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Mary’s Alabaster Box


Alabaster boxes were originally Egyptian vessels made of a peculiar stone, a kind of soft white marble which was supposed to be specially adapted to preserve the odor of perfumed ointments. The Greeks named the vessels from the town of Alabastron where they were made, and the stone afterward was called by the same name. This white mineral was easy to carve and polish, so Israelites used it to make beautiful jars and vases. The alabastra were of various shapes and sizes bored with a drill by the Egyptians and hollowed out with a chisel by the Palestinians.

Ancient traders often sealed costly perfume in an alabaster jar, allowing the scent to escape only gradually through the jar’s porous shell over many years. Theocritus, a third century B.C. poet, reports that merchants of Palestine used alabaster jars in the same way.


Mark 14:5 says that this box of ointment was worth more than 300 pence –  a year’s wages.  A denarius (or “penny”) was what an agricultural worker typically was paid for one day’s labor (Mt. 20:2). If we assume U.S. minimum wage for 10 hours, then currently that would be $72.50 per day; $362.50 per week; $18,850 per year, hence the price of the woman’s alabaster box today. Compare this with the feeding of the 5,000 men (plus women and children), where the disciples noted that 200 pennyworth (denarii) ($14,500) was insufficient to feed the group (Mk. 6:37; Jn. 6:7). (Easton, Illustrated Bible Dictionary)

The fragrance of some ointments is said to have remained in the alabastra for hundreds of years. This explains why Jesus’ disciples rebuked the woman who broke an alabaster box to pour the perfume it contained upon Jesus’ head. The disciples complained that she was wasting a precious scent which could have been enjoyed for years. But Jesus rebuked the disciples, praised the woman, and the house where they were gathered was filled with the odor of the precious ointment (John 12.3).

Kendall tells that in the days of Jesus, when a young woman reached the age of availability for marriage, her family would purchase an alabaster box for her and fill it with precious ointment. The size of the box and the value of the ointment would parallel her family’s wealth. This alabaster box would be part of her dowry. When the young man came to ask for her in marriage, she would respond by taking the alabaster box and breaking it at his feet. The gesture of anointing his feet showed him honor. (Jackie Kendall)


Only John identifies the woman as Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) (John 12:1-3). Matthew, Mark, and Luke simply call her woman.  When she “broke” the vessel,  she likely broke off, as was usually done, the long and narrow neck so as to reach the contents. Since this stone resembles marble, but is softer in its texture, it is easily made into boxes.


The ointment mentioned in the text is called by Mark ointment of spikenard probably because that costly aromatic plant was one of the principal ingredients. Spikenard is one of the most precious spices of the Bible. The Hebrew for it is nerd; the Greeks called it nardos. It grew extensively in northern India, and has been found high in the Himalayan Mountains. It grows small with many spikes on one root, bearing pink blossoms; thus it is sometimes called the Indian spike. Perfumed oil is extracted from these spikes. Mark says it cost about 300 denari, or about one average worker’s salary for one year. It was precious! The receptacles for this expensive perfume have been found by archaeologists under the debris of walls, among the ruins of patrician houses, and in royal palaces.


Each of us is specially made to be a vessel of honor. We are all different shapes and sizes, precious in His sight, sealed by the Holy Spirit to give forth the fragrance of Jesus from our lives. Sometimes that fragrance just escapes gradually; other times, it comes gushing forth!


The Psalmist David says, The Lord is near unto them that are of a broken heart; and saves those of a contrite spirit (Psa.34:18). How vitally necessary it is that we are truly sorry for our sin, a sorrow that works repentance and turns us totally around. It causes us to stop doing the things that grieve Jesus and begin to live in a way that pleases Him. Such was the contrite spirit of the woman–John calls her Mary–who broke the alabaster box of precious ointment on Jesus. When she was broken because of her sin. Jesus forgave her, and she experienced a gratitude deeper than words. Being a young woman in the presence of so many men, she was not allowed to vocally express herself. Such a privilege was not permitted women of that day, so she did all that she could. She acted by arising and going after the most precious gift she could think of–a very costly bottle of perfume. She wanted to show Him her love, but how? By giving. She gave it to Jesus in a way that He would know that at least one person truly loved Him and believed Him to be the Messiah.


