Read Matthew 26:1-16.
Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem - located on what we call the West Bank. When I traveled in the land of the Holy One I learned to pay better attention to geography. So a reminder: on this journey with Matthew, we arrived in Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, to Jerusalem, eleven days ago. (See Matthew 21.) Since then Jesus has been in Jerusalem, in conflict with the temple authorities day after day, teaching and being challenged by the powers-that-be.
So today's story takes us to Bethany. It is a story is told in all four gospels, but as we know they don't always agree on all the details. Matthew (and Mark) tell us that Jesus is at the home of Simon the leper. Luke says it was the home of a Pharisee. John reminds us it's Lazarus' hometown and that his sisters are there for a dinner in Jesus' honor - but he isn't clear on where "there" is. In his story it's Mary who does this - in Luke's story the woman is identified as having lived a "sinful life." But in Matthew (as well as Mark and John) there is no such implication.
What is clear here, however, is that some of the men think this is a waste. And they challenge her - and by extension Jesus, who claims it for what it is: a beautiful, holy, intimate gesture of love.It is extravagant.
What do you make of extravagant gestures? Do they make you uncomfortable, or make your heart glad? The fatted calf killed for a lost son - veal piccata for everyone! Water turned into wine at Cana - and not just any wine but a vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild! Or a woman - saint or sinner - taking an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, who anoints Jesus and prepares his body for burial.
In my experience the Church , particularly in New England is uncomfortable with extravagance. It's in our Puritan water! And yet this doesn't always extend to life outside of the Church. People will splurge on dream vacations and spas, fancy restaurants, expensive colleges. Now I'm not criticizing any of these things, except to observe that sometimes these very same folks will say, when the Church has an opportunity to improve its music program, or its worship space, or the rectory - that we don't want to get too carried away here. There is a great old story told by Garrison Keillor about Pastor Ingqvist's Trip to Orlando, FL - and how (as his Roman Catholic colleague puts it) he got "snookered out of it" by someone who suggested the money ought to go to the poor.
The Church needs to be about mission, and justice, and even about charity. And sometimes the Church needs to learn that an extravagant gesture of love is not in conflict with those commitments.