Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were siblings in a very close-knit family in Bethany, a town not far from Jerusalem. Their home was a favorite resting place for Jesus whenever He was passing through. In fact, John 11:5 tells us plainly that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Next week we’ll take a closer look at Martha, “the perfect hostess,” but her sister Mary is the topic for today’s discussion.
1 Peter 3:4 But let it [that which others notice about you] be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
Mary Sits and Learns (Luke 10:38-42)
The name Mary means “rebellion,” but this Mary was no rebel. She had a meek and quiet spirit. There was a humble, teachable quality about her. In fact, the first time we meet her, we see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, hanging on to His every word (Luke 10:39). Martha, on the other hand, is busy in the kitchen and comes in complaining that her sister has left her “to serve alone.” But Jesus’ reply to Martha is, “One thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” So it was needful that Mary spend time listening to the Lord and getting to know Him more.
Mary Sits and Waits (John 11:1-45)
Later on their brother Lazarus took sick and died. They knew Jesus could have healed him, so they sent for Him to come; but Jesus didn’t come. Jesus had a reason for His delay which they could not possibly understand at the moment. So Lazarus died and was buried. Friends and loved ones came to offer condolences to the grieving sisters. On the fourth day, word spread in the house that Jesus was coming. As soon as Martha heard it, she went out and met him, but Mary sat still in the house (Jn. 11:20). Why did she sit there? Was she not also excited about Jesus coming? Of course she was! But Mary had learned to be still. I believe she was giving deference to her sister, allowing Martha time alone with Jesus first, while patiently awaiting her turn to speak with the Master.
What do you suppose was on her mind while she waited? Perhaps she was thinking of Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” Perhaps during one of His previous visits, Jesus Himself had taught her that very passage because He knew this day would come and she would need to draw from its strength.
Meanwhile, just outside the city limits, Jesus and Martha were having a conversation. Martha rebuked Jesus again, saying, “If You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus answered her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” There was more to the conversation, but I’ll save it for next week.
When Martha finished talking with Jesus, she returned to the house and whispered to Mary that the Master was asking for her. Immediately Mary got up and went to Him. Her friends that were with her in the house thought she was going to the grave to weep, so they followed her. But when she saw Jesus, she fell down at His feet, saying, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Notice that she said the same thing her sister had just said, but Jesus’ response was different. I think perhaps He had already taught her that He was the resurrection and the life during one of those chats in the living room while Martha was busy in the kitchen. Now was not the time for talk. Mary was crying, as were all those who were with her. Her heart was broken in grief over the loss of her brother. Jesus asked them to take Him to the tomb. They went together to Lazarus’s grave, and there the Bible records that Jesus wept (Jn. 11:35). They thought He too was grieving the loss of a dear friend, but no. Jesus did not weep for the dead, but for the living! He wept in empathy because He felt their pain. He also wept because of their lack of faith. Sure, they believed He had the power to heal the sick, but why did they not believe He could raise the dead? But He was also getting ready to take care of both their grief and their doubt in one mighty act. Many believed on Him, but some did not. Mary’s faith and love grew all the more.
Mary Sits and Worships (John 12:1-8)
It is almost time for the Passover, and Jesus comes to Bethany one more time before going to Jerusalem. The end of His earthly ministry is at hand. When Jesus goes to Jerusalem, He is going to be arrested, forced to endure a mock trial, falsely accused and beaten, then hung upon a Roman cross to die in shame, bearing the sins of the world before a holy and righteous God. But first He has one last supper with His dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus, now the picture of health, is seated at the table with Jesus and the other guests, and Martha is serving, of course. But where is Mary? Here she comes. What is that in her hand? A pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly. Ever the quiet one, she enters without a word, approaches Jesus and kneels down at His feet. Then she breaks open the box, filling the room with the aroma of the spices as she anoints the feet of her Lord. Then taking her own hair, she wipes up the excess.
Mary and her family were not poor by any means, but this gift was a sacrificial one nevertheless. Even so, she did not care about the cost, for it was a gift of love. And Mary had much for which to be thankful. For one thing, she was grateful to Jesus for restoring the life of her brother Lazarus. But far more than that, Mary had come to know and love Jesus for Who He is. He was her friend, true, but above all He was her Savior. Mary knew that full well because she had spent much time with Him over the past few years, sitting at His feet and learning all He had to teach her. Her love for Jesus grew in direct proportion to her knowledge of Him.
It was not uncommon to anoint the head of the honored guest at dinner. In fact, the custom is alluded to in Psalm 45:7 “God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One. Mary understood that. So she anoints Jesus to show Him honor as her favored guest and also no doubt to signify His identity as the Messiah. But this time, however, Mary does not anoint the head of Jesus, but His feet. And she wipes His feet with her hair.
By breaking the box, she suggests that she has every intention of using all of the ointment on Him. Perhaps she even bought it for this purpose. We do know that she saved it for this purpose, and that she understands what is about to happen to Jesus, for He Himself says, “Let her alone: against the day of My burying has she kept this. For the poor always you have with you; but Me you have not always.” Mary is signifying the coming death and burial of Jesus. And she also trusts in His resurrection. When Lazarus died, her faith was not strong enough to believe in the resurrection, but now things are different. Now she knows that the Man whose feet she is anointing is the resurrection and the life. Why does she anoint Him now, before His death? I think she believes that Jesus won’t stay dead long enough to give her a chance to anoint His corpse. And as it turns out, she’s right!
Mary of Bethany was a woman of great faith. She didn’t start that way, but over time her faith grew. It grew because she learned to be still and know that Jesus is Lord.
Next week: Martha
Photos taken in Brevard, North Carolina, 2017