The Alabaster Flask

by William J. Stewart

Approaching Jerusalem in the final days of His life, Jesus stopped at Bethany. There, He was in the home of a man recorded as Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3). While at Simon’s house, a woman, identified as Mary (John 12:3) came in with a sizeable amount of fragrant oil, broke open the flask, and proceeded to anoint Jesus with the oil. Some, most notably Judas Iscariot (John 12:4) spoke out against such a “waste” of this oil, reasoning that it could have been sold and used to care for the poor. Jesus rebuked His disciples, defending the woman, as she had “…kept this for the day of My burial” (John 12:7). Their concern for the poor was noted, but the Lord stated, “…the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always” (John 12:8). So great was this deed, Jesus said, “…wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her” (Mark 14:9).

A deed which was considered to be wasteful and worthy of rebuke by the Lord’s disciples, He exalted to the ageless memory of God’s people. Where the gospel goes, so does the testimony of this woman’s work! Where God’s people are, this woman’s memory is to be.

The apostle John wrote,

Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick (John 11:1-2).

Prior to writing about the anointing (chapter 12), John writes in a manner which assumes that the reader is already familiar with Mary’s deed. And indeed, they were.

In the fourth century, Chrysostom wrote,

For lo! What he said is come to pass, and to whatever part of the earth thou mayest go, thou wilt see her celebrated.

And again,

The memory of what she did, did not fade, but Persians, Indians, Scythians, Thracians, Sauromatians, the race of the Moors, and the dwellers in the British Isles blaze abroad what was done in Judeaea by stealth in a house by a woman…

Let us consider briefly some of the things we ought to remember about Mary as exemplified in this simple act of service to the Lord.

A Picture of Spiritual Knowledge
Jesus had told His disciples one more than one occasion that He would go to Jerusalem and be put to death, but they did not comprehend (Matthew 16:21-22; Luke 18:32-34). Time and again, we are witness to the lack of spiritual understanding among those who followed the Lord. But Mary is a refreshing change. In Luke 10:39-42, we read,

Now she [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister had left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled above many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.

Too often, the Lord’s people might be guilty of hearing, but not listening. That is, sometimes we are prone to be hearers of the word, but not believers in what we hear. The disciples had heard the Lord speak of His forthcoming death, but they didn’t believe it would come to pass. Mary seems to have heard and believed. She listened to the Lord, and acted upon the knowledge she received.

A Picture of Sacrifice
The anointing oil used was not an unwanted, worthless oil. We are told that the value was more than 300 denarii. A denarius was the value of a day’s labour (Matthew 20:2). The oil Mary used was worth approximately a year’s wages! It represented a large sacrifice on her part. She may have had the flask in her possession for some time, or perhaps she purchased it specifically for this occasion. Regardless, Mary willingly parted with a great amount of money to anoint the Lord before His death.

How much will we give to the Lord? Or maybe a better question is, what are we not willing to give to the Lord? Are we like Mary, people who see the joy and value of using our resources to serve the Lord, or are we like those who surrounded her, scolding her for being wasteful? If our time, energy, wealth, goods, etc. are used to serve the Lord, it is not a waste, it is to His glory.

A Picture of Humility
Understand, Mary’s sacrifice was not a matter of anonymously dropping a cheque into a collection plate as it passes by. Mary came to the Lord in Simon’s house, broke open the flask of oil and poured it on His head. Likewise, she anointed His feet, “…and wiped His feet with her hair” (John 12:3). She humbled herself before the Lord.

So often, we are mindful of the honourable tasks. The works which set us in the limelight and exhibit our greatness. Such was the case among the apostles also. Mark records an occasion when the Lord’s disciples had disputed along a road concerning who would be the greatest. Jesus called them to Himself and said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). This was exemplified in the life of the Christ, as he came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:5f). Mary also became an example, as she stooped before the Lord and washed His feet with the hair of her head.

A Picture of Devotion
Finally, it is accurate to say Mary was a devoted servant of the Lord. It was her devotion to Jesus that caused her to sit at His feet, that she might hear and learn. It was her loyalty to the Lord that provoked her to spend freely of her own means that the Lord might be glorified in her actions. It was her affection for the Saviour that brought her to her knees before Him, washing His feet.

How about us? Will we be careful hearers of the Lord’s word, not doubting what we hear but believing and acting upon every word? Will we gladly spend and be spent as the Lord’s instruments in this world, that His glory might be revealed among men? Will we humble ourselves as His servants, giving our all to every task which is set before us, seeking to do the menial and lesser works as gladly as the great and weighty matters?

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