The Lesson of Mary’s Alabaster Jar

It’s hard to know where to begin when trying to explain how utterly outrageous that outpouring from Mary and her alabaster jar was to them all.

Number one, she was an “impure” woman, touching someone who was supposed to be a holy prophet in a very intimate manner (Luke 7:39). What sort of a prophet can’t see anything wrong with something so basic? Any idiot knows they were crossing the line there.

But it wasn’t just the religious rulers there tut-tutting either – the disciples were just as perplexed, but for different reasons.

It was pretty much like Chanel No5 getting poured out over Yeshua’s feet, all over the floor… just poured effectively down the drain! Did Jesus have any idea how much money that would have been? How many people it could have helped? The religious elite may have been aghast at the scandalous proximity of a sinful woman, but the disciples were focused on the apparent waste when there was so much poverty around (Matthew 26:8-9, Mark 14:4-5).

They thought this woman wasting a fortune’s worth of perfume had made a serious error – and that Jesus had just allowed it to happen without stopping her. They protested (at least internally) that it could have served those in need better than just getting used as a foot wash. It was altogether too much for Judas who then went away to do his wicked deal, agreeing to betray Jesus in exchange for 30 silver coins.

It’s important to revisit that story in our days because we might be accidentally making the same mistake as the disciples.

Getting our priorities in order

Has our passion been subtly redirected to kingdom causes rather than the King Himself?

Let’s stand with the disciples for a minute, and think about Mary’s apparent blunder.

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

The cry of the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow has always been very high up on God’s priority list. Top of the list is surely God’s concern for His own name / glory, then the eternal salvation of the lost, and His people Israel also get a look in somewhere there too. But a scan of the Bible will tell you that the cry of the poor is extremely important to God. He not only listens, sees, and cares about the oppressed, but He is enraged when we do not. In fact, God reveals that it wasn’t just the perversions of Sodom that incurred God’s wrath, but their lack of concern for the poor.

It’s pretty basic. So basic, in fact, that you don’t need to be a follower of Jesus to know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just baseline human decency. You can see why the disciples might have been perturbed at all those resources down the drain. But even still, our top priority that trumps all else has got to be love for Jesus our King.

It’s not just concern for the poor that clamors for our attention either. This alabaster jar principle applies to all other good causes as well. Just think for a minute about the things that keep you up at night, about which you sign petitions, or talk earnestly with others. These issues all have to take their place in line behind our love for Jesus, no matter how important they are. Nothing is as important as Jesus.

Jesus should be number one

The Greatest Commandment (known as the “Shema”) is to love the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. God told Israel that they should write this on their doorframes and on their foreheads so they don’t forget:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

All our wherewithal, might be a good translation of that last Hebrew word, as it includes a concept of possessions – we are to love Him with all that we have. That’s what Mary did. She broke that precious alabaster jar and poured out all that perfume at breathtaking cost. And according to Jesus, that was the right thing to do. Even more important than feeding the poor. It was no waste.

Of course, we don’t have to choose between the two, we can do both! In fact, loving others well expresses our love for God, who loves them too. The two loves should not be separated. But Jesus has to come first.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but that is second only to loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

When we get carried away with a cause – no matter how noble – we are in danger of idolatry if Jesus is not in first place.

If we put Jesus first, everything else falls into place because His priorities will infuse our lives when we focus on Him. His agenda becomes our agenda. If we truly love God, we will naturally obey His commands by showing love to one another.

Don’t lose your first love!

Mary gives us another example as she sits at Yeshua’s feet instead of helping her sister look after the guests. Hospitality for Jesus and his friends is surely among the noblest work of all, yet it needs to be second after “the most important thing” that Mary had chosen (Luke 10:42).

As someone once helpfully told me, J.O.Y. stands for:

  1. Jesus first
  2. Others second
  3. Yourself last

It’s tempting to conflate serving others with serving God, but do not do it! Jesus must come first, others second. That means our top priority, the firstfruits of our day, our chief concern, the focus of our lives, and our first love needs to be devoted to Jesus Himself.

Come let us adore Him

Mary had been forgiven much and her deep appreciation flowed freely. When we take time to reflect on all God has done for us, our love for Him comes naturally too. It is when we forget, or become blasé about God’s goodness to us that we take His gifts for granted and our hearts become cold. But there’s always so much to appreciate Him for! Gazing steadily upon God, upon His perfect word and His mighty wonders, will stoke the fire of our love back into a roaring blaze.

Mary probably did not know at the time that her alabaster incident was anointing Jesus for His burial – a profoundly prophetic act that would be spoken of throughout the centuries – but that’s the sort of thing that can flow out of unrestrained passion for Jesus. We get drawn into the slipstream of His wonderful agenda, and end up playing a part in His amazing plans in unforeseen ways. Plans which, of course, include all the causes and issues that we can become so passionate about. God cares about them much more than you do! You cannot lose out by putting Him first.

Alabaster in the Bible is a symbol of strength, beauty and purity, and that is how this woman is remembered, more than for whatever sins she committed. The story vindicates her and instructs us. She rightly understood well how precious Jesus was – far more valuable than all the expensive perfume in the world.

The lesson of Mary and her alabaster jar is this: Live and act in such a way that proves Jesus is more important to us than the most important issue on earth.