Mary worshipped the one who had set her free by giving herself and all that she had. The Apostle Paul wrote: I beg you … by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God …(Rom.12:1). A sacrifice is a gift of something precious, meaningful, and the best. In the Old Testament, God’s people gave the first and the best from among their flock as an offering to God. When the Lord smelled Noah’s offerings, they were a scent of satisfaction to His heart and caused Him to have mercy on His people (Gen. 8:21). The same thing happened when Jesus smelled the sacrifice that Mary gave Him that memorable day. His heart was turned toward her. He not only accepted her sacrifice, but her act of giving became a sermon to all those who looked on.


After Mary broke the box of precious ointment, she poured the perfume over Jesus’ head (say Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and feet (says John), and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. “The anointing which you have received of Him abides (lives) in you” (I John 2:17). Therefore, “out of your innermost being springs and rivers of living water shall flow continuously”(John 7:38). Remember, you are His vessel and contain His fragrance which will bubble up like fresh spring water and overflow into the lives of others. This pouring forth brings the anointed message of Jesus to all those it touches. It is His fragrance, His anointing, His oil, His precious ointment that will fill the place. Jesus said, The spirit of the Lord is now upon me because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19). Now if the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, what do you do? Jesus answers this question: Verily, I say unto you … the works that I do shall you do also, and greater works than these shall you do… (John 14:12). Of Mary who poured the precious ointment on Him, Jesus said, Wherever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman has done, be told for a memorial of her (Matt.26.13).


Mary knew that the anointing came from being at Jesus’ feet–in His Presence. She wasn’t moved by the critics around her but continued to pour the precious ointment on Him. Jesus rebuked her critics and made her famous throughout the centuries right into our lives today. Our love for Jesus, like Mary’s, is a commitment that is not swayed by what other people say or think. It is the deep expression of gratitude that comes from a heart that has experienced His forgiveness. The fragrance of such gratitude is a sweet smelling savor in the nostrils of our Lord.


We all give off some kind of smell through our actions, attitudes, and words. Like it or not, we smell like the people with whom we spend time. If they’re smoking, we smell like smoke. If they’re wearing strong perfume, and we hug them, the smell stays with us. Like it or not, we smell like what we eat. If we eat garlic, we smell like garlic. If we eat peanuts, we smell like peanuts. Trying to cover it up usually makes it worse. Like it or not, we begin to talk like the people with whom we spend time. If they use slang words, we soon hear ourselves repeating them. If they use praise words, we echo them. What do others smell when they are near you?


THE ALABASTER BOX: Spreading the Fragrance of Jesus

What do we do to show our love and faith to Jesus? Mary set aside pride and embarrassment in order to demonstrate her love and faith in Jesus. How far are we willing to go in order to show our love for Him? Let’s see to it that we fellowship with Jesus in worship, in prayer, by reading His Word, and enjoying the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then in our brokenness, in our sacrifices, in our pouring out into the lives of others, and in our expression of love for Him, we’ll smell like Him, talk like Him, and spread His fragrance wherever we go. Amen.

May it be so while we are in these earthen vessels (alabaster boxes?) headed for the Throne!



M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

Jackie Kendall, Say Goodbye to Shame: And 77 Other Stories of Hope and Encouragement, 156


(c) C. Yvonne Karl, The Alabaster Box, 1986

All God’s Children Have Shoes

After publishing an article under this title a few years ago, I received a letter from a dear pastor in one of our non-USA countries saying when he first read the title he expected this to be a prosperity message written by an affluent American who had never experienced the poverty of the shoeless and naked.  However, after reading the full text he had come to a new appreciation of the word “shoes” in the Bible and rejoiced that the title was true everywhere in the world.


How could I forget those childhood trips to the capital city of Charleston to visit Morrison’s Department Store where my parents routinely purchased my shoes. Perhaps my memory is vivid because of the x-ray machine that sat in the middle of the shoe department. After the clerk put the shoes on me, I stood up on the machine so he and my parents could look at the x-ray picture of my feet in the shoes to be sure they fit. It’s been over half a century and I’ve never seen another such machine anywhere. The shoes were a provision for my feet—to see that they were protected from harm as I walked here and there. The machine was a provision to see that they fit properly. There is a wide variety of shoes to protect the feet, comfort the feet, keep the feet from slipping on ice or sand dunes, or even to complete the clothing and make the feet look nice.

