He was 7 years old when his parents took him to a cafeteria. And he could not believe what his eyes told him he saw. It was so big and there were so many choices.
They told him he could pick what he wanted, and that was more freedom than he had ever imagined existed. It was more power and choice than he had ever had to exercise before. All those options waiting, to be selected, and he had the power to choose.
Yet freedom is never completely free. There are always limits to freedom, and even if they had told him he could get what he wanted, he knew there had to be limits to even that much freedom. There was always Daddy watching to make sure his 7-year-old son did not try to use more freedom than he could eat. Daddy had given this freedom and Dad could take it back at any moment. Such freedom must not be abused.
Full of excitement and joy, the young boy picked up his tray and bounded forward. He reaches out and picks up the Jell-o salad and puts it on the tray. Then there is a quick look at father to see if that choice violates some rules of this new game which he has not been told. His father makes no opposition and so the boy goes on.
More agony of decisions, and then comes more thrill of the choice. He makes the next selection and puts it on his plate. There is that quick glance at his father to make sure all is still kosher. Oh, the joy of it all.
Then he comes to the supreme moment in this entire game, the dessert section. The line backs up behind him as he tries to decide. His choice boils down to the lemon pie or the strawberry shortcake with all that whipped cream three inches high. He makes his choice and there is that last desperate glance at his father. Has he stepped over the limit with this last wild wonderful choice? He has not. His joy is complete.
And in his fullness of joy, he slides his tray forward on the track and then out onto nothing but the joy itself, out where there are no tracks and there is no support and the tray crashes to the floor with the horrible rattle of china breaking — that sound that is so well known in every college dining hall and dreaded by every waiter in the world.
There on the floor were all his dreams. There on the floor were the results of all his wonderful decisions and all his hard-fought choices — all his wants and desires smashed into one huge mess. And he looks immediately at his father and he does not know whether he would be smarter to cry out of his sorrow at his loss or out of fear for his safety from his father’s anger.
There in his father’s face the young boy saw that cold combination of anger, frustration, and exasperation. It is the kind of look every child can read and one, I think, they dread worse than punishment itself. Time froze. It was but an instant but it seemed like that moment lasted forever. It has lasted the lifetime of that young boy as he can still feel the terror in his soul. Even at over forty the young boy — now a man — can feel that same fear.
Before the father could put his own tray down to accomplish whatever it was that the father intended to accomplish in terms of behavioral modification, the manager of the cafeteria was right there next to the young boy. The manager in a very calm and pleasant manner assured the young man that accidents do happen, that for every problem there were solutions, and as he talked to the boy, the manager, by careful examination of the remains on the floor, figured out what the young boy had had on his tray. The manager sent one of his staff to bring the boy a new tray with everything just like the one that could not fly. The waitress came back with an identical tray to the one that ended up on the floor.
The manager then spoke to the boy’s father and assured him that he was not expected to pay for both trays of food, but would only be asked to pay for the tray of food that the boy ate. In two minutes the manager had taken an awful moment in the life of that young boy and put those pieces back together, and made his trip to that cafeteria a wonderful experience of grace and forgiveness. The manager had redeemed a horrible event and made the boy’s trip to the cafeteria the great joy it had started out to be. It was a needed waste.
Now it may not surprise you that the first comment I heard from someone when the young man was telling this story was that if the manager keeps acting like that and giving food away, he will soon lose his business. The person hearing this story was determined that everybody realize the manager cost the company money in doing this and the business absorbed the cost of this kindness. It was his response to the story that put this story from John 12:1-8 next to this story of the fallen tray.
The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them dry with her hair is doing what the manager did for this young boy. The disciple who objects to his act of love and says that we could have sold that ointment and gotten a year’s wages for it and done all kinds of good deeds is like the man who was suggesting that management had been reckless and wild and would ruin the company if he continued with that kind of extravagance of giving away extra meals.
Yet Jesus praises and defends the woman and her wasteful conduct. She did a needed waste.
Jesus accepts what she does, approves of what she does, and understands what she does — what the manager did — because Jesus understands that in order for redemption to happen, in order for reconciliation to happen in our world, somebody has to bear the cost. Somebody has to be willing to be reckless with the material things of this world in order for grace to be possible there.
Jesus suggests that what is needed to bring into being a place where the kingdom of God is possible is a disregard for cost. If you are forced to go one mile, go two. If they want your coat, give them your shirt. That love comes into being only where there is a willing sacrifice of the accounting principles.
The kingdom of God is made possible by a “needed waste.” A needed waste is wherever there is something in this world for which we will gladly give up all our worldly possessions and never count the cost, gladly use up all that we have and only regret that we do not have more to give.
You and I have someone for whom we would gladly spend everything and never look back. We would spend what we have in a heartbeat in order to save the life of our own family members. That is a recklessness of love.
Someone told me that if it were possible to pay $100,000 for the chance to have twenty-four hours with a loved one who had died, it would be paid in an instant and never regretted. A needed waste.
Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God makes itself visible wherever there are those who are willing to use up their resources gladly to honor, to praise, to celebrate the goodness of God; to waste perfume in the adoration of Christ, to spend some dollars to glue back together dreams, to spend all you get to help the sick and dying like Mother Teresa. A needed waste.
It is a needed waste because it is the kind of love that makes life good and beautiful. It is the kind of act that makes life glorious. It is the kind of act that transforms the shattered joys into great memories. The young man says he will always know what forgiveness can do because he has experienced it in his life. Jesus praises this woman who “wastes” this perfume because, for the kingdom of God to become real, to become visible, there have to be those who are able to be wasteful, to be managers who are willing to make things right again and be willing to assume and bear the cost.
The church, you and I, are invited to become followers of Christ, who gladly poured out His life to make grace and love possible for us. We are called to be agents of a needed waste in order to be salt and light to the world around us.
God’s power and love are made manifest wherever, it seems to me, there are those who are willing to be wasteful with the stuff of life in order to be redemptive in the community around them. Maybe that is why Jesus says, wherever the gospel is preached in the world what she had done will be told in memory of her. Because she loved enough to be wasteful.

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