#ThinkingTuesday – Change your thinking; Change your life.
Today, we’re thinking about alabaster boxes. An alabaster box is no ordinary box. They’re a very special kind of box. Special not in the sense that they’re inaccessible or costly, but in that they’re not usually found everywhere.
Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12 detail the breaking of an alabaster box, which many of us are familiar with. Each gospel writer saw it from separate angles and included minute details left out by the other writer. As such, to get a fuller picture of what really happened, all accounts must be placed together.
The Living Bible [TLB]: Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14: 3-9 & John 12:1-7
[*Paraphrased for storytelling, emphasis included on selected verses*]
A banquet was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, Mary took a jar of costly perfume [a beautiful flask of expensive perfume, weighing just under a pound] made from essence of nard, [then, breaking the seal, she poured it over his head], anointed [not the word for royal or priestly anointing, but for hospitality or care] Jesus’ feet with it and wiped them with her hair. And the sweet smell [fragrance] from the perfume filled the whole house.
The house was filled with fragrance. [Some of those at the table i.e. the disciples, were indignant among themselves about this “waste,” as they called it.] Judas Iscariot said, “That perfume was worth a fortune [an entire year’s wages]. It should have been sold [for three hundred denarii] and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor, but he was in charge of the disciples’ funds and often dipped into them for his own use!
Jesus replied, “Let her alone, why berate her for doing a good thing? She did it in preparation for my burial. [You always have the poor among you, and they badly need your help] You can always help them whenever you want to, but I won’t be here much longer.” And I tell you this in solemn truth, that wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and praised.”
It wouldn’t be #thinkingtuesday without a quote, so here’s one that deeply embodies the essence of the message behind Mary’s alabaster box.
The breaking of the alabaster box and the anointing of the Lord filled the house with the sweetest odour. Everyone could smell it. Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered; been limited, gone through things for the Lord, willing to be imprisoned by the Lord, just being satisfied with Him and nothing else, immediately you scent the fragrance. There is a savour of the Lord. Something has been crushed, something has been broken, and there is a resulting odour of sweetness.
— Nee Watchman
Just like Mary, you ever notice how people are fond of telling you what to do with your stuff? From parents to friends and financial advisers, people are always telling us what they think we should do or what we should have done in a certain situation.
(Btw, we all do this, so none of us are exempt).
Now, despite the disciples and Judas, the so-called “financial adviser” fussing about what she ought to have done with her alabaster box, Mary, the woman in the story does not calculate the cost of her decision or consult anybody before taking action. She is joyfully free as she carries out her heart’s desire – and, to the horror of everyone seated, Jesus praises her for her “good deed”.
It is not that anointing someone at a banquet is extraordinary – as it was often the case that special guests were honoured in such a manner – but it was the wild extravagance of Mary’s behaviour that caught the attention of those at the table.
Imagine the scenario:
A woman approaches Jesus, in her hands a small jar containing phenomenally costly perfume. She breaks the neck of the jar and pours the entire contents onto Jesus’ head. Conversation stops. All eyes turn. The fragrance of the perfume fills the room, then the whole house. BOOM. The whispers begin.
‘It’s pure nard.’
‘Do you know how much that costs?’
‘It comes all the way from India – takes a year just to get here.’
‘What a waste!’
‘Do you know what the orphanage down the road could have done with that money?’
The woman stands condemned for her foolishness. Perhaps she begins to wonder if they are right and she should have thought her actions through before carrying them out. But Jesus sees it differently and shields her from their condemnation. He tells them to leave her alone. He makes it clear that He is not embarrassed at her actions. He knows she has poured the perfume out of love for him and acknowledges that it is indeed a beautiful thing she has done!
The first thing that jumps out at us from Mary’s story is that when it comes to what to do with our stuff, there is a time and a place for calculation but that time and place is not when you are making commitments to the Lord.
When it is time to make a commitment to God, our scale of values must be clear.
That perfume in the alabaster box was probably the most precious thing she had ever owned, (scholars suggest it was a family heirloom) but with Jesus before her, she broke it and poured it out; and it was gone.
