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Let Them Eat Cake: The Extravagance of Gospel Justice

From Will O'Brien.

Several years ago when I was at college, a group of friends were planning to celebrate a dormmate's birthday. Part of the festivities would be, of course, the obligatory birthday cake.

We went so far as to order an elegant, decorated cake from a highly reputable bakery. A few hours before the party, we drove off campus and forayed into town to pick up our culinary extravagance.

At the bakery, while our cake was being readied for purchase, I happened to notice a hand-written sign in the window: "We Accept Food Stamps." I was taken aback by this unapologetic declaration, at first uncertain what to make of it and eventually feeling some stirrings of anger.

I was a college freshman, the product of an upper-middle-class family still in the throes of my first out-of-the-nest experience in life. Though basically apolitical, I had unconsciously and uncritically absorbed my father's stark conservatism. And I certainly had had little contact with poor persons or the realities of poverty.

But I knew enough - or so it seemed at that moment - to realize that food stamps were not meant to be squandered on fancy decorated cakes. Looking around, it was clear to me that the bakery sold nothing but luxury dessert items: expensive, non-nutritional, and thoroughly superfluous foods. This was hardly a domain for transacting public benefits. Deeply inculcated images rose in me, amid waves of confusion and even resentment, of welfare mothers shelling out food stamps for potato chips and soda.

As I grew older, I was gradually weaned from the conservative worldview of my origins. Subsequent years and experiences sensitized me to the realities of poverty, including the structural injustices that so often fuel it and the dehumanization that springs from it. Poor families, I came to recognize, need celebrations in their lives as much as I do. Thinking of the mother in the housing project who, with meager resources, longs to give her beloved son a wonderful birthday party tempered my once-rigid certainty about appropriate and inappropriate uses of food stamps.

This story came back to mind recently as I was reflecting on the account in Matthew's gospel of the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive ointment (Matt. 26:6-13). This narrative, which makes its way in one form or another in all four gospels, is presented by the evangelist as a pivotal episode. Jesus himself says of the woman, "Throughout the world wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her."

The evangelist makes clear that the woman's pouring of oil is in effect a ritual anointment in preparation for burial. More-so than even his closest companions, she has grasped the mystery of Jesus' imminent passion and death. Her gesture also sparks a socio-economic debate among the disciples. They harshly reprimand this nameless woman for squandering money on an exorbitant luxury - money that could and should have been used for the poor.

In the face of it, the disciples' concern seems fairly legitimate (though one clearly intuits mixed motives in their statement; and John's alternative version of the same story imputes the statement to a bluntly unscrupulous Judas). In fact, they sound strangely American.

Americans are not oblivious to issues of charity and even justice. At our best we are a generous people who are more often than not moved by the plight of persons in need. For instance, despite the media's constant harking about "compassion burn-out" and growing public impatience with the homeless, a recent poll indicates that a majority of Americans would still pay higher taxes for programs to help homeless persons.

Reared in a culture of productivity and pragmatism, though, Americans put a high premium on programs for the poor that "work." We desire, not unreasonably it would seem, to "get the job done right" and get the most bang for the buck. Perhaps it is ethical and even compassionate to insist that needy persons are effectively and efficiently served by programs and policies designed to meet those needs.

Like the disciples in this story, Americans tend to have a predominantly utilitarian view of charity and justice. Most Americans will support food stamps that assist hungry families, but we will get very impatient when those food stamps are spent unpragmatically at the local bakery. This may be less a mean-spirited­ness and more a sincere desire that poor families use public benefits judiciously to meet nutritional and financial needs.

A utilitarian vision of justice is not necessarily devious, but it is all too often controlled, regulated, and unintentionally dehumanizing. We create services for the poor and gauge their effectiveness in terms of statistics. We foster policies that are more concerned with resource allocation than with the humanity of those who might benefit.

For years now I have worked in programs for homeless persons. These programs seek to be effective. Staff members are committed to utilizing scarce resources to make a substantial difference in the lives of the men and women with whom we work, but I increasingly see the limitations of social service programs, even programs whose aim is to create more justice. The human element can get lost in a sea of bureaucracy, administration, and paperwork. Poor men and women get subsumed into the jargon of "clients" and are defined and expected to behave according to regulations of the program. All of which is part of making programs more "effective."

Jesus' well-known response to the disciples in the anointing episode - "The poor you will always have with you" - has frequently been wielded by conservatives as a theological censure of large-scale government efforts to alleviate poverty. And perhaps there is some grain of truth in this simplistic political exegesis. At the very least, Jesus is rejecting the disciples' utilitarian version of justice.

The Gospel of Luke offers a different - yet parallel - account of an anointing of Jesus (7:36-50). Rather than a burial anointing, this psychologically rich and socially astute narrative is a profound theological statement of the powerful, profligate love of God, as well as the powerful, profligate love of the forgiven heart. As in Matthew's account (though dealing with different issues of class and moralism), Luke has the onlookers disdain the woman's recklessness and social inappropriateness. Yet Jesus commends her for the passionate love that impels her to this extravagance.

Reflecting on the two anointing stories, I am convinced that Jesus offers a radically different understanding of justice. True justice, that which flows from the merciful heart of God, is the fruit of passion. Far from secular ideas of justice which imply equity, fairness, and balance, gospel justice only happens when passionate love overflows bounds, when we so utterly revere God's children that we are scandalized by their violation.

Too often, Christians working for justice fall into the disciples' trap of well-meaning utilitarianism: justice is achieved by effective services, efficiently managed programs, appropriate allocation of resources. The anonymous women who anoint Jesus are prophets of gospel justice: justice that is exorbitant and scandalous, justice that is not found in bureaucratically administered programs but in a bursting, flowing river. Gospel justice compels us to dramatic action because our hearts can do no less. Gospel justice celebrates extravagantly, grieves extravagantly, and loves extravagantly.

As I survey the wreckage of much of our society today, it is painfully clear to me that we need this more radical understanding of justice. The immense suffering, despair, and violence we see around us will not be moved by well-meaning, pragmatic, cost-conscious concern. Only a church that is deeply, passionately moved by the suffering it sees can adequately respond. Only a church that is willing to burst out of the bounds of social decorum and reasonableness will be able to make a difference in the lives of struggling Americans today.

I am not suggesting a complete abandonment of all utilitarian efforts - nor is Jesus suggesting that we ignore the needs of poor persons. We should continue and even increase tangible works of charity and mercy. We should continue to devise, debate, and advocate for programs and policies to help us achieve a more just society. We need to shrewdly steward our resources, talents, and energies so we can have a real impact. Our deepest impulses of love will naturally and rightly yearn for effectiveness: how can we not desire for homeless persons to get housing, for prisoners to be released, for the sick to be healed, for the oppressed to be liberated?

But our work for justice may be for naught if it neglects the gospel invitation to passion. Like the women who lavish on Jesus out of overflowing hearts, our efforts at justice may be ineffectual or even futile unless they are rooted in profuse and unbounded love - for God and our neighbor.

I don't know if permitting food stamps to be used for expensive, decorated birthday cakes is sound public policy or a sensible use of resources, but I do know that genuine gospel justice delights that a poor mother in the squalor of a public housing project lavishes on her beloved child and celebrates his inviolable goodness and humanity in the face of society's neglect. Such a party, socially inappropriate and an extravagant use of scarce resources, is no less that a manifestation of God's reckless passion. If we are serious about justice, perhaps we should start by joining in on such a celebration.


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