The Alabaster Jar

feet

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead.
A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him.
Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it,
wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance. (John 12:1-3)

Read: 2 Kings 24:20 – 25:2, Jeremiah 39:1, Jeremiah 52:3-5, Ezekiel 22:17 – 24:14

Relate: Mary comes to Jesus and pours out perfume at His feet. This story seems to be in all four gospels and one quick and easy read through each is certain to raise some eyebrows. (You can look it up in: Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7, and John 12) Even the most well intentioned or closed minded individuals have to admit that there are some contradictions that need to be addressed. I’m not a fan of skating over or shying away from difficult issues so here we go:

When the anointing occurred:
Matthew – 2 Days before the Passover (Matthew 26:2)
Mark – 2 Days before the Passover (Mark 14:1)
Luke – Doesn’t say
John – Doesn’t say
Now some of you might immediately jump on John and say, “Now wait a minute. It very clearly says in John 12:1 that this took place 6 days before the Passover!” No, it doesn’t. John says that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. The festival of the Passover is actually a week long celebration and Bethany is only a short walk outside Jerusalem. Even though He would be heading into the city each day, His lodging for His stay during the festival was in Bethany. There’s two things to note here. 1) The writers of the gospels were far less concerned with chronology than we are today. They were more likely to group events and incidents by topic than by time. This does not make them incorrect, it is simply a different way to record history than we are used to. John’s passion week was written to be viewed as a progressive, cohesive piece and this event was taken out of time to be used as an introduction for that whole. 2) Often great gaps of time happen with no acknowledgment in a narrative. John 12:2 opens up, “A dinner was prepared in Jesus honor.” This took place days after Jesus “arrived in Bethany” but John wants to deal with all of Bethany as a unit before dealing with Jerusalem.

Where the anointing occurred:
Matthew – Bethany, in the house of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6)
Mark – Bethany, in the house of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3)
Luke – Doesn’t say the town, but at a Pharisee named Simon’s house and possibly in Nain (Luke 7:11)
John – Bethany
First off, Luke is clearly a different anointing than the other three. From here on out I won’t include it in the comparison simply because it is very clearly referring to a different event. Yes there are some similarities, for example they both occurred at Simon’s house. But Simon was an incredibly common name both in scripture and extra biblical history for this time period. (As was James, John, Jesus, Mary, Levi, etc) Also the gift was the same, but I’m personally of the opinion that Mary knew what this other woman had done and Jesus response. One woman had worshiped God in a particular way and God said it was good. Is it not reasonable that another woman would want to do the same?
That said, again we need to deal with the fact that, at first glance John’s account has a different locale than Matthew and Mark. But “Lazarus’ home” is actually a descriptor for Bethany, not the locale of where this meal took place. Two objections easily could be raised, 1) Lazarus’ home is normally where Jesus stayed and 2) he and his sisters all are present for the anointing. Martha serving, Lazarus eating, and Mary worshiping. I would have two responses to that. 1) Lazarus was just healed from death. That’s kind of a big deal. There are crowds flocking to visit him every day. Jesus seems to prefer to spend his nights at quiet places. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to give Lazarus and his sisters their own moment and stay in another house if it has been offered? 2) Each of the three is doing what is natural even in another house. Lazarus is reclining with Jesus. Clearly. He was nearly as much a guest of honor given his current celebrity status that the Pharisees seemed to be so jealous of. Martha is serving. No kidding. Normally Simon would be doing the serving himself as the host but we can’t forget he is also referred to as the former leper. Perhaps he is still ceremonially impure. Perhaps it has been so long since he has hosted an event like this he has deferred to one whose talents and passions naturally lie in that direction. Either way, there is clearly no definitive contradiction here.

Who anointed Jesus:
Matthew – A woman (Matthew 26:7)
Mark – A Woman (Mark 14:3)
John – Mary (John 12:3)

What was used:
Matthew – An expensive alabaster jar of perfume (Matthew 26:7)
Mark – An expensive alabaster jar of perfume made from nard (Mark 14:3) worth 300 denarii (Mark 14:5)
John – A 12 ounce jar of expensive perfume made from nard (John 12:3) worth 300 denarii (John 12:5)
No contradictions for these two although there is some difference in wording. However, these and other similarities are going to be far too many to represent different events.

