I don’t remember much from my seminary Ethics class. That isn’t to say that I don’t think I make ethical decisions, but rather an admission that Dr. Tim Sedgwick is way smarter than I could ever hope to be. One of the topics that I do remember is the concept of goods in conflict, of which, my friend Evan Garner reminded me in response to yesterday’s post. Evan writes, in part, “I want you to push even further on what it means for Judas to be right. Despite the editor’s notation about being a thief, he is right. Jesus might be right-er, but it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. That would be right, too. For me, the challenge of the passage is sorting between two right and good options.”
In John’s story of Jesus being anointed by Mary, there is more than one right answer. There are, as an ethicist might say, “goods in conflict.” Despite John’s need to undermine Judas Iscariot (a task Judas needs no help in accomplishing), Judas points out a truth by suggesting that the nard Mary used to anoint Jesus could have done more good if it had been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus, on the other hand, is also right in pointing out the good that Mary had done in anointing Jesus for burial. Remember the context of this story, Jesus is having dinner with Mary, Martha, and the recently resurrected Lazarus six days before the Passover. In John’s timeline, this puts it 5 days before Jesus is crucified. The plot to kill Jesus is already afoot. Tomorrow, Jesus will enter Jerusalem with a royal parade to shouts of salvation and praise.
Things are about to get really real, and Jesus knows that his time has come. What Mary does for him is nothing short of steeling his resolve to finish the task set before him. It is true that the nard could have been used to feed the poor, and clothe the naked, but the greater good here is that in his anointing, Jesus Christ is now prepared to walk the way of the cross, the way of life and salvation for all creation. There will be plenty of time to care for the least, Jesus tells Judas, but for now, it is the lost who he is worried about.
Choosing between two or more goods in search of what is good-est isn’t an easy task. The Kingdom isn’t a zero sum game. There aren’t always winners and losers. There are, more often than not, choices made between several very good options, which is where discernment comes in. Jesus knew the right choice because he knew the will of his Father. He was able to choose the greater good because he could see the bigger picture. Jesus isn’t telling us to be ignore the poor and be wasteful with our resources all the time, but in that moment, around that table, with those people, pouring out a costly ointment to prepare him for what was to come was the good and right choice.