You Always Have the Poor with You

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeffrey Metcalfe

John 12:1-8

The words echoed through the ancient hall as the cardinal read out the result of the final vote:

“Habemus Papam.” In English, “we have a Pope.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected as the new bishop of Rome.

We might expect that the other cardinals sitting next to Bergoglio would take this opportunity to congratulate him, to hide their own disappointment behind their smiles, perhaps even to put in a good word in for themselves before the white smoke signaled the bedlam of the crowds waiting below.

However, instead of speaking words of congratulations, the Cardinal beside Bergoglio turned to him and with a seriousness a smile cannot convey, spoke only these five words,  some of the first words the new Pope would hear:  “Do not forget the poor.”

These five words may not have echoed through the halls of the Vatican, but they would touch the new pontiff’s soul, leading him to choose the name of Francis.

St. Francis: the great saint who renewed a decaying church by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, looking after the sick, and visiting the prisoners.francis+and+the+leper

Is choosing the name of Francis a sign that the new Pope will try to renew the Roman Catholic Church as St. Francis did, by finding the heart of the church in the relief of the worlds suffering?

Certainly, our world has no shortage of suffering.

We live in a world of abundance, a world in which we grow enough food for everyone to have enough. And yet, 30,000 children will die today, because they did not get enough food to eat. Even in our own country, Nearly 900,000 Canadians (38% of them children) turned to food banks each month last year.

Meanwhile, over the last four decades, the highest income earners in our country, the 0.1%, have seen their incomes triple, the 0.01% have seen their incomes quintuple, where everyone else’s wages have either stagnated, or, more commonly, have fallen.

In non-statistical terms, this means that we live in a world, and in a country where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Where the full are getting fatter, while the hungry continue to die.

It seems, both in our world, in our country, and in our church, we are in need of a St. Francis.

And yet in our scriptures this morning, we are presented by what seems like a contrary image. When Mary, takes a pound of costly perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet. Judas, seeing this act, is enraged. ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’

It’s a legitimate question to ask. Who are we to spend our resources on luxuries, when there are children in our country and in our world who do not have enough to eat? It’s a legitimate question to ask, but as the Bible tells us, Juda’s asks it for the wrong reasons. “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” (John 12:6).

In response, Jesus says “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).

“you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”

When I was in my teens, I was taught that this verse meant, that while we ought to be sad, we ought even to feel guilty about poverty, there’s nothing we can really do about it. The poor will always be with us, Jesus teaches us that, and so we need to return our attention to what matters, our worship of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to square with me with who we claim Jesus is, and everything else he taught.

How could the same man who said, we will be judged not on our beliefs, or by the principals we proclaim, but on whether we fed the poor (Matthew 25), be the same man who seems to say not to worry about the poor because they will always be with you. In the words of Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.”

What if, we as a church, have been reading this passage wrong.

What if Jesus is saying to us, not that the poor will always be with us and so we ought not to focus on the poor, but rather, that the poor ought always to be with us.

What would it mean if we grounded our lives and our worship on that fundamental commitment, that as a church, the poor should always be with us. How might that change our churches, or possibly even renew our lives?

St. Francis had a flair for drama. When he became convinced that God was calling him to care for the poor, he not only sold all his possessions and redistributed the money, he stripped off all his clothes in the middle of church and gave those away too.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating stripping or nudity in church, but I am wondering what it would mean for us as a church if we made a similar kind of commitment, to have the poor always be with us.

So often, it seems to me that as our churches are decaying, our reaction is to turn inward, to think only of our own survival as an organization, to think only of how we can get more: more youth, more funds, more bums in the pews.

But what if our survival as an organization can only brought about by committing ourselves to the survival of others, to those poor who are always suppose to be with us?

What if we asked, not what the world can do for our churches—but asked what our churches can do for the world?

As St. Francis knew, this must be at the heart of our renewal as a church: our ability to heal the suffering of the world, to bring relief to the poor who are always to be with us.

As the theologian Mary Jo Leddy writes, that is how the church will “find itself anew among those who are suffering[.] Because it is they who most need the church to be strong, to be good, to be courageous and compassionate.”

They need us, they are calling us, to be the kind of people, the kind of church that will feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and visit the prisoners.

And so, as the cardinal said to the Pope, “do not forget the poor.”

For it may be in the poor that the church will find its salvation.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is the Incumbent of the Parish of the Magdalen Islands in the Diocese of Quebec. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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