First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood
Telephone numbers: (310) 677-5133 Fax (310) 330-8342
Electronic mail: PRESBYTS@SBCGLOBAL.NET
“The Alabaster Box”
March 9, 2008
by Suzanne M. Swartz
Last week I found myself having to do two things at once: I was working on my sermon while at the same time I was attempting to read hundreds of pages for my Systematic Theology class which was all day yesterday. Well one of the books I read was entitled Sensing the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Feminist Perspective, written by my Systematic Theology professor Rev. Dr. Rebecca Button Prichard. It turned out to be the perfect book for this sermon.
The book is basically about how we go about living a Christian life. Dr. Prichard talks about how we sense the Holy Spirit through each of our five senses – she talks about how she feels the Holy Spirit when she is doing her gardening – she feels the soil of the earth and knows the Spirit is there. She talks about how we can taste the Spirit with a good meal, and she mentions the wonderful film Babette’s Feast to illustrate such an experience. She also talks about how we hear the spirit in music and song.
But her chapter on aroma, odor, and adoration really struck me as fitting particularly well with today’s story of the woman with the alabaster box. Dr. Prichard says that, throughout scripture, “our sense of smell is aroused in at least three ways: by the smoke of sacrifice, which is a “pleasing odor” for God’s nostrils; by the spicy scent of incense, which rises toward God in prayer; and by the fragrant oil of anointing, which is used to set apart both people and things to a holy purpose.”
Persons and things were anointed in the Bible to signify holiness, or separation unto God. By the effect produced in the anointed, the person or thing became holy and sacrosanct. Fundamentally the anointing was an act of God, and the word ‘anointed’ was used metaphorically to mean the bestowal of divine favor or appointment to a special place or function in the purpose of God. Further, the anointing symbolized equipment for service, and is associated with the outpouring of the Spirit of God.
Today’s story talks about this third way our sense of smell is aroused. Dr. Prichard calls this episode “the most fragrant in Jesus’ life.”
This passage is one of only a handful of stories that can be found in all four gospels. The Lukan passage is a lot more detailed and some do not even consider it a parallel passage to the anointing of Jesus at all. The title given it in the Good News Bible is actually “the Sinful Woman Forgiven” and Luke places the story early in Jesus’ ministry; elsewhere, the story is a prelude to the passion, for the anointing with ointment is referred to as a preparation for Jesus’ burial.
John tells his version in chapter 12, verses 1-8. Listen:
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped thema with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denariib and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought itc so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
In John’s gospel, the woman is named as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Who she is is important to John’s telling of the story. None of the other gospel writers mention the woman as this particular Mary. John, like Luke, has Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.
Can you imagine what it might have been like to be at this dinner party and witness this scene with your own eyes? Try to picture yourself as Mary, and you were hosting a dinner party for Jesus just days after he had raised your brother from death. You might wish to do something very special for him, to repay him for his kindness to your beloved brother. But what? You ponder it in your heart and mind and suddenly it hits you – the alabaster jar of pure spikenard that Uncle Aaron had given you years before. You thought you’d save it for your wedding but that never happened. You knew that Jesus did a lot of walking and it would probably feel really good for you to anoint his tired feet with the ointment.
I can feel the excitement Mary must have felt as she ran to her room to get the alabaster jar. She raced back to the dinner party and found a spot right by Jesus. Nobody noticed she had gone or come back. She slipped down to the floor, opened the jar and began anointing his feet. Needless to say it did not take long for the sweet smell to permeate the whole room. Mary was beaming with joy until suddenly, that interruption came from Judas.
John is particularly harsh on Judas Iscariot in this passage. Recall that the first reference to Judas as the one who would betray Jesus was found in John 6, and John mentions this upcoming betrayal again here. Only in this verse is Judas described as a thief. The sentence, “He would help himself from it” indicates customary or repeated action, and means that Judas had the habit of helping himself from the contributions given to the disciples to be dispersed to the poor.
Jesus responds very scornfully to Judas, saying “Leave her alone! or “Do not bother her.” I’m sure Judas was quite embarrassed and put-out by Jesus’ rebuke in front of all the dinner guests. If he hadn’t already decided for sure to betray Jesus, at this point the wheels in his head were probably turning ferociously.
John’s focus is on what Jesus does in response to Mary’s anointing, he forgives her sin.
But Matthew and Mark tell the story almost exactly the same but with a totally different focus. Their telling is much more abbreviated, but it is their version which gives the story its Lenten flavor. In Matthew’s gospel the story is told in chapter 26, verses 6-13. Listen:
“Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,a 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good newsb is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Here, Judas is not mentioned, nor is the woman named – it merely says “a woman.” Also in Matthew and Mark the disciples who complain about the woman’s extravagance are plural. Judas is not singled out and, in fact, more than one disciple complained about the woman’s wastefulness.
Nor are Judas or the woman mentioned in Mark 14:3-9. Those facts are not important in Mark’s mind.
That very well may be because there seems to be some confusion amongst the gospel writers about who the Mary of the story was. Was it Mary, the Judean Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus? Or, as Luke suggests, was it Mary Magdalene, the notorious, sinful prostitute? Luke doesn’t mention the woman’s name but some people have jumped to the conclusion that this scene may have actually been Jesus’ first encounter with Mary Magdalene, who might have snuck herself into the dinner party so she could meet Jesus. Maybe she had been saving her alabaster jar for many years, for just such an opportunity.
