"What a Waste"

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Mark 14:3-9


“She has done what she could.”

What kinder judgment might we receive—that we did what we were able to do. We did what we could.

Perhaps it was something heroic or filled with wisdom or an act of great kindness or, as in the case of this unnamed woman, something extravagant.

Perhaps it was just some common courtesy or an act of generosity that was forced but accomplished nevertheless.

We did what we could.

We do what we are able to do, what we can do, following the example of this woman who did what she could.

We’ve been following Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem—disturbing business as usual in the Temple, teaching to the amazement and consternation of those who heard and argued with him.

The Gospels tell us that what will be the last week of Jesus’ life is the week leading up to Passover. It is a time of preparation as perhaps several million pilgrims would come into Jerusalem. There isn’t enough room for all of these people and many stay in places like Bethany, about a mile and a half away.

They arrive for this great festival remembering God’s mighty acts in freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The memory of deliverance out of Egypt mingles with the hope and expectation of a new freedom from the Roman empire.

As one person put it: The Romans knew that at a Passover time anything might happen and they were taking no chances.

Time seems to be running out for Jesus. Mark tells us that as he left the Temple one day early in this last week, Jesus starts to talk about the end of the world. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly, he says, like a thief in the night. So keep awake.

Now just two days before the Passover some are looking for a way to arrest and kill Jesus.

Things are getting real.

There in Bethany Jesus is eating. This is not the “Last Supper” in the Upper Room that we will remember on Maundy Thursday. It is what has been called the “First Dinner,” simply a meal at a home.

The setting and the host get our interest. It is the house of Simon the leper.

Now, as you know, lepers were commonly neither hosts nor guests in the ancient world. They were outcasts. Most people avoided them at all costs, from understandable fear of contagion.

Not Jesus, however. Stories abound of his affinity for such people. He healed them and brought them back into the civic and religious life of their communities. He made it clear to anyone who would listen that those whom others despised—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers—were at the head of the line, entering the realm of God long before all the rest of us.

A lot of commentators say that Simon must have been someone whom Jesus cured. But Mark does not say this.

So here is Simon a surprising host.

Here are various guests.

Here is Jesus.

And here is a woman.

She comes into this room and we don’t really know how she got there. Is she a member of the household, one of the many women who provided support for Jesus, an invited guest, or an intruder?

You’ve probably been told before that in the ancient Middle East, people reclined at a low table to eat, resting their heads on their left hand, eating with their right. Standing well above Jesus, then, she breaks open a flask of nard and pours it over his head.

This is where the controversy begins.

Here is a woman, who, like many of the women who gathered around Jesus, has great resources—enough to buy a good quantity of nard, an aromatic oil from a flowering plant grown in India and China. Many people would have to work for about a year in order to afford the oil in that flask. And this woman just pours it out in a prodigal act. In a short time all of that value is gone, irretrievably running through Jesus’ hair, down his clothing, and filling the room with its fragrance.

At the beginning of his reign, a king was anointed with oil.

At death a body was anointed with oil before burial.

The Hebrew word, messiah, means anointed one—as does the Greek word, Christ.

This woman did what she could, pouring out everything in what the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich called “a waste growing out of the abundance of the heart.”

“Abundance of the heart,” of course, is just what is often feared by many who gather around Jesus. Many would instead advocate for the measured, the reasonable, the restrained.

You hear this in the grumbling of those present at the meal: “Why was this ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.”

And you can see this same fear of abundance of the heart in the way that this incident is generally forgotten or ignored or buried.

Jesus says that “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

But when the Revised Common Lectionary—an ecumenical plan for reading major scripture texts in worship over the course of three years—was developed, this story was left out.

I have a decent collection of hymnals from many denominations, but I was only able to find one hymn in all of them that was based on this story. It’s not in our hymnal, but it is in the New Century Hymnal, the UCC hymnal, which is encouraging to know. Kristin sang it this during the offering this morning.

And in the 11½ years that I have preached from this pulpit, how many times have you heard me preach from this text? Ten times? Five times?

