Sell That Thou Hast

Mary of Bethany

When Mary of Bethany pours out a bottle of spikenard on Jesus’ head, Judas complains that this gesture is criminally wasteful. The ointment was worth nearly a year’s pay for a laborer — it should have been sold, and given to the poor.

John dismisses this criticism on the grounds that Judas was a crook, but nowadays we call that “ad hominem”; and anyway Matthew puts the critique in the mouth of “the disciples”, so apparently Judas wasn’t the only one who saw it this way. And frankly, he’s got a point: is this symbolic gesture really the best use of Mary’s (apparently considerable) resources?

Judas is basically proposing “effective altruism”: channeling one’s do-goodery so that it does the most good possible, at the lowest cost possible.

The “most good possible” can be a little tricky to nail down — whether it’s better to help kids with schistosomiasis or river blindness, for example — but it’s pretty clear that giving $50,000 to either of those causes would make the world a better place than, say, buying your dad a speedboat. This is essentially Judas’ complaint: Mary bought Jesus an extravagant gift, when she might have saved a starving orphan.

On a gut level, I find this logic really, really compelling. It isn’t just a question of “good, better, best”; when you put the options side-by-side, there seems to be something fundamentally immoral about buying the speedboat. And those options are always side-by-side — no matter what you spend your money on, it can always be measured against what you might have done (quite cheaply) for a suffering little boy or girl in West Africa.

Of course, this turns everything we call “normal life” into a moral atrocity.

If I spend $9.00 at the movies, that’s a family of six that I could have protected from malaria for three or four years. I could keep those people safe from a slow, wasting, impoverishing death — and it would cost me so little that I wouldn’t know the difference a week later — but I’d rather see Star Wars.

I’m willing to be challenged by that, and go without a few luxuries; but if you take this idea seriously, almost every choice is suspect. First of all, having kids was a colossal moral failure, displacing hundreds of thousands of sick kids overseas. So is renting an apartment — I could live in a van, and save hundreds of lives every month.

While we’re at it, suppose I want to give it all away, and become an aid worker: well, dreadlocked grad students looking to atone for their privilege are a dime a dozen. What these causes really need is money. If I’ve got the math to be a hedge fund manager, I could save a lot more babies by “earning to give” than getting an MA in White Savior Studies and flying myself to Senegal. (But which one makes a better profile picture?)

I don’t have much of a philosophical defense against this way of thinking, except that it sounds exhausting*; and Jesus didn’t seem to go for it.

If it was my first time hearing the story of Jesus’ anointing, and you asked me what Jesus would want done with that bottle of ointment, I would have gone with Judas every time — especially given what Jesus had already said to the rich young ruler. Even knowing how it ends, I’m still with Judas a little.

But Jesus calls Mary’s gift a “good work”, and says: “the poor you will always have with you; me you have not always”.

Jesus is clearly saying something about his (perfect) moral calculus — but he didn’t show his work.

We don’t know exactly why this expensive symbolic gesture was an acceptable alternative to changing the course of a poor person’s life.

We know he isn’t arguing that helping the poor is a waste of time (source: everything else he ever said); so is Jesus saying that this is a special case — and if it’s a choice between “the poor” and himself, he is actually the right target for this lavish spending? Or is he rejecting Judas’ basic philosophical point, that it is always better to do good for people who need it more?

I lean toward the latter argument: maybe our moral obligations aren’t that simple, and can’t be boiled down to cash value and QALYs. I don’t have a clear reason why that’s true; I just think it’s more likely that that’s what Jesus is saying. (If he does accept Judas’ arithmetic morality, he’s basically saying, “You just don’t understand how important it is that I smell nice right now”. And that sounds unlike him.)

The only clear takeaway is that “his ways are not our ways”, and immediate material relief for the poorest of the poor is not his only priority (though it is certainly on the list). This lets us breathe a little easier about our place atop our mounds of accidental wealth, but:

We should acknowledge that this is pretty morally tricky.

The suffering of the poor, both in Jesus’ time and in ours, is not something we can blithely dismiss. Forgoing Jesus’ anointing really would have been enough to save someone from starvation and filth and humiliation, from a kind of misery that you and I cannot imagine (assuming they handed the purse to somebody besides Judas).

Jesus did and said a handful of things like this — things that contradict our basic moral intuitions (calling a Samaritan woman a “dog” when she begged him to heal her child, lashing out at Peter for a seemingly innocuous remark) — and while we can’t ignore them, it seems like we ought to be really careful how we use them. Our moral intuitions are God-given, too.

And the difficulty is even more serious in our time, because we have so much more capacity to do good.

Today, the Lord requires 10% of our income for temples, meetinghouses, colleges, thrift stores, mediocre movies — and yes, a wonderful, underrated welfare/humanitarian apparatus. Nothing on that list seems like a bad or corrupt use of funds, and the accusation that the Brethren are fleecing the Church to finance their modest apartments and conservative suits is frankly laughable.

But on the other hand, there are children whose eyes are being consumed by parasites right this minute, and a typical Mormon’s tithe could rescue thousands of them every year — and that’s not where the money is going. I believe that Jesus knows what he’s doing, and that the Brethren follow Jesus; but let’s not pretend that isn’t a weird result.

So what should we do with this idea?

First, I think the Lord’s priorities (both in the scriptures and in Church government today) illustrate that human effort isn’t interchangeable in the way effective altruism assumes. The Church has tasks to perform that could not be taken up by any other group. Mary wasn’t replaceable with any other rich lady in Israel.

From this perspective, it makes sense that the Church’s priorities are controversial — we have to do these jobs precisely because nobody else thinks they’re worth doing. For the uncontroversial good that God wants done, he can enlist anybody, of any faith or none; nobody has a philosophical objection to malaria nets. But when God needs to perform a “strange act”, something that we wouldn’t think up to do on our own, it takes revelatory authority.

This doesn’t absolve us of our individual responsibility to make the best use of our stewardship — to live modestly, give freely, and give wisely — but it does mean that our summum bonum isn’t necessarily to be cash machines for humanitarian non-profits.

So we’re back to President Hinckley: “Just do the best you can — but be sure it is your very best.” We’ve got an individual work to do, and it’s our responsibility to find it out, by careful thought and prayer. But effective altruism shows us that it ought to be really careful thought and prayer — and maybe when the course is unclear, and revelation isn’t forthcoming, it can help us be sure.


I should note that most people who subscribe to this philosophy don’t constantly flagellate themselves about not doing enough — they just set aside an arbitrary slice of their income for effective charity. This sidesteps the philosophical problem, but they make a pretty solid case that this would be enough to change the world if everybody did it.

Sell That Thou Hast

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