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The Least of These

In Matthew 26, Jesus says the poor will always be with us. Does that mean efforts to wipe out poverty are pointless?

A. Jesus would never say our efforts to eradicate poverty are pointless.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks more about serving the poor than he does about what it means to be born again. He talks more about our response to the poor than he does about prayer. Jesus' reference to the poor in Matthew 26:11 comes on the heels of his final sermon in Matthew 25. He finishes his discourse with the story of how the King separates the sheep (believers) from the goats (unbelievers); his criteria is how well they cared for him when he was poor and needy.

Some in this story protest, "When did we see you hungry and feed you … when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?" The King replies, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," (Matthew 25:40).

In the next chapter, when Jesus says, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matthew 26:11), he's quoting a passage from Deuteronomy 15:11, "There will always be poor people in the land." The rest of that verse is, "Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." So he couldn't have meant efforts to eradicate poverty are pointless. But what did he mean?

After Jesus finished his last sermon, Matthew 26 opens with the chief priest plotting to arrest Jesus. A few verses later, Judas goes to bargain his betrayal. And in between those two stories, Jesus has dinner at Simon the Leper's house-sort of the last supper before the Last Supper.

While they're eating, a woman opens a jar of perfume worth a year's wages and uses it to anoint Jesus. The disciples become indignant, saying the perfume should have been sold and the money used to help the poor. You almost get the idea they're pretty proud of themselves for making the connection to what Jesus had just preached.

Jesus thinks they missed the point. He says what she did for him was, in a sense, preparing his body for burial. Jesus' statement about the poor was simply a way of saying, "You'll have the rest of your lives to pursue your concern for the poor. But I'll only be with you for another couple of days."

Indeed, jesus is no longer with us in the flesh. But our world is full of poor people. How can you live out his commands to care for them? First, educate your family. Read Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (W). Thumb through the gospels and highlight all Jesus has to say about the poor.

Then take what you now know and get involved. No matter where you live, there's a community of under-resourced people nearby. Get to know them and their needs. Build relationships through teaching English as a second language or volunteering with a food bank. Get involved through your local church or through a reputable organization already making an impact in the area.

Dinnertime discussions are a great way to get the family involved. One time I clipped a photo out of Time magazine that showed a dying African child, a vulture sitting a foot away. I put it on our dinner table when our kids were three, five, and seven. As teens, our children still remember that night and all of them have made helping the needy and disenfranchised a part of their lives through missions trips, tutoring, and participation in aid and relief organizations.

"Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Those are Jesus' simple, direct, and demanding words to us.

Nancy Ortberg is a church leadership consultant and popular speaker. Formerly a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, she now lives in California with her husband, John, and their three children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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