Back to Top

Your Alabaster Jar

Some years ago I worked as an Enrichment Leader at Youth at Heart, a non-profit serving youth in under-resourced communities in Tulsa. Part of my responsibility was to provide programming for youth ages 6-12. One of our core themes was community service. If my memory serves me, we used a simple definition for volunteering: giving your time, talent, and treasure to help. Our goal in teaching this theme was to ensure youth knew they could be valuable contributors to their community. That everyone has something to share regardless of age, income, or anything else. 

Though the concept of everyone having something to give is simple it hasn’t always played out well in the missional context. In the book When Helping Hurts, the authors write about different kinds of poverty and how the American Church has hurt communities by misdiagnosing communities’ problems giving what they think is most needed. The book uses this definition of poverty “...the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”

Mary knows something they don’t know.

This brings to mind a certain woman with an Alabaster Box. Did you just sing that in your head like Cece Winans? Nah, Just me? Okay. As Jesus was chilling after dinner, Mary comes over to him and breaks an alabaster jar, or alabaster box (as Cece Winans sings it) and anoints Jesus with the expensive perfume from the jar and washes his feet with her tears. The host, the disciples, especially Judas, and other folks in the room watch in disgust as they focus on the woman being a sinner and Jesus allowing this to happen. Jesus knowing what’s in their hearts tells a short parable and emphasizes “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” He implies this woman has understood that she has been forgiven of much and is simply expressing her love. So let her be! 

Mary knows something they don’t know. Mary recognizes what she’s been given and though her gift seemed expensive to them, it can never compare to the gift she’s received from Jesus. Mary disregards everyone else in the room. The most important person in the room to her is the most important person in the room. She recognizes her brokenness and Jesus’ restoration. 

It’s when we’re broken that God’s annointing oil can flow out of us.

There’s symbolism in the alabaster jar. Alabaster Jars were easily broken and known for keeping expensive perfumes. The footnote in the Zondervan Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible reads: “ alabaster flasks…because they were sealed to keep the ointments from evaporating, they might need to be broken to release the ointment.” The people of God are often referred to as clay in scripture (Jer. 18:2-6, 2 Cor. 4:7) and oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit.  

It’s when we’re broken that God’s annointing oil can flow out of us. Where God’s presence can fill the room, like the fragrance filled the house when Mary poured it on Jesus. It’s in our brokenness, at Jesus’ feet where God meets us in the work [internal then external]. You could call this ‘poor in spirit,’ of whom Jesus says will inherit the earth. 

Judas, the Pharisee, the other disciples, and everyone else in the room, didn’t recognize their own need for a savior and in doing so demeaned Mary.

When Helping Hurts puts it this way “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”  And this is often because we feed our ego by becoming a ‘savior.’ 

Pride, greed, insecurity, stinginess, fear, and everything falling to the side as we bring our gifts to Jesus.

When we recognize what we’ve been given, we can surrender our gifts to God freely and in withholding nothing– no gift, no talent, no treasure off limits, he can direct us in how this should look in our lives. It’s from being poor in spirit that we have the capacity to give, and serve others. At his feet we have direction, clarity and understand our limits, recognizing we’re not the savior and no longer a victim because of God’s grace. 

This is where I want to see the church live. Pride, greed, insecurity, stinginess, fear, and everything falling to the side as we bring our gifts to Jesus.  

I believe the early church lived this out in a way that seems foreign to us. They were a church living in community with one another, meeting from house and house and having all things in common. I believe 1 Pet. 4:10 was alive in their community: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” I believe they acknowledged everyone having come from the same place of brokenness has something to give. 

Lord, may we bring you all of our gifts, even our most precious ones, knowing what we’ve received from you far outweighs any of it. May we not withhold any gifts, knowing that they are needed for the communities around us. May we have eyes to see other’s gifts and encourage each other to good works with humility. 

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.