Suppose someone suggested ending ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. After all, he would argue, it is a waste of manpower and resources. Those soldiers could be put to better use somewhere else. And, for the sake of argument, suppose this person also advocated an end to full military honors funerals. Think of all the marines and soldiers employed on such elaborate occasions — not to mention the money spent on flags, horses, caissons, etc. It is extravagant. Wasteful.
Now, such a suggestion would strike us as impious. We immediately sense that the resources and manpower expended on such ceremonies are not “wasted” at all. Granted, they bring no material or financial benefit to us and do nothing for the fallen soldiers. But they are necessary for us on a deeper level than money and possessions can gauge. We lose something essential to our humanity if we fail to honor the fallen. It is not an extravagance but a necessary expression of who we are as a nation. Fallen soldiers do not need to receive the honors as much as we need to give them. By such “waste” we become better people — the kind of people who expend resources, time and energy to honor those who sacrifice for us. Without such a “waste” we would be diminished.
This secular example helps explain the extravagance of the “sinful woman” — who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with costly oil (Lk 7:37-38). All to express her sorrow for sin and her faith in Christ. “What a waste,” we might be tempted to say (as Judas says at a similar event: cf. Jn 12:1-8). Could she not have just spoken to Him plainly? Other people in the Gospel appeal to Our Lord with simple words. Why could not she? Why such an elaborate display? Did Jesus really need all that?
Like a full military honors funeral, her extravagance is necessary not so much for the recipient but for the giver. She “wasted” her tears and oil not because Our Lord needed to receive it but because she needed to give it. She had a deeper need to do this than money or possessions can gauge. The human heart seeks to express itself in precisely such “wasteful” gestures — which in effect say that our love exceeds worldly calculations. A husband might “waste” money on roses for his wife. She probably does not complain.
This helps us to understand one of the most wasteful events: the liturgy. By the world’s standards, there is a great deal wasted in the Mass. Our churches are well lit, so why the need for candles? Our Lord was content with a manger, so why the fancy vessels? Why the vestments, the incense, the music? Strictly speaking, the Mass requires only bread, wine and a priest.
True, Our Lord does not need all this adornment in the liturgy. But we need to give it. Without such a “waste” we would be diminished. We have a natural tendency to adorn what we love. If we fail to adorn it, we will soon stop loving it. This is precisely what has happened to the Mass in many places: Robbed of its adornment, it appears ordinary, unimportant. If it is not worth adorning, how could it be worth attending? But no one will mistake the importance of Our Lord to this sinful woman — precisely because she was willing to “waste” on Him.
Most of all should the woman in this Gospel passage point us to the importance of “wasting” time in personal prayer. In the world’s estimation, time in prayer is a poor investment. It is an escape from the “real world.” In fact, the devout heart should seek to “waste” such time in prayer. It is yet another pouring out of tears and oil to give praise to Our Lord. It is an extravagance that we cannot do without — another way of expressing a love that exceeds material and financial calculations. If wasted, it is time well wasted.