JOSEPH FLETCHER’S Situation Ethics was first published more than 40 years ago. The book ignited a fire of argument that rages today as fiercely as ever. Fletcher argued that agape love, the only norm for Christian ethics, should be prudent and calculating.
According to Fletcher, in any situation where a moral decision must be made, love asks: “What will do the most good?” Fletcher was appalled by what we read as the Gospel this Sunday, the story of how Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, lavished on Jesus a gift that would have cost a working man a year’s wages. Fletcher thought that Judas Iscariot was absolutely right, that the ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
“Love”, says Fletcher, “must work in coalition with utilitarian distribution.” Judas was right. Jesus was wrong — if, that is, he ever said: “You always have the poor with you,” which Fletcher doubted.
How are we to understand this story? The problem is as old as the New Testament. A sure sign that the authors and editors of the Gospels simply did not know what to make of the tradition of a woman publicly anointing Jesus with costly ointment is that their record of it is so confused and complicated.
John’s version of events closely reflects Matthew and Mark’s account of how an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’s head at the house of “Simon the Leper” (Matthew 26.6-13; Mark 14.3-9). Luke has his own account of what happened in the house of a Pharisee called Simon. (Did he have leprosy? Or is this a quite separate incident? Who knows?) Luke writes — with an almost erotic frisson — of a woman, who was “a sinner”, anointing and kissing Jesus’s feet, bathing them with her tears, and wiping them with her hair (Luke 7.36-50).
This week we must stay with John’s version of what happened, and not duck the accusation that using a year’s salary to purchase perfume — even out of devotion to Jesus — is money misspent. Reginald Heber asks,
Say, shall we yield him, in costly
Odours of Edom and offerings
Gems of the mountain and pearls
of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest and gold
from the mine?
Heber’s answer to his own question is “No, we shall not.”
Vainly we offer each ample
Vainly with gifts would his
Richer by far is the heart’s
Dearer to God are the prayers
of the poor.
If we changed just two or three words of Heber’s hymn, and sang, “Dearer to God are our gifts to the poor” we would have this eminent Victorian divine agreeing with Judas Iscariot and Joseph Fletcher.
No doubt Mary worshipped Jesus, but worship and how much should be spent on worship is not the issue here. Whatever else this story means, it is cannot be used to sanction huge sums of money being spent on church buildings, for example. Such extravagance may or may not be justifiable, but, if it is, it must be on other grounds, not on the basis of the Gospel we read at Passiontide, as the concluding drama of the divine impoverishment begins.
Behind all these stories is another and altogether different question. “What is to be done with the body of Jesus?” Here John echoes Matthew and Mark, though his Greek text is very difficult. (Notice the dinky little brackets in the New International Version of John 12.7 around the words the translators have to add so that the verse makes sense.)
The evangelists are concerned that the body of Jesus should be treated reverently. John tells us that Jesus’s body was anointed at his burial (John 19.39-40). It is that anointing which is foreshadowed -— his death is now very near — by what Mary does.
The story, then, turns out to be all about bodies, Jesus’s body, and, by implication and inclusion, our bodies. We disapprove of the contemporary cult of the body beautiful, but apparently bodies do matter, not least dead ones.
And what of the poor who might have benefited from the cash spent on all that the perfume? Sydney Carter, who saw far more deeply into this story than did Joseph Fletcher, answers Judas’s accusation.
Said Judas to Mary, “Now what
will you do
With your ointment so rich and
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of
And I’ll wipe it away with
Jesus does not spurn her gift. That gift anticipates not only his own anointing, but also the touch by which his wracked and emaciated body may still be tended.
The poor of the world are my
body”, He said,
“To the end of the world
they shall be;
The bread and the blankets
you give to the poor
You’ll find you have given
to me,” He said,
“You’ll find you have given
Texts of readings:
16Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, 9not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.