When Mary pours out her precious perfumed oil on the feet of Jesus in the presence of his disciples (John 12:1-8), Jesus rebukes Judas' reprimand of her extravagance by saying, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." I have always found this remark of Jesus' to be slightly peculiar, especially since we (especially in this day and age) are prone to associate Jesus' ministry so closely with the liberation of the poor. I understand how John uses Mary as a kind of foil to the Sanhedrin and Judas as well as an ironic segue to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but is Jesus suggesting something more by contrasting devotion with him to devotion to the cause of the poor?
One thing I've recently wondered about in association with this particular text and Jesus' comment is the motto for the ONE campaign (www.one.org): "The campaign to make poverty history." Several denominations, including my own, have subscribed to the ONE campaign by encouraging members to sign up on the website and look for ways to mesh gospel imperatives with the objectives of the campaign. I am a big fan of Bono's, the chief architect and spokesman for this campaign, but I have always felt there might be some conflict here: namely, how can we presume to "make poverty history" if Jesus himself tells us that the poor will always be around? Am I splitting hairs?
In Michka Assayas' book, Bono in Conversation, Assayas takes Bono to task on this. Granted, he doesn't use a scriptural or religious basis for his line of questioning (he's an atheist or agnostic, I think), but he offers critique of Bono's moral crusade to stamp out poverty (especially in Africa) on the grounds that it can be patronizing to the poor and deaf to their real needs. It is the typical critique most wealthy celebrities with ventures in poverty-striken places receive. I can't find the exact point in the interview, but at one point Bono clarifies the objective of his campaign. He concedes that there will always be poor people around but that we have an opportunity and obligation to do something about the "stupid poverty" (or stupid level of poverty) that now exists in the world. He goes on to define "stupid poverty" as the people who are living in regions with no clean drinking water, who are dying of diseases for which we've long since had cures or treatments. I think it's a compelling delineation. I realize that evidence of disparities of wealth and general human welfare exist aplenty in the Bible (e.g., Lazarus and Dives), and there is a certain degree to which we may say disparities will always exist. We can't boil down the gospel, in other words, into justification for social democracy or communism or the objectives of an NGO, etc. While we care for the poor, we probably shouldn't equate our love of Jesus to something like "do whatever it takes to eradicate poverty." The church's minsitry to and with the poor is much more complex than showering them with possessions and money and technology.
On the other hand, Bono has a point: there now exists a level of poverty in the world in relation to the rest of us that humankind has never before experienced. In Jesus' time, Lazarus (of the parable) had the same chance to die from cholera or smallpox as Dives did. There was a disparity in personal wealth in Jesus' context, but riches and general living circumstances could not keep a dismal, short existence at bay as much as they can now. Look at how indiscriminately the Black Death killed off a fourth of Europe's population in the 14th century. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel talks a good deal about this and how certain societies, in being able to eradicate or develop immunities to certain diseases, substantially elevate their ability to increase their standard of living and overall power relative to other societies who can't or don't. In short, I suppose what I'm suggesting is that when Jesus says that "we will always have the poor with us," he may be have in mind a completely different concept of the poor than we do now.
We may not be able to completely "make poverty history" on this side of the resurrection, but maybe we in the global North do have a moral obligation to sell our fancy communion ware (a la Ambrose) and do something to reduce the amount of "stupid poverty" around us.