When I find myself thinking like Judas, there may be some cause for concern.
When I find myself disagreeing with Jesus, there is definitely cause for concern.
And when I find myself thinking like Judas while disagreeing with Jesus, it’s time to get on my knees and pray.
My current conundrum arises from the gospel of John chapter 12 in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. Judas candidly points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus rebukes him: “Leave her alone, for the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” The perfume has not been wasted.
John, the gospel writer, is less than sympathetic regarding Judas’ motivations – Judas was no stranger to personally helping himself to the moneybag. The thought of adding almost a year’s wages to the moneybag was surely appealing. However, putting aside Judas’ motivations, I find myself asking similar questions, puzzled by Jesus’ answer.
Sell the ointment and give the money to the poor. This seems perfectly reasonable, particularly in light of other aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Surely the most loving thing to do is obvious: give to the people who need it most. Do the most good.
While the idea may seem simple, in practice it seems difficult to apply in all of life. We live in a world of huge inequality. I can drop £20 on a cinema trip with my wife. Yet the stark reality is that the money I spend on cinema tickets could provide food to a starving family, or save a life, somewhere in the world. Which is more loving? What should I do?
Cinema or save a life?
Last weekend after the church service, a group of students went for a walk followed by lunch. As you can imagine, for a group of sixteen adults, it was not cheap. Did we have great conversations? Yes. Did we encourage one another in our faith? Yes. Could we have used the money to help the poor? Definitely.
Like Judas, I end up pitting loving actions against one another. What I am looking for is a system to live by. I want some rules to follow. I want to see loving actions arranged in some kind of hierarchy. But Jesus doesn’t always give me what I want. As someone who got a reputation for being a glutton and a drunk, I assume Jesus saw no conflict between throwing a good party and loving the poor. Or being anointed with expensive perfume.
A quick glance at The Philosophy Book by Dorling Kindersley reveals that Judas and I think like a utilitarian. According to the glossary: “Utilitarianism is a theory of politics and ethics that judges the morality of actions by their consequences that regards the most desirable consequence of any action as the greatest good of the greatest number, and that defines ‘good’ in terms of pleasure and absence of pain.”
In short, a utilitarian would have sold the perfume.
Judas was a utilitarian. I’m a utilitarian.
The story in John 12 can be unsettling. It reveals that following Jesus and worshipping God doesn’t always closely align to an easy set of rules, particularly when it comes to money. Jesus doesn’t condemn Mary’s extravagant use of ointment. Neither does he encourage us to neglect the poor. For me this can often be hard to get my mind around. It doesn’t fit neatly into any ethical framework I can come up with.
And maybe that’s the point.
Jesus calls me into relationship and not an ethical system. He calls me to relational obedience. I’m invited to “walk by the Spirit“, responding to the Spirit’s daily guidance. As infuriating as it can be, Jesus doesn’t permit me to reduce love to a series of rules to be obeyed. Pop Jesus into any ethical system and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it fall apart or strain at the seams to contain him. Then again, I probably shouldn’t expect any different.
An ethical system invites me to live independently of God. If I know the right thing to do in every situation as governed by a series of principles, I don’t need to pray for wisdom or ask God to lead me.
So the next time I consider going to the cinema, the options remain the same: I could buy the ticket or I could give the money to the poor. Obedience to Jesus may look different each time. Sometimes it will mean forgoing the cinema, sometimes it won’t.
Like Judas, I’m more comfortable in an ethical system. But maybe that’s something Jesus is asking me to give up. I want to follow rules. I also want to follow Jesus. I can’t do both.