As I read the gospels, I feel as if I am slowly turning the pages of a photo album of the life of Jesus. The opening pages contain snapshots of the events surrounding his birth: a picture of the angel appearing to Elizabeth, one of Simeon holding the newborn Savior in the temple. I can also see his baptism and his lonely sojourn in the wilderness. The album fills with pictures of the Lord and those who knew him—people who followed him, challenged him, served him, abandoned him.
A picture of a certain woman appears on three of the pages. A closer look reveals that in each of these three encounters between Jesus and this woman, she is at his feet. In two of the pictures, people are angry with her—but not Jesus. In only one photo is she speaking, and that through tears.
She lives in Bethany with her brother and sister. She is, of course, Mary. Martha appears in these scenes with her, but my primary focus is on Mary.
The first picture shows Martha welcoming Jesus (and probably his entourage) home for a meal (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is a hospitable person and known for her energy, but this time she feels overburdened. Finally in exasperation she interrupts the group gathered around Jesus and asks him, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me.”
Jesus zeroes in on Martha’s real need. Her plea for help in and of itself is not wrong, but her sense of frustration is. Her mind has become muddied1 by that which, Jesus says, is not all that important. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things....”
He points her to Mary who sits at his feet listening to his word, unencumbered by the domestic tasks at hand. The text does not specify whether or not the group consists merely of the three siblings (Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus) and possibly other relatives, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, or if there were also present the other men and women who traveled with him (Luke 8:1-3, for example). Therefore we do not know the scope of Martha’s preparation. Nevertheless, in essence Jesus simply tells Martha to follow Mary’s example. “Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB). Under this snapshot in my photo album I have written the caption, “Sitting at his feet.”
We next find Mary in mourning because her brother Lazarus has died (John 11). The text offers several reason as to why Jesus delayed so that Lazarus would certainly die: 1) to reveal the glory of the Father and Son, vv. 4,40; 2) because he loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, vv. 5-6; 3) so that his followers would believe, vv. 14,25-27,42,45. These lessons enhance our theodicy, but the sisters do not have the advantage that we do in knowing how it all ends. Jesus has spoken words of hope and promise, but the women lack the full context. They only know that Lazarus is dead and they believe Jesus could have prevented it.
When Jesus finally does arrive just outside Bethany, Martha rushes to meet him. The text does not reveal her emotion, only her actions and words. Does she feel betrayed by him, or is she merely stating her faith, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died”? In response to Martha, Jesus places Lazarus’ death into a larger context, that marvelous resurrection theology, which she already knows and believes. She also knows that he is Messiah. The conversation appears to end abruptly as she goes to call Mary.2
At the words, “The teacher is here and is calling for you,” Mary rises quickly and leaves the house. Unlike Martha, she is followed by the mourners who suppose that she will continue to grieve at the tomb. Instead she goes to meet the Lord; when she reaches him, she falls down at his feet, weeping. It almost looks as if she and Martha had rehearsed what they would say to Jesus when they saw him, because Mary repeats verbatim what Martha has already said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”3
The only recorded words of Mary add up to one sentence already spoken by Martha. However, rather than concluding that Mary is incapable of thinking for herself so that her only recourse is to parrot her sister, I suggest she is simply a quiet person who is better at listening and doing than in speaking what is on her mind.
In any case, up to this point Jesus has remained composed and completely aware of his actions and words and intent. Now he is deeply moved and he begins to cry, not because Lazarus is gone, as some onlookers suppose, but because this woman and her friends are hurt so deeply. She who had sat engrossed at his feet now is in anguish. As with Martha, we can only speculate on the emotion behind Mary’s words, “If you had been here....” Does she express a pang of doubt or solid faith? Does she feel that Jesus abandoned them in their hour of need or simply state that they wish he could have come in time? Maybe, in the only way she knows how, she is asking that question we all ask in the midst of great loss: “Why?”
We know the glorious outcome, as did Jesus from the very beginning. “Yet, this poignant snapshot of Mary’s anguish, as she weeps at the feet of the Lord only minutes before he raises Lazarus from the grave, offers a glimpse of divine compassion as he weeps with her. I call this picture, “Suffering at his feet.”
Not long afterward, Jesus returns to Bethany. In this final set of snapshots from John 12 we find Jesus having dinner with friends. Again Martha is serving. A nameless woman is anointing Jesus with nard, a very expensive ointment.4 John tells us she has anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.
For other details, we must turn to Mark’s account (Mark 14:3-9). There we learn that it is Mary who anoints not only his feet, but also his head.5 In each account Mary is criticized because her detractors know that the ointment is worth a year’s wages for the common laborer. They think such extravagance is a waste. They think it should be donated to the poor, but Jesus disagrees.
As he did earlier when Martha criticized Mary, Jesus again defends Mary in front of all those gathered. In fact in Mark, Jesus predicts that the account of this incident will accompany the preaching of the gospel throughout the world. (I suppose we could do better on that score; I haven’t heard many sermons on this!) The point that Jesus makes is this: He is about to be killed and he if worth the expense, the humility, the effort and the criticism. She has done what she could, but Jesus deserves much more. My caption on this final picture reads, “Serving at his feet.”
Who is Mary, this quiet and criticized woman, this misunderstood, rule-breaking paragon of humble devotion? I trust that some day we will know.
The two major differences in the four accounts occur in Luke. He removes the event from the context of Holy Week, so there is no mention of the woman anointing the Lord for burial. Luke also differs as to why she is criticized. In the other three texts, people are offended because of the extravagance. In Luke, Simon is offended because Jesus is a rabbi who ought to know that this woman is “a sinner.” Though the Lukan account shares some common elements with Matthew, Mark and John, the opinion of some is that Luke’s event is a separate, earlier occurrence involving someone other than Mary of Bethany.
- The verb translated “bothered” is turbazo which means “to become disturbed; made turbid.”
- Though the dialogue appears cut off, we can assume that not everything spoken is recorded. Martha tells Mary that Jesus has summoned her, and Jesus asks Martha later, verse 40, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (NIV) Neither statement is recorded as part of his earlier conversation with Martha, though Jesus did say the latter to the disciples in verse 4.
- In the Greek text, the statement made by Martha (v. 21) and Mary (v. 32) to Jesus is letter for letter the same.
- According to the notes in The Life Application Bible (Tyndale House, Wheaton, 1986), this fragrant ointment was imported from India and used to anoint kings.
- This or a similar event is recorded in Matthew 26:6-13 and Luke 7:36-49. The differences in the minor details among the four gospels can be harmonized quite easily. See Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “Bread and Roses at Bethany,” Priscilla Papers, Spring 91, pp. 1-2.