Mary’s Alabaster Box

Mary’s Alabaster Box

Mark 14.1-11, Matt. 26.6-13, John 12.1-8, Luke 7.36-50

Our passage today is found in all four Gospels, and its told a little differently in each one. We will focus primarily on the Gospel of Mark were an unnamed woman has offered an act of lavish love on Jesus that is misunderstood by others.

It’s a dangerous thing to fall in love with God. This love pushes you and I to do things that the world around us does not understand. God’s love prevails to tell us to share sacrificially. It pushes us to engage – to be involved – when we would rather not. This love causes us to a greater commitment to God, our selves, and others.

In Mark’s Gospel the story of the “alabaster box” is placed on a timeline just two days before Passover. It is placed at the beginning of the Passion of Christ. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem one last time. Jesus has just declared his coming death and offered words of warning to his followers. The Human One, the Son of Man, would soon be handed over to be crucified by the Jewish leaders. Jesus knew his faithfulness to observe the Passover would bring him into contact with those who would take his life.

Our story draws our attention to an unnamed woman who is about to offer a prophetic act as an unspoken statement signifying Jesus coming Passion. This act of anointing implies a coming burial that would be hastily made, and without proper protocols being followed. This act holds together the imagery of the Old Testament anointing of the incoming King of Israel. The implications of such a peculiar prophetic act reminds the onlookers, and us today, of the anointing of a king, King David. David was spoken of as the beloved of God, a man after God’s own heart. Here in the text we see this Jesus following in David’s footsteps, a man after God’s own heart. We see in these actions the works of Samuel pouring the horn of oil upon David’s head while Saul was still King of Israel.

This unnamed woman is about to make a big scene in a small house among Jesus’ close friends and acquaintances. The story triangulates Jesus between a woman filled with lavish love for Jesus himself and the onlookers in the room who are critical of this kind of love. This kind of love was foolishness to them. In John’s Gospel we are given more details of the event. The unnamed woman is given the name Mary. And, we are given the details about this very expensive perfume. She has just poured out ¾ pound of pure nard, a valuable Indian plant. The house was filled with the smell of perfume.

The one theme that remains constant between three of the gospel stories is the emerging conflict over money, and the oil as an anointing for Jesus’ burial. Conflict surfaced about the way the perfume was used that it was a waste to pour it out. Yet, Jesus defends Mary’s actions as preparation for his burial, an act equal to alms giving. In Luke’s Gospel the conflict is centered on the complete forgiveness of sin in a woman of ill repute. The connection between Mary and Mary Magdalene did not arise until the a few hundred years later.

In Mark’s Gospel there’s a dinner party at Simon’s house for Jesus. Simon has some sort of skin disease, possibly leprosy. They may have been celebrating Lazarus’ life after he had been raised to life. What we are sure of in this passage is that there’s an unnamed woman and she’s about to create a scene. She has heard that there is a dinner party at Simon’s house. She grabs her vase made of alabaster, which had some very expensive perfume made of pure nard (spikenard). The perfume was worth almost a year’s pay (minimum wage yearly salary $15,080). A denarius was a days wage so 300 denarii would have represented about a year’s wage (minimum wage hourly $7.35). We could buy a brand new car with the proceeds from this expensive oil that she has “wasted” on Jesus. We could buy 4-$10 pizzas a day for a year!

When this unnamed woman arrives at Simon’s home, she approaches Jesus. And, in a moments notice she breaks open the vase pouring out her perfume on Jesus’ head. John’s Gospel suggests she anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet with her hair, instead of his head. With this much perfume in the air it must have been intoxicating, even overwhelming to smell. The word “vase” is translated from the Greek word “alabastron.” The jar was broken open as she poured out her perfumed oil on Jesus. The symbolism on the broken jar suggests that the act was that of preparing Jesus for burial as the ritual was leaving the broken jar at the tomb as was the custom at the time. The broken vase suggested that there was no other intention for this oil other than the purpose of pouring it out for Jesus’ sake.

