We’re all familiar with Carl Sagan’s clever quip about our living on “an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Astronomers conclude that the universe has been around for some 13.7 billion years; an amount of time that is truly incomprehensible. In evolutionary terms, your own life on earth isn’t even the neural impulse that leads to the blink of an eye. Christians believe people to be made in the image of the Creator himself, but science can make us seem to be more of an afterthought if we’re even a thought at all.
The Psalmist rightly asks of God “what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mere mortals that you would care for us?” And yet, Jesus insists that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it,” an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did God create the heavens and pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, he went on to pick the most obscure bunch of people with whom to have a relationship, a people for whom he eventually showed up in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time of history, one who ends up rejected, unjustly convicted and executed on a cross. The Bible calls this “good news,” the demonstration of God’s love for the world, from the Lord of the Cosmos whom the apostle Paul describes as “pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
The magnitude of such things is likewise incomprehensible, even if we do believe it. In Mark’s gospel (Mark 14:3-11) a woman crashes a party and pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. Jesus recognizes it to be an expression of love that mirrors God’s own. He says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The occasion was dinner at the home of Simon the Leper—which has to mean former leper since no one except Jesus would have risked entering a leper’s house to eat. Jesus made time for sinners and outcasts of every stripe, basically breaking with the religious convention of his day. He may have had a mouthful of food when this woman entered to empty her jar. Back then, like now, perfume was used for enjoyment and beauty as well as for expressions of love. Unlike now, dinner hosts back then would customarily perfume the heads of their guests as they walked in the door as a sign of welcome and honor—much like we take our guests’ coats and offer them something to drink when they enter. But our offer would be for a glass of wine, perhaps, not for the entire bottle. Likewise, first century hosts would dab just a bit of perfume, nor pour out a whole jar, and definitely not a whole jar of the best stuff. One whiff and everyone knew what the woman brought was not a brand she’d bought by the quart. Mark describes it as being made of pure nard, an exotic root native to India; it was an expensive—an extravagant expression of love.
But as with all things extravagant—a word which means to lack restraint or unnecessarily exceed—the reaction to it was instinctively critical. Mark tells us how the guests at Simon’s table “said to one another in anger, ‘Why was this perfume wasted like that? It could have been sold for a fortune and the money given to starving children in India!’” They scolded the woman, but Jesus understood their scorn to be aimed at him. He told them to leave her alone, because “she has done a good service, a beautiful thing for me.”
Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon pour perfume on Jesus? Why didn’t he show some love? It’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest even if Jesus hadn’t cured him of a skin condition that banned him from polite society. In Luke’s gospel, Simon is a Pharisee and the woman was one who had “lived a sinful life.” Simon the Pharisee wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may be wondering how a leper could ever become a Pharisee. But then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who in time grow to behave as if they don’t need grace anymore. And of course once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it, too.
In Luke, Jesus went on to tell a parable about a certain creditor who had two debtors; one owed the creditor five hundred dollars, and the other fifty. When neither could pay, he canceled the debts of both. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the creditor more. And Simon rightly replied the one who had the bigger debt canceled. Jesus then proceeded to forgive the woman, much to the continued consternation of the Pharisees present. Nobody forgives sins but God alone. Who did Jesus think he was?
Unlike Luke, Mark makes no mention of this woman being a sinner in any special sense. She’s just a party crasher and a bottle breaker. A fragrance counter sales rep gone crazy. The costly and posh perfume runs down Jesus’ hair, over his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary worth in a puddle on the floor. Who does that? Why spend all that money on something that’s just going to get washed off once Jesus takes a shower?
There was a book out a few years back entitled Scroogenomics that argued what so many of us instinctively feel: expensive gifts are wasteful. The book rolled out stats to prove it. But simply running the numbers on gift-giving discounts other intrinsic values. Not only is gift-giving a way of expressing how you feel for somebody, receiving a gift can be a reliable way of determining who the people are in your life who truly understand you. For my wife to receive expensive chocolate from me means something because she knows I know how passionate she is about chocolate.
If receiving a gift is a reliable way of determining who truly understands you, then the woman here in Mark understood Jesus even better than she realized. “She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could”—by which Jesus meant she did everything she could. And note he doesn’t say, “you shouldn’t have.” He accepts her extravagant gift as a proper display of extravagant worship. He knows who he is. But he also knows where he’s headed. “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me.” “She has anointed my body for my burial.”
Jesus’ mention of his burial is sandwiched like stories often are in Mark, one inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here the top slice of the sandwich in chapter 14 has the chief priests and scribes gunning for Jesus—something they’ve been doing since chapter 3. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and because his popularity threatened their dominance of the religious market. They looked for a stealthy way to arrest Jesus because he was too popular to pick up in public without inciting a riot. Their desire for secrecy finds opportunity with the bottom slice of the sandwich. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, steps up with his offer of betrayal. He’d lead the religious authorities backstage away from the crush of Jesus’ fans. The priests and Pharisees couldn’t believe their luck. They probably even thanked God for it. They definitely thanked Judas by offering him a finder’s fee, albeit one that some say amounted to the going rate you’d hire somebody to walk your dog.
The bounteous filling between these two slices of envy and penny-pitching deceit is this woman’s lavish devotion. Jesus receives her extravagant gift as good and beautiful, but also as timely. Perfume was used to express love and honor to the living, but also to express respect for the deceased. Jesus would be put to death as an outlaw, and therefore be denied the grace of a fitting burial. But Mark makes sure we see that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents later assumed he had. Though executed as a criminal, the woman provides his lawful funeral. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world,” her act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant waste, vindicating Jesus as Lord and Savior, the one who extravagantly wasted himself on us, for us, because he loved us.
The word to waste comes from a Latin root meaning to empty out. The same Latin root also gives us the word vast, meaning enormous or great. Thus to make empty is to make vast, which does sound a lot like the last going first and the least being the greatest in the Kingdom of God. However the Greek word translated as waste in Mark is the word meaning ruin or ravage, which is harder to hear as anything sounding like the Kingdom of God.
Critics of Christianity look to evolution to show how the emergence of human life on earth demanded enormous ruin and ravage, billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. Not only was the massive dying off rampant, it’s mandatory too. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive misfire and failure. Moreover, the popular struggle for survival narrative portrays a process by which cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage in the evolutionary epic that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent, and benevolent Being is practically an insult.
Of course Jesus knew all about insults. They were heaped on him as he hung on the cross to die. And yet by faith we view this ancient instrument of ruin and ravage as the supreme expression of extravagant, sacrificial love. In this light, we can see the entire creation as an expression of God’s sacrificial nature—a cross-shaped character permeating the whole universe. Billions of years and billions of organisms, galaxies, and stars, all extravagantly wasted on us, for us—an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. From eons of vastness materialized a minuscule scrap of planet inhabitable for human life: life that took millions of years to unfold through untold waste and sacrifice so that we mere mortals could emerge as image-bearers of God, redeemed into the likeness of Christ by his own wasteful death, and so extravagantly filled to overflowing with his Spirit, that finally reflecting our Creator, we might extravagantly and lovingly waste ourselves for others to his glory.