For ye have the poor with you always …*

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Mark 14:7

This short phrase is one of the most iconic groupings of words in the Bible.  It’s an important verse for me, and not only because it is one of those relatively few occasions when, since Jesus is being quoted directly, we the readers are enjoined to sit up and pay attention. The very fact of this small section of the Bible offers several lessons from which we all can extract many valuable lessons. Please permit me to discuss a few of these later.  First things first: what did the Son of Man mean when he uttered this remark?

Let me begin by giving you the full quote.

“For you have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” 

Mark 14:7 (King James Version)

Even when rendered in the sonorous cadences of the King James Bible, the meaning of our Lord’s words seem crystal clear.  He is saying that we have infinite time for dealing with the very real problems of human suffering but only a limited time to put right our relationship with God. 

We all know the most infamous of the wrong ways to comprehend this verse.  I’m referring, of course, to the argument that we can do nothing about poverty since the Lord himself said we always will have poor people to deal with.  One member of the President’s cabinet actually said as much when he, the cabinet member, that is, was contemplating his own ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the White House.   

It is fun to ridicule the high and mighty for failing to see the obvious. Still, we should not be so quick to condemn others for walking down a road we ourselves frequently trod.  The cabinet member certainly did not assign an appropriate value to the second half of the sentence.  Even a cursory reading of the chapter in which the famous quote occurs might have highlighted where the high government official went wrong. 

That can be the first lesson of the day: take a second or two to read the fine print before opining on the Bible.  Making a lazy statement about what the Good Book means is the easy way to make a first class fool of one’s self. 

This first lesson leads me to another conclusion, one that unfortunately is more difficult to accept without being prompted to make some adjustments in the way one approaches the world.  

Let’s turn our attention to the second half of the sentence: “but me ye have not always.”   The thought behind these words must have weighed heavily on Jesus.  Take a look at Mark 14 and you will know what I mean.  Once you start reading, you will realize that this is occurring during the run up to the most important bit of the Last Supper.  When Jesus effectively said, “I won’t always be around,” he meant it. He knew he would undergo an ordeal that, even in those harsh times, was going to pose an excruciating test of his faith and trust in God. 

To put it another way, He knew what was coming but recognized what He and, by extension, the rest of us, might gain. 

With this in mind, it would be a good idea to think more deeply before we offer conclusions based on half remembered words in the Bible. 

Ted Andrews

*Dr. Andrews is the first of what I hope will be many parishioners sharing thoughts on a Bible verse meaningful to them.    Mtr. Elizabeth