How Jesus was anointed:
Matthew – Poured over his head (Matthew 26:7)
Mark – Poured over his head (Mark 14:3)
John – anointed his feet with it, wiping them with her hair (John 12:3)
The feet aren’t mentioned in the first two, the head isn’t in John. It almost seems as though John is channeling his inner Luke since her actions fall more in line with what happened in that earlier incident than what Matthew and Mark write. Three things: First, in Exodus (29) When the priest is anointed, oil is poured on his head, but then he is anointed specifically on his ears, hands, and feet. It isn’t an either/or, it is a both/and. Second, you try pouring a dozen ounces of fluid over your head and see if your feet don’t get wet. Third, at least one scholar (Werthington) has noted that it was tradition for diners to wipe excess oil, grease or other substances from their hands onto servants hair during a meal. In other words, the servants hair is their napkin.
So here’s my take. Mary comes in. She pours the oil over Jesus head. This signifies that she acknowledges Him as her king. She then anoints his feet remembering the sinful woman in Luke’s account. She recognizes that she also like that woman is a sinner in need of a savior. She then wipes his feet with her hair. She acknowledges that she is His servant.
Matthew’s gospel focus is on Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of prophesy. Mark’s focus is on Jesus as a man of action. Therefore they both focus on the anointing of his head. John is far and away the most intimate of the gospels. He focus partly on the feet and the hair, but he is also the only gospel to mention that “the house was filled with the fragrance”.

Other’s reaction:
Matthew – The disciples were indignant (Matthew 26:8)
Mark – Some at the table were indignant (Mark 14:4)
John – Judas (that greedy thief) said… (John 12:4,5)
Just want to note here that Judas’s father was also named Simon. I’ve once heard someone suggest that it was his dad’s house that this anointing took place. I find that highly unlikely. Iscariot means “of Kerioth” and Kerioth is a town on the far southern edge of Judah. It is possible that Simon (and Judas) were fairly wealthy and had other residences near Jerusalem and/or Caesarea at least but there is no evidence that it was this house. As said before, Simon is a common name.

Jesus’s response:
Matthew – Why criticize? You will always have the poor but not me. She has prepared me for burial. Her deed will be remembered. (10-13)
Mark – Leave her alone. Why criticize? You will always have the poor but not me. She has prepared me for burial. Her deed will be remembered. (6-9)
John – Leave her alone. She has prepared me for burial. You will always have the poor but not me. (7-8)
Again, these are all far too similar to be different events.

React: It is easiest to criticize when we do not look deep. This is true in reading scripture but it also holds true in how we act and react with others. When first looking at these three accounts, there are many who will say. “There’s contradictions. Therefore the Bible is wrong and it cannot be trusted.” But when we look deeper it is clear to see that this is not the case. Yes there are differences but these do not equal contradictions. We need to look beyond the surface.

In the same way we are quick to criticize those who we view as in disagreement. One is a republican the other a democrat. Clearly one is wrong. One focuses on grace another on justice. They both can’t be right. One hoots and hollers, the other is staid and stoic. Clearly one must be better. We judge what we do not understand. In doing so we are just as guilty as Judas/the disciples/those at the table/the Pharisees. Jesus told them, look deeper. There’s a reason for what she has done. Is He saying the same thing to us regarding those we are so quick to criticize?

Respond: 

God, please break open and pour out every drop of who I am. I give it all to You. My pride. My prejudices. My assumptions. My rights. break them. Spill them out. I surrender them all to You so that I might know You and love You and that I might know those You love so much better. Help me to go deeper. Help me to get more intense. Let the only thing that remains of me be a sacrifice to You whose fragrance is beautiful to all who are near.

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7 thoughts on “The Alabaster Jar

  1. This is a very emotional and thought-provoking lesson. I was completely awed by your words of instruction. The prayer was heart touching.

  2. BJ, this is one of my favorite stories. It took me a while to differentiate the story in Luke; thank you for the confirmation. And thank you for the details about the timing and place. Great teaching.
    Your prayer is one we all need to pray in order to remain humble, gracious and open to His will.

  3. I truly appreciate your honest approach to the Word. Insightful and encouraging. Interestingly enough, I am preaching on the Luke passage this Sunday and felt it was a different event as well. Glad you see it this way, too. Peace on the Journey.

  4. I had no idea about using a Servants hair for a napkin 😲 I really appreciate these details 👍👌✌

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