We’re blessed to be able to worship in a beautiful, inspiring building. Despite being made with wooden scaffolds, rudimentary tools and makeshift mortar, it has stood for hundreds of years, and is likely to for hundreds more. Most of us sucked in our breath and felt a sense of thrill when we first stepped inside it. Many of us do even now. Imagine what it must have been like for the mediaeval peasant folk who lived around it in timber dwellings? Imagine the awe, the sense of glory and mystery – all pointing to the great God in whose name it was built.
The church is really the people, of course it is – and we must beware idolatry of bricks and mortar. But all the same, a glorious building not only inspires worship, but represents an act of worship in itself. It’s not often that we think of the cost of building it. How on earth does a poor agrarian subsistence economy finance such luxury? What did it cost each peasant family to pay their taxes over decades to see it built? Yes, it certainly provided much needed employment and a focus for the identity of the village – but I wonder how many times a family went hungry or made some other sacrifice to see it built? What poverty might have been alleviated if the money hadn’t been spent on a building at least ten times larger than anything around it, whose sole purpose was for worship?
When we start to ask these questions, we get to the heart of today’s famous but unsettling story. We love the image of the woman anointing Jesus’ head with this very expensive perfume, but many of us no doubt share the disciples’ sentiments. Jesus had just challenged the financial corruption of the temple officials, and yet here he was a few days later, apparently condoning an act of wasteful, reckless extravagance. Surely there are better ways to spend money wisely?
But Jesus is having none of it. Yes, we should always care for those who need it, as Jesus advises – but he also reminds us that the first and primary object of our attention is Jesus himself. Jesus’ own love for us is extravagant, reckless even – the end of this week proves it, beyond a shadow of a doubt – and so, too, he commends extravagant love returned. This woman’s costly worship, done for no other reason than to demonstrate her adoration of her Lord, is ‘a beautiful thing’.
The woman could never have known that Jesus’ prediction would come true: ‘wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ Just as the poor mediaeval families who made sacrifices for decades to pay for and build our church building could never have known that 700 or 800 years later, people would still be gasping as they enter, people would still be offering their worship to God with hearts and hands raised in adoration – that their offering of extravagant love would remain powerful, inspiring, enduring. It is a beautiful thing.
As Holy Week begins, take time to reflect on the reckless, extravagant love of God for you – yes, you! The love that led to extraordinary sacrifice. Let’s acknowledge that too often we become people who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Let’s recommit ourselves to extravagant worship, reflecting the wild, reckless love of our Creator. It is a beautiful thing.
Loving Jesus, thank you for your extravagant love for me. My love for you so often has limits. Help me to love you as you love me. Open my eyes to see what the woman at Bethany saw. Thank you. Amen