I was reading John 12:6-8 today and was struck by something. Judas is admonishing Mary for pouring expensive perfume on Jesus because the money could have been given to the poor. Then there is a parenthetical statement that Judas didn’t really care for the poor, but was stealing from the common purse. Then Jesus responds, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This last verse has been used to justify regressive taxation and to attack the welfare state and attempts to create economic justice and equality. The argument is, at base, “there will always be poor folk, Jesus, who knows all, and is all, says so!” Therefore attempting to tweak economic and social systems to lessen or even end poverty is silly, futile, and maybe even dangerous and demonic.
In response to this, I believe it is Brian McLaren who says, “No! Jesus’ focus in this statement is that the poor will be with you!” That is, you will always be confronted with the needy neighbor on your doorstep—so living in gated communities, or in ways that you are not always struck by poverty, is wrong, unnatural, immoral, and maybe dangerous and demonic.
Today though, I am struck with another possibility. Jesus is saying stealing from the poor, as Judas does, will keep the poor in poverty. Or to state it another way, we will know theft of the inheritance of the poor by wolves in sheep’s clothing has stopped when poverty stops.
Now, this interpretation was hard for me to come to, because when I come to the gospel’s treatment of Judas I do so with a hermeneutic of suspicion. In general, I feel that where the gospels demonize (sometimes literally) Judas they are making rhetorical points, not describing a historical reality. As Christological claims increased in the early Christian community Judas’ betrayal became a greater and greater problem until the only solution available was “he’s a demon.” After all, if we didn’t get that Jesus was the Messiah—the Christ—the Son of God—God enfleshed—perhaps we also did not see Judas for what he was—in it for the money—a betrayer from the beginning—possessed.
All that to say I generally read descriptions such as this one accusing Judas of intending to steal from the poor with some hesitancy. I think it is a bias of the author. For the author Judas could not simply have been disillusioned by Jesus, Judas must have been a demon-possessed thief.
But, because I came with this suspicion I did not, in previous readings, make the connection between theft by Judas and the continued poverty of the poor. We will have the poor with us always because people, in making pious claims about helping the poor, but in fact enriching the rich/themselves, taking wealth from the commonwealth.