The Description of the Shoes

In the Song of Solomon, the King tells the maiden how beautiful her feet are in sandals. I suppose ever since then it has been considered quite lovely and feminine for ladies to wear sandals. Perhaps this is why some religious groups actually ban them—they don’t want to call attention to the ladies’ pretty feet. Although there are several references to shoes and sandals in both the Old and New Testaments, they are generally descriptions of what was done with them rather than what they looked like. History tells us more.

Both men and women wore sandals. There were many variations. The sole might be made of the tough hide of a camel’s neck. Sometimes several thicknesses of hide were sewn together. Some had one strap between the toes like our thongs of today. Some had a strap around the ankle and heel. Some historians say the shoes, sandals, or slippers of the Jewish ladies were beautifully formed, and richly embroidered. The majestic walk of a beautiful woman in these shoes was something to watch. It is obvious that the King saw such beauty in the walk of the maid for he calls her a “prince’s daughter.”

The Story Behind the Shoes

We observe that the King didn’t just comment on how beautiful were the maiden’s feet, but deliberately added “with shoes,” or “in sandals”—depending on which version of the Bible we read. Why is that significant? 

To go barefoot was a sign of distress. David went barefoot up Mt. Olivet when he left Jerusalem at the time of Absalom’s rebellion. When Ezekiel was directed to stop his mourning, he was told to put on his shoes.

To go barefoot was a sign of humility. In obedience to God’s command, the priests were not allowed to minister with shoes on. They were to humble themselves in the sight of the Lord.

To go barefoot was a sign of poverty. When the prodigal son came back to his father’s house, the servants were ordered to put shoes on his feet.

To remove shoes was a sign of reverence. When the Lord wanted to talk to Moses, He commanded him to take off his shoes. When Joshua met the captain of the Lord’s host near Jericho, he was required to remove his shoes.

Jews did not wear their sandals indoors. They removed them upon entering and the feet were washed by a servant with water that was always available at the door.

To give a shoe was a sign of possession. In Israel, when a man redeemed or exchanged property, he took off his shoe and gave it to his neighbor as a testimony to confirm the deal. This symbolic act probably originated from the fact that the right to walk on the property belonged only to the owner of it; therefore the offer of a sandal was a very appropriate representation of the transfer of property.

To carry or unloose another’s sandals was considered a very lowly task—the most menial duty that could be performed. When John the Baptist spoke of the coming of Christ, he referred to this when he said he didn’t even consider himself worthy to open Jesus’ sandals, take them off, and carry them.

To show readiness for a journey, one wore shoes. This custom is reflected in the instructions God gave Moses for the children of Israel to eat the Passover supper with shoes on. When he sent them out two by two, Jesus commanded His disciples to wear sandals. When the angel came to take Peter out of prison he told him to put on his sandals.

The condition of the feet was very important. In the Old Testament, we read that a man could not be a priest if he had a deformity in one of his feet. If his feet are straight, he will make straight paths for those who come after him to follow. He will wear the proper shoes to establish the tracks.

Isaiah comments that those who communicate the gospel of peace and salvation have beautiful feet. Paul instructed the Ephesian believers to wear the shoes that prepare them with the gospel of peace. What is that gospel of peace? Rest to the weary heart. Deliverance to the depressed, the addicted, the afflicted, and the suffering.

My daughter’s shoes

My husband had flat feet that always seemed to cause him problems. It was difficult to find shoes that were comfortable for dress or work. When our daughter Caroline was born, he took her feet into his hands and checked them out. He was concerned that those chubby little feet of hers were inherited from him and did not want her to endure the life-long agony of hurting feet. We prayed for her feet but also sought medical advice as to how to prevent the duplication of her dad’s foot problem. The pediatrician chuckled a bit and said we really wouldn’t know and shouldn’t be concerned about it for a couple of years, but to make us feel better we could keep her fitted with Thomas Heel Shoes. Today, I can’t find a store here in my area that sells them, but in the city where we lived at the time we found a vender. Of course they were expensive; but nothing was too good for our daughter if they helped her have beautiful, healthy feet. Before she could even walk, she was fitted in Thomas Heel Shoes—she had Thomas Heel sandals, Thomas Heel patent leather Sunday shoes, and Thomas Heel walking shoes. As her feet grew they soon displayed lovely arches. That just encouraged us all the more to keep buying her good shoes.

