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 thats partly true of this mornings 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 ones
surprise, Jesus had moved up the ladder to become the religious rights most wanted
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 were not
sure how these siblings and Jesus met and became friends. Jesus probably couldnt
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 hadnt 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 friends 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 hes picked up on the revival trail.
"Now where has Mary run off to?" Martha sighs. "Time to clean the
table off for dessert and no Mary; Ill 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. Shes 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 Ive never in all my life seen such a thing.
What a complete misuse of that expensive nard. Shame on you, Mary," Judas scolds.
"Havent you looked around and seen all of the poor people were 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.
Its 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
That response is almost as bizarre as Marys 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. Youll 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. Its 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 Marys act has been a
profound prophetic parable. Mary has been performing a charade-performing a burial action,
though no one knew it but Mary.
Marys 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
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 Marys 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 Marys 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
There is nothing skimpy or frugal about Jesus. In him Gods extravagant and
costly love has been made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of Gods mercy is made
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,
well 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.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997),
**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.