Matthew 26

Matthew 26:  Mary’s Alabaster Box

Read I Corinthians 13 and it uses the word – ‘charity’ to describe the word for love that we also define as agape –love.  Charity has a connotation today of giving something without any expectation of return. This is what the sheep on the right did in Matthew 25- they gave without any motive except to express love and compassion for those who were in need.

In this chapter we see this type of love defined by its actions or lack of actions that shows this love is not present. And interesting verse if found in Galatians 5: 6 as Paul writes: – “ The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”   In I Corinthians 4 Paul also told us how the Lord judges: “ He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motive’s of men’s hearts.”

When we look at I Corinthians 13 against the backdrop of these two verses it lets us know what true love is- what agape type love is.  Paul writes in this chapter on love- that ‘ if you speak with the tongues of men and angels but have not love – you are only resounding gong or clanging cymbal.’  You can have the right doctrine, but if it is not combined with love- it is nothing. This brings to my mind the person who is right doctrinally about sin- but when it is not combined with love it just an annoying noise to those who hear them. Paul also explains if you understand  all mysteries and have all knowledge and all faith but do not have this love- you are nothing. ( Sometimes I believe Paul is speaking of himself as Saul- who was known more for his hatred of Christians than his love for God.)

Paul goes on to explain if you give all your possessions but do have love- it profits you nothing.  Your motives were selfish.

Paul then describes this love- and in doing so he is describing  Our Lord.  He says love is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. This love is not rude, nor self-seeking, or easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love does not fail.  Of faith, hope and love – love is the greatest.

In today’s lesson we see the story of love. Of faith expressing itself through love- giving without any expectations of return. We will also see hate as the two meet in this story recorded in Matthew, Mark and John.  As we gather from all 3 of these gospels we can see a clear picture of faith expressing itself in love. We also will see the clearly the two responses to exposure to Jesus Christ then and now and throughout history.

So our story starts as Jesus finishes his Olivet Discourse by telling his disciples :  “ As you know, the Passover is two days away- and the Son of Man will be handed over and crucified.” This was Wednesday and the last three days had been filled with meaningful activity. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on this High Holy week on a donkey on Sunday. The Passover Crowd were enthralled that this Jesus might be the Messiah, the King who would restore Israel to its greatness.

The confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders had come to a head.  They leaders knew Jesus was a threat to their power base, their position. His system of teaching and his whole style of living was a threat to their ways. Jesus had exposed them as hypocrites and liars who were in this for their own selfish motives. In his 3 years of ministry and teaching and attacks on their man-made system- their hearts had hardened into hatred that would result in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Here in these first few verses of Matthew 26, we see the religious leaders meeting in the ‘palace’of the high priest, Caiaphas and plotted to have Jesus arrested and kill him. But not during the Passover- it might cause a riot. That the High Priest lived in a palace shows the wealth that came from their religious activities and the temple which had become a place of commerce or a ‘ den of thieves’ as Jesus referred to it.   * However, Jesus said he would be crucified on the Passover,and we know he was for he was the Lamb of God. The Passover had been pointing the way to him all of these years since Exodus.  Jesus was in control of his sacrifice- he laid down his life, no man took it from him. He was in control.

What I want to focus on is an event that took place six days before Passover in Bethany. It is recorded in Matthew, Mark and John.

Bethany was a place of love- Jerusalem was a place of hatred. Bethany was where Jesus was adored and love was evident- Jerusalem was the opposite.

Now there is a similar story in Luke 7 but it was a different event. It took place at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the woman was described as a sinful woman, perhaps as implied- a prostitute who had been touched and saved by Jesus.

The woman in this story is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It takes place at the home of Simon the Leper. Who was probably healed by the Lord Jesus and this is why they are at his home.

Let’s pick up the account in John 12 and also reference to Mark 14 and Matthew 26 to get the complete picture. Even though Matthew 26 starts out 2 days before Passover- on Wednesday.  When Jesus said in two days he would be handed over an crucified- Matthew goes back to an event that took place on the Saturday before-six days before the Passover at home of  a man known as Simon the Leper.

