By Joyce Long
The tension pressed around them like thick, suffocating humidity. Jesus and his disciples endured stares, whispers, and downward glances while hurrying toward Bethany. Only two days until Passover, Jesus needed time to relax with his disciples at the home of Simon the Leper. There he would spend time with friends, trying not to think about the chief priests and teachers of the law who were plotting his death.
As they reclined at the table, most likely eating a freshly butchered lamb, a woman carrying a light-colored, transparent jar slipped into the room. Her hands trembled. She then did the unexpected. “She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head” (Mark 14:3).
The alabaster jar contained pure nard. Its intense, musky fragrance saturated the room. Its worth did not go unnoticed.
Some who were present were indignant: “Why is she doing this? What a waste!” Noting its contents, worth a year’s wages, could have been sold to feed and clothe the poor, they rebuked the woman for her extravagance—her willingness to anoint Jesus with one of her most costly possessions. In their ranting, they had overlooked what the woman at Bethany understood—that honoring Jesus is the heart of ministry.
Why did she break the alabaster jar? Perhaps she did it out of gratitude, thankful that Jesus had befriended and forgiven her. She knew what that was worth. His closest friends had forgotten, focusing only on the business of ministry rather than its source.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (14:6).
Many times we forget the beautiful things—actions that break the box, performed spontaneously outside of typical ministry. You and I know people like the woman from Bethany, people who often remain unnamed in their giving. Jesus holds them close to his heart.
In November of last year in Indianapolis, Indiana (near where I live), an explosion in the Richmond Hills subdivision claimed the lives of a young couple and destroyed dozens of homes. Jennifer Longworth, a second grade teacher, died in the blast. Other teachers at her school decided to honor Jennifer by continuing her tradition of knitting hats and mittens for each of her students.
A woman from our church anonymously paid for 16 of Jennifer’s neighbors to attend our annual women’s Christmas Tea. While there, one woman whose home was left half standing, said, “Today I needed this.” Beautiful things done in Jesus’ name answer needs and soften tragedies.
We are born to break the alabaster jar. How we do this depends upon how God prompts us. The key is listening to and then partnering with the Holy Spirit. As Bruce Wilkinson notes in his practical book, You Were Born for This (Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 2011), “God wants to and will guide and direct us—all the more so when we are committed to partnering with him in the tasks he cares about most.” Those tasks involve everyday encounters with ordinary people who struggle in ways that touch Jesus’ heart and, consequently, should touch ours.
Only once in my life, when I was very young, was I criticized for giving too much. Oddly enough the rebuke came from my beloved but practical mother after she watched me put my entire allowance of two dollars into the offering plate. Since then I’ve become more pragmatic in my giving by saving some for myself, an action that doesn’t exactly break the alabaster jar. No wonder Jesus said it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. We who have much often hold back, believing our selfishness to be sensible.
Just before the anointing at Bethany Jesus was teaching at the temple. There he saw a widow drop “two very small copper coins” into its treasury.
“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3, 4). Not very sensible, was it? How would she eat and pay her lodging? But her sacrifice captured Jesus’ attention.
Searching the Internet for a contemporary example of the widow’s offering, I entered the phrase, “criticized for giving too much.” Interestingly, the search engine asked, “Did you mean: criticized for having too much?” Extravagant hoarding seems to be more common than extravagant giving. But Jesus already knows this.
When the woman broke the jar, Jesus’ response affirmed her sacrifice and honored her extravagance. He understood her heart and literally soaked up her love in the perfume’s sweet aroma. An amber-colored oil often used to fight insomnia, the pure nard would have soothed Jesus’ skin, perhaps easing his tension. In his foresight Jesus saw this act as preparation for his upcoming death and burial.
Recently I witnessed a similar anointing. My 87-year-old mother suffered a near-fatal heart attack last fall, landing her in palliative care at a local hospital. The morning after the first night of morphine drip, her nurse showed me a small white plastic jar she kept in the pocket of her powder blue scrubs.
“Is it OK if I rub this on your mother?” I nodded sleepily as the night vigil had not provided much rest. Soon fragrant lavender filled the room. I sat taller as the nurse lovingly caressed my mother’s pearly smooth skin. Flowing from that energetic, cheerful nurse was an amazing concern for my mother’s well-being. Immediately the woman at Bethany who anointed Jesus’ head came to mind. Anointing the dying radiates Jesus’ love and reminds us of his sacrifice.
Is that the kind of love I have for Jesus? Is it revealed in a personal relationship with him? Or do I override my love for him with service—corporate actions that can be applauded, chronicled, and definitely not criticized? A wholehearted love lives in the moment, sacrificing for the person we love and totally focusing on his or her well-being. Jesus blesses such love.
While holding my mother’s hand as she exhaled her last breath, I could still smell lavender. In an essay titled, “The Extravagance of God,” Makoto Fujimura notes, “The only earthly possession Christ wore on the cross was the very aroma of the perfume . . . poured upon him.” Extravagant love extends both through and beyond death. Its display transcends tragedy.
Unfortunately love showered upon Jesus doesn’t always evoke its intended response. As the writer notes in Psalm 133,
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
But instead of leading to unity, the anointing at Bethany was followed by betrayal. When we focus only on the practical, like Judas, we may forget the eternal and betray our Savior. Because we’re all dying, we need to look for creative ways to “break the alabaster jar.” Its extravagance is always proportional to our resources. It could be a bottle of cold water, an all-expense paid vacation, or afternoons of babysitting. Because we are the body of Christ living in unity, each act should be applauded, not ridiculed.
Like pure nard, our gifts may not always make sense from a practical perspective, but they are still needed and welcomed. The women at our Christmas Tea cherished the blessing given anonymously by someone who understood. The woman at Bethany owned a rare perfume sealed in an alabaster jar—not exactly the most practical gift, but she didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to share what she had. She broke the jar containing perhaps her most expensive possession. Jesus promised her gift would live on because “she did what she could.” And so should we.
Joyce Long is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Indiana
Serving with Kindness and Humility
Seek to be a servant who is humble, consistent, authentic, creative, genuine, and Christ-centered. The following sites suggest many ways you can serve others, but remember that no one knows the needs of those around you—or your unique gifts—better than you do. So look around and pray that God inspires you.