Social Justice and the Poor: Are We ‘Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing’?

“KEEP THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING.” This is a phrase I have heard numerous times, in many contexts; the main context being social justice. Many times I have heard it said in the context of serving the poor or advocating for financial equality for all ethnicities and genders. Often, Jesus’ words “you will always have the poor among you” are added to it. At this point, let me give a disclaimer if you have said this to me recently, or at any point, please don’t feel as if I am attacking you (MANY people say this to me or say it in general). Instead, I am addressing what I believe needs some clarity in some instances and correction in others. First, I would like to affirm what context I appreciate the statement in and indeed the only setting I believe is appropriate for the comment. Second, I’d like to evaluate the phrase in light of Jesus’ words to hopefully bring some clarity to our understanding of Matthew 26:11. Further, I will advocate that Jesus’ does not activate social inactivity but, instead, demands radical social activity regarding the poor.

If someone says, “Keep the main thing the main thing” to someone who does not believe in the centrality of Christ, his gospel in the church, and further, the centrality of Scripture, you have done superbly well! God himself calls for this kind of centrality. However, my concern is that some use the phrase in certain contexts to actually extract from the Scripture’s demands. One instance of this is when I hear the phrase compiled with Matthew 26:11 to advocate social inactivity. The question I want to answer is, does Jesus promote social inactivity in this verse?

I have heard Jesus’ statement “you will always have the poor among you” as a reason for social inactivity. A mentality that goes something like this: “No matter what you do, you will always still have poor people, Jesus said it. Instead, ‘keep the main thing the main thing'”. (The meaning, of course, often being, preach the gospel and don’t be consumed with a desire for social justice.) However, in context, Jesus is not calling people to social inactivity, he is calling them to radical social ACTivity. The context is this: Jesus is going to be crucified soon and Mary, who is anointing his feet, is acting within the proper ceremonial burial procedures. Jesus will be crucified and ascend into heaven, this is precisely why he says “but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11). Jesus is actually presenting one of the most unique exceptions to the rule to help the poor, namely Mary preparing him for burial. He is not showing the norm.

Also, this is made even more evident by the fact that when Jesus says, “you will always have the poor among you”, he is actually alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 which says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” What is astonishing is what comes immediately after this in the verse! The rest of the verse reads, “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” Is the appropriate response to this: “We will always have the poor so you can forget accomplishing that mission, just hang up your hat.” No, it actually makes the mission more demanding. God says because you will always have poor, “Therefore, I command you to open wide your hand.” In Jesus’ context, do you think the omniscient God-man has forgotten the rest of the verse? Do you think he’d contradict it? Absolutely not! Jesus is permitting that the cost of the perfume not be donated to the poor but rather to be used for this one, monumental moment in history that is to NEVER retake place, namely his crucifixion and burial. Jesus’ is not providing his disciples with a defeatist attitude of “oh what is the point, the poor will always be here.” He is honoring Mary by letting her taking place in his ‘burial’, so to speak.

In summary, Matthew 26:11 is not teaching social inactivity, but to the contrary is showing radical social activity. Jesus is effectively saying, “You will always have opportunities to help the poor. In fact, you are always commanded to. But for now, I permit you in this instance to take part in my ‘burial ceremony’ by using the cost of the perfume for it.” Are we ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’ when we participate in social activities that advocate for and serve the poor? According to Jesus, yes.

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