The alabaster box

How to give like Jesus.

Sally Streib is a freelance writer and is assistant coordinator for Shepherdess International at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Mary peered through the archway that led into a cluttered room. She searched the sweaty faces of the guests, who lounged on plush couches around tables groaning under a load of elaborate foods. Sounds of dishes clattering together and the hum of mingled voices collided in the heated air.

Where could Jesus be? Had He come to the feast? She must see Him and listen to His words.

Mary found Jesus beside a fountain talking with Lazarus. She edged close to the couch where He reclined and seated herself on the tile floor. Just to be near Him made her heart sing. Jesus had forgiven her. This fact made joy swell up within her until she felt like shouting.

Jesus' musical voice reached out and encircled her. Nothing else seemed important as she listened to each word. But when He paused to enjoy a fig cake, she found her mind racing back to yesterday's events. A smile spread across her face as her fingers sought the silk ribbon that held the precious box about her neck. She traced the outline of a dove carved in the alabaster and sighed.

"Sir!" she remembered saying to the busy merchant, "I wish to purchase an alabaster box of pure spikenard for a friend."

"You want alabaster? Spikenard? Humph!" He spat the words out, his full lips curling up into a sneer. "You can't afford such, woman!" He reached toward her with a hairy hand and felt the rough surface of her homespun garment.

"Be off with you. I'm a busy man." He brushed her aside as one would a fly.

"But. . . please ..." she pleaded. "I have saved so long."

She fumbled with the ties on the small leather pouch that hung at her waist beneath her outer garment, then dumped its contents onto the table between them.

The merchant's beady eyes flashed and he sucked in his breath. He twisted the edges of his stubby black beard as he sorted the coins with quick jabs of his fingers.

"Over 300 denarii. More than a year's wages for the likes of you," he said, prying his eyes from the coins and fastening his gaze upon her.

Without waiting for her to speak, he turned, parted the tapestries at the back of the booth and disappeared. Mary stared with wide eyes at his retreating form. Her mind screamed Run! Run! but love restrained her.

In a moment the curtains jerked apart and the merchant stomped up to the table. He placed a wooden box beside the scattered coins and flipped the top up.

Mary gasped. On deep folds of scarlet silk lay six carved alabaster boxes. She must have one.

"You have enough to buy this one," the merchant said, jabbing a knobby finger at the smallest box. "A good bargain, too. After all, spikenard is for the rich."

"Spikenard," Mary whispered. She knew she wanted this fragrant ointment to pour over the Master's bruised body. He said He must soon suffer great abuse and die. With all her heart she prayed that He would be wrong, just once.

"Going to gawk all day, woman?" the merchant grumbled as he picked up the delicate box and thrust it into her hands.

Mary hugged it to herself and turned away. She heard the clink of coins as she fled from the dark booth and burst into the sunlight. She shook to rid herself of the stare that followed her. It didn't matter. Now she owned the alabaster box. She searched for the blue ribbon in her pocket, made a large loop around her neck, and tied it to the box. It fell against her breast and lay hidden by her robe. Only she knew of the precious secret.

Suddenly Jesus' words pushed aside her memories. What had He just said? He must die soon? Mary tried to thrust the idea away. Yet, what if?

The presence of a new thought jolted her. Why not now? Why not now, while He yet lived? She grasped the box, loosed it from the ribbon, broke it, and anointed Jesus' feet. Tears burst from long-restrained reservoirs inside her and mingled with the ointment. Mary removed two combs from her hair and let it tumble onto her shoulders. She took it in her hands and dried His feet.

Sweet fragrance filled the room; all eyes turned toward her.

"Just wait until I tell Deborah about this," someone said.

"She won't believe it!"

"And such a waste!" another voice sneered.

Mary winced as the harsh words penetrated her mind. She trembled and looked at the guests in horror. Then a piercing thought gouged her heart. What would Jesus think? Would He rebuke her too? Would He understand her gift? The alabaster box fell from her hands to the floor.

"Let her alone!" Jesus' voice rang out. "Can't you see what a lovely thing she has done for Me? When I die, you will bring your spices for My dead body, but Mary has brought her gift to Me while I yet live."

"Mary," He said, turning from the astonished guests to face her. "Your gift of love and gratitude will comfort Me in the terrible days ahead."

Mary gazed with joy at the kindness shining through Jesus' eyes. She knew Jesus understood and accepted her. "Wonderful Jesus, I will serve You as long as I live," she whispered. Gathering her skirts together, she rose and slipped from the room.

As a pastor's wife, I have considered this story many times. It teaches several beautiful principles that you might consider as you seek to minister to your members.


The reason Mary's gift ministered so perfectly to the needs of Jesus was that it burst spontaneously from a heart full of grateful love. It mirrored so much of the kind of giving that Jesus Himself modeled. He must have perceived it as an echo of His own capacity to pour His love out upon others like spring rain. The only way Mary could minister as she did was that she moved from the basis of the forgiveness, acceptance, and love she experienced in her relationship with Jesus. Because of this, she could give; she must give.

As a minister's wife, you need to discover in Jesus the same things that will become your motivation for ministering to those church members who, like Jesus, need the courage to meet life's demands.

Jesus meets your every need. He gives security and freedom from fear. "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change .. . though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. . . . The Lord of hosts is with us" (Ps. 46:2-7, NASB).

He gives you love and opens up the opportunity to enter into love relationships. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34, NASB).

He gives the gift of hope, hope for every day of life. "Then you would trust, because there is hope; and you would look around and rest securely" (Job 11:18, NASB).

