There is a passage in the Gospels that breaks conventions and cuts to the core of what has come to be called the “Social Gospel.” Before looking at the passage we need to define “Social Gospel.” The phrase “Social Gospel” emerged in the Protestant denominations but has also come to be used in Catholic circles as well. Basically defined the Social Gospel is an intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to societal problems especially injustice, inequality, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, child labor, labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Basically stated, if faith was to be real it must address these issues and be relevant to those who suffer these maladies.
So far all true. But then comes this very troubling Gospel. A Gospel that breaks the conventional wisdom that the service of the poor is the first priority of the Church. It obnoxiously states that there is something more important than serving the poor. To be sure, serving the poor is essential, but it is a gospel that said something was even more important. How could this be so! Who said such a thing?? And that brings us to the text:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” (Matt 26:6-14)
The other Gospels contain this account as well. It is in Mark 14 and Also in John 12. John attributes the objection only to Judas and reckons it on account of his greed whereas Mark and Matthew attribute the objection to all the disciples present. Even more interesting all three Gospels link this to Judas’ decision to hand Jesus over. It obviously floor the disciples and especially Judas to hear Jesus speak this way.
There is simply no other way to assess this Gospel than “earth-shaking.” The reader surely expects Jesus to agree that extravagance toward him should be jettisoned in favor of serving the poor. Had he not said that judgment would be based on what we did for the “least of my brethren” (cf Matt 25:41ff) ?? Why does Jesus not rebuke the extravagance and demand it be sold and given to the poor? It is a shocking Gospel, and earth-shaking declaration: “The poor you shall always have” ??! But there it is, glaring at us like some sort of unexpected visitor.
What is the Lord saying? Many things to be sure, but let me suggest this essential teaching: “Nothing….absolutely nothing…..not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor and obedience due to God.” Nothing. If even the service of the poor takes precedence over this, it becomes an idol. An idol in sheep’s clothing to be sure, but an idol nonetheless.
An old Seminary professor (deceased now) told me many years ago” “Beware the poverty of Judas.” What does this mean? Fundamentally it means that the care of the poor can sometimes be used (by some) in an attempt to water down Christian doctrine and the priority of worship. The social gospel, if we are not careful, can demand that we compromise Christian dogma and the priority of proclaiming the Gospel.
Let me be clear, the Social Gospel is not wrong per se. But, like anything, it can be used by the world and the evil one to draw us into compromise and to the suppression of the truth. The reasons for this suppression are always presented as having a good effect but in the end we are asked to suppress the truth in some way. Thus the social Gospel is hijacked, it is used to compel us to suppress the truth of the Gospel and to not mention Jesus.
Perhaps some examples will help. Let me state at the outset, I am adapting these examples as generic. They are based on real world examples but I am not mentioning names and places because it is not the purpose of this blog to engage in personal attacks of other people’s struggles to uphold the gospel. If you demand specifics I cannot and will not give them. This is about you and me, not merely other people. It is possible for us to condemn others for their faults but not look at ourselves. Hence. I offer these examples in humility realizing that I struggle too.
- A large diocese in the USA is offered the possibility to serve drug addicts. Price of admission is that they coordinate a “needle-exchange program” which helps addicts shoot up without contracting AIDS. The Government money is substantial and may permit them to serve the poor who are addicts with treatment programs that may lead to their sobriety. Only cost is that some other addicts may be enabled in their self-destructive behavior and encouraged by the clean needles to shoot up. Church teaching does not permit us to do wrong even if good may possibly come from it. Nevertheless the Diocese takes the money and hands out clean needles to addicts but gets the money to serve others. The poor are being served! Shouldn’t we look the other way? But is serving the poor an absolute good or do we owe God obedience first? ? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even poor drug addicts? Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
- A Bishop from a moderately large diocese is confronted with the fact that he has not rebuked the local senator for his votes to fund Abortion for the poor using Federal Money. The Bishop responds, “But he is with us on important social legislation and we cannot afford to alienate him.” The senator in question does surely believe in a substantial funding of programs the Church supports. Programs such as: supportive housing for the poor, aid to families with dependent children, drug treatment programs, affordable housing initiatives, etc. The senator in question is a great advocate for these issues that the Church supports. Only Problem? He thinks it’s OK to fund the killing of babies in their mother’s womb. The Bishop reasons that it is not good to alienate this Senator who “is with us on so many issues.” He fails to rebuke the Catholic Senator and urge him to repent. The Church would lose too much you see. The price is too high. We could not serve the poor as well. This Senator might not vote to fund the Bills that fund programs that Catholic Charities depend on. We “need” to compromise here, the poor are depending on us. “Surely Jesus will understand.” And thus Church teaching yields to the need to serve the poor. Surely it is good to serve the poor. But at what price? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor? Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! Yon can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
- In several large cities, Catholic Charities runs adoption programs. Lately, cities and state governments have begun to demand that Catholic Charities treat “Gay” couples on the same basis as heterosexual couples. In order to receive State funds that help Catholic Charities carry on its work of service to the poor who are needy children looking for a stable family Catholic Charities will have to agree to set aside Church and Scriptural doctrine that homosexual unions are not only less than ideal for children, such unions are sinful. If Catholic Charities wants to continue to serve these poor children at all, they must deny the teachings of Christ and His Church. Is this too high a price to pay in order to be able to serve the poor? What do you think? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
- Many Catholic hospitals receive government funds to treat the poor. But lately the government is demanding, in certain jurisdictions, that Catholic hospitals dispense contraceptives, provide abortion referrals, and cooperate in euthanasia. Remember now, the poor are served with these monies. Should the hospital compromise and take the money? Should it is say OK, thus enabling it to go on serving the poor? What is more important, the poor or Jesus and what he teaches? ? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor who come to hospitals for service? Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
- Catholic Charities is offered the possibility of getting a large amount of money to serve the homeless. But there is a requirement that Jesus never be mentioned. Catholic Charities must remove all crucifixes, Bibles, and any references to Catholic teaching. Now remember, the poor will be served with this money! It’s a lot of money to walk away from! ? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the homeless? Or is he less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say “I think both are important.” The Government is demanding you choose. Will it be Jesus and what he teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the Gospel? What will it be?
In the end, I leave you and me with these questions:
- How far do we go in serving the poor?
- The service of the poor, and the issues that the poor face are an essential work of the Church, but does it trump worship and doctrine?
- Should Church teaching bend to the demands of the Government in order to serve the poor?
- What does Jesus mean in the Gospel above when he teaches that anointing him is more important than serving the poor?
- What is the Church’s truest priority? Is the truth of the Gospel or is it serving the poor?
- What if these two things are in conflict? Which is chosen over the other?
- Given the Gospel above, what would Jesus have us choose as first priority?
- When large amounts of money are made available for the Church to serve the poor but at the price of us compromising or hiding the truth of Gospel, what do you think the Church should do?
The Social Gospel is essential. It cannot be merely set aside. But the Social Gospel cannot eclipse the Full Gospel. A part, even if essential, cannot demand full resources and full obedience, not at the expense of the whole or the more important!
Money and resources to serve the poor are essential, but they are still money and it remains stunningly true that we cannot serve both God and money. In the end, even serving the poor can become a kind of idol to which God has to yield. It is the strangest idol of all for it comes in very soft sheep’s clothing, the finest wool! But if God and his reveled truth have to yield to it, it is an idol, the strangest idol of all.
I do not agree with everything in this video, but it well presents the temptations that Catholic Charities faces: