Mary’s Alabaster Box

At the end of His second year of public ministry, Jesus was invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee in Galilee. A woman “which was a sinner” who knew Jesus was a guest there came into the house, bringing with her an alabaster box of ointment and stood behind Jesus, weeping. She washed His feet with her tears and then she wiped them with her hair. She kissed His feet and also anointed them with precious ointment from the box she had brought with her.

Only Luke mentions this event. (Luke 7:36-50). We know that the woman who was “a sinner” was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, from John 11:2 (she was not Mary Magdalene out of whom 7 devils were cast.) This is the first of two times that the woman would do this deed for Jesus. At this time, Jesus didn’t say that this act of hers would be a memorial to her. Jesus would not die for another 1-1/2 years, and it was in the last 6 days of His life that Mary would again anoint His head and feet. It would be over a year later that Jesus would raise Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus said to Mary, “Thy sins are forgiven…Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” This caused some of those who heard Him to ask, “Who is this who forgives sin?” Jesus said, “her sins which are many are forgiven; for she loved much.” This is the second recorded time Jesus told someone their sins were forgiven. (I have only been unable to find two recorded times that Jesus ever said this, the other being Mark 2:3-7. He told some others, “Go and sin no more.”) Previous to this, the Bible records one time that Jesus forgave the sins of one other person, the man who was let down through the roof by his friends in Capernaum in Matt 9:2. Seeing or knowing about that may have given Mary hope that He could do the same for her.

There is no record of Mary meeting Jesus previously. This took place, in Galilee which was 3 days journey from Mary’s home in Bethany. More than likely, since she came prepared, Mary had seen and heard or heard of Jesus before she came to the Pharisee’s house. No reason is given as to why she happened to be in Galilee. She returned to Bethany at some point, and Jesus visited her, Martha and Lazarus on more than one occasion there. Picture Jesus stretched upon the couch and reclining on his left elbow with Mary standing at the foot of the couch behind His bare feet (guest left their sandals outside the door upon entering.) When invited to a special dinner, this was the position guest assumed when they ate.*****

Her advance preparation was evidence that she already believed Jesus could wipe away her sins. She came with hope in her heart, repentant and showed it with her sincere heartfelt tears.* She thought ahead to bring along with her a box** of precious (expensive) ointment to show her gratitude. She used it on Him BEFORE he granted forgiveness to her; in advance, she thanked Jesus for His forgiveness to her. (*See footnote regarding tear bottle tradition if you are puzzled as to how Mary could have enough tears to wash the two feet of a grown man.)

The tears Mary used to wash Jesus’ feet may have been shed from her eyes at that moment. Some think the tears came from a tear bottle Mary brought with her which she emptied on His feet and used to wash them. Obviously, the ointment and tears Mary used were not the same item, and the ointment followed His feet being cleansed by the tear wash. The tear bottle tradition dates back nearly 3,000 years when mourners were known to collect their tears in a lachrymatory and bury them with loved ones to express honor and devotion.

At the time, many people flocked to Jesus to be healed and to have demons cast out and to listen to his sermons; but few believed him or became a follower or realized that He was the Christ/Messiah. Many people thought Jesus was a nice person, perhaps a prophet, felt that the free food was great, the healings and exorcisms were awesome, raising people from the dead were over the top; and if He would just overthrow the Roman government, what a wonderful world this would be. But to accept and follow Him as Christ/Messiah and Saviour? Now, THAT was asking too much!

Mary didn’t come to be healed of physical ailments or to have demons cast out of her. She believed Jesus could forgive her sins. This was extraordinary! It meant that she realized He was the Son of God, the Christ. For WHO else can forgive sins? She believed, she repented, she was forgiven and the love she had for her Savior was without price. She truly chose the “better part.”

It is the story of a woman who has a very sinful past. The outstanding point in this story was her extraordinary belief and faith in Jesus. “Your FAITH has saved you.”

Context is an essential part of viewing historical events. This account is not about long hair, any more than it is about alabaster boxes. Mary’s long hair was insignificant. Certainly, using her hair to dry Jesus’ feet was very endearing, deeply personal and possibly symbolic. Since her hair was a part of her, she would have gone away with the fragrance of the ointment hovering about her. The focal point of this story is centered on her extraordinary FAITH. Her long hair was available but trivial, irrelevant, incidental. If Mary’s hair had been short, she might have wiped His feet with something else—a linen towel, or her dress, apron, whatever was available. Her FAITH would still have shown through her actions, loud and clear. Jesus made no memorials or dictates about long hair or alabaster boxes from this incident.

