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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

To Smell or Not to Smell (2 Cor. 2:14-16)

How could the same scent attract one person and repulse the other? I had not yet entertained such a question. As I dressed that morning, little did I know the part my favorite fragrance would play in determining my life partner. It was my first day on the job as instructor in a private college. We had not yet met, but my office was across the hall from his and others had taken care to inform me that my teaching cohort was a single professor and seminarian. Based on their descriptions, I formed a mental photo of this suave gentleman and was most curious to meet him, although the thought of marriage was far from my mind at the time. As I walked through the hallway toward my office, I heard someone call my name. I turned; and there he was, not looking at all like I expected. A little shorter. A little balder. His eyes danced a greeting equivalent to his big smile and extended hand. At once, he introduced himself and asked me if I would go to dinner with him that night so we could get acquainted. Before I had a chance to respond, he verbalized a request that I not wear the fragrance emitting from my person as the very smell of it made him sick.

A great war broke out in my mind. My perfume was expensive and I liked the smell about me when I wore it. How could he not like it? Obviously I had to make an instant decision. Convincing myself that I needed to get acquainted with my fellow staff member, I accepted the invitation and promised not to wear the cologne. At dinner that night, he thanked me for responding graciously to his request and said he thought a good bath was the best perfume anyone could wear. He also let me know he would not want the woman he married to wear any fragrance. Less than three months later, he proposed marriage to me and I accepted. Giving up my favorite fragrance seemed like a small sacrifice to be his wife. I found I didn’t even miss wearing it.

Years had passed when one day I remembered how much I missed the taste of the Brussels sprouts my mother used to cook. Unexpected guests had shown up for dinner, and I decided to prepare the delectable treat. My husband arrived home while the sprouts were cooking and immediately demanded that I identify the putrid smell that was permeating the house. He simply could not take the pungent odor even for the short time it took the dish to cook. “Get them out of the house,” he insisted. I considered arguing, refusing, or appealing, but decided a joyful evening was more important than serving the veggie dish. I carried the Brussels sprouts outside, pan and all, and buried them in the snow. Back inside, I hurriedly put some cinnamon in the oven to absorb the smell. Yes, of course, I chaffed a bit at the thought of not enjoying this tasty dish, but I rejoiced that I had a happy husband to entertain our visitors. Buried in the snow, the smell was completely gone. The next day, I scraped them into the garbage and cleaned my pan. In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t eat them since they were well preserved in the snow!

This was not a one-sided problem we experienced over food likes and dislikes. He liked sardines and I gagged and choked at the thought of their smell. My husband graciously agreed to eat them only in my absence.

A simple yet major principle illustrated from these experiences in our life is that different people respond differently to the same smell. In each scenario, one of us liked the fragrance and one of us didn’t. Believe it or not, these responses also hold true in spiritual matters. The same gospel message brings the fragrance of life to the believer and the fragrance of death to those who reject it.

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

The Apostle Paul, who wrote the above scripture, was in tune with the culture and politics of his day and often refers to public events in his epistles using them as analogies to communicate spiritual truths. He explains to the Corinthian believers how they are a fragrance liked by some and hated by others.  It is the same message with opposite responses.

An eternal fragrance

We are all putting forth an odor from our life. Is it a sweet fragrance that gives forth the love of Christ? Or is it a putrid smell revealing death? If our life has been hidden with God in Christ Jesus, we are a new creation full of the fragrance of Christ. We are a precious trophy carried by our conqueror, Jesus Christ, for all to see. He conquered us, then freed us. Now the Lord has put up His banner over us symbolizing His love for us. Those who desire life will love the fragrance. Those who despise the Lord will command us to take our banner out and bury it in the snow so they can’t see or smell it to remind them of how much they dislike it. No worry. He washed us as white as that snow. They can’t make us rid ourselves of the fragrance of Jesus in our life; we have everything to win! We will allow the fragrance of our Christian life to be smelled by all regardless of their reaction. It’s an eternal fragrance. One day, when their final battle is fought in life, those who rejected the gospel will wish they wore His fragrance. Meanwhile, we will be rejoicing in our triumphal entry into heaven with our Savior. Ah, the fragrance of victory.

Life application

Am I willing to forego my petty likes and dislikes in order to be successful in the critical relationships of my life? 


Heavenly Father, In all my relationships grant my desire to be an aroma of life. In Jesus’ name, I pray.

Interested in a “Triumph” as mentioned in 2 Cor. 2:14-16? Click on the link below for the history of the term “triumph” as used by Apostle Paul.



(c) C. Yvonne Karl –

To Smell or Not to Smell. From C. Yvonne Karl,  Brussels Sprouts in the Snow, Chapter 5, by Brentwood Press, 2003.   Also published by UPCI in The Vision, November 29, 2009. UBP

Triumph. From C. Yvonne Karl, Brussels Sprouts in the Snow, Chapter 6, by Brentwood Press, 2003.

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