“Waste not, want not,” the old saying goes. The idea is that by re-using, saving ends and bits of things, being creative about left-overs, we will stretch our income and resources in helpful ways. For many people this has always been a way of life, either because of economic necessity, or for some other reason. I have a friend whose family always saves string because her great-grandmother lived five miles from town in the days before automobiles and used to say, “You can’t run into town every time you want a piece of string” – hence the family saved string scrupulously.
Of course, during the Great Depression millions of Americans were forced to learned the importance of thrift and creative re-use – a shock for some after the seemingly endless economic party of the 1920s. And then the whole country was thrown into the necessity of making every dollar, penny, piece of fabric, and food purchase count when we went on a war footing during the 1940s. In fact, cook books and home magazines of the time featured articles and recipes that would cut down on waste, not only to feed and clothe families, but to feed and clothe the troops. It was our patriotic duty to do so.
More recently we have learned that our earth’s resources can be shared more equally for the benefit of all if we reduce our consumption, re-use, and recycle all manner of paper, plastic, and metal. And as we become more aware of the number of hungry and food insecure people and families in our country, our state, and our county, we are learning that food waste is a big problem, and that reducing food waste can help. The numbers are pretty staggering. Nearly 16% of the US population – 49 million people – are hungry in some way; 1.1 million in New Jersey – 12.4% of New Jersey residents; and in Morris and Somerset counties, the rate of hunger is nearly 8% - a combined total of 64,210 people – 55% percent of whom have incomes that just high enough that they don’t qualify for food stamps or other programs. To waste food or anything else in the face of this kind of struggle and need seems almost sinful.
And yet, this morning’s Gospel reading is all about waste, and the lavish use of exceedingly expensive scented ointment, which Jesus does not criticize. What’s going on?
Jesus is at a dinner party in the village of Bethany, at the house of his friends Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus – the one Jesus restored to life after he died. This was a good place, a safe place for Jesus among his close friends, accompanied by the disciples. And it was especially poignant, as the Gospel writer looks back on it, because it was only six days before Passover, that day when the conflict with the religious authorities and the occupying imperial power would finally boil over and result in Jesus’ crucifixion.
This story appears in all four Gospels, in one form or another, but here in John, the setting is this home and family who are dear to him. Mary - the one who had previously sat and listened to Jesus’ teaching and wisdom while her sister Martha cooked the meal, served the food, and did the dishes – Mary took on the traditional role of a servant or female member of the household, and washed Jesus’ feet. But instead of a pitcher of water, she washed his feet with her tears, and she dried them not with a towel, but with her long hair, now uncovered and unbound – a sign of intimacy and love.
Mary then poured very costly imported perfume over Jesus’ feet, one that could have been sold for a year’s wages. Judas was aghast, because it would have made much more sense to give that money to the poor, and so often Jesus spoke and taught and prayed and stood on the behalf of the poor, in the tradition of so many Old Testament prophets. But Jesus recognized that Mary’s actions had a very different intent and purpose. And when he chastised Judas, it was not a brush-off to the poor, but instead it was a recognition that in human life, because of inequity and greed and bad luck and indifference writ large, there will always be the opportunity to care for the poor, to come alongside them with compassion and respect.
But that moment of calm, on the eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the night before Palm Sunday, had a different purpose. Not only did Mary take on the role of a servant, but she also took on the role of a prophet – for it was the Biblical prophets who anointed the kings. Here, Mary did not anoint Jesus’ head, but his feet, a gesture of tender compassion, and a preparation for his burial. Mary, who had sat at the feet of her rabbi, a devoted disciple learning from the Master, understood what the others did not: that Jesus would soon meet his death, offering up his life on behalf of others. Washing and anointing his feet was an act of affirmation and devotion; how ever the next days unfolded, Mary have expressed her love and faith in Jesus as her friend, her teacher, her leader, her king, her Messiah. This expensive gift, poured out upon his feet was a fitting and unconscious bookend to the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi had given him at his birth – symbolizing royalty, divinity, and suffering.
Mary anointed Jesus because she had taken the time and energy to pay attention to him, to focus on him with her whole heart and soul, and take in not only his words, but also his presence and Spirit – that very same Spirit that would impel her and so many others throughout the centuries who followed Jesus, to care for the least, the lost, the broken, the lonely, the hungry – because in caring for them we are caring for Christ in his most distressing disguises, as Mother Theresa used to say. But it comes first from giving Jesus our whole attention, our mind, our time, our will, our love – a very wasteful thing to do in the eyes of the world.
That is what we are called to – here in the depths of Lent, as we are on the approach to Holy Week – to give Jesus the fullness, the costly sacrifice of our attention, time, and devotion. He who gave his life for us and for the good of humankind bids us to give ourselves to him in return. And when we do that, then our lives will be shaped, and formed, and directed by the Love that knows no bounds, and by the Spirit who will always lead us and strengthen us to serve “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” who are with us always, and among whom Jesus always finds a home and a welcome.
Let us pray.
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.
Neighbors are rich and poor,
neighbors are black and white,
neighbors are nearby and far away.
Loving puts us on our knees,
serving as though we are slaves;
this is the way we should live with you.
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you. Amen. ~ Ghanaian hymn
Victoria G. McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2016