Christian Utilitarianism


The Christian form of utilitarianism is one of the most common ways we make decisions in our everyday lives, in our ministries and in our churches. It's raw pragmatism maximizing the usefulness for as many people as possible spiced with the theology of stewardship over the resources we have (time, money, gifts, etc.). While in most cases utilitarianism is indeed helpful to make our decisions, at the same time occasionally it can be the most unchristian thing we do.

In John 12 and Mark 14 we read a fascinating story that contradicts everything we know about wise stewardship and pragmatic utilitarianism.

Mary poured out on expensive, real perfume, wasting a valuable resource on the feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair. What an act of pure, caring love! The disciples (John identifies Judas here) points out that there is a better, more useful, more beneficial way of using that resource for the common good, for the purposes of our ministry (his real motives, of course, are revealed). The disciples were driven by utilitarianism, Mary was driven by love. Love is not always utilitarian. Love forces us to make wasteful, irrational, unuseful sacrifices. Love overwrites utilitarianism. Out of love we do things that does not make sense at all. Out of love we buy gifts to the loved one which money could be used in much better ways for the common good. Out of love we spend time having fun with a loved one which time could be used for more useful things. Utilitarianism is rational, pragmatic, resource-maximizing. Love many times is irrational and seemingly wasteful, but we never say it's unuseful.

People became upset and angry with Mary because of how she has spent that valuable resource. It made people upset that out of love she wasted on the feet of Jesus what was hers anyway. How could people become angry when she owned what she gave and her act was a pure expression of love? They were not upset with Jesus, but they were upset with the one who made the sacrifice for him. Why? Because according the disciples there was a better use of that asset. They wanted to make a decision and determine what is the best way she could serve Jesus and use what’s hers. They wanted to control her contribution, her part, her role, her resources. (How many times I see that today from pastors and ministry leaders!) So they made a judgment on how she is going to spend what’s hers. But Jesus was not interested how well that resource was going to be used, but he was interested about the motives of that love-offering. Jesus attached a promise to her sacrifice: if the sacrifice is made out of love, no matter how irrational it is, it is going to be remembered forever. We don’t read another promise or comment like that in the whole gospel. The irrational, wasteful act of love will be remembered and proclaimed!

  • Is there any sacrifice you made and others didn’t understand at all why you use that resource this way? “It doesn’t make sense that you do this, or go there, or spend that time with that, or give that money for that."
  • What is it that you view too dear, too expensive, too huge and could be better used, but God wants you to pour out?
  • We live in the wasteful society, wasting so many things. What are we willing to waste for him? Is there anything irrational unnecessary wasteful you did out of love for him?

If our life is nothing but a sequence of utilitarian pragmatism then we miss out the real essence of life: love.

And we won’t be remembered, because love makes things memorable!