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Was It A Waste?

Question: Go back to 1969. Did you buy a Honeywell Kitchen Computer? No, you didn’t — because not a single one sold. By 1969, computers had been around for several years as room-size mainframe machines used only by businesses and governments. But that year, the first PC for home use was offered in the Neiman Marcus catalog. It was a stand-up model with a built-in countertop called the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, and it was listed for $10,600. That was a lot of money in those days, when you could still get a new car for $2,000. The Kitchen Computer was aimed at housewives and was intended to be used for recipe management. That was the only home use for computing power, other than checkbook balancing, that the Honeywell engineers could think of. Not surprisingly, not a single Kitchen Computer sold. But, as we all know, computers have since moved out of just the business world into our homes, as well as into our pockets and purses, and we’ve found new ways to use them. Some of this change was based on something called “Moore’s Law.” That was a prediction Gordon Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, made in the mid-1960s. He said the number of transistors that could be placed on a microprocessor would double periodically — approximately every 18 months — which meant the cost of computing power would continue to come down. But in the 1970s, while the cost of computing power was still high, Alan Kay, who was an engineer at Xerox, decided to do what one observer called “wasting transistors.” Instead of reserving the pricey power of the computers at his disposal for “valuable” functions such as information processing, he began using it for “frivolous” stuff such as drawing cartoons on the screen. Those cartoons and other on-screen things he created, such as pointers and windows, eventually became the first graphical interface, and that gave life to the Macintosh computer. The Mac, in turn, inspired similar changes in PCs. In other words, by “wasting” computing power, Kay made computers simple enough for the rest of us to use. And then we, the public, changed things even further by thinking of new applications for the computer. Writing in Wired magazine about this phenomenon, editor-in-chief Chris Anderson says, “This is the power of waste. When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right, it can change the world.” But before that can happen, while the resource is still scarce, somebody has to use it in an extravagant, “wasteful” way. All of this prepares us to hear the gospel reading. Jesus, in the last days of his life, is in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sitting at the table. Mary takes a pound of “costly perfume made of pure nard,” which was a fragrant, imported oil. We soon learn from Judas’ remark that the jar could have been sold for 300 denarii, which was nearly a year’s pay for a working man. But Mary “wastes” it, pouring it on Jesus’ feet.It wasn’t uncommon in those days to anoint the head of a guest as a sign of respect, but in those cases, only a few drops of oil would normally be used. The pouring of lavish amounts of oil — again, on the head — was the kind of anointing that was considered sacred, and it was usually reserved for designating someone as a king or priest. The anointing marked that person for divine service. But “anointed” is the English equivalent of the Hebrew word meshiah (messiah) and the Greek word christos (Christ). So while we have no way of knowing exactly what Mary was thinking, her action expresses more than simple respect for Jesus; it seems to express her conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. But perhaps she poured the oil on his feet because she didn’t consider herself worthy to anoint his head. Judas Iscariot is also at the table, and he sees Mary’s action as neither a sign of respect for Jesus nor a declaration of his messiahship. He sees only waste, and rudely questions why the perfume wasn’t sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor. Jesus, however, rises to Mary’s defense, saying her act is “for the day of my burial.” Anointing the dead was a common burial practice in that time, but Jesus, who seems to know what is coming, accepted this anointing as an act before the fact. As far as Jesus is concerned, Mary’s gift is one of extravagant love, not of wasted perfume. Jesus also responds to Judas’ statement that the poor could have benefited from the sale of the ointment. He remarks that there are always poor people to be helped, but the undertone of that comment is, “Yes, this perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but would it have? If you had an extra 300 denarii in your hands right now, would you give it to the poor? Is that really where it would end up?” Note that John, the narrator, impugns Judas’ character and motives, describing him as a ‘thief,” but Jesus does not; he challenges only Judas’ assumption that the perfume — and Mary’s act — was wasted. In that regard, Jesus was likely aware that most people resist waste. That is true yet today. In fact, we seem almost hard-wired that way. We give a child an expensive toy for Christmas, and he has a wonderful time playing with ... the box the toy came in. Rather than rejoicing in the child’s pleasure, we’re bothered that the toy itself is unloved. What a waste, we think, even if we don’t say it. We could have just brought him an empty box. We have similar reactions to leftover food, and to clothing being thrown into the wash after being worn for only an hour. Some of us even have trouble discarding items that are meant to be disposable after one usage. Sometimes, even when wasting is cheaper than not wasting, we persist in trying to avoid waste. The nature of copy machines and printers today is that sometimes the paper feeder mechanisms mess up and pull two pieces of paper through so that you end up with one printed sheet and one blank sheet that seems perfectly good. What’s the best thing to do with the blank sheet? Throw it away. There’s something that happens to sheets that have gone through the printer. They pick up a static charge or something that causes many of them not to go through smoothly on the second try. In fact, often they cause the machine to jam. Then you have to spend 15 minutes tinkering with the printer, or, in extreme cases, calling for repairs. Most people who work in offices soon learn that that’s what can happen when they try to avoid wasting a sheet that came through blank. But many will try it again anyway, simply because it doesn’t feel right to waste what seems to be a perfectly good piece of paper. Some will send it through a second time even when company policy says to throw it away! We don’t want to encourage waste, but the story of this woman who anointed Jesus suggests that we may need to rethink what extravagances are really wasteful. For example: • You hear about a beautiful, costly cathedral being built somewhere and think, “What a waste, spending all that money in that city where there are so many poor people who need houses.” In Oakland, California, this discussion is going on right now. Visit: • You hear about some exceptionally talented young adult who has potential and opportunities in many fields but who decides to work at an inner-city mission, and you think, “What a waste of all that talent.” • You learn of a young person who has been offered a full-ride scholarship at a prestigious university. But she decides to go instead to a local college where she has no scholarship so she can live at home with her mother, who isn’t well and has no other family. Are those things really waste, or are they something else? Here’s an incident for perspective: Holy Name Cathedral, a Catholic church in Chicago, had a fire that damaged its roof. Two days later, Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist with a famously hard-boiled reputation, walked into the church to see the damage for himself. He saw it, but he also saw the greater part of the church that wasn’t damaged. He went back to his office and wrote a column about his visit, which he headlined, “Cathedral Can Inspire Cynic.” In it, he said, “Repair of Holy Name is a cause worth supporting. I’m a hardened, godless cynic, but to walk into Holy Name and see that ceiling soar toward heaven, well, I hate to imagine a person so emotionally numb as not to be affected. God may not move you, but he moved the people who built this, and this moves you.” Steinberg went on to invite readers to donate to the Holy Name Cathedral repair fund. Then he concluded by saying that he had given $50 himself, which, he said “seemed a painless, minimal sum for a Jewish agnostic wishing to speed the repairs along.” In the end, the story of the woman with the perfume summons us to think broadly about that which we are quick to label “wasted” — wasted time, wasted effort, wasted talent, wasted money, wasted resources, wasted commitment, wasted life. Some of those things may indeed be true squanderings, but we can’t always be sure. Waste, perhaps, can only be rightly identified based on the final outcome. Sometimes what is “wasted” changes the world — or at least us — for the better. The woman with the ointment reminds us that some of those things we’re quick to call wasted surely are not. Instead, they’re wonderful gifts of great extravagance, poured on us by love itself.

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