“Why this waste?” they asked.
Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Matthew 26:8-10)
Chris Farley was too much. As a comedian in clubs, TV, and movies, Chris Farley got laughs with his outrageous antics, by always being too much. In his personal life, too, it was always too much. He ate too much, drank too much, weighed too much, made too much money, spent too much money, and when he died in his thirties, it was from too much drugs.
Michael Hutchence was also too much. In fact, his rock band had a name that simply means too much: INXS. “In excess” was the name of his band and the motto of his life. Apparently, though, Michael finally had an excess of being in excess, and he decided to end it all by hanging himself with his own belt in a motel room. One friend said that if had Michael had accidentally overdosed or crashed his motorbike off a cliff, it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Michael was always overdoing things or going too fast. But suicide? Choosing death? That was a shock.
Chris Farley and Michael Hutchence are two recent additions to a growing graveyard of entertainers and rock stars who lived extravagantly and died senselessly. Their deaths give moralizers another chance for head shaking and finger-wagging and lengthy lectures on being sensible and careful and not going overboard. Other recent deaths of famous people provide more material for moralizers. Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono got carried away with their enthusiasm for high-speed, high-risk skiing, and it killed them. “Hear ye! Hear ye!” cry the moralizers. “Be more careful, play it safe, don’t do anything wild”–and so on and so forth.
At the opposite end from the moralizers are the idolizers, those who worship celebrities as geniuses, humanitarians, and champions of all that is true and good and beautiful. Even if the celebrities are petty or self-indulgent, their worshipers think they’re glorious. No matter how foolishly they die, their adoring fans see some sort of grand meaning in their death.
From Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley to more recent celebrities who died at an early age, there’s a tendency to react either by idolizing the fallen star or else by moralizing on the dangers of excess. Both reactions have some truth in them, and yet idolizing and moralizing are both mistaken.
The moralizers are obviously right that if you’re not careful, you can destroy yourself. Still, moralizing is often hollow and ineffective. [Chris Farley heard plenty of lectures on being careful. His idol was John Belushi. His comedy career mirrored Belushi’s, and his personal life also mirrored Belushi’s wild lifestyle. His friends warned him that if he didn’t change, he’d end dying like Belushi. But Farley plunged ahead anyway, and sure enough, he ended up dying in almost the exact same way as Belushi did and even at the very same age. So the moralizers were right that excess could be fatal, but what good did their moralizing do?] It seldom works to tell people to stop doing something bad if the only alternative is an unexciting, empty little existence. Is it really so much worse to party yourself to death than to die of boredom? Is killing time really so much better than killing yourself?
The idolizers are on to something that many moralizers miss. They see something grand in extravagance, in not doing everything on a safe, small, dull scale. Something in the human spirit favors uninhibited, unbounded outpourings of energy and emotion and enthusiasm. Something in us loves what is lively and lavish, wild and costly. Celebrity idolizers who admire extravagance are in touch with a valid impulse which moralizers often miss in their insistence on drab, dull, tame little lives. The idolizers are right to see something good in extravagance and wildness. Where they go wrong is in adoring people who are extravagant in self-indulgence rather than extravagant for something grander, whose wildness is not the wildness of an eagle soaring upward but the wildness of a crazed animal plunging headlong off a cliff.
Extravagance can be great–if a person is extravagant in the right way and for the right reasons. Choosing to die can be the most splendid thing anyone can do–if they’re laying down their life for the right reason, rather than throwing it away for no reason at all. There is an infinite difference between the extravagant self-indulgence and self-destruction of a celebrity and the extravagant self-sacrifice of a saint.
I say all of this to introduce a story about a woman who did something that in one sense was a waste, an offense to moralizers and accountants. No careful, calculating person would have done what she did. It was expensive and inefficient, as wasteful as the most extravagant action of the wildest celebrity. And yet this woman’s wasteful action wasn’t bad; it was good. In fact, it was better than good–it was wonderful. It wasn’t a tragic waste like so many fallen stars whose excesses are for nothing; it was a wonderful waste that delighted Jesus himself.
