This picture was posted with an online article entitled, “A beautiful waste”. It’s so like our world to see a broken vase that way – a waste.
What was inside? We don’t know. We assume because it’s lying on the floor in pieces that it was destroyed. It no longer has a purpose. At best it can be recycled. At worst…it has ceased to have any effect on anyone, or anything around it. In the starkest terms, it’s dead.
A beautiful waste.
But what if that vase was filled with precious nard, an ancient and fragrant perfume used by many, especially long ago, to anoint the bodies of loved ones after they had died? In the days of the gospel, just because someone had died, their bodies were not regarded as broken and wasted. Jesus’ kin didn’t burn bodies as was often the Roman custom and that of other cultures.
Instead, bodies, even dead ones, were looked upon as precious, in need of love and the most tender care before they were returned from whence they came…the earth. It was a reminder, that as messy as human beings can be, we are never a waste in the eyes of the One who loved us into being.
This week’s gospel reading has Judas saying just that: “What a beautiful waste Mary! This ointment could have been sold, the money a blessing to those who have no indulgences like perfume! What are you doing?”
That’s Mary for you. She never did put much stock in behaving “properly” in her day and age (as Martha is fond of reminding us). For Mary, there is no waste in this moment poured out for Jesus’ sake. She breaks the alabaster jar and pours out every drop.
It’s often thought that such vessels had long slender necks – in other words – once opened, you had to use everything inside as nothing could be held back. It’s a lavish gift, born of sacrifice and absolute love.
It’s a reckless, daring, and even provocative act. It’s no wonder John names her as a disciple (yes! There were plenty of female disciples! It was always right there in the gospel!) It’s also how Jesus learned to love from the one he called his Abba – from God.
Judas does a good job of telling us why it’s reckless and daring, but I said provocative. Why? Consider that people would only anoint bodies with nard AFTER they had died. Mary anoints Jesus right now, while he is still very much with her even though she sees clearly, that will soon change. She won’t wait until time has run its course before she loves deeply. Would that we might all say the same in our lives.
Jesus makes an odd defense here that has perplexed many, “You will always have the poor…” Is Jesus condoning poverty? Is Jesus saying, “Hey there was only so much I could do, and people are still poor. That’s just the way it is”? I don’t think so and not only because we have to weigh his words in the wake of how he lived and taught his entire life, but also because of the actions of this brazen disciple.
A gospel ear will hear deeper tones of justice in Jesus address to Judas, and to many of us today. “You will always have the poor if you continue to live and love as if time and money are always coming up short. As if there’s only so much of each in the world God made. As if creation cannot provide enough for all God’s creatures. As if some will always be first and many will always be dead last. As if you have to line your own pocket before you open your hand to your neighbour in need. If that’s how we choose to live, then we shall all be poor.”
That’s how I hear what Jesus is saying. The beautiful mess lies not in the love poured out, spilt on the floor, tenderly dried with even the hair on Mary’s head.
If only we would also offer our lives and God given spirit as Mary did. Would that we could give all that we have, without though of cost, to change someone’s life. Would that we could give, not because we think the world will always have the poor, but precisely because we believe there is a way to live where poverty is not sustained in the bonds of cynical apathy. Poverty is a waste. There’s nothing beautiful about it and John’s gospel isn’t suggesting anything otherwise.
The call of the gospel is to remember that we will always hear this world telling us the price is wrong. It costs too much to change the way we live, together and apart. It costs too much money and besides, it’s all too much for me to worry about. I have my family, my life, my bills, myself to worry about first.
The call of the gospel i