Love Like Alabaster

John 12:1-10: Jesus Anointed at Bethany

12 Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. 2 A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate[a] with him. 3 Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar[b] 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.

4 But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, 5 “That perfume was worth a year’s wages.[c] It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” 6 Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.

7 Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

9 When all the people[d] heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. 10 Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too,

This excerpt is named, “Jesus Anointed at Bethany,” but if I could name it, it would be “Love Like Alabaster: Being Like Jesus, Who Was Like the Sinful Woman, Who Was Like Jesus.”

Matthew, Mark, Luke, & and John all mention the odd & and bold behavior of this woman. Scholars can’t seem to agree on how to reconcile all of their accounts. Some believe there were 3 women, and that Jesus was anointed 3 times, just as He was audibly spoken to and affirmed by God 3 times. Some believe the accounts record 2 women, while others argue 1. For our sake, the number of occurrences is NOT what we seek to remember, but the radical devotion of a woman to the radically loving Christ.

“Christ” means The Anointed One. There are many similarities and a few differences from each account, but all of them include oil. In fact, here are 4 strong similarities:

  • Each time, a woman.
  • Each time, an expensive jar of oil.
  • Each time, the action is called waste.
  • Each time, Jesus defends her.

But let’s draw our attention to 4 strong symbols throughout the accounts: oil, tears, hair, and a kiss.

OIL: In 3 of the 4 accounts, Jesus plainly states that the woman had used the oil to prepare his body for burial. Also, it was customary to anoint the head of guests as a sign of honor. BUT anointing oil is also used to identify the bridge between heaven and earth. John says the aroma filled the house. I imagine the oil giving a nostalgic fragrance of this “condensed life,” as the Bible Project beautifully describes it, that fills our hearts with the “hope of Eden.” Anointing oil was used for Healing, Comfort, Gladness, and YET, it was a solemn element of Jesus’ death.

TEARS: The account of tears is a unique addition in Luke. It was customary for a host to provide water for their guest to wash their feet, but only servants would touch the feet of another. Mary humbly received Jesus, who revived her dead brother, Lazarus, to life, with joy, YET bathed Jesus in sorrow and weeping.

HAIR: The accounts that show the woman using her hair, draw attention to another tension. In ancient Hebrew tradition, long hair is vitality (which is the power given in life). It is also a mark of beauty. An unmarried woman’s hair was covered, so we can presume Mary was unmarried. That expensive jar of perfume that was worth a year’s wage; the alabaster jar itself, which had to be broken to be used, was worth a lot in itself. This precious commodity could have maybe been used as her dowry, but Mary wedded herself to Christ. Women’s hair was shaved in mourning as a sacrifice to the dead. Here, the woman is devoting her livelihood to the One who brings life, YET sacrificing all she has for the One soon to die.

KISS: Lastly, the kiss is unique in Luke’s account. While Mary kissed the FEET of Jesus, later, Judas used a kiss to betray Jesus. In addition, while Mary is unconcerned with money, Judas fails to see the worth of Jesus and betrays Him for money.

This woman is the antithesis of Judas.

Oil for healing, yet death. Tears for joy, yet sorrow. Hair for life, yet sacrifice. And a kiss for love met with a kiss of betrayal. All the tension of the bittersweet moment of being in the presence of The Wounded Messiah, The Servant King, and The Shepherd Lamb.

Here is Jesus’ response to this devoted woman’s actions:

  • He calls her actions “a good thing.”
  • He turns her stigmatic sinful reputation to a teaching moment and honors her in Luke.
  • He invites us to remember this woman’s good deeds wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world.
  • And Jesus mimics her actions to teach His disciples.

Let’s bring this all together and have a closer look at what The Lord is inviting us into, by taking a step back.

In John 12, Mary anoints & cleanses Jesus. The disciple’s concern is the cost of the perfume.

In John 13, Jesus follows Mary’s posture and cleanses the disciples’ feet. The disciples’ concern is about WHO is doing the cleaning.

In John 14, we are invited to abide in Jesus and God is doing the cleaning. The Greek word for pruning also means cleaning. Then God invites us to no longer be His servant, but His friend.

The Lord is not throwing away servanthood, He is showing us that friends serve each other in this way, but with a deeper level of intimacy than a servant would, and no one is master over another.

As an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister at Susquehanna Univ, I notice 3 reasons why this is good news to students.

Tension: Sometimes students have no time to reconcile or deal with the tensions in life, but Jesus invites them to stand with him in tension as this woman, and it’s ok. We don’t have to resolve it; we just simply have to be with Jesus in it.

A good thing: Furthermore, sometimes students feel torn between their academic and spiritual wellness priorities, and often feel guilty for pouring out their time and devotion on Jesus at times they could be studying. However, their bold sacrifices do not go unnoticed by Christ. He calls their devotion a good thing.

Service: Finally, at a service-heavy school like SU, students often feel the well-intentioned pressure to serve, and the service because a burden and a means performance in pursuit of meaning and work. On the contrary, the service that Jesus invites us to is not about doing first, but about being first. Instead of serving Jesus and others to find meaning and purpose, Jesus invites us to be His friend, which helps us love Him and others better. Students don’t have to strive for their identities, the Lord has already given them a beautiful one. Students don’t have to perform to “clean up” themselves, The Lord is doing the cleaning/pruning. All we have to do is abide in Him. Indeed, His burden is easy, and His yoke is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

The Lord has invited me to partner alongside Him as He gives this Good News for Campus; and now, I am inviting you to partner alongside with me. We are about $9,000 away from our annual goal and there is a $19,000 gap in recurring gifts. Recurring gifts help me focus more time on campus equipping students and less time on fundraising. That means I am 16 financial partners who give $100/m away from spending more time giving students Good News such as this and equipping them to disciple their peers and share the Good News with others. If you’d like to find out more about how you would partner alongside me on Campus, or how to receive our monthly updates & and prayer requests, please come see me after the service.

I invite you to one last thing, as we remember Jesus, our Anointed Servant King Who cleanses us and stands in the gap, let us remember, that He invites us to remember His friend, the woman or women who devoted her/their lives to Him. So, let us say yes to His invitation to be like Jesus, being like this sinful woman, who is being like Him.

Thank you.

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