READ : Matthew 26:6-13
How wasteful are you? Maybe you should consider indulging in a little “creative” waste. Let me tell you what I mean.
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.”
Matthew 26:6-13, NIV
Let’s try to picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples are spending the night in Bethany, the little village a mile or two outside of Jerusalem, just over the Mount of Olives. Jesus has been teaching each day inside the city in the temple courtyard, which is thronged with crowds of pilgrims who are in Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Feast of Passover. But Jesus and his disciples return each evening to the relative security and comfort of Bethany. It is the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.
Two days before the Passover – that would be on Wednesday evening – Jesus and his disciples were entertained for dinner in Bethany by a man called Simon the Leper. It was the final evening of hospitality he would enjoy. In a little over 24 hours Jesus will be arrested and put on trial; within 48 hours he will be dead. But for tonight, at least, Jesus is an honored guest in Simon’s home.
While they reclined together at the dinner table a woman approached Jesus quietly. John the evangelist, who tells the same story, says that the woman was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She had ample reason for feeling special gratitude and love for Jesus because he had just recently raised her brother from the dead and restored him to life. As Mary drew near to the Lord she took a large alabaster jar full of very expensive perfume, broke it open, and poured it over Jesus’ head. Once again, John gives more of the details. The perfume, he reports, was a kind of fragrant oil made from a plant called spikenard. Mary not only anointed Jesus’ head with the oil, she also poured it upon his feet and wiped them with her hair. And she used an enormous amount of perfume, enough so the whole house was filled with the scent. Because spikenard only grew in the mountains of northern India, it was unbelievably costly; the amount of oil Mary used to anoint Jesus was worth an entire year’s wages for an ordinary worker.
WHY THIS WASTE?
This extravagant gesture of Mary’s did not go unnoticed. In the first place it was culturally shocking for a woman to behave the way she did in public, anointing a man who was not her husband, then letting down her hair and even wiping his feet. But it was the financial aspect of this encounter that attracted comment from Jesus’ disciples – Judas Iscariot in particular. “Why this waste?” they asked indignantly. “This perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Or, better yet, since they were poor and were close to Jesus besides, the money could have been given to them. Such a heart for the needy, such sensitivity to the immoral squandering of precious resources! The disciples’ criticism of Mary reminds me of Mark Twain’s comment about a certain fellow: “He was a good man – in the worst sense of the term.” You know, there is a kind of phony, hypocritical concern, a cold-blooded, tight-lipped moralism, that gives being good a bad name. And the disciples had it.
But what about that question they raised? Was Mary’s act a waste? Well, I suppose it depends on your perspective, on how practical you tend to be. And, of course, on how much you care about Jesus. Mary’s anointing of the Lord as he reclined at Simon’s dinner table was certainly a dramatic gesture. And, true, it was very costly as well. Her perfume was lost, there’s no denying that. In a sense, it was thrown away. Mary’s act produced no concrete results or tangible benefits. Once the fragrant aroma had faded from the air Mary had nothing left to show for all that money spent. So how should we describe her gesture? Extravagant? Yes! Expensive? Yes! But wasteful? No, I don’t think so. Would Mary have done better to sell her luxury goods and donate the proceeds to charity? Not in this instance.
SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FOR JESUS
Jesus didn’t think so either. He doesn’t sound for a moment as if he disapproved of what Mary did to him. If there’s any criticism it’s reserved for his male disciples. “Leave her alone,” Jesus tells them, “she has done a beautiful thing.” Jesus did not believe that Mary had acted wastefully. On the contrary, he said, her deed would become her memorial. He said that it was a lovely act which time would never tarnish. When everything around them was gone and forgotten, when the very stones of Simon’s house had turned into dust, Mary’s extravagant gesture of love and devotion to Christ would still be remembered and talked about. And, of course, the very fact that I’m doing that right now proves Jesus right.
Let’s think together a little bit about the idea of waste. What is truly wasteful, and what isn’t? The world certainly has much waste that is sinful and destructive. There’s no denying that. Just look at how we live in a modern, throw-away society. Waste of goods, waste of precious resources like clean air, water, fuel – it threatens to destroy our civilization, even the very earth itself. We live in a culture of disposables: things we have and no longer want, things we’ve broken and won’t bother to fix; disposable dishes, disposable packaging, disposable diapers, even disposable people. Why this waste?
