Scripture References—Given under Martha
Name Meaning—See material under Mary
Family Connections—Given under Martha
Comparisons and contrasts between the two sisters have already been noticed. Both loved the Master and were loved by Him. Martha sat at His feet but “her love and piety alike found adequate and satisfying expression at all times in the ordinary kindly offices of hospitality and domestic service.” Mary also sat at Jesus' feet and was content to linger there because her disposition and inward, silent brooding made it hard for her to be at home in the world of affairs. Bustling around a house was not native to her deep emotion. In this cameo of her, then, let us try to sketch her as she was, as an individualist.
At the outset we affirm our disagreement with those expositors who connect Mary of Bethany with the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7:36-50 with John 11:2; 12:1-8). Certainly both anointed the feet of Jesus, but the language used to describe the sinful woman is utterly out of harmony with what we know of the commendable character of Mary. The former’s anointing expressed the gratitude of a forgiven and cleansed penitent—the latter’s anointing was an act of gratitude for a much-loved brother brought back from the dead. Although the two anointings had the same outward form, they were not duplicates. (See further the chapter on Nameless Women.) We likewise dissociate Mary of Bethany from Mary Magdalene. There are those writers who suggest that these two Marys are the same &--;that once the Magdalene was fully emancipated from demonic possession which drove her from home, she returned and became the Mary who loved to sit at the feet of Jesus. But we hold that Mary of Bethany cannot be identified with any other New Testament woman of the same name. Among the women mentioned in the gospels she occupies a prominent position, for she it was who won the golden commendation from the Lord she dearly loved when He said, “She hath done what she could” (Mark 14:8).
There are four profiles of Mary who occupied her own peculiar place among the inner groups of Christ’s friends. She was a woman who cultivated deep, spiritual inner thoughts, and who was busier internally than she was externally. This inner world charmed her more than it did her sister Martha, as the particulars we have of her testify. She was—
More than anything else she loved to sit quietly and peacefully at Christ’s sacred feet, and become lost in His unfolding of the truth. Mary, more than any other individual in the New Testament, was associated with His feet, betokening her humility, reverence and hunger for spiritual knowledge. She sat at His feet as a disciple, eager to learn of His will and word; fell at His feet in worship and grief; anointed His feet with precious ointment and wiped His feet with her lovely long hair—all of which is in keeping with her spiritual character.
Believing Jesus to be the Prophet, she drank of the teachings He alone could impart as “the Truth.” Paul wrote about being “brought up at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Like his Master before Him, the apostle sat in the midst of learned men, learning and answering questions (Luke 2:46). David sat before the Lord, and listened for His voice (1 Chronicles 17:16). Usually the rabbis, or teachers, sat on a high chair, and their scholars on the ground, and so they were literally at their master’s feet. Probably this was Mary’s position as with all teachableness she hearkened unto the Lord. George Matheson says, “We see Martha preparing the feast; we see Mary sitting quiescent at the Master’s feet and listening to His words, and we say, ‘The one is an outward worker and the other an internal mystic whose sympathies are all beyound the veil.’ Mary’s sympathies are nothing of the kind. Both sisters made their contribution to the Master.” But the “good part” Mary chose was that of a fuller appreciation of the necessity of mystic communion with her Lord. It was this glimpse of Mary that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote—
Oh, that I could forever sit,
Like Mary, at the Master’s feet:
Be this my happy choice:
My only care, delight and bliss,
My joy, my Heaven on earth be this,
To hear the Bridegroom’s voice.
Without doubt, both Martha and Mary loved their brother Lazarus, but we do not read of Martha weeping when death claimed him. We have mention only of Mary’s tears. Yet we cannot but believe that Martha’s grief was as deep and poignant as that of her sister. When word came that Jesus was on His way to their shadowed home, Martha arose and quickly ran to meet Him, but Mary sat at home nursing her sorrow. Yet when Martha had met Jesus, she came to Mary and told her of the desire of Jesus to see her. Mary arose and went out with the same haste to meet Him, and when she saw Him she threw herself at His feet and wept, and repeated the complaint of Martha, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” Jesus, deeply moved by the tears of Mary, mingled His warm tears with hers. Why did Jesus groan in spirit at the weeping of Mary? The term “groaning in himself,” actually means, “He breathed indignation.” What was He indignant about? Could it have been the fact that death was a blot upon creation, and that in Lazarus death had claimed one whom He loved? How privileged Mary was to witness His sense that death ought not to be (John 11:28-37), even though at the time she did not understand why Jesus had allowed her brother to die!
We are apt to forget the mighty effect of the resurrection of the dead upon the unconverted Jews who knew the Bethany family. The record says, “Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him” (John 11:45; 12:9-11).
