Bible: What’s your alabaster jar?

Apr 1, 2019 by

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While the chief priests and elders schemed to kill Jesus, a woman entered Simon the leper’s house and blessed him with costly perfume.

Roth

Roth

“Why this waste?” said the disciples. “This ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor” (Matt. 26:9).

In Mark’s Gospel, Judas takes the arithmetic one further. It’s on witnessing the waste that he looks to sell Jesus out to the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver (Mark 14:10; Matt. 26:15).

The deadly calculations of pow­erful men and the sterile, calculated charity of the male disciples contrast sharply with the woman’s extravagant gift.

Unstoppering the alabaster jar won’t do. She “breaks open” the jar (Mark 14:3). Indeed, the word translated “waste” in Matt. 26:8 often means “destruction.” Why this destruction of something valuable?

Nor was the waste/destruction the only scandalous aspect of her deed. The word for “perfume” here is “myrrh” in Greek (Matt. 26:3, 6). Myrrh had a regal, life-giving meaning as part of the sacred blend used for anointing priests and kings (Ex. 30:25).

But myrrh was also used to perfume dead bodies — a fact Jesus highlights when he commends the woman’s action (Matt. 26:12).

Myrrh for the dead was something of a leitmotif in Jesus’ story, bookending his life as a costly gift (Matt. 2:11; John 19:39).

And myrrh had a seductive side. “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts,” sings the woman lover in Song of Songs. “I arose to open to my beloved,” she says breathlessly, “and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt” (Song of Songs 1:13; 5:5).

On a different note, the adulteress of Proverbs entices the young man to her bed by perfuming it “with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon” (Prov. 7:17).

No doubt this association was what scandalized the host in Luke’s account. He assumed that Jesus wasn’t much of a prophet, for Jesus didn’t appear to know “what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Luke 7:39).

The contents of that alabaster jar were a scandalous waste. Who knows? Maybe the woman sought to make good on a wasted life, wasted youth, wasted opportunities through one more precision act of waste, an act of love poured out thick and fragrant on this prophet, priest and king.

Hers was an offering. Jesus took it that way. “She hath wrought a good work upon me,” he said (Matt. 26:10, KJV).

Yes, his students must be committed to the poor. That’s the deep teaching of the Torah — precisely what Jesus cites: “You’ll always have the poor with you” (Matt. 26:11). It’s not that there’s nothing we can do about poverty but that we will never move beyond our obligation to open our hand “to the poor and needy neighbor in the land” (Deut. 15:11).

Yet commitment to those in need can never preclude an unfeigned, uncalculated, relinquishing, ravishing, lavishing act of love for Jesus.

There are surprisingly few moments like this in the Gospels.

What’s the alabaster jar you need to pour over Jesus? Poet Bonnie Thurston speaks of prayer as “pouring out life, that alabaster vial” (“Prayer” in Practicing Silence).

What gift do you bring? What offering? What love scrawled in blood, what good work wrought in sweat and tears?

If you’re disposed to calculating, the gift is a waste. God can’t be bought. He guarantees nothing in return for our gift — not answered prayers or a fine life or the health of stallions. Certainly not eternal salvation.

But like the woman with the alabaster jar, whose deed will always be remembered, though her name has perhaps faded away, we must give the gift. Because the Lamb is worthy, and our hearts long to be unstoppered and poured out and broken in love for him (Rev. 5:12).

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Mound­ridge, Kan., and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.


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