This wonderful waste came shortly before Jesus was about to embark on the most wonderful waste of all and lay down his holy life for a rotten world. The woman knew that Jesus was going to die soon, and her extravagant love for Jesus was a response to the boundless love of Jesus that would soon bring him to the cross. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Nothing I give Jesus, no matter how costly, can match the gift Jesus gave me on the cross. Here’s the story of someone who saw Jesus’ death coming even before it happened and showed Jesus her love by giving him the most precious gift she had.
Not long before Jesus was arrested and crucified, he spent some time in the village of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. He had good friends in Bethany: two sisters named Mary and Martha, their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and a man named Simon the leper, whom Jesus had healed. There in Bethany, Jesus’ friends gave a dinner in his honor. The party was at Simon’s house. Martha, always an excellent hostess, cooked and served the food. Lazarus and Mary were also there, along with the twelve disciples who worked with Jesus and traveled with him.
Right in the middle of dinner, Mary took an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3). She also poured some on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3).
Some of those present were outraged. “Why this waste of perfume?” they snorted. “It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly (Mark 14:4). The loudest objector was the financial expert who handled the money, Judas Iscariot (John 12:4).
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:6-9).
Let’s think about this story in three parts. First, let’s look at Mary and what she did. Second, let’s look at Mary’s critics and their complaints. Third, let’s focus on Jesus and his warm approval of Mary.
First, then, Mary. Why did Mary do what she did? She did it because she knew something: she knew Jesus would die soon at the hands of powerful people. How did Mary know that? By listening to Jesus and believing what he said. Jesus had told his friends that he would be arrested and put to death. But his words didn’t get through to most of them. Either they weren’t paying attention or they couldn’t bear to take him seriously. But Mary did pay attention, and she took what Jesus said to heart.
That’s one key to understanding Mary: she was a listener and learner. The Bible tells of an earlier incident where someone criticized Mary but Jesus approved her. On that occasion, Mary’s sister Martha opened her home to Jesus. Martha was busy preparing dinner for him–so busy, in fact, that she wasn’t conversing with Jesus. Mary, however, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said. This upset Martha. She came to Jesus and complained, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42). It’s great to work for Jesus, but listening to him and enjoying him is even more important. In fact, no matter how good your activity might be, it can become grumpy, misguided activism if it’s not energized by Jesus’ nearness and guided by Jesus’ teaching. We need to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
Mary knew of Jesus’ impending death before anyone else simply because she was listened and learned. But Mary did more than listen and learn; she also loved! She didn’t just take the fact of Jesus’ impending death as a piece of information. No, her heart was moved by the great love of Jesus that was bringing him to the cross, and she wanted to show her love for him while he was still alive. She didn’t save all her expressions of love for after he was dead, as people too often do. Sometimes we shower more words and affection and flowers on people after they die than we did while they were alive. But not Mary. She knew Jesus would die, and she wanted to show him her love.
Mary’s love was extravagant and uninhibited. She used an alabaster container of pure nard, an item so expensive that even rich people kept it mainly as a showpiece to be admired or handed down as an heirloom, not as something actually to be used. But Mary took this costly keepsake and broke the top off the jar and poured it all out on Jesus, holding nothing back. Then, ignoring what others might think, she let down her hair–which some would think scandalous–and wiped Jesus’ feet with it.
Have you ever done something without regard for expense or embarrassment, simply because you love the Lord Jesus? Or are you extravagant only for yourself? Last year a popular preacher moved to a new city. He left behind side-by-side houses, one with an indoor pool, the other with its own bowling alley, and he moved on to something just as opulent. “When I moved,” he said, “I bought the biggest house I could afford. There’s nothing wrong with being blessed and successful.” This preacher and Mary were both extravagant. But the preacher practiced extravagant consumerism; Mary practiced extravagant Christianity. The preacher gave himself the best he could afford; Mary gave Jesus the best she could afford. What about you and me? If we’re extravagant at all, is it in giving, or only in getting?
Earlier we saw how some celebrities live in excess and die from excess. Mary went to excess, too, but hers was not selfish excess: she did it out of love for Jesus. Also, Mary’s was not mindless excess; she acted out of her knowlege of Jesus and of how he would die for her.
