You know that story about the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany? Well, I don’t like it.
If I’d been there, I would have been one of those who “said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.’” (Mark 14:4-5). The perfumed ointment was worth about $30,000 in today’s dollars, and this woman was foolish enough to dump the whole thing on Jesus’ head. Why didn’t she use it for something practical like feeding the poor? Couldn’t it have done greater good that way, being a useful gift instead of a frivolous one?
But Jesus is not as interested as I am in what is useful. Usefulness has its place at times, but he is primarily interested in what is beautiful. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” he says. “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” Her gift was useless, strictly speaking, but it was not at all worthless. It was an unnecessary act of love and worship, which didn’t “accomplish” anything—but Jesus honored her for it.
God loves to do things that are unnecessary. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them.” God did not create us to use us as mere tools to accomplish something. He can accomplish whatever he wants just fine without us, thank you. We often speak of God using us, yes, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say that he invites us to participate in his work. He cares about us for our own sake, not for how useful we can be to him. We are not merely a means to an end. We are good in ourselves.
I have trouble understanding this. I am a task-oriented, practical person. I prioritize useful activities over useless but nevertheless enjoyable activities. I am addicted, in a very real sense, to crossing items off my to-do list and patting myself on the back for accomplishing something necessary.
Also in The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” I’m afraid I often don’t value the so-called “useless” things in life—beauty, creativity, play, humor, friendship, worship. God has had to shift my values, and I still have a long way to go.
I’ve found it helpful to learn from others, especially those from non-Western cultures, who live at a slower pace, who are more people-oriented and less utilitarian. I’ve tried to learn from children, who are experts at playing and not letting anything get in the way of having fun—to the great (and sometimes justifiable) annoyance of any adult who demands that they go and clean their rooms.
In his delightfully frolicsome and hilariously eccentric cookbook/theological treatise The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon writes, “The world will always be more delicious than it is useful.” What might God be calling us to do that is completely useless, but deeply good?
Waste time as a spiritual discipline. Fast from making a to-do list. Be a little more irresponsible. Instead of rushing off after church, linger a while and chat, just for fun. Take a break from prayers for God to accomplish something, either for you or for someone else. Take time to praise him for the superfluous, unnecessary blessings he gives you, for no reason at all except to show his delight in you, his beloved and wonderfully useless creation.