There’s a guy who hangs out by the parking garage I pass on my way into school and the library where I work. He used to hang out in the alley behind the restaurants and pass him on my shortcut through and he’d tell me the weather forecast for the day, sitting in a wheelchair and directing the traffic that was coming out of the coffee shops while the city rumbled into another day. I eventually learned his name, which I felt was only polite considering I saw him more often than some of my professors.
He’s not by the garage every day, but probably once a week or once every other week. Every time he asks me if I can buy him a hot breakfast. Lately he’s switched to asking for a gift card to the grocery store. On Thursday he stopped me to say I had said “maybe next time” and it was next time and I had no card for him.
I tell you this, Reader, not to ask advice. I don’t tell you this to complain about it, either. I tell you this because I was struck when he asked me about the gift card by what an absurd request it really was. I work a little over half time between my two jobs—anywhere between 20 and 30 hours a week—while being a full-time student. And when I filed my taxes this year I was able to say that I had made $6,200 in 2017 in a city where rent below $700 is nigh impossible to find unless you have several roommates.
Now, I tell you this not to complain about my financial status but to give you context: I am not that far ahead, socioeconomically speaking, of this guy who begs by the parking lot. I am subsidized by the generosity of my home church so that I can live in this expensive city and finish this degree and even hope to pay off my student debt before I die (unlikely). I can do this because I have that safety net, but I am poor. And this week I was just so much more aware of it because my car was in the shop and any discretionary funding I had went to making sure it runs because I cannot be without a car and I certainly can’t afford another one.
Let me be clear, lest you worry: I’m not in danger of losing my apartment or not being able to eat or anything. But I am aware that I am one minor disaster away from being totally strapped, a fact I discovered the hard way last summer. So I don’t know what to say to this man who is even poorer, who is homeless and hungry. What I do is learn his name, say hello to him, chat with him about the weather, and say maybe next time I can get you a card, maybe one day I will be able to afford it, maybe.
I don’t feel guilty about that maybe not coming yet, but I am highly aware of this exchange and the ways it curls around my understanding of faith. In the Gospel of Matthew, a woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus while He’s staying at Simon’s house and the disciples freak out about it. What a waste of money! She should have given the money to the poor!
“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus replies to their thoughts that were no doubt churning across their faces, “but you won’t always have Me.”
Considering the very next story after this in Matthew 26 is that of Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper, such a statement is a sucker punch. Because it’s true; the poor are still here. That man is still here. Hell, I am still here. But Jesus—at least, in His human form—is not. Granted, we who are in the season of Easter can be aware that Jesus’ whereabouts are pretty incredible; Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! But the disciples only knew cost at that point, only knew that the money for the perfume could have been spent on the poor—or the car, the plumbing repair, the unexpected doctor’s visit, the license fee, the whatever.
So, for us who don’t have Jesus in the same way but still have the poor, what do we do? We aren’t going to buy any perfume any time soon, I don’t think; the Spirit isn’t much into being anointed. How do we think about having Jesus? How do we understand the fact that we still have the poor? Can this story and especially this verse still speak to us at all or is it something truly applicable only to those disciples who had Jesus with them for a short time?
It’s important to consider the woman and why she who had such money in the first place chose to spend it that way. It’s important to understand discretionary spending at that time and not to minimize spending on things that matter to you now. But I’m still feeling this pull of what we are doing with money and how we two poor people can have a conversation about what to do with the little money I have.
Just pondering. I don’t have any answers. Nor do I have any grocery gift cards. For now, I have only that guy’s name and the ability to say good morning, it is indeed supposed to rain later.
When Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease, a woman came to him with a vase made of alabaster containing very expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ head while he was sitting at dinner. Now when the disciples saw it they were angry and said, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold for a lot of money and given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:6-9, CEB)