— Megan Finnerty (@MeganMFinnerty) April 17, 2014
Just in time for Easter, The Arizona Republic decided to write about #TipsforJesus.
Here's a crazy question: Since we're talking about Jesus, wouldn't the better approach be to interview Bible scholars and ask, "Is it Christian?"
There's nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus was an especially good tipper.
But for eight months, the anonymous person behind the TipsForJesus Instagram and Facebook accounts has left 250 to 600 percent of his bills at steakhouses, resort bars and restaurants, predominately in the Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles areas.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the central mysteries of their faith this weekend, ethicists, charity experts and servers around the country ponder slightly smaller Christian mysteries: How effective and moral is this kind of giving? And where might this tipper show up next?
The TipsForJesus diner typically leaves $2,500 to $7,000, documenting his largesse on Instagram with 81 photos of signed receipts and closeups of smiling servers.
From there, the 1,700-word story provides an all-you-can-eat buffet of numbers and analysis by sources representing important-sounding-but-secular organizations such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
One of the sources, ethicist Peter Singer, argues that "the most moral act is to save as many lives as possible per dollar":
A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is the pragmatist who pointed out in a December Washington Post op-ed that every Make-A-Wish dollar spent on the 5-year-old San Francisco leukemia survivor known as Batkid would've been better spent fighting poverty in Africa.
"It's proven time and time again that donations go furthest when we give to impoverished people in developing countries," Singer said in a Skype interview.
Later, another expert feels comfortable suggesting that Jesus would frown on #TipsforJesus:
Jesus would argue that you should be giving to the poor, said Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which tests the effectiveness of social services policies and charity initiatives.
"So this feels gimmicky rather than actively saying, 'Let's look to Jesus to guide us in acts of charity,'" Karland said.
As I read the story, I kept wondering if anyone would raise this question: How did Jesus himself react to an extravagant gift? John 12:3-8 of the New Testament recounts (in the New International Version):
3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Near the end of its 1,700-word story, the Republic finally ventures into overt Christian territory and even quotes a pastor:
TipsForJesus' Instagram account tagline reads: "Doing the Lord's work, one tip at a time," the tipper's only explicit reference to Christianity.
Jesus focused on the power and use of wealth more than on the practice of prayer, said Dave Summers, pastor of Paradise Valley United Methodist Church. Summers once served as president and CEO of United Way of Monterey County in California and has considered charity practically and spiritually.
"You would see (Jesus) respond individually in his encounters with people to reflect the generosity and abundance of God," said Summers, mentioning the New Testament stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying the loaves and fishes and healing those who came to him. "Jesus asks us, how responsive will we be to the needs in front of us? How responsive will we be to the prompting of God?"
Then again, charities as we know them didn't exist in Jesus' time. But instead of debating interpersonal charity v. non-profit-facilitated charity, Summers encourages looking at TipsForJesus as an inspiring example of "extravagant generosity."
"Is there a place in your life where you could practice such extravagant generosity?" he asks. "This week, on Easter, we're seeing that in the example of Jesus' life, his sacrifice was extravagant."
I wish the Arizona newspaper had arrived at that focus much sooner and quoted more sources like Summers.
The story idea — if not the timing — was a good one. The piece failed in the implementation. That's my cheap tip for the Republic.