Free to Choose

The lectionary reading a couple of Sundays back was Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (italics added)

The expression “Free to Choose” is often identified with a view of economics which glorifies unfettered individual choice. The late Milton Friedman, a Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, is most frequently associated with the use of the expression, because it was the title of the PBS series he created back in the 1980s. But in this passage from Mark, we find Jesus freely choosing to heal a leper. Because leprosy made you unclean under Jewish law, a leper was unable to keep the law, and hence became a social outcast, cut off from family, friends and access to civil society. Jesus’ choice made it possible for the person to be restored to his family and community (and he immediately went out and told everyone how it happened, much to Jesus’ chagrin).

The leper knows that Jesus has a choice. He knows that Jesus can heal him, but also that Jewish law does not require it of him. And surely there were other lepers at the edge of town that day; why should Jesus choose to heal him rather than others? We can clearly get into some thorny theological issues with this story. But I’ll keep my focus on the choice for the moment.

Jesus chose freely to use resources at his disposal to restore another person to full participation in his community. Some will view Jesus’ free choice here as the opposite of the view of choice usually associated with the expression “free to choose.” After all, how many first-year economics texts proclaim that human are selfish and have unlimited wants? Suggesting that Adam Smith was the first to argue that unfettered selfishness in a market setting would promote the common good through wealth creation is de rigueur in introductory economics and, for that matter, among those who think they are thereby dismissing Smith, markets and economics. A trifecta!

Except they’re wrong about Adam Smith (and markets), but that would be a longer story to which I’ll have to return sometime. And they’re even wrong about Milton Friedman, who has a much more nuanced view of choice than the standard first-year textbook does.

Jesus’ choice to heal the leper was an act of charity.

I was tempted to say love, of course, because that’s the word we’d use today. And agape in the New Testament can be translated with either love or charity. But the theological meaning of charity carries along with love the sense of incorporating the other into one’s community. The command to be charitable to others implies my commitment to them as another member of my community. Treat them as you would yourself. Do not treat them as an outcast, as someone you would simply throw scraps of food or a few pennies to. Biblical charity is not what we think of as charity today: a way to feel good about a few causes and reduce my tax burden at the same time. No, charity is the ultimate act of welcoming someone into your community, of giving her status.

That is what Jesus did with his free choice.

If I was preaching, I’d tell you to go out and do likewise. But I’m an economist, and usually end up asking a different kind of question. Not to stop you from being charitable, but to broaden our appreciation for what is at stake.

One of the things I noticed when studying economic theory was that, in order to ensure justice, some approaches to social economic organization require society to deny people the right to be charitable. The argument is simple: if everyone is already a member of the community, and everyone has equal resources, then charity is unnecessary. Justice has already been achieved; why would you need charity?

There are two problems with the social “criminalization” of charity. First, it denies me the individual opportunity to exercise virtue in the context of a free choice. Put differently, such a society assumes I will be selfish, even though as a human being I am more than just selfish, and need opportunities to discover what that “more” involves. If I never have the opportunity to be charitable, I will never experience love. Secondly, the criminalization of charity allows the State to define who has status, to remove those who don’t have it, and to punish me for extending “status” myself to them through acts of charity.

The tension between justice and charity runs deep through every civil society. Justice may be the “the first virtue of social institutions” (Rawls), but it is not the only, or highest, virtue. When designing social institutions, we need to examine where the borderline of that tension lies. I am not afraid to say that as much as I value justice, in the end, “Love wins.”

NOTE: I want to thank Kit Carlson for including the expression “free choice” in her sermon on the lectionary readings, the sixth Sunday of Epiphany, 2009, at All Saints Episcopal Church, East Lansing, Michigan. That prompted this entry. Of course, she bears no responsibility for what I did with her expression!

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3 Responses to “Free to Choose”

  1. john locke Says:

    I think the better question should be, if Jesus had the power to heal leprosy, why did he limit it to a few lepers instead of abolishing leprosy as a whole? It seems to me like their is clearly more motivations than charity at play. Jesus was not charitable with all lepers, only those in his immediate vicinity.

    So then he question becomes, what was Jesus’s motivation to not heal lepers outside his immediate vicinity?

    • rossemmett Says:

      Your question is really, why didn’t Jesus (as God) simply change the world so that a particular disease disappeared? This is the question of natural evil, a part of theodicy that has been a long standing theological question. I can’t hope to settle it here! My own thinking leans toward the view that some things simply come along with having a world in which human action is possible. Of course, human action can also be directed at making some of those consequences less likely: leprosy today is almost non-existent because of public health and modern medicine.

    • Lauren Says:

      For a long time I didn’t know how to answer the question “If God loves us, then why does he allow suffering?” The way I have come to terms with it is that when God made Adam and Eve, there was no suffering. He doesn’t want us to suffer. But Eve did eat the apple, and then everything changed. And we are stuck with the consequences.

      Jesus did not come to end suffering. He came to suffer. And through Jesus’s suffering one of the things we see is that even when we feel we are being forsaken, God is still with us (think Footprints when God carries him through the tough times). Jesus said “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:20

      If Jesus wanted to, he could have healed the entire world, but instead he showed us how God wants us to live and introduced Charity. In the example above Jesus loved the man whom society ostracized. Perhaps if Jesus healed all the lepers in the world, the message of loving everyone, even outcasts, would be lost.

      Anyway, I hope my comment gave you a new perspective on the question of suffering!

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