But there is also another kind of action that might appear on the surface to be wasteful but in reality is a beautiful thing. There is a sort of waste that can serve others and renew us at the same time, a waste that communicates love, even if it can’t always be weighed or measured or quantified precisely or even if it doesn’t make sense from a strict bottom-line viewpoint. Haven’t you ever wasted your money on a present for a friend or a treat for your family, instead of saving it up for a rainy day? Haven’t you ever wasted your time reading a book to a lonely old person, or talking to a sad-looking stranger when you could have been productive doing some busy little task or other? Have you never had the courage to express how you feel about someone by indulging in some really breathtaking gift, even if it cost more than you could afford and was embarrassing to boot?
We don’t all see things the same way. One person’s waste is another person’s loving gesture. The disciples thought Mary’s act in anointing Jesus was shockingly unnecessary. But Jesus thought otherwise. Many people today feel that money – or for that matter a life – spent for the sake of God is wasted. But I think the real losers are those who give themselves – their time, money, energy, thought, work, ambition – to things that don’t really matter and can’t ever last. What a shame if you save up your money, your life, so carefully that you never end up doing anything for anyone else at all! Mary knew the value of creative waste, of spending her treasure in a way that communicated her love. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a favorite saying: “Do something beautiful for Jesus today.” Mary of Bethany would have agreed.
A WASTEFUL GOD
I think that God must enjoy beautiful acts of creative waste. He appreciates extravagant gestures of love. After all, isn’t that how he himself behaves? God is a notoriously reckless giver, a known waster of resources. He is a profligate; spreading his gifts far and wide with little caution or restraint. Consider the creation itself. What a waste of space and time! Think of all those planets and stars and galaxies spinning around in a near infinity of empty space – all for the sake of one little world which, to the best of our knowledge, is the only inhabited bit of the whole universe. And those billions and billions of years since the beginning of time that scientists talk about – assuming they are right. Such an unimaginable length, such a vast span of uncountable eons, all leading up to just a few thousand years of human life. Why this waste?
Why didn’t God make a tiny little creation, a neat and efficient world just big enough for our solar system, just old enough for our history? Why the limitless reaches of space, the mind-boggling expanse of time? Why the thousands of millions of other possible worlds, all of them like so many gargoyles on a cathedral roof, stuck up there where only God and the angels can see them? It all seems so wasteful, like such a profuse expenditure of effort to no real purpose. So why?
Because that’s the way God is. This is how he is pleased to work. God is an artist who likes to execute things on a grand scale, never mind the cost. God enjoys going over the top.
There’s another place where God seems to have been needlessly extravagant. Did you catch how Jesus defended Mary’s great “wasteful” act of love? In fact, he answered the very question the disciples had raised: “Why this waste?” “She did it,” Jesus explained, “to prepare me for burial.” There was a purpose to Mary’s gesture that even she may not have fully understood at the time. Jesus was very near the end. The shadow of the cross fell across the dinner table in Simon’s home. In the chaos that would break out the following evening with Jesus’ arrest and that would continue right through his execution, one detail was overlooked. Jesus was never given a complete and proper burial. On Friday afternoon when he died, there wasn’t any time. And on Sunday morning when there was time, there wasn’t any need.
But on Wednesday Mary did anoint him. She must have heard Jesus talk about his impending crucifixion. As women so often can be, she was more sensitive to the Lord’s mood than his male disciples were. Somehow Mary knew that the moment had come to show her love to Jesus in a tangible way. Her wonderful gift served as preparation for his burial. She assisted – before the fact – in doing what was necessary to care for Jesus in death.
His death . . . doesn’t that look like the biggest waste of all? How would you have reacted if you had been there? So young, so good, so needed by his family and friends, by all the people he had helped and healed. There must have been many in Jerusalem that Good Friday who watched what happened on Golgotha and walked away shaking their heads, saying to themselves, “Such a waste!” Why this waste?
On the cross Jesus broke open his body and poured out his blood so infinitely precious, pouring and pouring until it flowed down his head and out of his side and off his feet over the whole world.
Was this a waste?
No, it was a beautiful thing Jesus did, one that will be remembered and spoken of throughout time and for all eternity.