MARY OF BETHANY: A WOMAN WHO MODELS THE POSTURE OF DISCIPLESHIP | Lenten Devotional, 3/16/21
A WOMAN WHO MODELS THE POSTURE OF DISCIPLESHIP
Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.
Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But several women also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.
Each week, we will look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. On Thursday, a female member of our staff will offer their thoughts. Each Saturday, I will provide a Lectio Divina prayer exercise so that we can reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | Last week, we considered the first of two well-known sisters in the Bible: Martha. Today, we will reflect on the person and the character of Martha’s younger sister, Mary of Bethany. By way of review, here are a couple of things to remember about this pair of siblings.
Jesus maintained a special relationship with these two sisters and their brother, Lazarus. This is highlighted specifically by John in his gospel account. John pulls us aside in his introduction of these three family members to highlight the great affection that Christ possessed for each of them: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
From what we witness in the scriptures, it is hard to determine if Mary and/or Martha ever accompanied Jesus during his ministry throughout Galilee. What is certain, however, is that Christ regularly stayed in their home. There are several mentions of Jesus coming to their house in Bethany. Bethany, located on the Mount of Olives, was a small town in close proximity to Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem. This village was the starting point of Christ’s descent into the Holy City on Palm Sunday (see Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29) as well as a place Jesus returned to during Holy Week (see Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11-12) and even after his resurrection (see Luke 24:50-51).
We can only guess at the ages of these two sisters. Part of the reason for this is we have no biographical data about them. No mention of their parents. No mention of having been married or any children. By all accounts in the gospels, we are left to conclude that Mary and Martha were unmarried or recently widowed. Even though this was atypical for Jewish women at that time, these sisters remained pretty well-off. We can ascertain this from their ability to live independently as well as to support Jesus’ ministry. Other contextual clues support this assertion, such as being able to provide a separate burial site for their brother, Lazarus – something that was not exactly cheap and therefore a rare occurrence.
Our first introduction to these two sisters has become infamous in the history of the Church. As Jesus is welcomed into their home, far more is made of how they both respond to the presence of Christ than is merited in terms of what actually happened. Our oversimplification of this story needlessly polarizes these two sisters as Martha is framed as who not to be whereas Mary is lifted up as the better follower of Jesus.
Instead of accounting for the full scriptural picture of these two siblings, we have reduced them to caricatures of doing versus being. Nothing could be more of a disservice to the witness of these two faithful women. Added to this, as Mary Taylor underscored in her devotional last Thursday, unnecessary shame has been placed on women who relate more to Martha’s temperament than Mary’s by turning their story into the moralism of “having a Mary heart, in a Martha world.” While this may be a clever and catchy soundbite; it is just not an accurate or helpful summation of Martha and Mary’s actual encounter with Jesus in Luke 10:38 – 42.
Before we consider Mary’s posture when Jesus comes to visit, let’s briefly recap the proper way to understand Martha’s response as well as Christ’s assessment of it. Martha, who is always mentioned first, would seem to have been the head of their household. As the older sister and mistress of the house, Martha observes the sacred responsibility in the Middle East of extending hospitality to one’s guests. To do anything less than to provide for their material needs – including but not limited to feeding them – was to dishonor those under one’s roof and to bring shame upon one’s home.
As the head of the house, Martha believes that her sister, Mary, a member of the hosting family, has a duty to assist her in properly serving their guests. When Martha brings this concern to Jesus’ attention, he does not rebuke Martha’s efforts on his behalf. Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop being hospitable. He doesn’t condemn or even redirect what Martha is doing. Jesus redirects Martha from being “distracted” (see Luke 10:40) so that she does not miss the fruit of her labors – the benefit of experiencing her guest – of not just serving Jesus but also of being ministered to by the one who comes to serve.
Jesus never addresses whether Mary has shirked her responsibilities as one of his hosts. Instead, in highlighting the “one thing” that is needed, he highlights what Mary is singularly focused on – listening to and learning from Jesus. Earlier in the passage, Mary is described as “sitting at the Lord’s feet” (Luke 10:39). This is the posture of discipleship.
