God exercised no economy in purchasing our redemption.

This isn’t a Christmas story. There are no shepherds or angels or wise men in it. On second thought, though, there may be a wise woman. And while the story is not about the first Christmas, it has a great deal to do with the central theme of Christmas: God so loved that he gave.

The story concerns the woman who came to see Jesus when he was a guest in the house of a man named Simon. She was uninvited. We don’t know anything about her except that she came carrying precious ointment. As Mark tells it in his Gospel, the observers were extremely upset when she poured, it on Jesus’ head. “Why was the ointment wasted this way?” they complained. “It might have been sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor.”

Now, I have this thing about waste. To understand, you should know that I come from bona fide Pennsylvania German stock, from that particular branch of Pennsylvania Germans known as “the plain people.” From the time I was old enough to jingle coins in my pocket. I was taught that Ben Franklin’s adage—“a penny saved is a penny earned”—ranked second in importance only to the Ten Commandments. Further, my parents were married exactly one year before the stock market crash of 1929. The first decade of their life together corresponded with that bleak period in the American experience known as the Great Depression. Small wonder that my childhood included such rituals as saving string, and severe fiscal limits on spending for such things as candy and chewing gum.

It was impressed upon me that borrowing was an undesirable practice. Dad paid cash for every car he owned. He and Mother saved their money until the day they could buy a house of their own. It was an old house, with no indoor plumbing or central heat. But it was theirs; ours. The down payment was 100 percent of the purchase price. (That’s one way to save on interest!) Improvements to the house came later, when we could afford them, which meant when we could pay cash for them.

Our unspoken motto was “Waste not, want not.” And while there were times we wanted—at least, we children did—I can assure you we did not waste. No one was permitted to leave the table if food remained on the plate. Leftovers were kept-overs and served-overs, not throwaways.

The point of this recital is not to elicit sympathy. Neither is it to claim that my experience was unique, nor to plead for a return to the practices of a bygone era. What I am trying to say is that in terms of personal economics, I am an arch conservative; I make Milton Friedman look like a Marxist. I believe everybody—not just the government—spends too much. I think recycling ought to be enforced by law. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, I would have been the guy who dug a hole and buried his gold for fear of losing it in a risky venture. At home, I am always turning down the heat and making long-distance calls after 11 o’clock when the rates are lowest. I turn out lights so zealously that I sometimes have to be reminded it’s hard to read a book in total darkness.

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In other words, had I been there when that woman emptied her jar of expensive ointment on Jesus’ head I would have hit the roof. “Why was the ointment wasted this way? It might have been sold and given to the poor.”

That’s what I would have said. And I doubt whether it would have been any great concern for the poor that might have upset me. I think it would have been the principle of the thing, pouring away precious perfume like so much water. A dab or two behind the ear, all right. But the whole bottle? Outrageous!

That is why this story gives me so much trouble. I am biased, totally prejudiced. I am with the disciples all the way on this one, not with Jesus.

And with that last statement, I am forced to pause. I see the truth at last: it is that this story, of all the stories in the gospel, may be the very one I need most. I need to learn what Jesus was teaching about the abundance of the heart. I need to be reminded that religion that is always and only reasonable, that is practiced according to principle, becomes a dead weight on the human soul.

The woman who came to Jesus did not calculate what her gift of love would cost. Her love was spontaneous, generous, extravagant, overflowing. She acted out of the abundance of her heart. It is why Jesus accepted her gift, her homage. He did not say, “Now wait a minute—have you thought this through? Exactly what are your motives? Do you have any idea what this costs?”

There is a time for careful calculation, for setting goals and objectives, for being as reasonable and practical as one can be. But there is also a time when we must let all such calculation go. We dare not allow management by objectives to invade our caring, our loving, our worship. We need to discover the meaning of holy waste.

Holy waste is a good description of the way God creates. Annie Dillard says it best:

“The creator churns out the intricate texture of … the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care.

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“Of all known forms of life, only about 10 percent are still living today. All other forms—fantastic plants, ordinary plants, living animals with unimaginable various wings, tails, teeth, brains—are utterly and forever gone.… Multiplying ten times the number of living forms today yields a profusion that is quite beyond what I consider thinkable. Why so many forms? The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here?” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Bantam, 1974).

What indeed? What, if not an outpouring of creation so vast and prolific that our poor minds, like Annie Dillard’s, cannot begin to grasp it? Perhaps, instead of trying to understand it, we would do better to learn from it.

We are utilitarians. We want to know to what use an object or an idea or a feeling can be put. But that is not the way God operates, certainly not in his creation. Paul Tillich once wrote: “There is no creativity, divine or human, without the holy waste which comes out of the abundance of the heart and does not ask, ‘What use is this?’ ” (The New Being, Scribner’s, 1955).

At this season of the year, I enjoy recalling a story told by a friend. Some years ago she took her 10-year-old son to New York City for a day of Christmas shopping. She gave him some money and told him he could use it to buy presents for relatives. The only trouble was, he could not resist the appeals of the sidewalk Santas. Before they had gone many blocks, his funds had all found their way into Salvation Army pots. Foolish? Yes. Wasteful? Without doubt. But surely a holy waste, as my friend’s memory of the event eloquently attests.

There is one more thing to be said on this subject—the most important thing. The woman anointed Jesus only three days before he was crucified. The next event recorded is of Judas going to the chief priests to arrange for his master’s betrayal. No wonder Jesus said the woman had anointed his body in preparation for burial.

When we hear this, we cannot help but think of the ultimate in holy waste: we remember that the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, poured out himself in wasteful abandon to become the Savior. The Cross became the sacrifice of all that is good and reasonable and loving.

What a waste is this! It is the most complete of all wastes. Yet in God’s wisdom, it is this waste that saves us. It is the holiest of wastes, and it brings salvation.

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