When Caroline was a teenager and taking ballet, she often commented on how much she liked her feet. My husband got a big smile on his face when she admired her feet, and eventually we told her the story about why she always got the best shoes. It was obvious that the Almighty Creator, not the shoes, produced the nice arch on her well-formed feet. Nevertheless, Dad was happy that he had provided the best shoes for her. Now that she is an adult, and still likes her feet, we enjoy recalling the attention her dad gave to them.

The following narrative relates the meaning of the shoes our Father God wants to give us. Keep in mind that the “I” in the story could be anyone for it is drawing a picture of our spiritual life.

The Significance of Shoes: An allegory

I had no shoes. I was in the humiliation of sin. I had no hope of eternal life in heaven, I was weary from climbing up the mountains and hiking through the valleys of life’s bitter experiences. The hot sands of the dry desert burned my sensitive feet. It seemed like everywhere I went, people stepped on me.

Then one day as I was out walking back and forth and getting nowhere, the King came by carrying some shoes. I thought in my heart: Oh, if only He would offer me those shoes. They would soothe my poor aching feet. They would protect them from the rocks and hot pavement. Perhaps I could even work the crops in that muddy field over there, if only I had some shoes, I mustered up all the courage I could find within me. It was my only chance. Could I get His attention? I would try. I would cry out. I would press close to Him. I would do whatever He wished—if only He would give me some shoes. “Sir,” I cried, as He passed by me and I reached out to Him. “Sir, do you have a job for me? Is there any work I can do for you? “Sure,” He said. “Follow me; but here you must wear these.” And He handed me the most beautiful pair of shoes I have ever seen. “Sir,” I said, “These are far too good for me.”

“Put them on,” He said. “They’re yours! I’ve adopted you. You’re in my family now. I’ve sent your name up to my Father. I’ve got shoes. You’ve got shoes. My father says that ALL of His children must have shoes.”

Since that day I have not been able to stop telling my story. I am possessed by Him. I am His. That’s why He calls me the “Prince’s daughter.”  Now when I face difficult circumstances and feel I cannot climb out of them, He reminds me: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name. You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.”

When He sees me ready to help someone, He reminds me that He’ll come along with me. He looks first at my feet to see if I’m prepared to make the journey. I look at my feet and think how wonderful they feel in my perfectly-fitted shoes. I wonder how He knew my size? As we travel together, He whispers to me about how beautiful my feet are as I take the provisions to others and tell them about my new shoes. After our time of sharing, sometimes we adopt others into our family, and we give out more shoes.

These are my spiritual shoes and the King is Jesus!  He lifted me out of the miry clay; He placed my feet on the rock to stay. These shoes take me through fires and floods, through deserts and mountaintops, through valleys and forests. These shoes are also my battle boots and trample on one enemy after the other; and these shoes never wear out. 

Every day, sometimes many times during the day, the King reminds me how lovely my feet are in my shoes, and it causes me to leap with joy. Everyone can have a pair of these shoes. There are spiritual shoes to fit all of God’s children. They are His provision.


Heavenly Father, You have given me spiritual “shoes” to help me walk through all the difficulties of life as well as to dance through all the good times; and I thank You. In Jesus’ Name, I pray.


Adapted from Shoes, Silk, and Salt, Chapter 3   (C) C. Yvonne Karl; Also, The Alabaster Box, V10N08Y95

Bible References

Song of Solomon 7:1; 2 Sam 15:30; Ezek 24:17; James 4:10; Luke 15:22; Ex 3:5; Mark 6:9; Acts 12:8; Lev 21:18; Isa 52:7; Rom 10:15; Eph 6:15; Isa 40:1-2; Psa 40:2; Deut 29:5

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