Jesus promises to fill you with His presence. Psalm 16:11 says, "In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." You don't need to turn to the world for its pleasures that will in the end destroy you. You are free! You are safe! You are satisfied. From this base, you can minister as effectively as Mary did.


As you walk day by day with Jesus it isn't long before He confronts you with the needs of others and your responsibility to minister to them. Shortly before I became a minister's wife, God alerted me in a startling way.

It happened at that time of year when windblown trees touched by icy fingers sent brightly colored leaves zigzagging to earth so that when you walked, the leaves sounded like cornflakes crushing beneath your feet. My nursing uniform looked new, and my heart bubbled over with that sense of awe that comes with learning and experiencing growth in brand-new ways.

We nursing students stood mind-deep in the study of basic psychiatric concepts that nurses needed to know. We had spent hours inside wards with humans who suffered various mental disorders. Then several of us noticed a row of buildings to the rear of the main hospital complex. Curiosity urged us to request a tour.

Our nursing instructor said, "Your curiosity is understandable, but believe me, you definitely do not want to visit those particular wards. No, I will not take you."

Perhaps this answer only made us more curious, for in due time we persuaded an orderly to take us to the forbidden place. As we entered the ward the wad of keys jingled in the orderly's hands. We passed through several doors that clanked behind us. Suddenly we found ourselves in a large room.

"This is the dayroom," the orderly explained without expression.

No words could fully describe the sight that met our eyes and the sounds that assaulted our ears. Humans in all degrees of undress performed a gamut of physical actions from thumb-sucking to overt masturbation. Lips screeched, moaned, sang lewd songs, or pressed together in silence. Faces seemed marred and disfigured by a life of sin and its corresponding indulgences. The stench of excrement, urine, body odor, and filth mingled into a gut-wrenching miasma. Expressions of hopeless despair, anger, or aggression characterized the occupants.

"Some of these people have organic illnesses brought on by alcohol, drugs, and the like," our guide explained. "Others probably started with various neuroses and progressed to psychotic illnesses despite treatment." He pointed out various patients and described their symptoms. "Stop!" I croaked out in a broken voice. "I don't want to hear any more!" I wanted to run from that horrible place with its terrifying human occupants and to breathe in fresh air once more. I wanted nothing more than to close my mind to the fact that these broken, degraded humans even existed.

But it was true! Humans created in the image of God, now degenerated below the level of beasts, filled those rooms. Hours later I flung myself on my bed and wept. I wept for their misery and their loss and for the pain their condition caused the gentle Creator. At this time I began to realize something of the pain and suffering in my world. Because of Jesus' love, I walked in the sunlight, not in the darkness of some back ward. I must share that love.

As a pastor's wife, the needs of people are presented before you daily. Those needs must evoke compassion in you just as they do in the heart of Jesus. As His disciple, you will desire to use your particular gifts in a ministry to those needs.


The gift that evoked such joy in the heart of Jesus brought only ridicule from the crowd. They branded it as waste. Today it is no more common nor popular to give selflessly than in the days when Jesus walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem. Yet the need for this kind of ministry is greater than ever in a world that recklessly seeks its own.

Mary gave of herself. She did not count the cost. Her gift not only amounted to a year's wages, but she gave it at risk to herself. As Jesus pointed out, no one else washed His feet at the feast, nor offered Him love and praise. The guests, especially Simon, felt uncomfortable when Mary gave Jesus what met His real needs.


The Holy Spirit urged Mary to offer her gift at the particular time when Jesus needed it most and when it could help the most people. She responded to that prompting, although it may have been an unexpected idea. Because the Holy Spirit did dwell in her, she could act upon His quiet voice.

Sometimes you have probably experienced confusion and even frustration when trying to know just when and how to minister to people. The needs around you are great. It is easier when you learn that not only is it impossible to minister to every member, but it isn't even in God's plan. What a relief and joy to just allow God to lead through His Holy Spirit.


Most churches, in spite of a few difficult members* will accept the pastor's wife as an individual, free her to use her special gifts, and even encourage her to function in some unique ways. But they will not forgive her if she fails to communicate in some way that she cares.

We can be thankful that Mary obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit. What a beautiful example she gave us, and what joy she brought to Jesus. So although the merchant sneered, Mary's joy sparkled within her. That is the miracle of giving.

In the book Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, Ellen White explains the "If and All" plan. On page 101 she says, "If you will seek the Lord and be converted every day;

"If you will of your own spiritual choice be free and joyous in God;

"If with gladsome consent of heart to His gracious call you come wearing the yoke of Christthe yoke of obedience and service,

"All your murmurings will be stilled,

"All your difficulties will be removed,

"All the perplexing problems that now confront you will be solved."

What a relief and a joy to allow the Holy Spirit to draw us into a close relationship with Jesus so that our ministry will mirror the Lord's more closely. We become part of that great law of love described on page 97 of the same book: "God's law is the law of love. He has surrounded you with beauty to teach you that you are not placed on earth merely to delve for self, to dig and build, to toil and spin, but to make life bright and joyous and beautiful with the love of Christlike the flowers, to gladden other lives by the ministry of love."

As we sit at the feet of Jesus daily considering His words, our hearts will be carved and shaped like the alabaster box of ancient times and prepared to contain the sweet essence of His presence. The life of Jesus, like the crushed spikenard of old, will fill our life. It is in our hands to decide if we will break this vessel and pour out as unselfishly, as lavishly as did Mary, its gifts upon the lives of those about us.

"Oh, love waits not till friends are dead

Or friendship crashes on the rocks.

Instead, kind, fragrant words are said

We break our alabaster box."

Adlai Esteb

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Sally Streib is a freelance writer and is assistant coordinator for Shepherdess International at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

June 1989

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