When we love someone, how do we let the person know? It may not be easy to find the perfect way. Shakespeare famously wrote his beloved was more lovely than a summer’s day, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning used her pen to “count the ways” she loved her soon-to-be husband. Another woman, centuries earlier, chose a radical public act to say something similar—to Jesus.
To get the most from this study, read Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:1-9. But first, ask that the Holy Spirit guide you into the truth available in the passages. Permit yourself to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Remember, God is the best teacher.
Key Passage: Mark 14:1-9
At this point in the Gospels, Jesus has nearly completed His earthly ministry and is dining with friends. In a few days He will celebrate the Last Supper with His disciples and then be crucified. Among His followers are men and women who have become wholeheartedly committed to Him, understanding and believing that He is the Messiah. One of them enters this story to give the Lord an astonishing gift: an anointing with perfume worth about $20,000 in today’s currency.
A characteristic of love is that it demands to be expressed. But we often struggle to find words or actions strong enough to adequately convey our feelings.
The story tells us the woman entered the room where Jesus was sitting, “broke the vial [of very costly perfume] and poured it over His head” (Mark 14:3). The vial was made of alabaster, a soft stone, and was probably imported from Egypt. Why do you think she chose to break it then? What connection can you see between breaking the vial and her desire to honor Jesus?
The perfume is identified as “pure nard,” the oil of a flowering plant from India. It was extremely expensive and no doubt rare and hard to obtain in Israel. Have you ever wanted to make a gesture of love to someone but had trouble finding anything “good enough” for that person? Does it surprise you someone might feel this way about Jesus, or do you yourself feel this way about Him?
Those present are “indignant” at the woman’s extravagance and complain about the waste when there are better uses for something so valuable (Mark 14:4-5). But to this woman, pouring her treasure out over Jesus’ head is preferable. What do you think of her action? Try to recall an extravagance that you’ve seen made to honor Jesus—something extreme and seemingly frivolous. Did the expenditure make you uncomfortable? Is there a verse in this story that changes your opinion?
One gives the Lord an astonishing gift: an anointing with perfume worth about $20,000 in today’s currency.
Continuing the Story
Within the week, Jesus’ crucified body will be laid in a tomb—and because of the Sabbath, there won’t be time for it to be properly anointed by His followers. (That’s why, in Mark 16:1-6, several women go early on Sunday morning with spices for the anointing, but it is too late—by then, the Lord has already risen.) So, while the woman in this story cannot realize that her oil will be the only timely preparation for His burial, Jesus knows.
The woman apparently wanted to demonstrate her devotion and sought a gesture fit for a king. Jesus tells the onlookers that she has done “a good deed” for Him (Mark 14:6). The phrase has the connotation of a noble, virtuous act; some translations call it “a beautiful thing.” Imagine Jesus telling others this about something you’ve done for Him. Does the story make you wish to change your own life?
While the woman cannot realize that her oil will be the only timely preparation for His burial, Jesus knows.
Breaking and pouring out something very precious was meant to show Jesus—and everyone present—great love for Him. You may relate to the feeling of loving someone so much you feel you might burst if you don’t find a way to express it. Consider that several days later, Jesus broke His own body and poured out His blood for this woman and for us. How does it make you feel knowing that He has this same urgent, bursting love for you, magnified many times over?
Many people are speaking in this story, from the other dinner guests to Jesus Himself. In fact, it was probably a rather noisy scene. But the woman is silent; only her actions are reported.
Though the disciples suggest the perfume should have been sold to benefit the poor (Matt. 26:8-9), Jesus defends the loving gesture, saying, “Whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me” (Mark 14:7). What does the woman’s silence tell you about the relationship between focus and action? Between love and opportunity?
When it comes to expressing love, a focused heart and willing hands are what’s needed to make the most of the moments we have.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
In Matthew 22:36-37, Jesus said the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The words are simple, but what does it really look like to love God—does it mean church attendance? Service? Obedience? Actually, all these are included. But it may be surprising to realize that, as this story shows, expressing love for God has similarities to showing love for people: lavishing attention, giving special gifts, and telling the world how wonderful our loved one is. And a heart overwhelmed by love can’t help but do such things.
Expressing love for God has similarities to showing love for people: lavishing attention, giving special gifts, and telling the world how wonderful our loved one is.
Scripture has many beautiful examples of people who found ways to express love for God despite the cost. Think of: Daniel, who risked his life in Babylon to show God loyalty; Mary, whose body made Jesus’ birth possible; and perhaps even the boy who gave his lunch at the feeding of the 5,000. Can you name others whose gifts to God inspire you?
What opportunities do we have today to love as the woman with the alabaster jar? Since Jesus is not here in body, what can you do to honor Him? Your answer might be something very private, between you and the Lord, or it might be something you want the world to see—for His glory.
Try to think of a time you’ve given a gift at great cost to yourself: financial, time, or perhaps emotional cost. This might even be the gift of forgiveness or an undeserved mercy. Which was stronger at the time, the sense of loss at what you were giving away, or joy that you had this thing to give?
A radical gift may always involve a sense of sacrifice. But the pain of relinquishing something valued will be greatest when we give from a sense of duty. When we give from a place of love, on the other hand, joy takes over.
Illustration by Adam Cruft