Sometimes when there is a dispute, the main point of the argument is hidden or buried under other ancillary issues. This may be the case in Martha’s complaint against her sister, Mary. For if there is any scandal at this moment, it is not in Mary’s lack of help to Martha. It is in Mary’s supposed presumption to sit at the feet of Jesus.
Back in the ancient world, a person sat at the feet of a rabbi or teacher in order to one day become a teacher or rabbi themselves. However, in Jewish law and customs of that time, only men were allowed to adopt such a posture. Only males could question and discuss with their teacher the meanings and nuances of the Torah. No women were permitted to become disciples.
If this is what Martha is driving at when she complains to Jesus, her rebuke of her sister, Mary, is then also a rebuke of Jesus – of allowing this to happen. Mary is not just violating not the social code of hospitality. She also has crossed a strict religious line in terms of discipleship. That this is, in fact, Martha’s real concern is implied in how Jesus responds to her in declaring what Mary has chosen, “will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
Jesus approves of Mary’s radical breaking of both social and religious rules. The “better part” (Luke 10: 42) Mary has chosen, according to Christ, is to not let anything come before or between being instructed, guided, and following him. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus has provocatively asserted a Samaritan — can be good — equal to a Jew in loving one’s neighbor (see 10:25 – 37). Now, Jesus defends the prerogative of a woman to be equal to a man in following God.
We do not know how Mary first came to meet Jesus. But here we witness Mary’s boldness and courage to worship Christ not from a distance but up close despite the rules set by others. In this way, Mary of Bethany is the Rosa Parks of her day as she refuses to be relegated to the back of the room but instead dares to sit upfront at the feet of Jesus. And Jesus assures not only Martha, but all the men in the room, this place of discipleship will not be taken away from her.
We next read of Mary along with his sister, Martha in John’s Gospel. The occasion for this meeting with Jesus is not one of extending hospitality but that of mourning. Their brother, Lazarus, who was likely younger than they were, has died. On top of their fresh grief, there is also a hint of disappointment and frustration with Jesus. For they had sent word earlier when Lazarus was sick. Together these two sisters had been praying and hoping for a miracle from the One in whom they believed. But when Jesus finally arrives on the scene, Lazarus “had already been in the tomb for four days” (John 11:17).
It is Martha, we are told, who goes out to meet Jesus when he comes, “but Mary stayed at home” (John 11:20). No further reasons are given for Mary’s initial absence. But we can speculate from our own seasons of grief and disappointment with God. Did Mary struggle to reconcile how the Lord who claimed to love her and her family could let this happen? Did Mary question the goodness of Christ as she felt like she was drowning in the sorrow of her loss? Was Mary unable or perhaps unwilling to put on a smile and welcome Jesus when he had so let her down?
Mary doesn’t come to Christ until her sister, Martha, comes back and takes her aside saying, “The Teacher has come and is asking for you” (John 11:28). Mary cannot hide or avoid the Lord any longer. She quickly pulls herself together and gets up to go to Jesus. When she reaches him, Mary adopts the same posture we last saw in Luke, chapter 10: “she fell at his feet” (John 11:32).
Grief – especially in response to the passing of someone we love – often brings us to our knees. But Mary, in the acute pain of her loss, doesn’t just fall to pieces. She assumes the position of a disciple, collapsing before the only One who has the words of eternal life. Mary looks up to the One her sister, Martha, just confessed to be the “Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27).
Her first words to Jesus in this moment are a repetition of what Martha earlier said herself, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). However, unlike Martha, Mary does not follow this seeming rebuke with a word of faith in what Christ can do. There is something comforting for us in recognizing that Mary’s discipleship was not perfect — her faith in Jesus was still a work in progress. There is also something encouraging for we who grieve in noticing that Jesus does not rebuke or condemn Mary for her blunt and uncompromising expression of her disappointment and mourning. Jesus with Mary, as with us all, is more than willing to bear the burden of our anger, our frustration, our pain, and our sense of loss.