It would have been a wonder that any should not have believed after such a display of miraculous power. These Jews who came to Mary were those who had come to comfort Mary and Martha at the burial of Lazarus. They had remained with Mary after Martha had left the house to meet Jesus, and they followed Mary when she herself went to see Him. Whether or not she witnessed to these Jews of the glorious truths she had heard from the lips of Jesus we do not know. What is evident is that her brother was alive again, and such a miracle convicted their hearts of their need of a spiritual resurrection from the grave of sin. So “they believed on him.”
To honor Christ for the return of Lazarus from the grave a feast was prepared for the rejoicing friends in the house of Simon—a common name at that time. He had been a leper, but had been healed and converted as the result of his contact with the wonder-working Christ (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:1; 12:1-11). The marginal note in the Scofield Reference Bible reads—
As Martha stands for service, and Lazarus for communion, so Mary shows us the worship of a grateful heart. Others before her had come to His feet to have their need met; she came to give Him His due. Though two of the evangelists record her act, John alone gives her name.
What impresses us about the record of that feast of gratitude is the absence of any conversation. Mary said nothing! While the others sat at the table, Mary was at her accustomed place at the feet of Jesus. “In Martha’s house Mary listens, and is silent; at her brother’s grave she weeps and is silent; in the house of Simon she works and is silent.” In fact, the only time Mary is found saying anything at all, was when she repeated the complaint of Martha (11:32). Silent love can be a mighty force. The greatest work in the world is not accomplished by the best talkers. As to the nature of her offering—
Mary had been the recipient of priceless truth from the lips of Jesus, now she is lavishly communicative. The box of spikenard, treasured up for such an occasion (John 12:7), was worth 300 pence, a great sum in those days. “A penny a day” wage (Matthew 20:2), means that 300 pennies would cover her wages for almost a year. Mary made that supper a sacrament as “she mingled divine poetry with the prose of the situation by anointing Jesus with a bottle of expensive spikenard.” When Mary sat at His feet and heard His word she recognized Him as the Prophet; when in her grief she fell at His feet she knew Him to be the sympathizing High Priest; now as she anoints His feet she knows Him to be the King at whose girdle could be found the keys of death and Hades. Had He not triumphed over death and raised her beloved brother? No wonder the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. The odor of Mary’s loving service has filled the whole world.
While the odor of the spikenard was sweet to many, it smelled of waste to others. Judas with his calculating mind quickly figured up the cost of it and called it wasted on Jesus. Its price would have fed many poor people. The word Judas used for waste actually means “perdition.” A “fit question,” says Bengel, “on the lips of the son of perdition” (John 17:12). Sordid Judas thought only of the money aspect of Mary’s expensive gift, because he kept his heart in the money bag he carried which “by office he bare, and by theft left bare.”
As our Lord quickly replied to the pious talk of Judas, He replied also to the reflection upon Mary by declaring that she had done a good work. Here was the charm of her service—she poured out the costly ointment for the sake of her Lord. “She hath wrought a good work on me” (Mark 14:6). Had she had more spikenard she would have given it, but she gave to the fullest extent of her ability—“what she could” (Mark 14:8).
Selfishness seeks a gift,
Love loves to give;
Love gives itself away
Love loves to live.
Love’s grand munificence
Counts not the cost;
Feeling, tho' nought is left,
Nothing is lost.
Mary had often heard Jesus speak of His coming death and burial, and her alabaster box of precious ointment had been treasured up for the anointing of His body. But now she brings it out and uses it to dedicate the Lamb of God to the sacrifice He was about to make. “Against the day of my burying hath she kept this” &--;and Jesus appreciated the fragrance of that ointment while He was alive. Its perfume would have been lost upon His corpse. The grateful Christ went further and said, “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, then this also that she hath done shall be told for a memorial of her.” He erected a memorial to Mary who gave all she could, more enduring than many of the proud monuments that have perished with time. Mary’s love and unselfish goodness have been immortalized.
What are some of the lessons to be gleaned from the life and character of Mary of Bethany? She was a woman of vision but was by no means a visionary. She not only sat at the feet of Jesus, but also anointed them with the best she had and wiped them with her hair. She was practical as well as spiritual. If we have learned that “our higher place is lying low at our Redeemer’s feet,” then like Mary, our vision will become a vocation. Moses wrote of the fourfold privilege of all the saints—
He loved the people;
All His saints are in His hand:
They sat down at His feet;
Every one shall receive of Thy
words (Deuteronomy 33:3).
Mary gave to the limit of her love and ointment. Will the Lord say of us when we see Him face to face—You have done what you could? Do we constantly anoint Him as the Chosen of our hearts? Are His feet perfumed with our richest gifts? The world may count a life wholly consecrated to Him as a life wasted, but only the life abandoned to His sway is the one richly reproductive in the saint’s own life and also in the sinful world in which he lives.
Click the button below to continue.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, consider an upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus. For less than the cost of a latte each month, you'll get reduced banner ads and a huge digital Bible study library. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.