Having said all that, however, it was still a waste, an excess. Mary threw expense and caution and propriety to the wind. Have you ever done anything like that for Jesus, something expensive and daring, extravagant and uncalculating? Or do you fit in better with the critics who punched numbers into their calculators and griped about Mary’s wastefulness?
Let’s turn from Mary to her critics. At one level, the critics were absolutely right. Mary had dumped more than a year’s wages in less than a minute. Which is better, to smell a sweet scent for a few moments or to fill a homeless person’s stomach for a year? The answer is obvious, or so thought Mary’s critics.
These complainers were utilitarians: “the greatest good of the greatest number.” Utilitarians love statistics. They evaluate virtue with calculators and balance sheets. Since there’s no statistic for beauty or love or holiness, these things don’t count for much with utilitarians. They’d rather keep the soup kitchens running and make sure the bills get paid. Utilitarians want results that can be measured. If they give money for a cause, they want “more bang for the buck.” They want to know exactly how many people have received exactly how much help. And that’s not all bad. We should care about the poor; we should care that limited resourced get used wisely. But beware of talking so much about caring for the poor that you forget about loving and worshiping Jesus himself. Beware of being such an expert on budgeting that you end up siding with Judas instead of Jesus.
Judas criticized Mary harshly and said how many poor people could have been helped with the money from Mary’s perfume. But, says the Bible, “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” (John 12:6). Judas isn’t that last person to complain that a church shouldn’t waste money that could be helping the poor, when he is doing little to help the poor himself. They are horrified if a church spends money on something that isn’t practical. Meanwhile, in their own lives, they spend thousands of dollars on cigarettes, alcohol, entertainment, cars, furniture, and fancy houses. These experts on finances are better at telling others how money should be spent than at giving their own money to help the poor.
Look what became of Judas, the champion of the poor. Right after he criticized Mary and was rebuked by Jesus, Judas went out and betrayed Jesus to his enemies for thirty pieces of silver and ended up destroying himself. That’s what can happen when we talk only about helping the poor and forget about Jesus himself. It can mean hypocrisy and disaster for a person. It can even lead to hypocrisy and disaster for entire nations.
Consider communism. The leading lights of communism were utilitarians. Like Judas, communism talked as though helping the poor was the only thing that mattered. Like Judas, communism stifled devotion to Jesus. Like Judas, when communist leaders got control of a nation’s purse, they did more to enrich themselves than to help the poor. Like Judas, communism was traitorous and murderous and ended up destroying itself. Without the sweet scent of love and worship for Jesus, a single-minded focus on economics and eliminating poverty can kill millions and wreck entire economies and societies–all in the name of helping!
Maybe, though, you’re not a thief or self-centered hypocrite like Judas. Maybe you’re not a communist who talks like an idealist but acts like a selfish, ruthless thug. Even so, is it possible that you’re like the other disciples who joined Judas in criticizing Mary? You take one good ideal, such as helping the poor, and use it as the supreme measuring stick for every action. But it’s dangerous to think that just because a certain goal is good, anything that doesn’t contribute directly to that goal is bad. And it’s dangerous to judge another person’s way of showing her love for Jesus, especially when our own love is far weaker.
It’s all too easy to be tight-fisted, cold-hearted grumps who throw a wet blanket on every spark of passion and love and beauty and worship. Beware of joining the wet blanket club! Beware of quenching the Spirit of God and smothering beauty in the name of efficiency. Beware of always asking, “How much does it cost?” without ever asking, “What is this worth to Jesus?”
Some of us feel threatened when a person does something for Jesus that we wouldn’t have done or that we don’t understand. We feel even more threatened when we fear that their love for the Lord is more extravagant and passionate than our own. We’re more at home with lukewarmness. We’re more at ease with budgets than with beauty. And so, rather than admiring or imitating someone who truly loves the Lord, we criticize. We’d rather not admit that our knowledge of Jesus is less or that our love for Jesus is colder than that of the person we are criticizing.
Still, no matter how many voices joined Judas in attacking Mary, one voice did not, the one voice that really mattered: the voice of Jesus. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus.