Possibly, Mary’s act involved some symbolism, but the gospel writers do not record such. Mary could have been showing her personal choice to subject herself to Jesus—make Him her master. To show this, she put the hair of her head (her highest part) under and on Jesus’ feet which was His lowest part. Another symbolism might be that only slaves washed the feet of others. By performing that act for Jesus, Mary was showing she was willing to be His slave.

Messiah means “the anointed one,” and is used twice in the Old Testament. The dead were prepared for burial by anointing (Mark 14:8; 16:1) In the week immediately before His crucifixion, while Jesus was near or in her home in Bethany, Mary again anointed Jesus (John 12:1-8). Showing her love, Mary anointed the feet/head*** of Jesus with very costly ointment and wiped them with her hair. Some references indicate the ointment was worth a year’s wages. This may indicate Mary was from a wealthy family. Before His second anointing by Mary, Jesus had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, and the chief priests had decided to put Lazarus to death because His resurrection caused many people to believe in Jesus.

Jesus said, “She did it for my burial.” Perhaps Mary understood and believed Jesus’ predictions for his death and sufferings better than the disciples did. Her extravagance sprang from love. She was in effect embalming Jesus’ body beforehand. “She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.” Jesus said, “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”

Judas murmured against the waste of the ointment. “Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son who should betray him, “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and had the bag and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone; against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you, but me ye have not always.” (John 12:4-7)

Mary’s act of faith and love touched Jesus and was so remarkable that three writers of the gospels took notice of it (Matt 26:6; Mark 14:3, John 12:3). No expression of genuine love for Him could ever possibly be excessive or a waste. And to this day, when the gospel is preached…this memorial to Mary is often mentioned. She will always be known, as “that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair.” She believed, she repented, she was forgiven and the love she had for her Savior was without price.

[*NOTE regarding the word “tears” and “tear bottles”: King David wrote: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book ?” (Psalm 56:8). Ancient “tear bottles” (or wineskins) have actually been excavated by archaeologists in Israel. These vessels were used to catch and preserve the owner’s tears during times of grief or extreme pressure. This Psalm was actually written by David when he was being pursued by Saul on one side and surrounded by Philistines in the city of Goliath on the other. David apparently not only had his own tear bottle, but also believed that God somehow was also storing up David’s personal tears in His own heavenly bottle of tears.] [**NOTE regarding the word “box”: The KJV margin reading for “box” is “flask.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary uses the word “phial” for “box.” In other words, the “box” may have been what we call a “vase” or “bottle” with a lid sealed on it. Two types of Alabaster at that time were calcite or gypsum. Mary’s box was most likely made of calcite, which came from Egypt or Asia/Orient. It’s not likely she literally broke a stone box—but rather that she broke the box’s seal. A calcite box would be VERY difficult to break and to break it would be to risk spilling it; and wasting even a minute drop of this incredibly expensive ointment would be avoided.] [***NOTE regarding the word “spikenard”: John 12:3 (time: 2 nd anointing of Jesus in Bethany), “Mary took a pound of ointment of spikenard very costly and anointed the feet of Jesus.” Spikenard is a soft aromatic herb with a strong pungent rhizome root. It is native to the mountainous regions of Northern India and China. The color is golden yellow. It was very precious in ancient times used only by Kings, priests and high initiations in the Egypt, Hebrew and Hindu civilizations A “pound” of spikenard is a considerable amount. This ointment came from a great distance on the “Spice Routes.” “Spikenard” is mentioned in the Song of Solomon.] [****NOTE: Matthew and Mark write that it was Jesus’ head that Mary anointed; while John writes that it was His feet. Perhaps it was both…Notice the differences in John’s Account of the Memorial:

Matt 26:6—at Simon the leper’s house, a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment poured it on his head; there was no hair wiping mentioned; it was a memorial to her.

Mark 14:3— at Simon the leper’s house, a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment poured it on his head; there was no hair wiping mentioned; it was a memorial to her.

John 12:3 – at (unknown) location/home (at a supper in Bethany where Mary & Martha served), Mary took a pound of ointment of spikenard very costly and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with hair; it was a memorial to her.] [*****NOTE regarding positions taken at special meals: The people eating did not sit up straight in chairs as we ordinarily sit at a table. They were positioned on wide couches, lying on their sides and reclining on their left elbows. Their feet were near the outer edge of the couch and could be easily washed by the servants. It was a mark of hospitality to provide for the washing of the feet of guests, for they wore sandals which were no protection from the dust of the streets. Sometimes the couches were arranged in a “U” shape. This enabled the servants to wait upon the guests from the inside of the “U.” Jesus and the other guests would have stretched upon the couch and reclined on their left elbows. Mary could easily stand at the foot of the couch behind His bare feet.]

KJV Scripture: Luke 7:36-50 “And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”

RE anointing/washing feet:

RE uses of ointment:

By Cherie Kropp
2007, Revised July 22, 2008