Alabaster Jars & Optimising

Alabaster Jar

by Alex Rattee


At face value, the passage below from Mark 14 where Jesus commends the breaking of the expensive jar of perfume, seems to speak against the mindset of optimising our actions to alleviate the most suffering we can. If this is the correct then it makes the marrying of effective altruism and Christianity more difficult, for such an optimising approach is a core part of the ideas of effective altruism.

In this blog post, I will defend that the beginning of Mark 14 does not count strongly against an optimising mindset, and so the passage does not strongly decrease the plausibility of reconciling Christianity and effective altruism; instead, I will argue that it may actually support it.

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

How ‘beautiful a thing’ was it?

Jesus describes that the woman, who in other passages is identified as Mary, has: ‘done a beautiful thing to me,’ yet it is often easy to look at the story of the broken alabaster jar and miss just how significant an action it was. A large part of the value comes from the deep sacrifice involved; we hear that the perfume was equivalent to a year’s wages. This was no small offering, but was likely Mary’s most prized possession. Such willingness to sacrifice something so valuable is of great moral worth. Yet it is not just Mary’s willingness to sacrifice, but the fact that she sacrifices for Christ that dramatically increases the moral significance of her action. For from the Christian perspective, showing devotion to Christ is arguably the most valuable thing a human can do. We typically think it is a good thing to value that which is valuable, so how immensely significant it is to express such utmost devotion to the one who is of supreme value?

There are arguably other factors also at play, such as the importance of preparing Jesus for his burial, which further contributes to making her act of great moral worth. Yet, the above two factors alone should be enough to convince Christians that breaking the jar of perfume over Jesus was something of immense moral worth, especially when the default option would be keeping the perfume for one’s own benefit.

A good action, but perhaps not the best?

We commonly accept that whilst a particular action might be good, there may still be others that the individual could have taken which would have been better. As an example, if someone devotes their entire Saturday to caring for the poor and then uses their Sunday to relax, we typically say that they have done a morally good thing with their weekend. The fact that it might have been even better if they used their Sunday to do charity as well does not make what they did in fact do morally bad.

So when Jesus commends Mary’s act as a beautiful thing, this doesn’t necessarily entail that it is in fact the very best thing she could have done. It is common for the morally apathetic to attack the morally motivated by pointing out that they have not done everything they possibly could have. It is quite reasonable to reply to such detractors that the person has still done something morally excellent, and so is praiseworthy for doing so. Perhaps it could be suggested that this is what Jesus is doing here: he is not saying that it was better to pour the perfume rather than sell it for the poor, but rather that her choice of action is still so valuable that she deserves great praise for it.

Ultimately, I find this defence unconvincing, as in verse seven it seems that Jesus provides a commending justification for the woman’s choice to break the jar rather than sell it, thereby implying that her choice was more morally commendable than the morally good action of selling it to benefit the poor. Others might want to reply and suggest that the apparent commendation is in fact just a rhetorical device used to defend the goodness of her anointing him given the pressure from the detractors, rather than an actual commendation that it was morally best for her to do so. If the reader does find this second interpretation of verse seven compelling, then they can maintain that the passage fails to show that selling the perfume was the non-optimal action; it therefore should do little to discomfort the Christian Effective Altruist.

Jesus is no longer incarnate, so how do we follow Mary’s example?

The other, and my preferred, option is to suggest that the action Mary took was, in the context of the situation, more morally commendable than selling the perfume and donating the proceeds to the poor. For perhaps the immense moral value of devotion to Christ, expressed in the way it was, outweighed the moral value that could be achieved by donating the money. It should be open for the Christian to think that more things are valuable than merely pleasure and pain; many of us think that there is a non-experiential good in knowing and being known by God. If this is the case, then Christians already need to be thinking carefully about how to allocate their resources in light of these two non-perfectly correlated goods.

I want to argue that rather than denying the importance of thinking about optimising for value, Jesus is just commending the woman for doing it properly. If this is the case, then the passage will do nothing to attack the importance of optimising. We could stop here and conclude that Christian Effective Altruists, looking to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, just need to accept that suffering alleviation is not the only good in God’s eyes, and so not the only thing we should be working to bring about. Whilst I think that this is in general true, I want to suggest that the value Jesus expresses about the woman’s actions should actually spur us on in the Effective Altruist desire to alleviate poverty efficiently, for alleviating poverty may be one of the best ways to show Mary-like devotion to Jesus, given that he is no longer with us in bodily form.