We know at least some of who the guests were : Simon the Leper, Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, and  his sisters Martha and Mary. Also the 12 disciples.   A dinner was being given in Jesus’ honor we read in John 12.  And even though this was not her home, Martha has taken control of the kitchen and is in charge of serving.  Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus while Mary is about to interrupt the party. She takes an alabaster jar of expensive perfume made of pure nard and poured it on Jesus’ head and feet as we read the accounts in Mark and Matthew.  In fact, Mark tells us she broke the alabaster container, which in itself was an expensive item.

We see here a picture of the church where the following should be occurring: Lazarus is a picture of fellowship; Martha a picture of service and Mary a compelling picture of worship and adoration.

Lazarus was a friend of Jesus- he loved Jesus and Jesus loved him. They enjoyed being together. Martha was all about action. She was a servant who loved to serve and it was her gift. She loved cooking and serving so much- that even though she was invited to this dinner to honor Jesus, it was as if she said- great- I will take charge of the meals and serving.  Mary was not known for her cooking. When we read of another time when Jesus was at Lazarus’s home, Martha was upset that Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha was doing all the cooking and serving.( Luke 10)  Jesus told Martha she’ was worried about many things,but only one thing was needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.’

It is obvious Martha learned something from this mild rebuke from the Lord Jesus. She was a practical person who served the Lord with her practical gifts- cooking and serving. In this way she showed her love for Jesus. By this time in this account, Martha is not complaining about Mary not helping, she seems to understand Mary shows her love and service to the Lord Jesus in another way. Mary was not a ‘ Martha Stewart’ type- she was a dreamer- she was not as practical. She was more emotional- Mary and Martha were different temperaments.  When Lazarus died and Jesus arrived 4 days later in John 11- we read Martha went out to meet Jesus and Mary sat still in the house. Martha confronts Jesus with her hurt and disappointment- ‘ if you had been here , my brother would not have died.’ Compare that Mary’s meeting with Jesus:  ‘ and saw Him and fell down at this his feet, saying unto him, Lord,if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  Jesus had replied to Martha your brother shall rise again. But when Jesus saw Mary weeping and the Jews weeping which came with her- he( Jesus groaned in the spirit and was troubled- and Jesus wept.  Do you see the difference in these two sisters? They had different gifts- different temperaments and each served Jesus with what they had.

There are only two things that make service worth anything. If it is done out of love and it is for the glory of God. Martha did what she did and no longer worried about her sister and what she did or did not do. And Mary did what she could do.  She thought about what she could do – she could not cook and serve like her sister, Martha.  She had one thing of great value- an alabaster jar of pure nard. The moment the idea came to her mind to pour this out on her Lord Jesus- she did not hesitate- she impulsively did it.

She took what she had and poured it out on Jesus because she loved Him.  Do you realize that is all Jesus want us to do?  She did what she could do. She did all she could do. It is that simple. The Lord is not concerned about the magnitude of your service- He simply wants you to do what you can with what you have and do all you can.  Mary did not decide at the last minute- I shouldn’t give him all of this- I will give him a portion of it and keep the rest for I might need it later.

She poured it on his head, and also his feet which she wiped with her hair. “ And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”   I believe there was a moment of silence, almost embarrassment, perhaps even shock.  Not sure how they should respond to this extravagant display. This outpouring of love.

Now for the first time in the Gospels we hear Judas Iscariot speak. And his words reveal what was of interest to him- money.  “ Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?  It was worth a year’s wages.” Judas was one of those people who knew the value of everything in terms of money. But did not understand the value of love that cannot be measured. He could not understand love or actions taken that were not self-seeking.  Sacrificing was only worth what you could get in return and it had to be worth the investment.  What’s in it for me?- was Judas’ way of life.   Judas had been in the presence of the Lord Jesus for over 3 years. Judas had spent time with Jesus , had seen what he had done. He was convinced he was on the winning side and his investment in time would pay off with a position of authority and the riches that went with it. Until it became obvious Jesus was not going to become the King. Jesus was not currying the favor of the Pharisees and/ or the Roman government.  His prediction of his arrest and death- led Judas to realize it was time to switch sides.

