Why this Waste?
By Brian Emmet
What do you waste, and why? As you’re thinking about that …
Waste can mean to bring to emptiness, to devastate, as when an army lays waste to an enemy city. We also catch a whiff of this meaning when an intoxicated person is referred to as wasted: the alcohol or drugs have laid waste to her normal faculties and capacities, and she is rendered helpless and vulnerable.
Waste can also mean to use in a profligate manner, without respect to limits. He used to have money, but he wasted it on wine, women and song. The person who wastes valuable resources may soon find himself laid waste by the realities of life.
We can waste time, money, opportunities, space, resources, effort, or our talents and strengths.
We also use waste to refer to garbage, refuse, trash, litter and junk. Waste management is both a challenge in our world of mass consumerism as well as the name of a company that picks up our refuse from our curbsides and whisks it away.
Waste is one way to respond to abundance. The cowpoke alone in the desert is extremely careful with what little is left in his canteen; once he finds his way to a river or lake, he splashes and guzzles with reckless abandon. He no longer gives much thought to water conservation because he is now in the midst of liquid abundance.
To waste may also involve using or spending something of value in a manner incommensurate with that value: to pay $20 for a single ripe banana, even if it is organic, may be said to be a waste of money (or perhaps an act of great generosity to a needy farmer).
“Waste” doesn’t appear too often in the Bible, probably because needed resources were recognized as scare, hard to come by; the primary usage is military, to lay waste to an opponent’s territory or city. In the New Testament, “waste” hardly appears: once when Paul writes that he fears he may be wasting his efforts on the recalcitrant believers in Galatia, and three other times in the Gospels, two of which are reporting the same event.
Both Mark and Matthew record the disciples’ reaction to the woman who anointed Jesus with her precious perfume. “Why this waste?” they ask. “The perfume could have been sold for a good deal of money, and that money given to help the poor” (Mark 14:4 and Matthew 26:8).
The other Gospel use of waste occurs in John’s report of Jesus feeding a large, hungry crowd with five fish and two loaves of bread, the contents, apparently, of the lunch bag of the boy who made them available to Jesus (John 6:1-12). After the large crowd has had all they wanted and more, Jesus instructs his disciples to go through the crowd and gather up the leftovers, “that nothing be wasted.” It’s not clear what is to be done with the leftovers, but the disciples end up collecting twelve basketfuls. Perhaps Jesus’ point is that, now that the crowd is fed, there is plenty left over for the twelve tribes of Israel. There is in fact abundance, not the scarcity the disciples worried about.
To give our most precious possession to Jesus is no waste; to ignore the “leftovers” of God’s abundant provision is a waste. What might we learn?
Jesus has this way of making himself central to whatever the topic is. There can be no doubt that Jesus was very much and very consistently in favor of generosity to the poor and justice for them. And yet: to this woman who “wasted” what could have been turned into money and dropped in the local Salvation Army kettle, Jesus says, “You have done a beautiful thing. You have anointed me for burial ahead of time. I tell you the truth, wherever the Gospel is preached, what this woman has done will be told; her act will be remembered.”
I think Jesus’ point is about devotion to him; the primary gift in question is not the woman’s gift to Jesus, or the disciples’ intention to make it into a gift to the poor, but of Jesus’ upcoming gift of himself upon the cross. It is that gift, that act of righteousness, that donation, that generosity that is the ground of all our giving. “We love, because he first loved us,” John tells us; it is also true that we give, because he has first given to us.
Much modern giving is really about the giver’s self-esteem: I like being the kind of person who gives to worthy causes, I like being part of “changing the world” through my philanthropy, I like feeling that I have done “something” to “help.”
Jesus wants our giving to be an expression of gratitude for his inexpressible gift; he wants our generosity to be rooted in his prior and prevenient generosity to us all. This isn’t quibbling, it’s the difference between self-seeking giving and seeking to be self-giving. The young boy and the woman express the kind of self-giving love that Jesus incarnates. The boy seemingly wastes his lunch (“What good is so little among so many?” is the disciples’ response to his self-giving generosity). The woman seemingly wastes what very likely was her most precious possession (“What good did that do? Besides, it made the rest of us very uncomfortable.”)
And Jesus seems to much prefer a face-to-face, hands-on encounter of giving and receiving. It’s not that there is anything wrong with donating money or needed items for disaster relief—not at all! But there is a problem when we are never allowing ourselves to become personally engaged with the people and situations we seek to “help.” By all means, give frequently and generously to the Red Cross, World Vision and whatever other organizations you choose. But if the abundance of your skills and talents, your time and treasure, your connections, networks and passions, you as a person never get face to face with suffering and need—what a waste.
What captured us most about Hurricane Harvey were the photos and videos of ordinary people going extraordinarily out of their way to help their neighbors face-to-face, one at a time: human chains, borrowed boats, battered well-used fishing waders part of rescue uniforms, and just a lot of (invisible!) soaked shoes and soaked clothes. It didn’t seem to amount to much in the face of so much devastation. It may have made us uncomfortable. It certainly was inspiring!
Waste is a response to abundance. There are other ways to respond to abundance: gratitude; generosity, even “wasteful” generosity; contentment; a releasing of our tight grasp on having, possessing, consuming and hoarding; comforting and serving those who lack.
In the face of your abundance, are you willing to “waste” any of it on Jesus? In the face of your abundance, as your needs are satisfied, are you being careful with the leftovers, letting nothing of God’s abundance be wasted?