My meal plan costs me $6,600 per year. I’m sitting in a dining hall that costs thousands to operate and maintain — part of a college that has a master plan to spend millions in the coming years. There are about 1,500 other students here with me, and the college’s endowment has nearly $1 million dollars for each one of us — that’s more than $1.5 billion all told.
I’m eating chocolate ice cream. If I wanted to, I could sit in this million-dollar building, enjoying my million-dollar per student endowment and eating my million-dollar ice cream all day. Swarthmore students live at the height of excess. Swarthmore College represents a massive investment, a truly colossal accumulation of wealth. I can’t imagine $1.5 billion; I literally don’t understand what that amount of money means.
In the Gospels, Jesus commands those who want to follow him to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21, Luke 12:33). He warns against the accumulation of wealth on Earth, “where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19) and tells us that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Jesus presents us with an ultimatum: you cannot serve both God and Money (Luke 16:13). Jesus shoots straight — he commands us to choose.
The earliest followers of Jesus, the first Christians in the book the Acts of the Apostles, sure chose. They gave radically to each other and supported the poor:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. From from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Acts 4:32–37).
The consequences of defying this system can be truly dire, as evident in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, two early Christians in Jerusalem. After they sell a piece of property, they agree to hold back a portion of the money raised for themselves and give only some of it to be shared among the poor and the church. When they give their partial offering to Peter and John, claiming that they’ve donated the full amount to the apostles of Jesus and leaders of the church in Jerusalem, Peter recognizes what they have withheld and confronts them, announcing, “You have not lied to men but to God.” At this Ananias and Sapphira fall down and die. Clearly, Jesus’ preaching about giving is not empty rhetoric.
The picture here is radical dependence. Dependence on the community of believers, yes, but also true dependence on the grace of God for their daily needs: “to be as ravens who do not reap or sow; yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:24). Micah Bales , the D.C.-based Quaker minister, describes his discomfort with this concept in his article “Give It All Away: Could Jesus Possibly Have Meant What He Said About Money?” by saying, “my deepest fear is not of losing my stuff, but rather that I might lose my autonomy.” He continues by asserting that this aspiration for independence and autonomy is not Jesus’ goal for us, but that “[Jesus] teaches that we enter into God’s kingdom by becoming like a child again. Rather than continuing to progress into greater and greater levels of personal autonomy, disciples of Jesus are called to make themselves servants to everyone.”
However, all of this convicting language about selling everything you have and giving to the poor has one critical exception that appears in all but the Gospel of Luke: Jesus’ anointment at Bethany. In this story, just before he enters Jerusalem — spoiler alert: to be crucified — he stops at the home of Simon the Leper in the peripheral town of Bethany to stay with friends Mary and Martha. During his stay, Mary opens a jar of nard, a very expensive perfume, and pours it on Jesus’ feet in reverence. The disciples — interestingly, only Judas in the Gospel of John — get angry with Mary and demand to know why she would waste such an expensive item: it’s worth more than 300 denarii — more than a year’s wages, and they want to know why it was not sold and the profits given to the poor.
Instead of siding with the disciples and taking his usual stance that everything should be sold and the proceeds donated, Jesus sides with Mary and lays out what appears to be a caveat to his initial command: “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:10–11, Mark 14:6–7). What the hell is that!? In a total reversal of his earlier teaching, Jesus allows for an extravagant expense! Why? It is explained to the disciples that the perfume was saved “in preparation for the day of [Jesus’] burial (John 12:7), but that isn’t the whole of it. Additionally, it is acceptable because it is a “beautiful thing,” and the money wasn’t spent on the poor, but only this time, because “the poor will always be with us”? I haven’t untangled this one, folks. You’ll have to struggle with it yourselves.
Given all this seemingly conflicting information, what are we doing at Swarthmore? Are our hard work and tuition bills simply storing up worldly goods in an idolized institution? Certainly, moths and thieves can’t take our education — but does it qualify as a “beautiful thing” to the standard of Jesus? Surely, the cost of our liberal education is immense — the cost per student per year to the school is more than $120,000. How many families could be supported on the cost of my education? Are the resources sunk into my personal and intellectual development worth it? Am I worth it?
The benefits of raising up a generation of civic-minded individuals, people who care for the oppressed and the underserved, are surely considerable — but we are not the first and not the last generation of Swatties. Our predecessors have overseen decades of environmental degradation and yawning inequity. We have to do better than that. We are obliged to make such a thorough use of our time at Swarthmore that the millions spent to keep us here could not have been put to better use. When we do otherwise, when we fail to be more than the sum of our tuition, we fail all those whose lives could have been radically changed by that money. And, more critically, we fail God.
Every day at Swarthmore is a new bottle of nard: every day I crack one open and pour it out and every day I pray that I have done a beautiful thing.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.