Here in this account we see  faith expressing itself through love. We see love that is not self-seeking. We see sacrifice with no hope of or motive of getting some better in return. We also see the opposite of that in the actions of Judas. In fact the satisfaction to Mary came from the sacrifice itself. Mary did not even try to save the alabaster  container, which could have been reused. In fact, I believe it was so compulsive an act- and she was so nervous- she could not get the container open so she broke it before she lost her nerve to do this extravagant act of worship.

This was an act of loving sacrifice. And as we read the story we see it awakened a response. The response, John tells us is from Judas, the traitor who was also the treasurer. But John  also tells us he was a thief, an embezzler.   From the other accounts in Matthew and Mark, the other disciples join in siding with Judas. Their thinking was this was a lot of money- couldn’t it have been used in  a more practical way – by serving the poor.

Let’s turn to Matthew’s account to read the Lord’s response:  “ Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body , she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told, in memory of her.”

You realize when the women came out to the tomb on Sunday morning they came to prepare the body of Jesus we read in Mark 16:  “ When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they might anoint Jesus’ body.”  It was too late wasn’t it?

It still saddens me to think when I was prompted to go see my mother and daddy’s next door neighbor, Rebecca Buford and did not – only to hear of her death a few weeks later.  On the other hand, I had gone to see Margaret Anderson another friend of our family and shared a special time with her before she died.  How often we anoint people with expressions of love and gratitude for their lives and impact on our lives at the funeral but never did so while they were living. Sometimes when we are prompted to tell someone something- or go and do something- we need to respond for we might not get that chance again.

Somehow Mary knew this would be the last chance she had and she took it- impractical, thought Judas and the disciples. A waste of resources that surely could have been put to better use serving the poor. The Lord told them – you will always have the poor with you. You will have plenty of opportunity to serve the poor- but sometimes an opportunity to express your love for me has a window of time and if you miss that opportunity- you will have missed an opportunity to do a beautiful thing for me. ( As a side note- Jesus tells us we will always have the poor with us in this fallen world. You may not can end poverty- but you can do what you can with what you have. You can help one person. You can comfort one or two and if that is all you can do- then that is all the Lord expects you to do)

Her worship was not only insightful it was timely and its motive was as pure as the nard- it was to express her love for her Jesus.

Matthew tells us it was after this Judas went to the chief priests and said unto them: “ What will you give me, and I will deliver him( Jesus) unto you?”  Did you hear that? What is in it for me?

Mary did not understand everything- but she intuitively believed this was something she needed to do and to do it right then. She did not fail to respond the impulse- I need to do something for Him now- while I have a chance to- or soon I will not.

Judas on the other hand- responded differently- he needed to do something for himself before this happened so he would not suffer the consequences of being associated with Jesus.

There are people every day in this world who are like Judas. They are selfish- they are interested only in what’s in it for me? Here in America, especially the South, people live in close proximity to Jesus just like Judas did.  There is as church on every corner in the South.  We still pray in Jesus name in public places. Our radio and television stations are filled with Christian programming and almost everyone has a parent or grandparent who are Christians.  Church attendance is part of our culture- a dying part- but still a part.

There are very few people in the South who have not heard the Gospel.  Judas is a picture of a lot of people. Judas was elected treasurer by the disciples- he worked alongside of them. But his heart was as hard as an alabaster box and in the end – his motives were revealed when he said to the Jewish leaders- what’s in it for me?   Judah had an alabaster box in his life he would not break open.  It was a financial box- a love of money which he associated with power, success, and satisfaction. He had been deceived that riches would satisfy his longing.

Quite often those who would justify their refusal to break open their box attack God as unfair. They are like the servant who buried the one talent given to him by his master- the 75 lb. bag of coins.  His reason for not breaking open his alabaster box was  –  his master was a hard man. They are saying God is a hard God.  He did not view his master as a Good Master, forgiving and generous. He viewed him as unfair. People justify their refusal based on their opinion that God is hard master, unfair and therefore unjust. Yet who has given them life? Who has created a world, keeps it going and offers a way to eternal life?