The reaction of the disciples is very obvious but how do you think Martha, Mary’s very own sister felt about her decision give away something so precious? Who knows, maybe that perfume belonged to the both of them? It did after all, cost an entire year’s wages. How would Martha have felt that her sister had decided to waste their family heirloom in such a wild display of extravagance? Should Martha have known about Mary’s intentions regarding the perfume, she would have counselled her not to go forward with her plans. It would be even worse had she not known, and the entire thing came as a surprise to her that faithful day, as the fragrance filled the room. While Martha, was faithfully serving, her sister had once again gone and done something foolish, how embarrassing! Maybe that jar was their savings account. Maybe it caused a rift between them, who knows? The possibilities are endless.
What we’re getting at is that there will always be consequences when we break out the alabaster box. When we go forward to do outrageous things in the name of our Lord, there’s always condemnation waiting, there’s always people who will tell us how we could have put our resources to better use for God’s kingdom. We must never let such people get in the way of our ministering to the Lord.
Kneeling the feet of Jesus, Mary took the place of a slave. When she undid her hair
(something Jewish women did not do in public), she humbled herself and laid her glory at His feet (I Corinthians 11:15). She was misunderstood and criticised, but that is what often happens when somebody gives his or her best to the Lord.
Our lives and actions reflect what is most important to us. Have there been times when people questioned or mocked what you have done for the Lord? Like the disciples asked Mary, people have asked you, why this waste? I’m sure there have been times you wondered whether they were right but always remember Jesus said you’ve done a beautiful thing, a good deed. That’s all that matters.
On the other hand, have you never done anything extravagant for the Lord – anything reckless, where there was a real cost to you, a cost that made life risky and uncomfortable? If you haven’t, you need to start today. Stop holding back and allow the Holy Spirit guide you to take risks that are pleasing in God’s sight. It doesn’t have to be emptying your bank account and moving to Syria, it could simply be starting that blog or youtube channel, writing a book, or travelling somewhere.
Breaking out the alabaster box is doing something you’ve been avoiding because you were concerned about the cost of the commitment.
We don’t live by convenience, we live by conviction. Mary was convicted that she needed to anoint the Lord, and she needed to do it with the most precious perfume. It was not convenient for her to do it and she certainly would have suspected the humiliation which lay ahead, but she carried on anyway, headstrong, anointing His feet and wiping them with her hair. Mary broke the alabaster box so she could not use it for anything else. Had she only taken the lid off, it could have been used for something else or she might have been tempted not to pour out all of the perfume; in her breaking the box, she made a complete sacrifice.
Jesus broke His own body on the cross that He might save the world. Those who desire the highest Christian experience must break their alabaster boxes. The devil does not like when we attempt to break out of our alabaster boxes, so he sends distractions our way to make us worry about the cost of our commitment. Whatever it is we sacrifice in our commitment to the Lord, we must ignore the remarks of those who scold us and trust that He looks upon it as a beautiful good deed.
Alabaster boxes are vessels of fragrance!
The breaking of the alabaster box anointed Jesus with perfume, but its fragrance also filled the entire house. By breaking out our alabaster boxes, we fill God’s temple with a fragrance that rises up as a sweet smelling offering unto the Lord. One thing not to be missed about Mary’s experience is that the blessing returned to her own head. As Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, she wiped His feet with her hair. This means that the fragrance, blessing and sweetness came back on her own head. Whatever we pour out in our commitment to minister to the Lord and to bless others (our prayers, love, and money), the blessing often comes back into our own lives and will continue to bring forth interest for as long as we live and even in the age to come.
Jesus noted that Mary had anointed Him against the day of His burial, but there was no way Mary could have known she was doing that. When we live fully committed to God, we will often find that we do and say things we did not intend to do under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a wonderful thing to serve God with the Holy Spirit in you. If you belong to God, you will do many things without being conscious of why you are doing them.
Through her actions, Mary gained a memorable reputation. Ecclesiastes 7:1 says that “a good name is better than precious ointment” and at the end of the day, Mary had both. The ointment came back on her head, and she gained a good name in the process.
Alabaster boxes are capable of preserving things for a long period of time without losing quality.
Whatever you feel you have kept hidden for long has not lost its quality, you are an alabaster box; a perfume waiting to be released. It is never too early/late to break open and release a sweet fragrance unto the Lord. We conclude our thoughts on alabaster boxes with this song:
What shall I render? What shall I render?
What shall I render to thee O Lord?
I will praise your name, and shout:
What shall I render to thee O Lord?