Death has gotten the better of Mary. She perceives all hope for Lazarus to be lost. The tears borne of her heartbreak are soon shared not just by the crowd of mourners who trail behind her but by Jesus himself. The One who is greater than death does not remain detached or untouched by its bitter sting for us. Instead, Jesus is “deeply moved” (John 11:33) to tears along with Mary.
The significance of this moment can become overshadowed by the startling and miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. However, that Jesus fully enters into Mary’s grief here reflects something equally important about the character and purpose of God revealed in Christ. Please understand. While the promise of resurrection in Christ is indeed something which we can be assured of; it is our hope for the future. What happens to Lazarus in the here and now is the exception and not the rule. We cannot and will not relate to this part of Mary’s experience in this life. However, we can identify and find great consolation in the fact that Christ meets Mary in her tears – in the place where she aches and hurts.
Even more than this, Jesus shares in our “rage against the dying of the light” (see, Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”). When John tells us Christ was “troubled” in spirit as he grieved with Mary, a more literal translation would read, Jesus “breathed indignation” (John 11:33). The object of Jesus’ resentment is obviously not Mary. His ire is against the reality, the presence of death.
Contrary to what many attempt to suggest, death is not part of the circle of life. Death is an indelible smudge of the perfection of a creation intended to be everlasting. Death is not our friend. Only as an escape or alternative to the brokenness of our world does death impart a false attraction. Death may appear to be a relief but in actuality, death unopposed robs humanity of the life we were meant to live forever. Death is our enemy. Death is the epitome of all that is wrong with creation. That death is a violation, the ultimate wrong, is reflected in our sense of shock and outrage when it strikes us and our overriding fear and resistance to it when its shadow lingers over us.
Likewise, death was offensive to Jesus. Death takes what belongs to God: life. Death leaves chaos, confusion, and misery in its wake — all of which run counter to the order, the shalom, and joy the Lord intended for us and all of creation. Jesus meets us in our grief. Jesus shares our indignation before death. It is out of Jesus’ solidarity with us in these two realities that Christ’s willing sacrifice on the Cross and eventual victory in Resurrection find their meaning and propose new possibilities for how we can live in view of tomorrow. Mary gets a glimpse of the convergence of all of this in what Jesus does for her family in the raising of her brother, Lazarus.
Perhaps it is this revelation that spurs Mary in what she does next in relationship to Christ. It is unclear how long of a gap there is between the events of chapter 11 and chapter 12 in the Gospel of John. All we know is this encounter between Mary of Bethany and Jesus took place, “Six days before the Passover” (John 12:1) – or six days before what we celebrate during Holy Week as Maundy Thursday. This is the story of a great feast on another occasion during which dinner is seemingly interrupted by a woman. The impact of what happens next is so powerful that Matthew and Mark record the scene in their gospel accounts as well. However, only John shares with us that the name of the woman in question was none other than Mary of Bethany.
While Martha is helping once again to serve the meal and Lazarus is reclining at the table, their sister, Mary, enters the dining room. Once again, putting herself at Jesus’ feet, Mary takes out “about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume” (John 12:3 – yet another indication of Martha and Mary’s independent wealth!). She begins to rub this ointment on his feet and then goes on to wipe them with her hair. Mark and Matthew’s versions of this moment describe Mary as pouring the perfume over Jesus’ head rather than his feet.
Whatever the manner in which this pure nard was poured out on Jesus, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 11:3). This crucial detail given only by John indicates it was the smell of the oil that resulted in those present becoming incensed by Mary’s actions. Some cultural context is needed in terms of Ancient Near Eastern hospitality. It was customary if you had a guest in your home to provide water in a bowl for them to wash their feet after traveling on the dusty byways of Israel and prior to reclining at the table (not sitting in a chair) for a meal. To that bowl, one could add a few droplets of oil to give the water and one’s feet a pleasant aroma. However, for Jews, the Torah commanded one not to be wasteful. Therefore, an observant Jew was not to be extravagant or wasteful in the amount of oil used – especially, expensive perfume like pure nard.
