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Alabaster Jars and Hyperlinks

There are very few episodes from Jesus’ ministry that appear in all four gospels. There are many parallel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but John’s gospel has a distinctly different feel and includes things the other three do not and vice versa.

So, when there is a scene that appears in all four gospels, it would seem to be pretty significant.

One of the events that is contained in all four gospels is the anointing of Jesus’ feet while he was a guest at a dinner party (Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9; Lk. 7:36-50; Jn. 12:1-11).

There are a whole lot of cultural details that add a lot of dimension to this story. Things like the layout of first century homes and the way they traditionally ate a meal add clarity to this story. But, that will be for another time.

The basic scene involves Jesus eating a meal as a guest at a man named Simon’s home in Bethany, a few miles outside of Jerusalem (and also the village where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived). During the meal, an uninvited woman interrupts the meal and begins to cry at Jesus’ feet. Again, there are a lot of details here. First, she is a woman. Second, Luke’s gospel makes it clear she was a well know “sinner.” Third, she lets her hair down in the presence of these men to dry the tears that had fallen on Jesus’ feet. Which would have been a scandalous act.

After that, she takes out an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, breaks the seal, and anoints Jesus’ feet. All four gospels go to great lengths to describe how expensive and precious this jar of perfume would have been.

Jesus’ disciples and the other men in the room respond with disgust. Mark writes,

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. Mark 14:4-5

It’s interesting isn’t it? Their concern sounds reasonable. It sounds like an altruistic concern for the poor.

Sometimes I think we are capable of spinning things to cover what is really going on in the depths of our hearts. Sometimes, we project, deflect, or deceive. Sometimes, we sound like we have altruistic concerns, but the truth is there is judgmental disdain in our hearts. The fact that she was a sinful woman breaching all sorts of social rules and codes contributed to their indignant posture. But, if you talk like you are concerned with the poor, that sounds a little better doesn’t it?

They respond with what sounds like altruistic concern for the poor while Jesus responds with a statement that on the surface sounds a little calloused towards the poor. Jesus responds,

“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Matthew 26:10-11

Jesus statement sounds both a little cold towards the poor and a little selfish. Like many instances in the Scriptures though, there is more going on here.

Poverty and Jesus

American perspectives on poverty are varied. Some believe there are inequities in race, education, and compensation that contribute to poverty. Some believe people are lazy and want a welfare state. Some believe it is up to the individual to help poverty. Some believe the church should do something about poverty. Others believe the government is responsible to do something about poverty.

I have observed something interesting about our expectations of the government. Sometimes the very people who believe it is the church’s responsibility to help with poverty are also the same people who believe it is the government’s responsibility to regulate people’s sexual ethics and views on marriage. Sometimes the people who believe more laws will do little to curb gun violence are the same people who believe more laws are necessary to deal with addiction. All I am saying is that I find this to be a curious thing.

For me, I am all for the government implementing measures that contribute to the well-being of others (even if it costs me a little). I am also all for those people who call themselves Jesus-followers doing whatever they can to live on earth as in heaven. I am for doing things that contribute to “shalom.” I am for the church developing means of alleviating poverty. I am generally for things that help people.

Some Christians are ok with calls to action and concern for the poor. Some are ok with it as long as it doesn’t sound too “woke” (whatever that is…). If a Christian pastor or leader speaks about poverty too passionately, they might get labelled as a social justice warrior. Which…is apparently an insult.

When some Christians, get too uncomfortable with talk about helping the poor, they appeal to Jesus. I have heard something that goes like this, “Well, Jesus said we would always have the poor. We’re never going to really end poverty, so…” Where the discussion goes from here gets a little fuzzy. I think for some people, appealing to Jesus’ statement about the poor always being with us makes them feel better about whatever it is they are or are not doing to alleviate poverty.

But is this how Jesus meant it when he said it?


I first heard the idea of biblical hyperlinks from Dr. Tim Mackie, with The Bible Project. A hyperlink is a link on a webpage that if clicked, will take you to another webpage. Relating to Scripture, it is the idea that there are Hebrew and Greek words and phrases that hyperlink to other passages in the Scriptures. In Jesus' day, the Jewish people--even those who did not go on to study under a rabbi--were extremely well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. They had large portions committed to memory. A phrase or word could easily and quickly be hyperlinked to an entire Old Testament story. Sometimes our English translations catch these too and they are listed as parallel passages or cross-references in the endnotes.

This scene with Jesus has a hyperlink. Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you” which would have called to mind for almost every Jewish listener within earshot, Deuteronomy 11:15. Deuteronomy 15:11 states,

There will always be poor people in the land.

Almost sounds like a direct quote right? But, the verse goes on to say,

Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Have you heard the phrase, “Whenever you see a ‘therefore,’ you need to look at the context to see what it is there for”?

There will be poor in the land…therefore be openhanded. Be generous.

Jesus is calling their bluff. If you are really concerned with the poor and not just judging this woman, then go be generous to the poor yourself. Live openhanded. Deuteronomy 15:10 reads, "Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” The whole chapter of Deuteronomy 15 also speaks about cancelling debts (is it biblical to cancel student loans?… lets not go there today…). Every seven years, debts were to be cancelled so that people were not stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Now, I can hear some critics say, “Yeah, but it says to you fellow Israelites, which in that context was the people of God. We are to care for those inside the church, not those outside the church.” Or something like that. Ok, fair point regarding this verse.

But there is more. Chapter 14 actually prescribes that every three years, a portion of the tithes is to be used to bless the foreigners, widows, and orphaned in the land (28-29). Then again in Deuteronomy 26:12,

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

There were also a lot of other laws about how people gleaned their crops and cared for the marginalized throughout Deuteronomy and Leviticus. There were several safety nets that God wanted Israel to put in place for the foreigner, the widow, and the fatherless (aka, the most vulnerable members of society). The reasoning is almost always tied to their oppression in Egypt. You are not to oppress the weak or support systems and structures that oppress the weak because that was once your situation.

Live Openhanded

So, far from Jesus statement being a calloused, cold response to the poor, Jesus is actually saying to be openhanded and generous. Caring for the poor is a pretty key theme throughout Scripture. The poor you will always have with you…therefore, live generously.


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