While everybody else was saying, “How much did that stuff cost?” Jesus was noticing how great it smelled. While everyone else was figuring out the bill, Jesus was breathing in the sweet scent of that wonderful perfume and the splendid aroma of Mary’s love for him. The first thing he said about Mary was simply this: “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” You call it a waste? Maybe so, but it was a wonderful waste. “She has done a beautiful thing.” Beauty has no price tag, not because it’s worthless, but because it’s priceless.
Jesus said another great thing about Mary: “She did what she could.” Mary lavished her most treasured possession on Jesus. “She did what she could.” Oh, for Jesus to say that of you and me! Oh, that I might love him so much that I do all I can for him, even if it’s expensive, even if it’s embarrassing, even if I get criticized for it. Jesus loves to be loved. He measures our gifts not just by the practical results but by the love we show.
But what about the poor? Well, said Jesus, there will always be poor people around. Go ahead and help them anytime you want. But don’t make concern for the poor into an excuse for knocking someone else’s devotion to Jesus. Indeed, if Mary’s critics hadn’t been so blind, they would have seen that Jesus himself was among the poor at that moment, that he was headed for suffering and death, and that he simply wanted to be treasured and loved.
Today one excellent way to show our love for Jesus is to help the poor (with whom Jesus so often identified and still identifies himself). But even helping the poor in Jesus’ name isn’t just a matter of money but of love; not just a matter of mouths fed and diseases healed and results measured, but of touching people with the beauty of love.
As we seek to help the poor according to our resources and opportunities, loving our neighbor is enormously important, but let’s not forget that loving our neighbor is still only the second greatest commandment. The greatest is to love our Lord. Jesus loves to be loved.
He made that crystal-clear in his reaction to Mary. Because her love was so lavish, Jesus decided to reward her by making sure her wonderful waste would never be forgotten. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). And that’s exactly what is happening even as I speak: Jesus’ words are being fulfilled yet again.
It may have seemed a bit ridiculous for Jesus to say this. After all, we was in a room with only a handful of friends who had no clout or international connections, and Jesus himself would be enduring a disgraceful death in just a few days. Under those circumstances, how could he talk so confidently about this story being repeated all around the world? Well, it’s happening, isn’t it? Right at this moment as I speak, people in more than fifty countries are hearing me tell of Mary’s outpouring. So Jesus’ prediction was obviously right–as always!
Although Jesus died as he predicted, he also rose as he predicted. By his resurrection power and through his Holy Spirit, Jesus has been making his gospel spread around the world as he predicted–and he’s been making sure that Mary’s wonderful waste is part of the story. Jesus has this way of making sure that some of the most inefficient, ineffective acts of love turn out to have a greater effect than things that seem more important and practical. It is never a waste to waste what he have on Jesus. Mary’s perfume lingers in our world still today, making it better and more beautiful, long after more sensible, cost-effective deeds are gone and forgotten.
In the story of Mary’s wonderful waste, we see how wonderful Jesus himself is. Would Mary have ever done such a thing if Jesus had not been an absolutely wonderful friend and teacher? And keep in mind that if Mary knew Jesus would die, Jesus knew it far better. Yet he stayed on the path to the cross, rather than turning away. Jesus didn’t just suffer and die. He chose to suffer and die, not as a tragic suicide, but as our substitute, the only one who could take our place and take the sins of the world upon himself and pay the full penalty so that we could be forgiven and live forever.
Jesus knew that his approval of Mary and his rebuke of Judas would be the last straw for Judas and lead to the betrayal and crucifixion. But because Jesus loved Mary and because he loved the world, he sided with beauty and against the bean counters. He defended Mary’s costly sacrifice, and in the process, he set in motion his own far more costly sacrifice of laying down his life to take away the sin of the world. What courage! What compassion! At the same time, Jesus knew that death would not be the end. He knew he would rise from the dead and spread the good news to people all around the world. What confidence! What power! What a Savior! Still today Jesus wants us to believe in his wonderful waste for us and be willing to waste all we have for him. He you and me to be friends and worshipers like Mary, who listen at his feet, are overwhelmed by his love at the cross, and respond by loving him extravagantly.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.