Mark informs us, “Some grew angry” (Mark 14.4). It seems the disciples became angry, particularly Judas the money handler for the group. Conflict arises about the “wasting of expensive perfume.” Surely it should have been sold for money and given to the poor, the onlookers declared.

Then after experiencing this intimate act of lavish love, Jesus speaks up. Jesus called the disciples out, that they had made trouble for her. He proclaims that this prophetic act anointed his body for burial. And, he proclaims that her prophetic actions shall be told whenever the whole world hears the good news in remembrance of her. Jesus’ words of acceptance and forgiveness toward Mary caused a cascade effect. The Jewish leaders began the plot not only to take Jesus’ life but to take Lazarus’ life as well.

In this passage Jesus had a real sense of clarity about what was happening in the room both the prophetic act of lavish love and the unruly hearts of the crowd. As a disciple I get a real sense of clarity from time to time when things are not in step with God’s plan. This sense of right and wrong pushes me to do right when the world around me is going a different direction. It urges me to do the very thing I don’t want to do because it is not easy following God’s direction. My will doesn’t like to be told what to do or how to behave or how to spend my time and my money. I can resonate with the unruly hearts of the onlookers here. But God’s lavish love within me causes me to pause and rethink my response.

This sense of direction that comes from the Holy Spirit urges me as a disciple to make changes in my life that are contrary to what I thought I was going to do with my life. This power that directs me is not arrogant or haughty. It doesn’t manipulate or control me. It’s humble, gentle. This power woos me. It massages me. It urges me. It encourages me. It even compels me to do the right thing even when my flesh wants to keep doing what I want to do. The Spirit of God directs us to do the things we’d really rather not do.

The Spirit urges us upward in our relationship with God. It urges us inward toward practicing the spiritual disciplines that grow us in our relationship with God, and helps us love others as our self. It urges us outward for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It urges us to mission beyond the walls of this church to reach those who have not heard the story of Jesus.

It urges us onward in sacrificial giving for the sake of the world. When we look at our text today, Mary is the full expression of sacrificial giving. She gave her most valuable possessions – her reputation, her identity, and her income – her respectability. Jesus teaches us in Mark 10.24-25, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” This saying shocked Jesus’ disciples!

The unnamed woman in the story urges us to love holistically. The unnamed woman encourages us to live wholly devoted lives. The unnamed woman suggests that we give extravagantly. She demonstrates love even when others around us don’t understand us, and models that kind of love for us. She urges us to surrender our respectability for the sake of sacrificial love for our God. The unnamed woman invites us to reflect on the cost of authentic discipleship, and invites us by her actions to change our hearts and lives.

The unnamed woman demonstrates holistic love to us. When we are moved by hope, we just can’t give enough of ourselves. The demands of the Gospel are total. The requirement is all that you were, all that you are, and all that you hope to become. No part of our self stands outside of this requirement for discipleship. We don’t get to choose to be a disciple on Sunday and not the other six days of the week. I find this argument compelling when I look at Peter’s response to Jesus’ claim that the demands of God’s kingdom are so costly. “Look,” Peter says, “we’ve left everything and followed you (Mark 10.28).” Honestly, based on Jesus’ response, I don’t think Jesus was impressed with Peter’s declaration. You know you just can’t out give God, but I know a few people who have tried their hand at giving. Some folks I know have surrendered heirlooms, inheritances, jobs, homes, and careers to serve Jesus. Some folks I know have surrendered their reputations as community business leaders and award-winning designers to follow the call to ministry. And, not one person that has given up these things has ever said to me, “I wish I hadn’t done that…”

God doesn’t play around with hypocrites. There’s a couple in the Acts of the Apostles that sold their property and gave it to the church, or so they said (4.32-5.11). They said they had given it all to the church, but really they had kept a part of it back for themselves. Now in this text God never said you shouldn’t keep some of your proceeds and income. God requires of us only a percent for our giving – 10%. But sometimes it’s not the big things in life that trip us up. It’s the little things that God requires of us as his children that cause us to stumble in our intimacy with God.

