Leaving Salem

“What a waste.” When a young person dies recklessly and unnecessarily, friends gather and respond, “What a waste.” When I spend an afternoon waiting and waiting (and waiting) at the dentist’s office or at the bank I conclude, “What a waste.” When I scrape mounds of uneaten food off my children’s plate into the trash can I wince, thinking of the very lectures my parents delivered to me about the starving masses, and I say to them, “What a waste.” Sometimes when I see the actual value of my tax dollars at work I complain, “What a waste.”

The dictionary defines waste as an act of “spending thoughtlessly; to use inefficiently or inappropriately; to throw away.” The disciples of Jesus witnessed just such a careless act first hand. The event is recorded in some form in all four gospels.

Jesus, just days before his death, was at a party. Jesus loved parties. We seem to find him attending them more often than attending synagogue. This particular party was interrupted by a woman who forced herself upon Jesus and his fellow revelers. We are not certain of the woman’s name, though a similar woman in John’s gospel is called “Mary.” But we do know she was an immoral woman. A prostitute. A whore. It is likely that she had been the object of Jesus’ grace and goodness. She had been a recipient of his forgiveness. In gratitude she seeks out Jesus with a near priceless gift – an expensive bottle of perfume.

The gospel writers value the sweet-smelling bottle at a year’s wages. Let’s put that in perspective. At today’s federal minimum wage this was a gift that cost at least $10,000. In the economy of the first century it might be the equivalent of more like $50,000 today. This was the kind of perfume or gift that served as a family heirloom. Likely, it had been passed along to the woman from a mother or grandmother. Over generations the family fortune had been spent to acquire this prize. It was an invaluable keepsake; an inheritance to be protected and safeguarded. It was the kind of ointment saved for the day when a loved one died and the body must be embalmed. But this nameless woman squandered it on this traveling rabbi, this itinerate preacher.

She gathered herself at the feet of Jesus. Her tears dripped from her face onto Jesus’ ankles and calloused feet, washing away the Palestinian dust. Her long, oily hair served as a thirsty towel. Then, stunning the onlookers, she poured out the expensive contents of the bottle on Jesus’ feet, hair and body. Jesus’ disciples, after reeling in their slack jaws, were indignant. They snorted and protested, clucked their tongues and scratched their heads. “What a waste!” they cried out. Their motives were seemingly pure. “This expensive perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor” they scolded. But you can hear the sarcastic judgment in their objections.

Who does this woman think she is? Why has she wasted this kind of priceless treasure? How can one person be so stupidly irresponsible? But Jesus scolds his disciples in return, and turns to the woman with genuine gratitude. His reply from Mark’s gospel is beautiful: “Leave her alone. Why criticize her for doing such a good thing to me…She has done what she could and has anointed my body for burial ahead of time.”

This worthless woman with a worthwhile gift had completed a worthy act. She, not the religious leaders and Christ-following disciples in the room, she – the outsider, the untouchable, the marginal – understood Jesus’ coming passion and death. She poured out her treasure in advance of the burial she knew was coming. She “did what she could.” Extravagantly. Willingly. Intentionally. But not thoughtlessly, inefficiently or inappropriately. She threw nothing away. She gave out of a heart of devotion, and that made all the difference.

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