WHAT IS ALABASTER?
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.
THE COST OF ALABASTER
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)
THE WOMAN WITH THE ALABASTER BOX
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 PRECIOUS OINTMENT
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.
THE VESSELS SEALED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
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 FRAGRANCE COMES THROUGH BROKENNESS
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.
THE FRAGRANCE COMES THROUGH SACRIFICE
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.
THE FRAGRANCE COMES THROUGH POURING
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).
THE FRAGRANCE COMES THROUGH LOVING
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.
WHAT FRAGRANCE COMES THROUGH YOU?
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