No doubt there are a great many ways that a Christian might express such Mary-like devotion; it seems likely that times of prayer, Bible reading and praise contribute to this. God has seemingly made such devotional activities wonderfully resource-cheap. Therefore, it seems important for Christians to rigorously pursue all of them, both because they are valuable in just the same way that breaking the alabaster jar was, but also because they are instrumentally beneficial for us as Christians growing to be more like Christ.

Yet we still have the question of how to use our other resources, such as our money, to contribute to the call of devotion. I want to suggest that through the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, Jesus makes a strong case that we can show our devotion to him today by caring for the poor and needy:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

This passage shows that by caring for those who most need help, we actually show Mary-like devotion to Jesus. As a result, if we wish to take the call of personal devotion to Jesus seriously, then working out how we can most help ‘the least of these’ with our resources may be the most sure-fire way of doing so. This means that it is quite possible that the beginning of Mark 14 should embolden rather than discourage the Christian Effective Altruist, for acting with maximal compassion to the least of these means that Christians should find the most effective charities to support.

If this is the conclusion, then some might ask why Jesus didn’t give this recommendation more clearly. Perhaps this is in part because there is a risk that charity can become a form of idolatry if it is motivated outside of devotion towards Jesus. So by encouraging Christians to first and foremost devote their lives to him, Jesus makes it more likely that we will live radically generously without ever making an idol out of it. If this is the case, then this seems like advice Christian Effective Altruists would do well to keep firmly in mind.

4 thoughts on “Alabaster Jars & Optimising

  1. Thanks so much, Alex.

    I quite agree that pouring the oil might have been the optimising thing to do — if we have a sufficiently deep understanding of what “The Good” is that we should optimise. To me it seems convincing that “The Good” includes many things besides those things that some of the more “simplistic” (sorry, don’t mean it in a negative way) EAs would consider as good. In other words, The Good not only includes pleasure units but also the Glory of God, relationships, etc. I think that this might even be an insight that we could bring to the wider EA community: The Good is a deep, mysterious, complex thing.

    And I love your point about expressing devotion to Jesus via caring for the poor. I think that *in practice* many of the expenditures that Christians might want to justify with respect to this Bible passage (such as expensive equipment for developed-country-churches) are not *actually* done out of devotion to God.

    You ask why Jesus didn’t give his recommendation more clearly and you give this great answer: “Perhaps this is in part because there is a risk that charity can become a form of idolatry if it is motivated outside of devotion towards Jesus. ” I just want to add that an additional answer is that Jesus doesn’t want us to become like Pharisees, i.e. he doesn’t want us to be able to pin down our obligations with precise rules. The risk that Jesus might want to avoid is not only idolatory but in addition also legalism.

    P.S.: In a comment on David Wohlever’s post I expressed some skepticism about using precisely Matthew 25 to reveal our duties towards the poor (http://effectivegood.com/how-much-should-christians-give/). Maybe we could also once do an open blogpost to discuss which parts of scripture most strongly and clearly highlight our duties towards the poor (starting e.g. with a list along these lines: https://www.worldvision.org/faith-news-stories/what-does-the-bible-say-about-the-poor, though possibly we should look for a more extensive list)

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  2. Great post. I like the point that in this passage Jesus teaches that the notion of good is broader than pleasure and pain. If we move outside utilitarian thinking, the passage quoted in the beginning may also introduce a hierarchy of values with worshiping of God on the top of it. Than it might be interpreted: If you choose between worshiping of God and helping the poor (high moral value), you should worship the God. But if the case is to satisfy our pleasure by having nice perfumes vs. giving the money to help the poor, then helping the poor is just higher value (It’s a funny coincidence but as far as I remember Peter Singer wrote somewhere that money spend on perfumes used in Europe during a year could give access to water to all who need it)

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  3. Great post. I was reading Matthew 26 today and I came across this very same passage. This post helps reconcile Jesus’s words and the effective altruist’s methods. Keep it up.

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