February 2009 - Vol. 27

Mary of Bethany

by Jeanne Kun

Reflecting on the Word
She was a simple first-century woman from a negligible village in a country overshadowed by the Roman Empire, yet the memory of Mary of Bethany has endured through two millennia. Her fame is widespread, even though relatively little is known about her life. The evangelists tell nothing of her birth, family background, or social standing. However, the descriptions they so vividly paint of her encounters with Jesus give us a truer picture of her than we would gain from an entry in Who’s Who?  In each of the gospel stories about Mary of Bethany, we see her in the same place at the Lord’s feet. 

The Good Portion. Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus were dear friends of Jesus (John 11:5). Their home was a haven where he found rest and refreshment in its loving atmosphere. During the last days of his life when Jesus taught daily in the Temple, he withdrew at night to Bethany (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11) most probably to the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

Hospitality is regarded very highly in the culture of the Middle East, so it’s natural that Martha wanted to serve Jesus well. She loved Jesus deeply, and expressed this love concretely by preparing him a fine meal. However, Martha was an anxious, busy hostess, so occupied with cooking that she couldn’t take the time to sit down with her guest. Jesus appreciated Martha’s loving care, but urged her to relax and enjoy his company. 

When Martha indignantly asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” (Luke 10:40), she showed a self-concern that robbed her of the ability to appreciate the precious gift of the moment fellowship with Jesus. In her complaint we find the same Greek verb, melei, that the disciples used in their accusation of Jesus during the storm at sea: “Do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus responded the same way to both upheavals: He calmed the troubled hearts and storms that swept around him. Jesus’ gentle rebuke to Martha ”You are anxious and troubled about many things” was meant to help her recognize how senseless and unnecessary her anxieties were. Only one thing is needed (Luke 10:41-42). 

Unlike Martha, Mary was wholly present to Jesus, wholly there for him. She stayed near to him, not wasting any of the brief moments he spent in their house. She simply sat still at Jesus’ feet and listened to his conversation. She didn’t want to miss a single word he spoke. She had indeed chosen the “good portion” (Luke 10:42). Mother Basilea Schlink, founder of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, described Mary well: 

In Bethany Jesus found open hearts that loved him and eagerly awaited him at all times. Mary laid all else aside; it was of secondary importance to her. When Jesus came, she hastened to him and devoted herself fully to him. She was completely captivated by Jesus. She had eyes and ears for him alone, for him whom her soul loved. To love Jesus, to hear words of eternal life from his lips meant everything to her. (The Holy Places Today)
Mary’s vision was focused on Jesus as she sat at his feet. There, so close to him, she became sensitive to what was on his heart.

We may feel sorry for Martha, left to fix the dinner alone, and resent Mary’s “portion.” But rather than seeing the two postures as mutually exclusive, might we not find in Martha and Mary complementary aspects of the call given to all followers of Christ? Balancing action and contemplation in a creative tension in our own lives, we dynamically express our love for Jesus through both. 

The Anointing. Matthew and Mark place the anointing at a dinner held in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper, and the woman is unnamed (Matthew 26:6-7; Mark 14:3). John identifies her as Mary, and makes note of Martha’s and Lazarus’ presence at the meal perhaps a celebration of Lazarus’ resurrection. The fourth evangelist does not specifically say that the dinner was held in their house, but since he tells us that Martha was serving (again), we can make that assumption (John 12:1-2).

In Jesus’ day, it was customary to honor guests by offering them scented water and washing their feet. Mary carried out this service with special refinement, lavishly anointing Jesus with fragrant nard. Unconcerned about what the other guests might think of her, she cared only for her master and uninhibitedly expressed her love for him.

The ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus was the aromatic essence of spikenard. The hairy stem of this small plant gives off a rich, sweet-smelling fragrance. Oil pressed from spikenard was used to make perfume, so it became an important trade item in the ancient world, transported on camelback from the Himalayan Mountains, where it grew, to merchants in the Mediterranean world. Thus, essence of spikenard was quite expensive Mary’s perfume was worth three hundred denarii. With a laborer’s pay being a denarius a day at that time, it cost the equivalent of almost a year’s wages. Mary’s offering was indeed a generous one!

Mark adds the detail that the perfume was held in an alabaster jar (Mark 14:3). Alabaster, a fine, white or translucent variety of gypsum or calcite, is used for carving ornamental objects such as vases and flasks. Mary broke the neck of her exquisite vessel to allow the last drop of perfume to flow out. The flask was to serve no one else and no other purpose Jesus was worthy of everything.    > Go to Next Page

Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior womens' leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

Excerpted from My Lord and My God! A Scriptural Journey with the Followers of Jesus by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, © 2004).  Used with permission.

This book can be ordered online at www.wau.org.


Jesus with Martha and Mary by Varmeer

The Scene 

Luke 10:38-42
10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; 42 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Mary annoints Jesus' feet - photo by Br. Gilbert

The Scene

Mark 14:3-9 
14:3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and poured it over his head. 4 But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? 5 For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” 

See also Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-8


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