by Daniel Harrell
Last Sunday’s foray into end times predictions always comes off sounding a little bizarre. Jesus foretells how “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” The imagery comes out of Isaiah, apocalyptic pictures the Bible rolls out whenever it’s trying especially to get your attention. As such, you can imagine how terrifying solar eclipses must have been to the ancients. And how immensely grateful they had to have felt afterwards once God showed his mercy by letting the sun shine again. While Isaiah could have never known the physics, the fact is that the sun will go dark one day. Though nobody will be alive to witness it. Anybody in the vicinity will have already gone dark themselves. Here’s a view of a dying star going dark in our own galaxy, 3,800 light years away, taken from the Hubble space telescope. It’s called the Butterfly Nebula, a star that was originally about 5 times the mass of our sun. This is what eventually happens to every star. What looks like dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees, tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes. Talk about shaking the heavens, when this happens to our own sun one day, it will effectively wipe out the whole solar system.
I spent this past week in New York at one of my faith and science gatherings, attended as usual by some of the most brilliant theologians and scientists in the solar system, including astronomer Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Senior Researcher for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program. (She will be with us this coming fall for a weekend sponsored by Colonial’s Guelich Lecture Series—watch for details on that.) This past week’s conference premised how God displays his nature through both nature and scripture. As the Psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth shows forth his handiwork.” To have faith is to understand this. You look up into the night sky and marvel at the majesty of the Lord. Without faith, however, a heavenward gaze only leads to despair. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” The late astronomer Carl Sagan added, “We live 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. If you were to somehow condense it down to a single year with the Big Bang kicking off January 1, the earth doesn’t even show up until September 1. It takes eleven billion years to get from “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1 to “earth.” Single cell life on earth shows up around September 15, followed by multi-cellular organisms bumping around for the next month or so. You’ve got a burst of organisms on the scene after that, with the dinosaurs coming and going around Christmas. Mammals start to expand shortly thereafter (once there aren’t any dinosaurs to eat them), with humans popping up so late on New Year’s Eve that there’s barely enough time to pucker up for a kiss. 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 makes us out 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 in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time in history, 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.”
The magnitude of such things is truly incomprehensible, even if we do believe it. In this morning’s passage from Mark’s gospel, 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 every 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. And it was expensive—think Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, which in New York will run you about $327 an ounce. Hers was 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. Bring your wife back a small sampler of Parisian chocolate from New York that cost close to a hundred dollars, and her reflex response will be, “you should not have done that,” even though she’s glad you did. Of course you may be wondering if you’re paying your minister too much if he can afford a hundred dollar box of chocolates. 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!” 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.” And as to their rationale, he added, “The poor you always have with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”
Ironically, this saying is often offered as rationale for not helping the poor. We take it to mean that Jesus labels poverty a lost cause: “Hey, the Bible says ‘you’ll always have the poor with you;’ what can you do?” Actually Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15 here, where God commands his people to always take care of the needy anyway. His is not a remark of resignation, but rather a bit of rebuke: “You will always have the poor with you. You can help them whenever you want.” In other words, if you really wanted to help the poor, you’d be doing it already.
But this wasn’t about helping the poor. It was about saving face. 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 he 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 grow to act like 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 wild. 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? Why give your wife ridiculously expensive chocolate that she’ll savor for a second and then digest the same way she would a handful of M&Ms?
There was a book out a few years back entitled Scroogenomics, by Wharton Business School economist Joel Waldfogel. In it he argued what so many of us instinctively feel: expensive gifts are wasteful. He rolled out the stats to prove it. Even in a down economy, Americans give somewhere between 60-90 billion dollars in gifts during Christmas alone, despite that according to surveys, most people value gifts at about 50 cents on the dollar. That’s a lot of waste. Half of those surveyed even admitted to re-gifting the fancier presents they received. 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. Had I brought my wife a hundred dollar box of cigars, for example, she would have wondered what I thought of her since she doesn’t smoke cigars that often. Moreover, a hundred dollar box of cigars isn’t what you’d ever call extravagant. I learned that to my own embarrassment after Violet was born.
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.” OK, so that’s kinda morbid. “Thank you for the chocolates honey, I’ll enjoy them as I die?”
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 is verses 1 and 2. The chief priests and scribes are 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. In verse 10, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, Judas Iscariot, 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 amounted to the going rate you’d pay somebody to walk your dog.
The bounteous meat between these two pieces of envy and penny-pitching deceit is the 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 proper 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 science 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 failure. Moreover, the familiar struggle for survival reveals a process in 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.
Jesus knew all about insults. They were heaped on him as he hung on the cross. And yet by faith we view this ancient instrument of ruin and ravage as the supreme expression 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 galaxies and stars and moons, all extravagantly wasted on us, for us. From all that vastness materialized one miniscule 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 waste ourselves to his glory for the cause of love.