"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Limits of Earth-Bound Altruism

The Gospels are clear about the centrality of sacrifice in the Christian pursuit. In situation after situation, Jesus urged his followers to wash people’s feet, give to the poor, and lay down their lives for their friends. But although sacrifice is indeed a central piece of the Christian message, the proper nature and orientation of such sacrifice can be easily misunderstood and misplaced in the natural context. To avoid such confusion, we must move beyond our humanistic perceptions of generosity, pushing energetically toward a more heavenly orientation — one that is led by the Spirit rather than the flesh. As Kelly Kapic argues in his recent book, Jesus’ death on the Cross is not just a gift, but an invitation to participate in God’s unique movement of divine generosity. With so much available — and so much at stake — we must be careful to avoid manifestations of sacrifice that exist for mere earthly gains. As fallen human beings, we are constantly tempted to debase God’s gifts and warp them to fit our earthly preferences and intellectual dispositions. This tendency toward the Love of Man must be consciously countered by a pursuit of the Love of God. The tension therein can play out in numerous ways, and the Bible provides some great examples to draw from (here’s one from the Old Testament). But if we are to unpack this lesson as it pertains to matters of faith and free enterprise, there is one story that stands out in particular. In John 12, we find Jesus and his friends celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus (not a bad excuse for a party). During the festivities, Lazarus’ sister Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and performs a stunning act of service: Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples…said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (Sound familiar?) Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep itfor the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” The fundamental problem is that Judas’ concerns are trapped inside an earthly perception of “proper” and “just” material allocation. Upon seeing Mary pour the ointment on Jesus’ feet, the only thing on Judas’ mind has to do with material waste. It doesn’t matter that this is the Son of God or that Mary is being led by some kind of divine leading. For Judas, it is all about the goods. In our own attempts to do good works and help the poor, how often do we fall victim to this same type of reasoning? How often is our perspective muddled and polluted by a naturalistic understanding of “proper” generosity and material allocation? How frequently do we avoid the challenges of divine generosity by opting for a legalistic view of charity and sacrifice that can be crammed into a formula where ointment equals money and money equals charity? These are important individual concerns, but if we pull the lens back a bit further, we begin to see that they easily extend to our attempts at initiating corporate sacrifice. Above all, we should note that Jesus approaches each situation differently. Whereas he told the rich young ruler to give everything to the poor, he told Judas that a burial ceremony was more important. (Say what?) Jesus did not roam about the wilderness with a magic wand, waving it over the impoverished while reciting quaint universal spells for extra flair. Likewise, he did not travel to Rome to promote some one-size-fits-all policy for worldwide poverty alleviation. Instead, he met people where they were (Judas included), giving them room to express their faith, and reason to engage their love. That is what the Love of God is all about. As it relates to matters of faith and economics, Jesus’ approach does not mesh well with a progressive view of economic distribution. Although some Christians certainly favor top-down policies to achieve particular “Christian” ends (I won’t name names), to do so is to assume that God sees each individual as having the same problems and the same solutions. In the top-down, centrally controlled system promoted by progressivism, what would become of the Marys of the world, who “squander” their valuable resources based on “mere individual desires.” Likewise, what would become of their precious ointments if they were seized and regulated, assumed to be better spent by someone else? If Material Good X is predestined by government to belong to Interest Group Y, how can we truly maximize our ability to execute the divine element of generosity? Are we to trust that Bureaucrat Z will exercise spiritual discernment in divvying up our resources according to God’s will? Are we to actually believe that the government is the best determiner of whether our ointment should anoint Jesus’ feet rather than support Social Program W? The Apostle Paul spoke to these same issues when he urged us to offer ourselves up as a living sacrifice.As Paul explains, such an intense life of sacrifice cannot be mindlessly pursued through an earthly lens. Instead, it requires a significant degree of spiritual discernment: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Without each of us taking an active role in aligning our sacrifice to supernatural ends, we cannot possibly hope to discern what is “good,” “acceptable,” or “perfect” in pursuing higher ends. Above all, we must remember to align our sacrifice to the Love of God. Thanks to the Cross, such love is ours for the taking, and the divine generosity that will follow is ours to cherish and spread to others. Let’s not let some bureaucrat take it away from us.