I’m reminded of a story in the bible about a man named Simon (Acts 8.18) who was willing to pay for God’s blessing upon his life. He desired to have a powerful ministry, and he was willing to buy his ministry rather than discover God’s goodness through relationship with God and his church. Simon wasn’t looking for a life-long commitment. He was looking for a one-night stand with Jesus’ disciples. Simon wasn’t interested in a transformational relationship. He was looking for a quick-fix in his relationship with God. Simon was willing to pay money for a download of power that would have made him sought after, but he hadn’t counted the cost of discipleship. Being a disciple costs you your whole life, and everything in it!

The unnamed woman demonstrates devotional love to us. Whenever we are moved spiritually, we just can’t help but to offer an act of worship. In Mark’s Gospel we hear the Hebrew story of young David, Jesse’s son, who finds himself being anointed as the new king of Israel while King Saul is still in power(1 Samuel 16). The Prophet Samuel named David as the successor to King Saul creating significant drama around David’s rise to power. Samuel had anointed young David with the horn of oil, and no doubt the smell of the anointing oil would have been significant in the nostrils of Saul, and the people of Israel. The anointing of David was the proper signal of God calling his chosen one into service as the King of Israel. And, we hear the echo of this anointing through the hands of a woman.

The unnamed woman demonstrates extravagant love to us. Whenever we are forgiven deeply, we just can’t help but show great love physically (Luke 7.47). The Messiah was prophesied to be the One who would show the world the greatest physical love possible, death on a cross (Isaiah 53). Mark’s Gospel points to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem as the king (Mark 11.1-10). Jesus is about to be confronted by the High Priest as to whether or not he believed himself to be the Messiah (Mark 14.61). Jesus will be crucified as the King of the Jews (Mark 15.26). He will be mocked as the Christ, the King of Israel, by his opponents (Mark 15.32). His executioner will soon acknowledge that he is the Son of God (Mark 15.39).

The unnamed woman illustrates demonstrative love to us. Wherever we love deeply, we just can’t help but to act emotionally foolish (Luke 7.37-38). We can hear the words of Jesus as he hung there on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23.34). I once heard a story about a young man who wanted desperately to impress his girlfriend, driving around a large city looking for the perfect spot to propose to her. And, at midnight finally arriving back at his apartment still having not performed the proper task of proposing. After yet another 30 minutes of anxiously waiting for the perfect moment, sheepishly pulls out the ring, gets on his knees, wiping the tears away, and proposes to his very tired fiancé who had a mouth full of salad. Sometimes waiting for the perfect moment to announce our commitment to God never comes unless we create that moment of opportunity. We miss out on so much of our lives when we put off until tomorrow our deeper commitment to the Lord Jesus. The unnamed woman in our text fully demonstrates how we must respond to love even when it seems to be out of place.

The unnamed woman in the room demonstrates how we must respond to love even when the people won’t understand us.Mary poured out all that she possessed in a moment of passionate love. This lavish love made everyone present uncomfortable so much so that they complained to Jesus. Mary let down her hair in public. She was unashamed in her extravagant display of affection for Jesus. The tension in the room remained between this authentic lover of God and the religious culture around her. Her intimate act of discipleship was on display for all to see, and an offense to those present.

The unnamed woman demonstrates how we must let go of respectability to become authentic lovers of God. Jesus once said it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. The rich must relinquish their respectability in the world. Steven Manskar in his booklet entitled “Accountable Discipleship” points out two reasons why Methodist have gotten away from their small group accountability, or classes since 1840. One of those reasons is the desire on the part of the Methodists to be respectable. In their desire to be respectable preachers no longer traveled on horseback, and they stopped riding their circuits to share the good news, administer the sacraments, and equip the laity for ministry to call on the members, visit the sick, and teach the children. As the church experienced rapid growth they built great buildings to accommodate the community around them, and chose pastors to serve and maintain those buildings rather than their evangelistic oversight.

Sacrificial giving costs everything we possess, but mostly it costs us our selves. Authenticity comes with a price of sacrificial giving. Are you willing to join me in paying the price to become an authentic follower of God?

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