The Spiritual Practice of Wastefulness

John 12:1-8

[Watch the sermon video here.]

They called Jesus a waster. One who wastes.
Mary found her special perfume, which cost a year’s wages,
and poured it all over Jesus’ feet.

Priceless perfume oozed into his souls,
and then … the floor!

The onlookers remembered that Jesus rebuked extravagance.
Now, as priceless perfume soaked his skin
they called him a waster.

This gift, Judas claimed, could have been used for the poor.

The onlookers forgot that Jesus, too, knew poverty.
Born in a room reserved for animals,
Jesus had always been an outsider.
As an adult, Jesus did not have a place to lay his head;
he was homeless.
And now his friend Mary laid everything she had at his feet.
The onlookers, who gave nothing, objected.

What a waste, they had all said.

Perhaps they were jealous
that Mary’s generosity put to shame their tightfistedness.
Yes, they called Jesus a waster. 1


What if Jesus is a waster, one who is wasteful?
What if there is a spiritual value to wastefulness?


Mary lavishly shares her perfume.
Judas cynically inquires,
Was there not a move practical purpose for this perfume?
Couldn’t we have sold it for the poor?
Jesus responds, Leave her alone.
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
You will always have the poor,
but you will not always have me.


The line “You will always have the poor”
is a very famous line.
Here, many commentators think Jesus is referencing
Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads,
“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,
I therefore command you,
‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

Through that line, Jesus invites us to open our tight fists.

In this exchange, it’s almost as if Judas is asking,
“This act of love, it’s a waste, right?
Surely, there could have been a more practical way of operating, right”

Yet, Jesus seemingly responds,
“This extravagant gift of love
is what I most needed here and now.”

Hmmm. Just after this,
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey for Palm Sunday.
Unrest has already been stirred up.
Jesus recently resurrected Mary’s brother, Lazarus.
It was too much.
As soon as that happened,
the authorities decided that Jesus needed to be put to death.

Jesus the way, the life, the resurrection,
is walking a pathway that will ultimately end with
a state-sanctioned murder.

And right before this happens,
before all the disciples leave him in his most trying hour,
his friend Mary gives him her most treasured item: Nard Oil.

This pure oil came from a plant indigenous to India.
Many plant parts, and many miles were required
to bring this perfume to Bethany.
That’s why it cost so much.

And Mary takes this precious item
and empties it on Jesus’ feet,
working it into all the creases and callouses,
with her hands and her hair.

Blessing him with all that she had.

This strong scent will remain with him
when his student and friend Judas would betray him,
when his best pupil Peter, would deny even knowing him.
This sweet aroma would waft to his nose
as he faced Pilot and the authorities, as they said to him:
we will kill you.

This blessing of love would remain with him
even on the cross.

Dying, this sweet blessing of friendship
would bring to him a tender memory.

What a waste, they had said.

And yet, it is all Jesus had
in his final hours of agony.

That lavish gift of love, perhaps,
is the best gift of all.


To waste something means
we use it; we give it; we open our hands and share it.

To conserve something, sometimes,
means we don’t use it;
it is like that special unused soap getting dusty
and the special food you were going to eat,
and you save and save and save it until it ends up getting moldy.

What if our love, and our hearts, and our possessions
were meant to be wasted? To be given all away?

Give lavishly and love wastefully.


Mary breaks past social distance and touches Jesus.
Skin to skin. Hand to foot.

Of this enfleshed moment, author Mary Gordon writes,
“In the moment of the washing of the feet,
Jesus insists that beauty matters:
that the aesthetic can take precedence over the moral.”

Think of times that you have struggled,
what has comforted you the most?
Platitudes? Practical tips from a pragmatist?
Or the lavish and wasteful gestures of one who loves you?2


Jesus thinks Mary’s gift is beautiful.
Is it economically useless? Yes.
Is it practical? No.
Is it meaningful? Yes.

Beauty is never wasted.
Love is never squandered.


Someone once asked me,
How do you savor the beauty of wasting time with God?

I love this question.
It teaches us not everything needs to be useful.

Take your shoes off, like Moses, like Jesus,
like the disciples at the last supper.

Take off your shoes and worship God.
Savor the intimacy of this moment.
Where God breaks into your pandemic life
and loves you. Skin to skin.

Worship God. Get lost in the beauty.
Swept away in God’s love.


This is the Christian story,
if we would take it as our own.
Jesus teaches us not to fight violence with violence
but to confront crosses with perfume.
Confront swords with art, so you can make them into plowshares.
Meet machine guns with a blacksmith, so you can make them into garden hoes.

Meet the broken heart of the world
with a tender embrace,
like that of a mother hen with her chicks.


Jesus models this in his relationship with the disciples.
Like Mary, he too kneels down and encounters his beloveds
skin to skin and hand to foot. Breaking social distance.

Washing their feet.

There was no need to do this.
A servant could have done this.

And yet, he desired to give this gift of love.

As he handled the feet of his beloveds,
did he remember how his own feet had been held?

From even the cross, Jesus gave all of his love away.
Jesus conserved nothing for himself.

To even Jesus,
the stench of death comes.
Yet the sweet aroma of love remains.

A smell stronger than death.
A smell that lingers with us, always,
as we await what comes next.

Amen.


(1) This introduction is inspired by a passage written by the Iona Community on a similar scripture. Read the full passage here, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1035578303123778&id=127908227224128 .

(2) This stanza is a paraphrase of Debie Thomas’ work in her Journey with Jesus article, “Beauty and Breaking” (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3357-beauty-and-breaking). Specifically, she writes, “Think about it this way: in times of peril, pain, or trouble in your own life, what has comforted you the most? What has carried you through? The platitudes of a pragmatist? Or the lavish and ‘useless’ gestures of someone who loves you.”

Featured image is “Old little bottle with nards perfume” by jafsegal and is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse .

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