Posted in theology

The alabaster vial incidents, and my “wasted” time

By Elizabeth Prata

I usually write about the word, or encouragement, or prophecy. But today I’m going to give a peek into and share an anecdote about my Bible study.

As I was reading Mark 14 and I got to the part when Judas went out to betray Jesus. (Mark 14:10), I began wondering, why now? What was the precipitating event that finalized Judas’ apostasy and treachery?

(What works for me is asking questions of the text. Why this? Why now? What is that about? How does that work? Where are they? What is that plant/tree/animal like?)

I suspected the catalyzing moment for Judas was the alabaster vial incident, AKA the anointing of Jesus, recorded just prior to Judas’ departure. But the more I read the parallel accounts, the more confused I got. I could not sort them out. I didn’t know why.

JOHN 12, The Anointing of Jesus

One of the accounts of the anointing of Jesus occurs in John 12. In this event, it’s six days before the Passover. The group is in Bethany and they are at a house where the dinner is in honor of Jesus. Lazarus who was raised from the dead is present. Martha is serving and Mary is there too.

Mary took a pound (12 oz) of very expensive perfume of nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The pungent perfume filled the house with its fragrance. Judas complained that what she did was extravagantly wasteful. The perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor. Jesus rebuked Judas, telling him to leave Mary alone. He said that Mary was preparing for His burial. “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” He said. (John 12:8).

It is in the John account we read that Judas didn’t care about the poor, but stole from the purse. In the John account we read that Judas intended to betray Jesus.

Mark 14 and Matthew 26, The Anointing of Jesus

In Mark 14 and Matthew 26, it’s two days before Passover. In the Matthew account, Jesus announced that He was to be handed over to crucifixion. So the end is near. Jesus is in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper. An unnamed woman comes to Jesus holding an expensive flask/vial/box/jar made of alabaster containing an amount of extremely expensive perfume/ointment/nard. She broke open the jar and poured the liquid over Jesus’ head.

The disciples became indignant and scolded her. They were outraged at the “waste” and said the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In both Mark and Matthew’s account Jesus said the same as what was recorded in John 12, Jesus said ‘the poor will always be with you but you will not always have Me.’ He ordered them to stop harassing the woman, she had done a good deed and in fact, she’d prepared for Jesus’ burial. He said,

Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the entire world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9).

And it is 2000 years later and here we are, still talking about this woman and her deed.

In order to sort out the details of the two incidents, recorded in 3 of the Gospels, I made a chart of the entire passage from the 3 Gospels, side by side. The one in Luke seems similar but the timing was in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, so, a year and a half prior, and the point was forgiveness, not preparation for Jesus’ burial. So we can X that one out. I used highlighters in different colors to note details and similarities of the John, Mark, and Matthew incidents. I needed to see it all at once. I couldn’t figure it out, otherwise.

Then I made a chart comparing the main similarities and differences. I needed to get this right. First, I was going to publish it and I did not want to dishonor Jesus by teaching the wrong thing. As Paul would say, “What a ghastly thought!” Secondly and more important, the scene moved me. It’s a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life. I wanted to bask in it (correctly).

Were there two different incidents? It seemed there was. That was my conclusion after about three hours of study in the scriptures. My brain was fried. I made lunch and did other things for a while.

The next day I started writing the blog about it. Writing helps me process information. However, the more I wrote, the more my mind became troubled. I started asking questions again. Why did the disciples say the same exact thing, just 4 days later? By this point they at least knew to hold their peace and wait for developments like they did at the Woman at the Well. (John 4:27). If they erupted in similar fashion again just a few days later, why didn’t Jesus rebuke them like He did in Matthew 8:26 to the disciples, or to Peter in Matthew 14:31 or in general in Mark 9:19?.

One would think that just 4 days later the men would have learned something from the first incident. It didn’t make sense that they had the same exact reaction and said the same things, and Jesus replied in exactly the same way. That seemed harder to reconcile than the smaller seeming inconsistencies, if they were the same incident, as feet vs. head, or 2 days before Passover vs. 6 days.