All three gospel writers are unclear about who exactly is offended by what Mary does. Mark claims it was “some people,” Matthew clarifies it was “the disciples,” and John specifies it was “Judas Iscariot” who objected. Whether it was one person complaining or many taking issue here, the objection was the same; the value of the perfume would have been better served if converted to money to be used for the poor. Mary is being wasteful. She is not only violating a tenet of the Law, she also is practicing poor stewardship. What amounts to a full year’s wages, what could have benefited those in need, has been carelessly thrown away in a public act of unnecessary extravagance. And so, Mary is scolded and shamed publicly.
But Jesus will have none of it. He advocates for Mary and her actions. Jesus brands what Mary has done as a “beautiful” or “noble” act (see Mark 14:6; Matthew 26:10). He cryptically reframes the public perception of this moment as Mary lovingly anointing or preparing him for his forthcoming death. In John’s account, Jesus seemingly implies Mary has done this in a prophetic way – “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” (John 12:7).
There is perhaps a fascinating parallel between what is happening here and when it takes place and the tradition for selecting and preparing the lambs for the Passover feast. Passover lambs were chosen six days in advance. Such time allowed for the Passover lambs to be brought in, often into the family home and inspected for five days. Each lamb was carefully scrutinized to ensure that they were free from any blemish. The body and quarters of a lamb were easily damaged and marked in the rocky hillsides they grazed upon. On the sixth day, anointing oil would be applied to the ankles and feet of the lambs, prior to them being inspected for a further and final five days. So, “six days before the Passover,” as Jesus’ feet and ankles are being rubbed with pure nard, he is prophetically consecrated as the spotless Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.
Mary speaks not one word as she interacts with Jesus. She does not say anything as she anoints Jesus. She does not answer back when she is openly rebuked for her actions. Mary simply lets her actions communicate her devotion and gratitude to her Lord as she anoints him as many a prophet and king of Israel had been previously. Mary may have remained silent but as Jesus goes on to add in Mark and Matthew’s version of this story, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9; Matthew 26:13).
Some have speculated that if Mary was unmarried, perhaps she had been keeping this perfume as a part of her dowry, to be given to her future husband. If this is true, it only furthers the sacrificial nature of her service. Others have noted how Mary could have conferred this honor upon Jesus privately. But perhaps she sensed this would be the last time she would see Christ before his death. Maybe she believed she couldn’t afford to wait — to risk not being able to demonstrate her deep love and appreciation for Jesus. And so, once again, Mary breaks with social convention and religious custom in order to get as close to Christ as she possibly can — and to honor him.
In all three accounts of Mary of Bethany, we see her at the feet of Jesus – in the demeanor of a disciple. She models for us what adopting a posture of submission and dependence upon Christ looks like, whether it be in the everyday privacy of one’s home, in the throes of our suffering and lament, and even in a larger public gathering sometimes under the cruel scrutiny of others. Like Mary, let us lean into every moment as an opportunity for both worship and service. Let us demonstrate the worth of Jesus by attending to Christ first in our lives whether in expectation or disappointment, whether in joy or sorrow. Amen.
Consider & Discuss | Mary demonstrates visibly and spiritually what a posture of learning from and following Jesus looks like in practice? How are you seeking to adopt such a posture in your walk with Christ? In which of the three areas, do you need to draw closer to the feet of Jesus – in your day-to-day life, in the places of grief and loss, and/or in public gatherings?
What do you think the modern-day equivalent might be to the love and devotion that Mary showed to Jesus when she anointed his head and feet? If there is one thing that you will be remembered for in your gratitude and commitment to Christ, what would you want it to be? Identify one “beautiful” thing that you can do for Jesus this week that reveals your heart of love and devotion to him.
Prayer Focus | O God, Heavenly Father, please teach me to have the same posture of devotion to your Son Jesus Christ as Mary of Bethany. Make me, like her, one sits at Your feet and who hangs on Your every word. Help me to come when You call — even when I grieve, even when I am disappointed in You. Remind me that like Mary I can be honest about my fears, my doubts, my frustrations, and my hurts. Encourage and empower me to express my gratitude to You and my love for extravagantly — not only in the privacy of my home but publicly before others. Direct me to live for You before others in a way that will be remembered positively — that will lead others to know and love You as I do. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!