Whenever we speak about Mary in the Scriptural sense, the first person who probably comes to mind is the mother of Jesus. While that is not surprising there are a few other Mary’s in the Bible, one of whom is the subject of this lesson. She is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. There are three references to her in Scripture and there are wonderful lessons to be learned from each story. We will look at them one by one.
Story 1: Listening and Loving
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10 38: 42)
This is a delightful story, full of surprises. One day Jesus was in the town of Bethany and he was invited by his friends for a meal. While Jesus was sitting down, Mary took her place at his feet, while Martha busied herself in the kitchen, preparing a meal for him. After all, when you invited someone to your house for dinner, you needed to serve him something. But Martha was not a happy camper. She wasn’t as resentful of the fact that she was cooking as she was of her sister not being there to help her. One can almost imagine the volume in the kitchen rising with every minute as her anger increased, until finally, unable to take it any longer, she goes out and complains to Jesus about her sister. Whatever she may have expected, it surely wasn’t the reply she received: “Martha, Martha,” Jesus gently chided her. “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better.”
What is it that Mary had chosen? Mary had chose to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him. Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus and love him.
Why was it better? Because it is what God really wants us to do. What do we believe God wants us to do? Go on great missions? Lead anointed sessions of worship? Attend to the sick? Serve him in various capacities? Yes, we need to do all these things, but there are times in our lives when God wants to serve us. And when it is time for us to be served, we should not busy ourselves doing all other chores when only one thing is needed; to sit down with God and see what he has to say.
When Jesus taught the apostles how to pray, he gave them some excellent advice. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 6).
To develop a relationship of any value, we need to spend time alone with a person. Otherwise our knowledge of the other person remains largely superficial. If we consider any close relationship that we have had, we will realize it was always built during those moments that we spent together, away from others. The same holds good to a relationship with God. If we want to build our relationship with him we need to go to a private place, close the doors on the world behind us, and spend time alone with him.
And what do we do during this time that we spend alone with him? Jesus tells us in the succeeding verses. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Which, in plain English, means: “Shut up and listen!” He is not being rude. He knows too well our tendency to talk, often to the point of babbling, as we give God advice on what he should do about our needs (and generally tell him how he should run the world). God already knows our needs. It is more important that we know his. And what are his needs? For us to sit down at his feet and listen to him; to sit down at this feet and love him.
And when we are seated there, listening and loving, he will teach us things that he keeps hidden from the wise and learned and reveals only to those who seek him like little children (cf Matthew 11:25).
How many of us really take this advice?
The prophet Habakuk says, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Habakuk 2:20). The psalmist David continually asks us to be Still. In Psalm 46:10 he says, “Be still and know I am God.” Yet, we are anything but silent; anything but still. We are always on the move, even those of us who profess to love God greatly, preaching, ministering, counselling or engaged in a host of other activities, instead of spending time at his feet. God tells us that it all begins there, and the more time we spend there, the more effective we will be when we serve him.
Story 2: Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep” (John 11: 17-35).
Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. He was a close friend of Jesus. Lazarus fell very ill one day and since Jesus was in Jerusalem, not too far from Bethany, Mary and Martha decided to send word to him regarding their brother’s health. They believed, no doubt, that he would go to Bethany the moment he heard the news.
Jesus, however, didn’t. Lazarus died, and Jesus still didn’t go. A day passed. Then another. And another. On the fourth day Jesus made his way to Bethany. Seeing Jesus approach, Martha ran to him telling him that if he was there, her brother would not have died. Scripture does not speak about the tone of her voice, but given what we know about Martha, it seems accusatory. One can almost empathise with her, understanding the thoughts going through her mind. “Jesus, you came into our house and ate with us. I cooked so many dishes for you. Before you left, you hugged us. You told my brother Lazarus that you loved him. But yet, even after we sent you word that he was ill, you didn’t come to heal my brother. But you healed everybody else.”
Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again, but Martha doesn’t understand. A few minutes later Mary comes to Jesus and says identical words. Yet again, Scripture makes no mention of the tone, but one imagines this time the words were said in grief, as she utters them falling at the feet of Jesus. Jesus wept.