I’d studied diligently the scriptures alone for two days. Now I turned to the Commentaries. I like the old timey guys like Gill, Barnes, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown. I looked them up. They all said it was the same incident. All of them. I have Logos Bible Software. I looked up the commentaries from the medium old guys from last mid-century. They said the same. All of them. I finally looked up someone alive, John MacArthur. He said the same.

The smaller details can be reconciled. The timing is that as Matthew and Mark record the Spirit-inspired words, the scene 4 days prior is a flashback. They pause and bring up what happened a few days prior as they prepare to write of the Last Passover and the unveiling of the betrayer.

I re-read carefully and saw that I’d assumed from the description in John 12 that they were at Lazarus’ house. But the verse doesn’t say that explicitly. They were in Bethany, Lazarus was reclining at table, and Martha was serving. It just says there was a dinner made in Jesus’ honor. Not at the house of Lazarus specifically.

As for the head-feet thing, Mary easily could have poured out her perfume at His head and also His feet. Or she poured it on His head and it flowed to His feet. It’s like the two seemingly inconsistent details in the Gadarene demoniac. In Matthew 8 it says there were two demoniacs. In Mark 5, it records one demoniac.

Anyway, it was much easier for me to let the smaller details go and reconcile the bigger question of the two different recountings not be almost exact repeat but instead be a flashback. It made NO sense that they all would have done and said the exact thing just 4 days later.

This Christianity Today article gives several reasons for seeming inconsistencies in the Bible. I say seeming, because I FULLY trust that what is in Holy Scripture is perfect, true, and trustworthy. There are NO inconsistencies. Here is Christianity Today with my comment after the italicized-

A summary may differ from a detailed account. Like the details in the centurion’s salvation. Or the Gadarene demoniac.
Details may differ because of the differing perspectives from which the narratives are made. Was the Sermon on the Mount on top of the Mount, or on a plateau? Different perspectives are given of the same location.
An account relating only one part of an event may differ significantly from another account relating another part of that event. I.E. Judas’ death. Did he die by hanging, or by falling and busting open?
An account relating actual chronological sequence may differ from an account that unfolds according to a different organizing principle. I think that is the case with the seeming variances in the John 12 vs. Mark 14 and Matthew 26 writings.

Remember: the biblical authors wrote their narratives in accordance with their own purposes. They were free to organize them chronologically, logically, topically, and so forth. They were free to summarize them, provide many details or few details, emphasize some points over others, and the like. All of these conventions are in keeping with the inspiration and complete truthfulness of Scripture. Source Christianity Today.

I came to a settled conclusion that the three Gospels record the same anointing incident. Initially I was irritated that I’d ‘wasted’ 5 and 1/2 hours over two days going back and forth over this. But then I laughed. Silly me! The lesson is, my time is not my time. It’s a gift from Jesus and should be lavishly devoted to Him in all the ways. Time spent in the Word is never a ‘waste’. It is as precious as the expensive perfume Mary poured out in love and devotion to her Messiah. I should not be irritated, but joyous that I got to spend time in the Gospel and with Jesus as I sought to mine the truth.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the actual Anointing of Jesus. But for today, this is a peek into the thought process as I study and blog along. Ultimately I’m grateful for the Lord giving me a life where I have time to study, where the Spirit illuminates the scriptures to me, and where I can, as a single person, devote time to Him. Why are we here?

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Westminster Shorter Catechism

My time is not my own but must be used to glorify Jesus. To that end, I ask myself, do I hoard the time, keeping the precious perfume in the bottle? Or do I break it open and gush out my time in lavish attention and love for my Lord?

One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

I’m not even close to the example of the widow Anna serving in the temple night and day, but she is my role model as an older single woman. I pray that in 2022 the Lord allows me to continue this ministry. It is precious to me because I get to spend time with Him.

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Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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