An exception that proves the rule

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

by Mike Morell


One of the most prominent biblical passages related to the intersection of Christianity and effective altruism is the story of the alabaster jar of perfume, found here in Mark 14:

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.”

This passage offers a potential challenge to effective altruism. Jesus, at first glance, appears to be dismissive of some thoughtful criticism about how more good could be done in this situation. Admittedly, a plain reading of this passage, in isolation, points in that direction. Considering the rest of scripture (along with conscience, reason, etc.), I think it’s worthwhile to look more closely.

Alex Rattee discussed this passage on this blog in 2017 (see here), and while acknowledging that issue, he makes some excellent counterpoints. He notes that Jesus doesn’t specifically state that her action was optimal, only that it was a “beautiful thing”, and that she should be praised rather than scorned even if her action wasn’t optimal. Alex also argues that her action may, in fact, have been the optimal thing she could have done, given the unique circumstances, and should encourage us to show devotion to God however we best can in our present circumstances.

I suggest there is an additional reason to see this episode not as problematic for the harmonization of Christianity and effective altruism, but as supportive of it. There is a legal concept, attributed to Cicero, of an “exception that proves the rule”. It’s a phrase that is often misused (see here for some background), but in its proper context the idea is that you can rightly infer the existence of a general rule from the pointing out of an exception to it. For example, if there is a sign saying “parking is free on Sundays after 5 pm”, one might infer that in general there is a rule that one must pay to park here. I believe the alabaster jar episode is the exception that proves a general rule that is quite compatible with effective altruism.

To start, I would note that some variation of this narrative appears in all four Gospels. You can see them all here. In three of the four we find something very close to “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.” Breaking the usual pattern, Matthew, Mark, and John are the “synoptics” here; the passage from Luke is a loose analogue and may be describing an entirely different event. A notable difference among Matthew, Mark, and John is the identification of those criticizing the woman. In Mark, it’s “some of those present”, in Matthew it’s “the disciples”, and in John it’s Judas Iscariot.

My basic claim is that the woman’s critics are trying to make a point that they expect Jesus to agree with. Matthew’s version is the best support for this claim, but the other two versions point in the same direction. John points out a possible additional ulterior motive on Judas’s part (he was a thief), but one motive that might be to show himself a good student who has been paying attention to Jesus’s teaching. The disciples collectively could be expected to do the same. We find numerous examples in the Gospels (see here) where they appear to be seeking Jesus’s approval in a competitive way; the case of the alabaster jar seems to be another one of these cases. One can also imagine that “some of those present”, even if not card-carrying disciples, would also have been familiar enough with Jesus’s message to try to anticipate His reaction.

One of the clues to this is that while they are making the woman feel uncomfortable with their wondering out loud (and Jesus calls them out on this), they are not addressing the woman directly. It looks instead as if Jesus is the intended audience, as if the critics are thinking “I know what the Rabbi is going to think about this, let me show him I’ve been paying attention!”.

With this in mind, note just how unusual their criticism would be in a normal social setting. Imagine if you were at the birthday party of a king, and someone were to offer an expensive gift. Would it be socially appropriate to wonder – out loud – “this isn’t right, money should have been given to the poor instead”? No one at Herod’s birthday party is reported as having been impolite enough to raise moral objections even when a good man was beheaded to please one of the guests.

The same applies in ordinary settings today. Suppose a generous gift is revealed in a family Christmas celebration. Or a colleague returns to the office having bought a new luxury car as a present to himself, and is regaling everyone with the details. Is it a normal social reaction to ask – out loud – if charitable contributions to the poor would have been a better use of the funds? Of course not. Perhaps to some of us this thought may occur, but the normal reaction, and certainly the polite reaction, is one of simple joy at observing a good gift given and received.

So I would argue that this unusual reaction is a strong indication of the main thrust of Jesus’s views on the ethics of money. The critics expect Jesus to join them in their indignation, and to approve of them for having paid attention to His teaching. Instead, Jesus rebukes them, not for having misapplied the general rule, but for failing to realize the exception (and for their uncharity towards the woman). “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.” It’s the exception that proves the rule.

The general rule is indeed that we are to exercise good stewardship in the use of money, especially by helping the poor. Nothing Jesus says here contradicts that, and the indignation of the would-be “teacher’s pets” that day strongly suggests we are dealing with an exceptional case. Furthermore, “the poor you will always have with you” should not be taken as an excuse for inaction; instead it brings to mind Deut 15:11, where the context calls us to be generous in response. We can see that same theme in numerous other biblical passages.

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