Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Alabaster Jar

. . . she broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3-9)

As far as I know I’ve never seen an alabaster jar.

True, I probably wouldn’t know alabaster from aluminum, but I’m pretty sure my house is an alabaster free zone. As the gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’s anointing in Bethany, Mark provides a detail not found in John’s narrative: the alabaster jar.

Both stories mention the pure nard – an ointment made from a plant found primarily in India and thus quite expensive. John says there was a pound of it, roughly 12 ounces of perfume. Enough to fill a soft drink can. But only Mark mentions the alabaster jar. James Brooks, a New Testament scholar, describes the ‘jar’ as a flask with a long thin neck, no handles. This was no common or ordinary vessel. Both container and contents were quite valuable.

And this is what Mary broke. There’s no hint of a screw top or flip lid that allowed for a dainty squeeze of ointment like a dab in the hand. Mary broke this alabaster jar, and once broken the contents had to be used entirely. Poured out. Nothing stored away for future use. Nothing held back.

I can’t find any alabaster jars in my house. But my life is full of them. Unlike Mary, I am reluctant to shatter them and pour out what they hold or represent to me.

Our Treasures Exposed

The biblical text tells us nothing about the alabaster jar beyond the valuable perfume within it. Our imaginations provide details omitted by the gospel writers. Perhaps this jar was kept on a shelf, maybe in a drawer, maybe in a box hidden beneath the bed. Was it a family heirloom? Was it a gift with a fascinating backstory?

The Bible doesn’t tell us, and we should be cautious in speculating where the text is silent. We know nothing about the alabaster jar except this: once Mary broke it, it was empty. Once emptied, there was nothing left to keep. One treasure was sacrificed for a greater treasure. And this gave rise to the criticism from Judas.

Mary treasured Jesus. Judas treasured, well . . . treasures. Money. The value of a dollar.

Devotion to Jesus will redefine what we treasure in this life. And quite often it will expose what we truly treasure in this life. I think that’s what this story does to me. It reveals how my heart clutches at certain things, unwilling to let them go, to pour them out for the sake of a yet greater treasure. 

Jars Carefully Guarded

Perhaps in every human soul there’s a shelf or drawer that holds carefully protected alabaster jars. These are things that we regard as the source of our joy and security. We hold them tightly and tuck them away. Maybe we put them on display for others to see. In doing this we forget that these things came to us as a gift and we hold them back from the giver.

What does it mean to let Jesus have your career?

What would it mean to trust Jesus with the well-being of your family?

What would it mean to relinquish your dating life (or lack of the same)?

What would it mean to open your hands and release your claim on your plans for your future?

You can probably come up with plenty of Judas-like rebuttals and reasons for why the questions I just asked are stupid questions. But don’t reason yourself out of the point of the matter – knowing Jesus as the highest treasure of your life. Your deepest devotion. Your greatest good.

Name the thing you treasure and bring it before a greater treasure. And then pour it out. Like the fragrance that filled the room of that house in Bethany, the impact of your surrendered and devoted life can go far and do much.

Don’t leave that boxed up and hidden away

Gracious God, we are prone to clutch our lives tightly, even though all good things come from you. Teach us to live yielded and surrendered to you, bringing our treasures to you as our highest treasure. We pour this day out before you asking you to work in us and through us according to your will, through Christ our Lord. Amen.