Waste not want not. It’s a phrase most of us are familiar with. Depending on when you were born it may mean different things to you than to your neighbor. When I was growing up my mom used this term usually to refer to the food on our plates. When my grandmother was a young girl it would have been used to talk about flour sacks, tin foil, hose, pieces or wood or scrap metal, glass, etc.
Waste is a very different concept for different people. My grandmother never used Ziploc bags for anything. She found their very existence wasteful. She had Tupperware, the good kind, and cloths to wrap food in. My Mom on the other hand loved plastic Ziploc bags. She had them in every size and style. She loved that they were disposable because it meant less time washing dishes. What was wasteful to my Grandmother signified freedom for my mom.
In today’s scripture we are told about a woman, named Mary, who uses a very extravagant gift on Jesus’ feet. No, she doesn’t give him a pedicure, she washes his feet with this costly perfume and the dries it with her hair.
While in our day and time this would be seen as odd, quirky, personal space invading behavior, it had completely different connotations in Jesus’ world. First, the disciples and Jesus are spending time in Bethany and Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ home. This is this same family that a chapter before has experienced the miraculous return from the dead of their brother. Jesus has been said to love these three. They are close to Jesus and he has reunited them.
Here they sit at a meal together, reclining at the table. Martha is serving, and Lazarus sits with Jesus. In walks Mary with a pound of perfume made from pure nard. Judas tells us it is worth 300 denarii- 300 day’s wages. She takes this perfume and pours it all over Jesus’ feet.
Have you ever been in a room where someone sprayed on perfume? It doesn’t take long for that scent to waft towards you, even in a room as large as this sanctuary. Scents are powerful. When I served as a hospital chaplain and later as a hospice chaplain, scents were forbidden because they could affect people in so many ways. Not only are people allergic or sensitive to them, scent is also one of the most powerful connections we have to memory. Just a hint of Oil of Olay original scent brings my Grandma into focus for me.
Here, a pound of the stuff is poured out. The smell would have overpowered the room. Everyone would have taken notice. No one could have ignored or not recognized that this was happening. What Mary did was not a private hidden act, but a public bold statement.
To add to her boldness, Mary dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. To do this, her hair would have had to have been uncovered, and more than likely loose. These things were not done in mixed company in those days. Women kept their heads covered. It was proper, dignified, required. Here, Mary uncovers her hair and drapes it over a man’s feet. And a man she is not married to or even related to! The horror. This was a huge huge social no no! This kind of thing wasn’t done. Period.
In other versions of this story people watching are amazed that this loose woman, a stereotype based on the loose hair, would dare to approach Jesus in such a manner, and that Jesus would allow it to occur. In John’s version no one seems shocked that Mary has unbound her hair, but they certainly take issue with the use of the perfume.
There are always the fiscally conservative among any group. People must keep an eye on the cost of things. Within most religious institutions there is a treasurer, perhaps a finance committee or even a Board of Trustees that is responsible for giving an accounting of funds received and funds used. In most cases this is an accountability issue. We want to make sure that funds and facilities are being used to their fullest potential. There is nothing wrong with that. We should be good stewards of what we are given to be stewards over.
Judas was the treasure of the group. It makes sense that he would call this use of resources into question. Three hundred days wages was a lot of money. Nothing to laugh at. Of course, he would want to know why it was being, in his mind, waisted like this.
John throws in the snide comment that Judas used to steal from the common purse and that’s why he was so interested in the value of the perfume. Could be truth, although none of the other Gospel writers tell us this about Judas. It could be character assassination, to keep Judas solidly in the betrayer category John seems fond of.
So, there is Mary, sitting on the floor, wiping Jesus’ feet, her hair, hands, whole house covered in the scent of her worship. And there sits Judas judging her.
Mary didn’t just stumble upon this costly perfume. This was the kind of perfume used to anoint the dead. It was used to keep the body from smelling. She had this perfume, not because she kept a store of such extravagant and expensive things. She had it because her brother was dead, had died, and it was needed.
But, but she hadn’t had to use it for its intended purpose. Her brother Lazarus is alive! Sitting at the table with Jesus and the disciples, eating and drinking with them. Out of her extreme gratitude, an act of worship, she pours it out over Jesus’ feet. This extravagant, wasteful act is anything but wasted.
Jesus holds her up as an example saying that this perfume was to anoint him for his burial, which would come in a few days’ time. Mary might not have known at that point that her gift would be one to and for a dying Jesus, but it was a gift of worship.
Thursday night I went with Chrissy to the Winning Women gathering at Restoration church. Pastor Angela told a story at the beginning about a time she was speaking at a women’s event and she felt the Lord telling her to bring a rose for every woman in attendance. Her first thought was, that’s going to be expensive. But she did it. She bought dozens of roses and handed one out to every woman there. When she was done she had three left over. She felt pretty good about that. Then she heard the Spirit urging her to give all three of those roses to a woman seated near her. So, she did. The woman began to cry and left the auditorium. Years later she ran into this woman at the store. The woman recognized her. She called out to her to thank her for the roses. She said that she had never been given a flower in her entire 46 years of life and that those roses had shown her she was valued, special and loved.
Because of this encounter, Pastor Angela likes to give things away at the women’s meetings. I thought it was a very sweet story but put it out of my mind. Then another leader asked us to pick up our purses and prepare to be the first ones to bring an item to the front.
Now, you all know I don’t carry a purse. Chrissy had already commented that I wasn’t going to win anything because I don’t carry a bag with me. The very first thing called out for was an expired drivers license. While I don’t carry a purse, I do carry a wallet. And in that wallet are two expired drivers license along with my current one. So, I went to the front to claim my prize. Pastor Angela was holding up a box filled with cooking things and I looked at it and reached in for the oven mitt and started to pull it out to take. Then she shook her head and said, “No honey, you get the whole basket.”
They gave away at least 6 baskets or gifts, each beautiful, filled with goodies and extravagant.
I’m sure there are some who might say these gifts are wasteful. They don’t take up an offering, the women who come all attend different churches. There is not a mention of regular worship times. But to this group these gifts are an act of worship. A way of sharing the love that they have received and continue to receive from God with others.
What is wasteful worship? I am sure, if we were to look closely we could find ways that others see our worship as wasteful. Perhaps in the time spent on praises and prayer requests could be better used, or the passing of the peace could be streamlined. But these things are not here just to take up time. They are a part of our worship. A time for connecting with God and with one another as God’s children.
To Judas, it was Mary’s worship, pouring out something that could be used in other ways onto feet, onto hair, onto the ground. Jesus doesn’t agree.
And I’m sure Mary was reminded of the approval of her worship throughout that week, Holy week. The smell would have clung with her, to her hands, in her hair, as she watched Jesus walk the path to Calvary. As she watched him hang on the cross, the scent of her worship surrounded her. As she saw him laid in the tomb, the scent lingered. When she heard the good news of his resurrection, the scent turned from mourning to dancing. Her wasteful worship lingered as a witness of the power of Christ, yes even power over death.
Worship with a purpose is anything but wasteful. May our worship be extravagant, loving and overpowering so that it stays with us throughout the trials and suffering of our lives. May our worship bring witness to Jesus’ power, yes even the power of resurrection and new life.