The question this story prompts us to ask is – what is our alabaster box that we do not want to break open?  Is it a financial box? Is it a relationship?  Was Isaac- Abraham’s alabaster box? Did God ask Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice because He wanted the life of Isaac?  No- God wanted the heart of Abraham. Abraham had experienced God’s provision in his life- he had also experienced detours when he did not yield to God. He had learned a great lesson:  God will  provide what is needed. Trust is a learned response. Have you learned God can be trusted? Have you experienced God as Jehovah Jireh?

Many people question God’s motives and actions or lack of actions.

In the book and movie ‘The Hiding Place’ the story of Corrie Ten Boom and her family during World War II there is a scene which is memorable.

The setting is Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.  Corrie and her sister Betsy are there along with 10,000 women.  In this hideous place there are horrific conditions of filthy, flea in fested bedding, disease ridden barracks, with cruel, abusive guards. In this environment, the two sisters are holding Bible studies. One of the other women in the barracks calls out to them from her bunk:  “ If your God is such a good God, why does he allow this kind of suffering? She takes the bandages off her hands which reveal broken, mangled fingers and tells them: “ I was the first violinists in the National Symphony Orchestra and your God let them do this to me.”

How does one deal with such evil?  Evil can be described as the absence of good. It is like a hole in your pocket. The hole is not something – it is the lack of something. There is a hole in our world and society- it is the lack of good. People argue will good people go to hell. Yes if they are not saved. It is because they do not understand the meaning of good as defined by the One who created good- God.  Jesus said there is only one who is good- God. For good by His definition is the absence of evil.   Sin is evil.  All have sinned- all are evil. None of us are good. A person goes to hell because they are a sinner who has not accepted God’s forgiveness and the way He has provided at great costs to allow a person to enter heaven. It is a way open to all.

God who has all knowledge and  all power created the world and everything that is in it and said it is good.  He created man in His own image and said it is very good.  God made man with the freedom to choose. Why did He do that?  Because that was the best way.  Here were the options it seems for God:  not create anything then none of this would exist, including evil. Create us humans where we could not choose- but then there would be no love. We would be like robots or animals who live by instincts. There would be no evil- but there would also be no good- just existence.  I choose to believe that God in His wisdom chose the best way for the most people for the longest period of time. And he did not leave us without a remedy for the problem.  He gave His goodness to us through His Son , Jesus.

What can one possibly say to this woman in Ravensbruck in this situation?    Corrie steps up by her sister Betsy and simply says-“We cannot answer that question. All I know is that our God came to earth and became one of us, and he suffered with us and was crucified and died. And He did that for love.”

Our God poured out all of Himself for us. Jesus said this is my body, my alabaster box,my life is broken for you- like Mary broke her alabaster box. My life and my goodness is poured out on you as a precious ointment.  When Jesus poured out His Life at Calvary, earth and heaven were filled with the fragrance of His life.   It is not about law or keeping the law, which we cannot- it is not about why God does or does not do this or that– it is about love. A love that led God to send His only Son to die in our place. And since God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are one-  It means He gave us everything- He poured it all out for you and me and not only us- but the whole world. He did what He could.  He did all He could.  And it was enough.

Mary’s Alabaster Box with its expensive perfume was more than likely her dowry given to her by her parents to be poured out on her husband on their wedding night. Why is marriage a picture of salvation? Why is the Lord referred to as our bridegroom and those who are redeemed as His bride? Because marriage is a picture of salvation. It is a picture of two people  sharing the same life.

When we compare Christianity to other religions what is different?  Several things but key differences are:- the personal relationship which only Christianity offers; the offer is by grace through faith- a gift not of works; and it is the only faith where God Himself dies for his subjects.

That’s why we sing: “ Living He loved me, Dying He Saved me; Buried He carried my sins far away, Rising He justified freely forever; One Day He Is coming- O glorious day!

Break open your box before it is too late.

Copyright © 2010 Linda Benthal
Last modified: 08/12/14