People sometimes argue, drawing on a thrice-repeated New Testament story of Jesus’s last days, that poverty is an inevitable part of mortality, and that efforts to end poverty are therefore unscriptural. The New Testament incident in question is narrated in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. In this account, a woman (identified by John as Mary of Lazarus’s household, but unnamed in the other two accounts) anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive ointment. Some of Jesus’s followers (unidentified, once again, in Matthew — “his disciples” — and Mark — “some that had indignation within themselves” — but labeled as the traitor-to-be Judas Iscariot in John) complain that the ointment could instead have been sold to provide a great deal of money for the poor. Jesus replies, with minor variations from account to account: “For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:8).
Some have argued that this story teaches that poverty is a universal, or even divinely ordained, part of this life. Any interpretation along these lines seems to overreach, however. A first question to be asked involves the identity of Jesus’s “ye.” Did he mean the people in the room with him? Surely it has proven to be a historical fact that people of that generation spent their entire lives in a world in which many were poor. Or, was Jesus’s statement instead intended as a universal proclamation for all generations in all times and places? This interpretation has relatively little to recommend it, since Jesus’s attention in this narrative is focused on the window of time during which He was mortal — during which He was physically “with us.” So nothing in the logic of this account directly suggests that Jesus’s words should be interpreted as being directed to any but those who would actually experience both the time when Jesus was present and the time when He was absent.
Hence, treated descriptively, it seems at least plausible that this passage was only meant as a characterization of possible social and economic structures of the Near East during the first century or so A.D. Further caution still is needed in deciding to treat this passage not as mere description but as having a prescriptive dimension. Did Jesus mean to tell us that we should make sure that our social and economic systems leave people the opportunity to be poor? The burden of the anecdote seems to be that Jesus’s death is a more important component of human history than the alleviation of poverty would be. But it is beyond a stretch to conclude from this claim of relative importance that alleviating poverty would not be a good thing. Indeed, in the Mark account, Jesus’s words are phrased in a way that suggests that helping reduce poverty is in fact a good thing to do.
Furthermore, Mormon scripture provides a narrative of two different civilizations in which poverty is said to have disappeared: among the people of Enoch’s Zion, and among the people of 4 Nephi’s Christian paradise. So Mormons have good reason to resist any reading of these New Testament passages that gives poverty a status of logical necessity in mortality — let alone some kind of affirmative moral value.
Yet, while poverty may not be logically necessary, it would seem that the poor are morally needed by all of us who have enough and to spare. The scriptures repeatedly teach us that we disregard the needs of the poor at our own eternal peril. The portion of King Benjamin’s sermon reported in Mosiah 4 is a particularly clear example of this point, although it is by no means unique. In the context of the general obligation of those who have enough toward those who do not, Benjamin says:
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
Here, we see that God requires us to share because what we have truly belongs to Him, not to us. Indeed, we cannot be saved without helping the needy ones around us, for a failure to help implies a lack of gratitude for and understanding of the atonement.
Matthew 25 deepens and enriches our understanding of the ways we need the poor. In that chapter, Jesus explains that, at the judgment day, those who helped Him when He was hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick, or in prison will be saved and those who did not will perish. Verse 40 cuts to the heart of the matter:
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
That is to say, when we meet someone in need, that person stands as Jesus Christ to us. We perhaps like to imagine things in reverse. We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” Yet it seems that the proper question is, “What would I do for Jesus?” It seems that the necessary answer is, “Whatever I can.” Can any lesser response be consistent with a full understanding of what Jesus has already done for us?
We, then, cannot be saved without helping the poor, because the poor stand in the place of Jesus for us. And yet a dilemma arises: we do not have the right to force our help upon someone. The fact that we have more than someone else does not mean we deserve the privilege of inserting ourselves into their lives. Such a presumption reinscribes the relations of class power that Jesus seems to call us to leave behind.
How, then, do we express our spiritual need for the poor? I have no definitive answers, but some ideas. First, it would seem wise for us all to pray for the gift of charity. If we genuinely love with the love of Christ, then we are, I think, more likely to be able to forge the kinds of relationships that make our assistance welcome, not merely needed. Second, I suppose we ought to pray for the humility to learn from the needy people we encounter. Surely, when we stand face to face with Jesus, we will seek to learn from Him at least as much as we seek to teach Him. Such would seem a good model for our relationships with those that Jesus has described as standing in His place for us here on Earth.
In a world like ours — one of material wealth, to be sure, but also a place rich in poverty, disease, inequity, and untimely death — I think it may fairly be said that the millions and billions of the desperately poor need those of us who have enough to help ensure their mortal survival. Thus, it seems only fair that we, the people rich enough never to have to miss a meal, should need the poor to achieve eternal life. I wonder how the world will look when we fully realize that we need them even more than they need us?