Now pretend you were this Mary: Mary Magdalene. Imagine that you’ve had this alabaster box for many years – that it was given to you by the one man who really loved you for yourself. You were planning to marry and then, suddenly, he died. You had saved that box as a memento in his memory ever since.
Earlier in the year you’d met Jesus of Nazareth, the Prophet. This Jesus was different and spoke directly to you, even though you were veiled and standing in a thick crowd. “Be compassionate, don’t pass judgment, give!” were the words you had heard. As you listened, you felt your eyes open and the alabaster jar around your heart begin to crack. You began to follow this man, watching him, listening to him, learning from him. But you’d never been very close to him and started wondering how you would get close to him given your status and vocation in life.
Then you heard that he was going to be going to Simon’s house for dinner. You knew Simon’s doorkeeper and chief steward, and decided to crash his party. You veil yourself and slip out into the town with your alabaster jar concealed in your cloak, but when you arrive at Simon’s house, the party is almost over. You wander around until you find Jesus, sitting by himself, contemplating something. You notice how tired and worn out he looks. You kneel down at his feet and begin weeping for his pain. You long to bring him some comfort. Nobody’s watching so you shrug off your veil and unbind your hair and wipe Jesus’ feet clean of road dust. Jesus stirs and you look up at him, right into his eyes, and see that he, too, is crying, but he is also smiling. With that look the alabaster casing around your heart shatters and you take off the top and empty the entire bottle onto his feet. With that act the pain of the past love lost goes away and you are a new person, literally “born again.”
Then a second or two later you are discovered by the host who has this look of suppressed horror on his face. Jesus sees it too so before Simon can say anything, Jesus asks one of his famous questions and begins with a parable. Simon is taken aback by the question about the two creditors and who will love more because he does not see where this line of questioning is going. Simon answers it correctly and Jesus approves. But here’s where it gets really good. Jesus then turns and rebukes Simon for being inhospitable to himself and the woman. Jesus gestures to you, Mary, and says, “Look at her, she isn’t welcome here, she’s taking a huge risk coming here, and yet none of you are doing for me what she has done. She has used this costly ointment out of love for me, and because of that, her sins are forgiven.”
Totally flabbergasted but overwhelmed with emotions, you rise, transfigured in your joy, bow deeply to Jesus, smile at him, and make your way home, carrying the fragments of the shattered alabaster jar with you.
Now that’s one person’s interpretation and as beautiful as this Lukan story is, Jesus’ response to Mary’s act of self-less-ness in Matthew and Mark is also noteworthy. As I said, the two accounts are virtually identical. In Mark 14:3-9, he says, ““Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good newsd is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
It is in Matthew and Mark that Jesus proclaims that the gospel will be preached “in memory of her.” That’s pretty major news that I want you all to hear: the good news of the gospel is to be preached remembering Mary’s selfless act.
So what do the four stories have in common? In all four the woman (Mary or whomever) breaks open a flask of expensive ointment and anoints Jesus. And she must have really anointed him well because she poured out a whole pint or nearly a pound of perfume. What is important is not the kind of measurement, but the large amount involved and its high value. This very expensive perfume was “pure” or in some translations “real” or “genuine.” This was the hair root of the nard plant from which the oil was derived. The nard plant grows in the mountains of northern India, and from its root and hair stem is derived a very fragrant oil used in perfumes and ointments.
The woman poured, put on, or rubbed the perfume or ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair. This was a sensual act – letting down one’s hair was a way of her expressing her deep compassion for Jesus. The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house and people throughout the house smelled this sweet odor.
When Judas or the unnamed disciples say the perfume could have been sold for three hundred silver coins, they are talking about the equivalent to the average daily wage of a laborer times 300. Some translations actually say “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for the equivalent of three hundred days’ wages?”
* * * *
What does this story of the woman with the alabaster jar filled with precious ointment tell us today? What gifts did this woman have that we can celebrate today? Dr. Prichard tells us a very important one. Women were important to Jesus. “In light of the all-male priestly tradition, it is striking that all four gospels portray Jesus’ anointing by a woman, clearly a sacred, sacramental, subversive act, sanctifying him for the sacrifice to come. This woman, whether she was Mary Magdalene or Mary sister of Lazarus, or another Mary or an unnamed woman, she was used by God to perform a most important task. She had guts. She had compassion. She had the gift of hospitality. She had a love for the Lord.
She also had her own property. She had possession of the alabaster box and she chose to share it with her Lord. She did not hoard it for herself or try to sell it, as the disciples would have liked, merely for monetary gain. Its contents were more precious to her than any amount of money. In fact, she gave expecting nothing in return, kind of like how God bestows us with His Grace even though we don’t ask for it. It’s a free gift. The perfume from that alabaster jar was like God’s grace poured out for all of us.
Another lesson we learn, and we seem to hear it over and over again, is be compassionate. Compassion is often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another or to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion may lead an individual to feel empathy with another person. Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of pain and suffering. Who do you know personally who needs your compassion right now, at this very moment?
Don’t pass judgment. Remember what it felt like to be Mary Magdalene and have your sins forgiven.
Treat everyone like they will not always be with you. The woman with the alabaster jar did not know how soon Jesus would be suffering upon that cross, nor did she know yet about the resurrection. We need to learn from this story to treat others like it’s the last time we may see them every single time we see them. Tell them you love them and pour out your love upon them each and every time, not just on special occasions.
Finally, ask yourself what is in your alabaster jar? What gift can you bring this Lenten season to prepare Jesus for burial? Whatever it is, give it to him, freely and lovingly. Amen.