Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” Matthew 26.6-13.
In my mind, there is no doubt that the story told here is the same story that John tells in chapter twelve of his gospel. Against that, it is sometimes said that John sets the dinner that is being held in Jesus’ honour at the house of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, not at the house of the (presumably-ex-) leper, Simon. But John never says that; he simply reports that the brother and sisters were present at the dinner and that Martha was helping with the food.
If the two stories are one and the same, however, then the woman with her flask of ointment here in this morning’s reading is Mary of Bethany — a woman who clearly had, for some time, cherished a deep and devoted love for Jesus. She was someone who would never miss an opportunity to “sit at his feet and listen to his teaching” (Luke 10.39). And now she knows that his life is in very great danger for the Jewish authorities are making no secret of their determination to have Jesus put to death if they can find a suitable opportunity (John 11.53, 57).
So she gets the most precious thing she possesses — this flask of very costly perfume and pours it on his head. Flasks of perfume such as this were often used as a means of investment in those troubled times. They could be hidden in the floor. They could be retrieved from their hiding place and strung round the neck if you had to move out quickly from where you lived. They appreciated in value and they could be readily turned into cash whenever necessary. But Mary takes her security and pours it out on Jesus. She takes her future and invests it all in him. And those around her, even Jesus’ own disciples, say, “What a waste!”
It strikes me this morning that much of what we Christians do, day-in and day-out, is regarded in just that way by the people around us who don’t share our faith. “What a waste of time to spend a couple of hours each morning writing a devotional blog!” “What a waste of time and money to travel to Nicaragua to ‘spread the gospel’ to a load of nobodies!” (Which is what my friend Micey has just done.) “What a waste to spend hours singing hymns and saying prayers and doing all that stuff in church.” “What a waste to give up an evening to study the Bible with other Christians.” “What a waste to give your hard-earned money to Mercy Ships, or Tear Fund, or World Vision — particularly when we’re in the middle of a recession!”
But what is waste? It is something spent or thrown away thoughtlessly; something disposed of inappropriately. And the moment we put it in those terms, we see where the problem that people have with our use of time and money lies. They don’t see Jesus or his people or his kingdom as being in any way worth what we spend on him, or them, or it.
There is a TV advert that encourages ladies to spend a lot of money on hair and beauty products, “because your worth it;” and when push comes to shove that is the measure of everyone’s spending in every direction — time, money, effort, and emotions. The more I consider something to be worth, the more I will be prepared to spend on it. That tells us all we need to know about Mary. For her, Jesus was worth every penny she possessed, every breath she breathed, every bit of love in her heart. It all ended up on his head and (according to John) his feet. It is what a hymn calls “costly devotion,” but I wonder if there is any other kind of devotion. If I say I love Jesus, what sort of love is it if it costs me nothing, or only some carefully budgeted amount? What sort of love is it if I am not prepared to pour out extravagantly and gladly my time and my money and my energies on him?
He called what Mary did not “waste” but “a beautiful thing.” Lord, let me do some “wasteful” beautiful things for you today. Amen.