Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Appeared Wasteful!

Matt. 26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Matt. 26:14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

When I was a kid, sometimes I would leave food on my plate. My grandmother would make me sit there until I finished it. She would say, “Don’t waste your food! Don’t you know there are people starving in China?” My dad famously told his mother that if they were so hungry, she could send it to them. I’m pretty sure he was grounded for that. The idea was that we can’t leave food on our plate because that’s a waste. That might explain why I put on 30 pounds when Cynthia was pregnant with each of our kids. Cynthia would be craving ice cream, or pickles, or a doughnut, or pesto sauce—and I would get it for her and some for me so we could eat together. She would have a taste hers and be like, “Mmmm! Thanks! I’m good now.” And she would hand me hers and I would add it to mine, and I thought that was great…until I stood on the scale! How do we deal with waste and abundance? How do we find the balance between conserving and using wisely on the one hand, and extravagance and giving generously on the other?

One of the things I love about Jesus is that He seems to navigate this beautifully. For example, Jesus was all about not wasting. On more than one occasion, had a huge crowd that needed feeding—like 4000 or 5000.[1] He would take a little bit of food and make it enough to feed the whole crowd. Then afterward Jesus told His disciples to pick up all the leftovers. That’s pretty sweet! You go hear Jesus, and you leave with doggy bags! Jesus was also really into investing, and gets after people who don’t get enough return on the Lord’s investment.[2] But then we run into a story like the one Matthew tells us today, and Jesus seems to just condone tremendous wastefulness. Through all these stories, Jesus seems to be teaching us some important things about God and how to live God’s way.

First, God’s way is abundant, extravagant, and beautiful. When I was in grad school, I did my field education at a wonderful church in Jamesburg, NJ. Every month or so, they would host a potluck, and—oh my freaking goodness!—it was incredible. The spread they laid out 50–60 could easily have fed 100–120, and then there was the taste of it—skip Betty’s dish (yeesh), but have seconds of Mrs. Nyack’s jello dessert. And when we were done, they would fill up bags full of food for me to take back to my dorm to feed all those “starving seminarians,” because the cafeteria wasn’t open on Sunday nights. Eventually, I just started inviting my seminary buddies to join me for the potlucks, then we could all have an amazing meal and still take home the leftovers to share. Those people were living God’s way. Like Jesus, what happened with the leftovers was not as important as understanding how much grace there is. And when I go for a walk, I see that God runs the universe just like that. I look at all the different kinds of plants and trees, smell the pollen and sneeze. If I take a moment to look at the water, the number of different blues is mind-blowing—and the number of creatures around us from plankton to hermit crabs, and shellfish to ospreys is astonishing. And we haven’t even talked about all the ways God blesses me every day. If I focus for even a moment on all of this, I am overwhelmed, and gratitude becomes my theme song. God loves diversity, abundance and beauty.

Second, God honors those who surrender everything to Him. The woman who takes this expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head is doing a beautiful thing—under normal conditions, His head would smell fabulous for days and days, even weeks. The Gospel of Luke includes that this woman had led a sinful life, and Jesus adds, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.”[3] And adds in Matthew, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What has she surrendered? A year’s wages worth of perfume! Holy cow! That’s crazy wasteful! But what else has she surrendered? Her dignity. To do this was a servant’s task. Her fear. To break out of the women’s gathering and, scandalously, enter the men’s gathering. She doesn’t care what the others think, only what Jesus does. She has done this beautiful, wasteful thing—and Jesus sees the surrender of her heart. That’s why even today, we remember her. God honors those who surrender to Him.

To live in God’s way is to live abundantly. Leonard Sweet tells the story of Dionysius, “a pagan scholar who converted to Christ and became bishop of Alexandria” for twenty-one years, beginning in 247 CE. “In a letter to fellow Christians, Dionysius describes a plague that struck Alexandria” perhaps it took his life. He writes,

Most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fest to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually serving them in Christ. Andy they died with them most joyfully, taking the afflictions of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains….But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets where they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied.[4]

 They lived with abandon, out of the abundance of grace they had received. Someone else added, “When the life of the Christian group is recognizably different from the life of the world outside, then no tricks are needed to attract people.”[5] Something so beautifully wasteful as caring for the sick is never wasted. God changes people’s lives with the beauty of that kind of compassion.

Jesus was wasteful. It was a terrible habit and it was beautiful. It was so terrible that it offended the politically correct of Jesus’ day, and it so offended Judas that he decided Jesus had to be stopped. It was so beautiful, that to this day even the most beautiful art and music only offer glimpses into its glory. Yes, glory! Because, of course, the most wasteful thing Jesus ever did was to surrender His life to God’s purpose, and the most wasteful thing God ever did was to call in that offer. Then Jesus didn’t fight Judas, but accepted Judas’ tragic kiss, accepted the humiliation of the soldiers and crowds, and accepted even the pain and death of the Cross.[6] For what? For clueless people like you and me and Betty who can’t cook and plague victims and drug addicts and homeless and queers and people of color and immigrants and haters and the neighbor who makes us crazy. Whoever we are least likely to think makes it into God’s embrace, that’s who Jesus died for. It’s a shameful waste. Why would Jesus do that? ‘Cause you’re worth it in God’s eyes! To live in God’s way is to live like our lives matter to God. To live in God’s way is to find a path to the abundant beauty of wasteful kindness and extravagant servanthood. To live in God’s way is to find abundant grace and to show it abundantly. To live in God’s way is to live with all the abundance God gives us and to not be controlled by it, to not be defined by it, but to lay it all before God and to ask, “What would you have me do?”

[1]The crowds were actually bigger than the number recorded, as only men were part of the headcount. See Matthew 14:13–21 and Matthew 15:29–38. Also Mark 6:32–42. All four gospels tell at least one of these stories, so it’s definitely part of the Good News of Jesus!

[2]Matthew 25:14–30 tells the story of man who gave people wealth and left…and what do they do with that? The wealth is immense, since a talent was about 75 pounds, usually gold or silver! The crown King David captured from the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:30) reportedly weighed one talent.

[3]Story is told in Luke 7:36ff.

[4]Eusebius, Church History, Book 7, Chapter 22. Quoted in Leonard Sweet, The Bad Habits of Jesus (2016),
p. 28–9.

[5]Sweet, p. 29.

[6]If you haven’t read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, just keep reading on from our passage today in Matthew 26 through Chapter 27. Amazing!