I’ll tell you—just once.

Maybe my predecessors were better at this, but I doubt it. This story of one unnamed woman calls us to explore the many stories of women in scripture who are unnamed, whose stories are ignored, forgotten, and untold.

If this story is to be told wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, what has been preached and heard instead?

Most likely a message of holy restraint. Or a message of grim, earnest sacrifice. Or a message of hand-wringing concern.

Concern was the motivation of those who complained—and let us grant their sincerity as they speak. Certainly they knew, as did Jesus, of the great and good Jewish tradition of concern for the poor. When Jesus told the other guests at the meal that they would always have the poor with them, he was quoting the words from Deuteronomy that we heard this morning. The poor are here, Jesus says, and you—we—can show kindness to them at any time.

We can and we should show such kindness.

The poor show up at this building throughout the week, looking for bus passes, something to eat, help with rent, assistance to buy medicine, or simply for a welcome and a place of a few minutes’ refuge from a very rough world. We provide as we are able.

We do what we can.

As a brief aside, I should let you know that our Office Manager, Nan Martin, is often the first person that the poor see when they come here. And she shows the kindness to them that Jesus commends to all of us. Such work usually goes unseen and unrecognized, but it is good to have her as a representative of this congregation to people in our community.

In addition to the human kindness that this congregation offers, the poor also seek decent and accessible health care, a living wage so that poverty does not continue to define them, and affordable housing—that is to say, the same things that all of us seek. And we can continue to insist that our government and businesses and institutions and landlords show this human kindness on a larger scale—that is to say, that they show not kindness alone but also justice.

Deuteronomy—along with the entire Old Testament—speaks of the compassionate God who calls to the people: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand…”

Such compassion and concern are good things.

But there is good to be found in the extravagant, in the excessive as well.

If we think we should only walk, where will be the dancing?

If we think we should only speak, where will be the singing?

Amy-Jill Levine, the New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School whose book we are currently exploring in the adult education sessions gives a small example: “Bringing flowers to a friend in the hospital could be seen as waste: the flowers are just going to die, and there are poor people who could have used the money spent on the roses or the vase. But at that time, and in that place, the flowers can brighten the spirit of the one who is suffering.” She concludes: “We need to care for our friends, and to do good things for them. The point is not to buy a bottle of Channel every week; it is to know when, and where, and with what.”

To the scolds in the room that night and in the church today, Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.” Or a better translation might be “She has performed a beautiful service for me.”

Paul Tillich reminds us: “People are sick not only because they have not received love but also because they are not allowed to give love, to waste themselves.” Our very health may be recovered in such abundant generosity.

And Tillich encourages us: “Do not suppress in yourself or in others the abundant heart, the waste of self-surrender, the Spirit who trespasses all reason. Do not greedily preserve your time and your strength for what is useful and reasonable. Keep yourselves open for the creative moment which may appear in the midst of what seemed to be waste. Do not suppress in yourselves the impulse to do what the woman at Bethany did. You will be reproached by the disciples as the woman was. But Jesus was on her side and he is also on yours.”

This woman at Bethany, unnamed, often forgotten is remembered for her great generosity, for doing something extravagant.

“She has performed a beautiful service for me,” Jesus says.

Then he adds, significantly, I think, “She did what she could.”

And that might be the even greater point here: that we are called to do what we can and to do what we can to the fullest measure. Our gifts and abilities differ; what we have in common is the need to use what we have and who we are as completely as possible.

Walk or dance, speak or sing. Do all to the best of your ability. What we give our whole heart to—and what we give whole-heartedly—will make a difference in this world.

Since time is always running out, one way to spend the days we have is in such giving.

In 14 days we will mark Palm Sunday and the beginning of the week leading to Easter. We will see again that this is the point of Jesus in his last week—giving all that he is in order to become all that he might be for us and for this world—and inviting those who would follow in his way to do the same.

Let us the keep before us this story so central to the good news that it must be told—even here, even among us.

She has done what she could.

May we do the same.