True Love in an Alabaster Box

In John 12:1-8, we are told of Jesus being honoured by one of his friends, Mary of Bethany. One of several biblical Marys, she was the sister of the resurrected Lazarus and of Martha (who speaks to us in Luke 10:38-42 of the priority of relationship over service). She shows us how, rather than just securing our relationship with God in the first place, we can enjoy it thereafter. Similarly, a man might quickly woo a woman without knowing how to love her for life. Any Christian needs Mary’s insights to better live a life that demonstrates unconditional love of God, too, so as to make a transforming difference in our world.

Mary broke an “alabaster box” of expensive perfumed oil and poured it on Jesus. Guests in ancient arid climates were typically honoured with washings and fragrances, so her gesture could have simply represented good hospitality. This, however, became much more, as evidenced by the oil’s worth.

Mary’s generous offering is paralleled in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, passages which offer supporting details. These resemble, but differ from, that of a sinful woman in Luke 7 (at a different time and place). This particular incident takes place just days before Jesus’ death, and this helps to contextualise three particular elements of love’s best expression.

1. True love is given adoringly.

Mary applied the oil to Jesus’ head and feet and even wiped off the excess with her hair. Hers was an act of worship and represented her sacrifice in bringing it. True love is focused on esteeming the one to whom it is directed.

Hebrews 13:15 describes the sacrifice of praise that we bring to God when we don’t always feel like it. We don’t always feel, either, that God is necessarily near. True love reaches out, though, in spite of our feelings. Just as in a marriage or in any other relationship we care about, we act in faith and the feelings (or the reciprocal love) will often follow later.

Adoration is therefore aligned to obedience, and this is inseparably connected to a daily devotional habit of Bible reading and prayer where we hear from God and follow His Scripturally-informed guidance. This is adoration backed by action. It shapes faith proactively and therefore reflects outwardly love with honour.

Adoration needs deeds that match our words. It also considers the time spent on the object of our value a purposeful and privileged investment rather than a waste. Time feels wasted only when we don’t feel the love flowing or when we would rather be doing something else.

The English writer, Samuel Johnson, was asked about his favourite childhood memory. He recalled a day his father took him fishing. Johnson’s father’s diary was later checked for the entry on the day in question, for which it read: “Fishing with Sammy, today. Another day wasted.”

Weekend drunks brag about getting ‘wasted.’ Maybe they’re right in the sense of overspending their time and money on something so unworthy. But could they justifiably laugh at me spending a portion of my weekend honouring and adoring Jesus who has changed my life and the life of so many others? I’d gladly ‘waste’ that time any weekend.

2. True love is given extravagantly.

The oil used by Mary was in a marble flask containing ‘nard’ (or ‘spikenard’) worth a year’s salary because of its rarity. It was the ‘Chanel No. 5’ of its day. Derived from a Himalayan plant and transported from India, it was so hard to acquire that is was probably only in Mary’s possession as an heirloom.

Love does not withhold. We don’t have any hesitation about spending money on, or time with, those we love.

King David was not prepared to take ground off one of his subjects for the building of God’s temple, saying he would pay handsomely for it rather than give God an offering that cost Him nothing (2 Samuel 24:24).

Everything worth anything costs something.

Judas didn’t appreciate this. His heart was being led astray by his consumerism and lust for wealth, the root of evil which leads us away from God (1 Timothy 6:10). He priced Jesus life at thirty pieces of silver, a few weeks’ wages and the price of a slave’s redemption in the Old Testament.

Worship is a term which was originally ‘worth-ship’. Jesus was of enormously greater worth to Mary than to Judas.

Extravagant love pays the cost willingly and doesn’t count it begrudgingly.

Such value, Jesus says here, is eternally associated with the proclamation of the true message of Christianity because of its high regard for the true value of the Christ of Christianity.

Loving Jesus in person, He also says, even takes precedence over loving the poor, because we can’t really represent Jesus adequately or love extravagantly in His Name, unless He is first central in our lives.

3. True love is given impulsively.

Mary had no idea that Jesus was about to die. Mark’s account shows Jesus reframing her offering as a preparation for burial. She never got the chance to anoint His body later, so her gift represents to us the need to act on impulse in expressing our love. We can make many excuses to act later, when the day of action may never come. It’s worth considering, though, whether that day is best spent now on that which is most important.

This is not about recklessness, but responsiveness. Many a ‘God idea’ is torpedoed by a good one. Logic and rationality can result in the head robbing the heart of its best gift to God.

My best gift of jewellery to my wife is not an event-inspired or an obligatory offering; it is a spontaneous no-strings-attached gesture that therefore reflects the true love I want to give.

The time we make when we don’t have it, the sudden pause to consider God in our circumstances, and the heartfelt appreciation for the good things in life, all come impulsively.

Our quick response to divine promptings needs to be ‘yes’ to the God we love. The whispers of Heaven draw us to involve God in our lives and to also act in instinctive obedience when we, like Mary, can’t even see the importance of the outcome and may not get another chance.

Finally, the ‘alabaster box’ of Mary’s offering was broken before it was poured out for Jesus.

Our lives need to be similarly broken to release the fragrance of our offering to God, the essence of which is prayer (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8) and the substance of which is what we bring to Him in obedient and faithful sacrifice because He is Lord and we are not.

True love demands no less.

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