Why did Jesus weep?
Jesus knew that he was going to bring Lazarus back from the dead. He had decided that, perhaps at the very moment he heard the news that Lazarus was dead. So why did he weep? He wept in shared grief, moved by the sorrow around him. Jesus is not a cold-hearted and stone-faced God who doesn’t care about his people. He is caring and merciful, and most of all, loving to a fault. But that is not the only reason why he wept. He wept because of their lack of faith. These are people who have witnessed most of the miracles he performed. He has been in their houses and has eaten with them. He has spoken to them and told them many things that the rest of the world didn’t know. Yet, they did not have faith.
We are no different. We too know the things that Jesus has done, but we often feel that he no longer works miracles, or if he does, it is only in the lives of others. We need to have faith that he will work miracles in our lives if only we believe. Jesus has said, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). The faith we are required to have is simply in Jesus’ love for us.
Often it seems to us that our relationships, our careers, even our lives are over. LIke Martha and Mary sending out word to Jesus that their brother was ill, we too send word to Jesus saying, “Lord, save me from this financial trouble,” or, “Lord, free me from this addiction,” or, “Lord, deliver me from this affair.” When it seems like he isn’t answering, we give up, ultimately saying to Jesus, like Martha and Mary did after their brother died, “God you weren’t there to save me, now look at me.”
Ad he did then he does now, weeping, as much is shared sorrow as in our lack of faith. And as he said then he says now, “Don’t you understand, I can fix anything, even the dead. I am the resurrection and the life.”
Story 3: Thanksgiving
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:1-8).
This story takes place a little after Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. It might be a good idea to replay what happened.
As we just saw in the previous story, Mary and Martha had lost their brother. He lay in the tomb for four days, undoubtedly rotting and decaying steadily, before Jesus showed up in Bethany. After a brief conversation with Lazarus’ sisters, he goes with them to the tomb. He instructs the bemused people to roll away the tombstone, and after they do, Jesus says, “Lazarus come forth.” To the astonishment and shock of all this man, who was so obviously dead, walks out of the tomb, his burial cloth still wrapped around him. There is obvious chaos. Scripture doesn’t say it, but some of the villagers surely fainted, while those who remained on their feet probably screamed their heads off. Jesus gives instructions to take off the wrapping and some brave soul dares to do so, wondering what he would see. Again, to his astonishment, and to the astonishment of all, the dead man is as unblemished as the rest of them. No rotting skin or empty sockets. Mary and Martha take their brother home, incredulous that someone whom they thought was dead and gone forever was with them again. Imagine their delight, and how it continued to increase by the hour.
In appreciation, they invite Jesus to share a meal with them again, but this time Mary does not sit at his feet, not immediately anyway. She goes, instead, to her room and opens her treasure chest. She takes out a little bottle of nard. Made out of oils and spices specially imported from India and mixed with native extracts, this perfume was so valuable that one drop costs an average person’s weekly wage. Undoubtedly, Mary used this perfume very sparingly. However, on this day, she took the bottle out and sitting down at the feet of Jesus, the third time she was doing so, she poured the entire bottle on Jesus’ feet. That may seem like a waste of money to many, but how does one show appreciation to somebody who has brought someone you loved back to life?
How many of us are really grateful to God for the miracles he has worked in our lives? I have seen several miracles over the past ten years, as God has healed people who were dying, restored relationships that have seemed shattered beyond repair, and lifted people out of pits so deep they seemed destined to perish. But rarely have I seen expressions of gratitude that seemed anything but surperfucial. This is not really surprising because even in Jesus’ time people seemed short on thankfulness. In a memorable story found in the gospel of Luke (17:11-19) Jesus healed ten lepers but only one of them returned to thank him. Jesus said rather scathingly, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
We need to be a grateful people and if we only take stock of our lives we will see how many things we need to be grateful for. We need to show our gratitude to God in more than words. We need to think about the most valuable thing we have, and how we can give it to God, understanding as we do so that God has really no need for anything we might give him. The giving is for us, because in doing so we expand our own hearts, allowing God to fill them with much more. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).