provide a number of people with their next meal???
    Not disuputing the other comments you have made, but just seems out of character for Jesus maybe?


    1. Hi Mark. I think it is a matter of perspective. The most important event in the whole of history was about to take place and I think Jesus really needed the love and encouragement From Mary’s gift.
      We could say that the Queens jubilee or the Olympic games are a waste of money but these sums pale into insignificance compared to the vast sums spent on arms or bailing out the banks. These amounts could have a dramatic effect if spent eliminating poverty.


    2. Jim Wallis ‘don’t be grudging and cheap when it comes to your worship and devotion. You can be extravagant in your worship as this poor woman has been and still be very generous to the poor, who will always be by your side’
      is the greatest commandment not to love the lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and then second to love your neighbour…so I assume that jesus was accepting this as an act of worship which is the greatest commandment!
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    3. How can anyone elude to Jesus being selfish, when his entire purpose was to save mankind. the fact also remains that Jesus was a keen advocate of the poor especially giving to the poor, which should be sacrificial, not part of our monthly budget. Perhaps Jesus recognised what the woman had done and her love for him, then to have Judas question it. Jesus wasn’t about to go back in time and remove the woman’s freedom of choice and tell her to give this to Judas who will give the proceeds to the poor. He probably thought “it’s too late now, the poor will always have need with or without the this oil, but this woman wants to honour me and I won’t always be here in the flesh for her to do this”. like the saying goes “there is no point in crying over spilt milk.” or oil in this case. The question is how much have we given away to assure ourselves that we make it through those pearly gates? because jesus tell us to give EVERYTHING to the poor. before we elude to Jesus being selfish let us examine ourselves first.


  3. what would you say to those that say jesus is just quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11 where we are also to the poor will alway be with us, or would you say that is a miss reference of scripture?


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