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Wholly Waste or Holy Waste?
based on John 12:1-8
by Rev. Thomas Hall

"Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate," someone once remarked. At least that’s partly true of this morning’s gospel lesson. Enemies had accumulated and trouble was brewing for Jesus. A Gallop poll would have registered great slippage of support among the religious right. Religious authorities had been trailing Jesus for the past week-just waiting for one misstep, one moment left to himself.

How could anyone see Jesus as an enemy? "He mocks our time-honored rules," they must have bantered among themselves. "He knows the rules.

  • Rule #1: Never talk or be seen next to a Samaritan woman.
  • Rule #2: Do not heal on the Sabbath. But worse than all of the other rules Jesus seemed to flaunt, he had had the audacity to break.
  • Rule #3: Do not raise anyone from the dead."

They might have looked askance at the first three, but when Jesus raised Lazarus a week earlier, they knew it was either him or them that had to go. So to no one’s surprise, Jesus had moved up the ladder to become the religious right’s most wanted man.

But while enemies were accumulating in Jerusalem, Jesus had a few true blue friends, too. In our gospel lesson a family of three had formed one of those rare friendships with Jesus. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are not among the Twelve associates, but they are friends. Even Jesus needed close friends. When in the neighborhood Jesus could hang his hat up in their home, could eat tacos and burritos at their table just like a family member. This was no publicity stunt, he really loved them though we’re not sure how these siblings and Jesus met and became friends. Jesus probably couldn’t remember the last time he sat down with folks to enjoy the evening without a request to heal someone or feed a multitude or exorcise a demon. In a rare scene, Jesus spends a evening among friends.

Not that Jesus hadn’t touched their lives in a deep way in his messiah role. Why, not long ago they too had received a miracle pro bono from Jesus. "Lord, the one whom you love is ill," read the note they had sent Jesus. Lazarus was dying. But Jesus was away on a ministry tour. He got the word in time, but did not arrive in time to be of much help. At least according to Martha and Mary. Lazarus was long dead-four days dead-by the time Jesus closed up his revival and arrived at his friend’s home.

"Jesus wept." Jesus the man had wept right there at the cemetery, right under the canopy. But then Jesus the messiah had called out in a loud voice that reached beyond death and called Lazarus back into life.

According to Barbara Brown Taylor*, something else unsaid heightens this evening with friends. A trade off had occurred-as long as Jesus stayed out on the other side of the Jordan, his enemies in Jerusalem would leave him alone. But when he came back to resuscitate his friend, Lazarus, it was the last straw. Jesus had signed his own death warrant. He had traded his life for the life of his friend.

So when Jesus enters their home on this evening, you can well imagine some of the concern and foreboding he carries deep down. He knows. He knows his enemies are closing in on him like wolves creeping toward a circle of yaks. His face must have revealed the deep lines. But for the moment Jesus has returned home to enjoy his friends one final time. On this night Jesus will relax. Laugh. Tell stories he’s picked up on the revival trail. Eat fabulously.

"Now where has Mary run off to?" Martha sighs. "Time to clean the table off for dessert and no Mary; I’ll just have to do it myself." Mary finally returns balancing an urn on her palms. Her chin steadies the slender vase neck. She sets the urn down and then breaks the narrow neck.

What she does next was taboo for a respectable woman - she loosens her hair in a room full of men. No one does that in polite company, except . . . you know, those kind of women. Just as unorthodox, she pours this expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Then she touches him. Rule #4: Rabbis do not allow single women to caress their feet. Not even among friends. And to end an already bizarre story, Mary uses her hair instead of a paper towel to wipe the extraneous balm from his feet.

Only sinners, women of the night, unnamed strangers do such things. But Mary we know. She’s no stranger, no infamous sinner. Mary is just a friend. Jesus loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary; they all love him. But why such charades in front of everyone? Why such waste? Mary must have gone off the deep end. No one knows quite what to do.

"Well, let me just say that I’ve never in all my life seen such a thing. What a complete misuse of that expensive nard. Shame on you, Mary," Judas scolds. "Haven’t you looked around and seen all of the poor people we’re trying to help? And you go and blow this valuable product on Jesus. God pity your soul."

Judas is right-the spikenard is very, very expensive. In fact, a day laborer and his family could live a year on that much money. Certainly looks like waste to me. It’s like those truffles that sell for hundreds of dollars a piece that are consumed in a bite or two at expensive parties. Could you imagine what she might have gotten for her perfume on Ebay? I think I would have told her, "Mary, there are many ways to express your feelings without going to extremes. Maybe you should have just given the urn unbroken to Jesus as a gift. Let him do whatever he wants with it."

"Leave her alone," Jesus says. "She bought that spikenard to be ready for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me."

That response is almost as bizarre as Mary’s bizarre actions. Jesus is the friend of the poor; he champions their cause, he preaches against hoarding and greed. But instead of Jesus’ usual sermon on waste, we hear "leave her alone, leave me alone. You’ll be caring for the poor until the end of time. But just this once let her be, my time is running out."

Jesus sees a parable in the making. It’s all there-Judas, a friend that comes and goes while enemies accumulate, a tomb nearby, slightly used and still smelling of burial spices, the spikenard, a burial ointment that now covers his body. Death is everywhere, even among friends. Jesus now realizes that Mary’s act has been a profound prophetic parable. Mary has been performing a charade-performing a burial action, though no one knew it but Mary.

Mary’s charade, her parable could have taken two different endings. If she had anointed his head, for instance, then Mary would have been proclaiming Jesus as a king. Everyone present would associate the anointing of the head with costly oil as a king-making action. Right then and there they could have joined in shouting, "Hail, King Jesus!" and "Long live the King!" But instead, Mary got on her knees and began to pour this expensive burial ointment on his feet. Jesus knew that the only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man. God Creator had provided God Redeemer a clear picture of what awaited him just down the road. So he says, "Leave her alone. Leave her alone."

Ever done anything like that? Offered a worship that was truly costly. That might have even brought you criticism? I wonder what costly worship looks like? I wonder if worship for us is sitting around with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary’s table in polite conversation, while a divine encounter is happening under our noses? Someone has said of American worship, "We no longer need ‘fasten your seatbelt’ signs in our pews because we no longer fly."

Annie Dilliard yearns for an extraordinary worship that is both extravagant and costly, a worship that approaches Mary’s bizarre worship:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we Christians so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleep god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.**

There is nothing skimpy or frugal about Jesus. In him God’s extravagant and costly love has been made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

This bottle of costly worship will not be held back to be kept and admired. This costly worship will not be saved. God calls us to open up, offer, use, pour out to the last drop worship that costs us something, a worship that enters into our world, filling it with life and fragrant hope. Mary got the message right. And she did something with it. The rest stood around as worship critics thinking her mad, wasteful, and bizarre. But there was one among them that suspected the truth in her actions.

Hear the Good News! God is lavish and extravagant. Where God is concerned, we’ll never need fear of running out of nard or life. When God is present, there is always more-more than we can ever ask or imagine-gifts from our lavish, extravagant Lord. Amen.



*Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997), page 58.

**Annie Dilliard, "Teaching A Stone To Talk" form Quotes for the Journey, Wisdom for the Way, Gordan S. Jackson, ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000), page 178.