We're so used to reading the statements of Jesus, that to some degree they become dead cliches to us. But when Jesus first said these things, well those were the first times that he said them. That means that they would be interpreted in terms of the context beforehand, which was largely a matter of the Old Testament scriptures and historical circumstances extant at the time.
"6 Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper,
7 a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it upon His head as He reclined at the table.
8 But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, "Why this waste?
9 "For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor."
10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me.
11 "For the poor you have with you always; but you do not always have Me."
(Matt. 26:6-11 NAS)
Nicholas Perrin sees it too, in Jesus The Temple:
"For when Jesus says, 'You always have the poor with you', he is patently alluding to Deuteronomy, 15 .1-11, a passage in which Moses enjoins the seventh year as the year of canceling (shemittah) debts.55 The section of Deuteronomy is remarkable in its blend of idealism, realism, and pessimism. 'There will be no one in need among you,' so the text prom- ises, 'if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today' (vv. 4-5). But 'if there is among you anyone in need', the scripture continues on a less confident note, 'do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor' (v. 7). J-
54 This point is perhaps already obvious enough given the face chat Jesus and his disciples are being hosted by Simon the Leper, whose sobriquet would have marked him off as 'poor', at least in the social sense."
This is not controversial, Dt. 15 is listed in the cross-references of at least one well-known Bible translation.
Why would Israel always have the poor with them? As God warned them in Deuteronomy 15 (see discussion in earlier column), they would do so because they would not obey him, with emphasis on debt remission. Again, this may read as odd to modern Christian eyes, which are not nearly as immersed in Old Testament texts as Jesus and his listeners. Our interpretive framework tends to focus on heart attitudes and personal salvation, whereas 1st century Israel was aflame with outrage about the lack of debt relief and with frenzied expectation about the coming Messiah and the promise that he would proclaim liberty to the (debt) captives.
Jesus was right. They would not obey and the poor would always be with them. In fact, the failure to obey God in this matter ended up setting in motion a series of events which plunged the whole region into poverty.