The Gospel of John speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and we all assume it is John the apostle. Popular literary works and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar would have us believe that Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ most devoted disciple, and she certainly was faithful in her devotion, but for me, I have always thought the stories of Mary of Bethany were the greatest witness of love and devotion between Jesus and another human being.
Let’s begin with the town of Bethany. Bethany was a small village just on the other side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus appears to know two families in Bethany Lazarus and his two sisters Mary & Martha and Simon the Leper and he chooses to stay in Bethany, rather than Jerusalem when he is in town. This is purely supposition on my part, but because of the stories told about these two families, I have often wondered if Simon and Lazarus were the same person. It is not unusual for people in the Bible to be called by two different names.
There are three stories weaving in and out of these two families and another Simon that are incredibly similar and different authors put them to different uses, but the love of the woman and the reaction to her by Jesus are consistent.
Early in Luke we have the story of Jesus visiting the house of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus is at table with Simon which was probably a low table where he leaned on cushions with his feet extended behind him. An unknown woman “from the city” who “was a sinner”, probably a prostitute arrives with an alabaster jar of ointment. “She stood behind him at his feet weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:38) Luke uses this story to introduce the parable about two debtors – the one who owed the most was the most grateful. He tells the woman “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7: 48)
In Chapter 10 Luke tells us the story of Jesus visiting Mary, Martha and Lazarus in their home. This story is sandwiched between the sending our of the seventy disciples followed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan introduced by the Summary of the Law on one side and the teaching of the Lord’s prayer and a parable about perseverance in Prayer on the other. The point of the story seems to be balancing good works with prayer and devotion. In this story we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach. This was inappropriate for women in this culture and her sister Martha fusses at Jesus for not sending her away to go help with dinner preparation. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen wisely, it is Martha that is “worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus reminds her, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10 41-42)
All three of the synoptic gospels have Jesus giving the summary of the law, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 29-31; similar to Matt 22: 37-39 and Luke 10:27) We are quick to pick up “love your neighbor as yourself, but Jesus tells us that is the second of the great commandments. The first is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Mary understood this.
Luke has Jesus tell the parable of a rich man and a poor beggar covered in sores who both die. The beggar is named Lazarus. I have often wondered if Jesus had his friend Lazarus in mind when he tells this parable. Lazarus who had nothing and was despised in life dies and “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” The rich man who finds himself in torment begs Lazarus for help but it is too late.
John tells us that while Jesus was away in Galilee, his friend Lazarus became fatally ill. John remembers Mary as the one who anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair, but that story is to come later. Mary and her sister Martha send for Jesus, but Jesus delays his return and Lazarus dies. While it must have seemed cruel to Mary and Martha, Jesus had a purpose for delaying his return. When Jesus finally arrives Martha runs out to meet him and confronts him about his tardiness. She gets the honor of being the one to whom Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Mary has stayed behind and apparently Jesus asks for her. Martha returns and tells Mary that Jesus is looking for her. She goes to him, falls at his feet weeping and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary does not get a theological explanation of resurrection. Instead, Jesus weeps with her. This is one of only two times we are told that Jesus wept. The crowd interprets it as Jesus’ love of Lazarus. I think he wept in sorrow at the pain that Mary is experiencing.
Jesus will “resurrect” Lazarus and in the process cross the line with the authorities one too many times. We are told that “many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees.” (John 11: 45-46) This caused great fear among many of the religious leaders who were concerned that it would bring unwanted attention from Rome upon them and destroy what the freedoms they enjoyed. Caiaphas, the high priest declared, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11; 50)
Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as going to Bethany immediately after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Matthew has him stay in the house of the leper named Simon and visited by an unknown woman who anoints Jesus’ head, the true sign of Messiahship because the word means anointed one. John tells us he was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus just prior to his triumphal entry and describes the scene we read today. Martha is serving dinner, true to form. Lazarus is at the table with him and probably the twelve. Mary comes in with a pound of pure nard.
Nard is an essential oil that comes from a plant grown in the Himalayas. It was an expensive import and was used for everything from flavoring wine to perfuming the dead. Jesus’ closest companions have still not realized that Jesus is not going to overthrow the Roman Empire and wrestle the throne of David away from Herod. Mary seems to understand exactly what is about to happen, though God could be working prophetically through her without her complete comprehension.
Mary choses to be generous with the one she loves dearly. She lavishes a year’s wage on a spa moment to show her love and devotion to Jesus. She is also acting as a prophet predicting his death and perhaps foreshadowing Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples. She perfumes his feet and then wipes them with her hair. I have found no reasonable explanation for using her hair instead of a towel, so again this is speculation but I might have done that if I wanted to retain the scent of that precious moment as long as possible. Perhaps it was one more way Mary could cling to the one she loved by having his scent clinging to her.
Money has a way of revealing people’s hearts and we get a look into the heart of Judas in this story. Jesus called the sinful to him, and Judas was apparently a thief to whom Jesus entrusted the purse of the group. He was also a hypocrite. The word comes from play acting and Judas could act the part of someone who cared about the poor, but he really cared about Judas. He criticized Mary for her extravagance and suggested that they should have sold the perfume to have money for the poor. Money for his pocket in fact. Jesus tells Judas to “Leave her alone.” Mary had bought it so that she would have it when the day came that Jesus would have to be buried. Did Mary get to go to see his empty tomb? I don’t know. Mary of Magdala is named and Mary mother of James or Joses, one gospel says, “the other Mary” another says “other women.”
Luke tells us that Jesus went to Bethany when it was time for his Ascension. I like to think Mary of Bethany was able to be there.
There is a final statement in today’s less that needs to be addressed. Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8). Jesus is not telling us helping the poor is beyond us or that we don’t need to concern ourselves about them. He is quoting from Deuteronomy “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deut. 15:10-11) This statement is made in the middle of Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year. There are a great number of admonitions in both the Old and New Testaments concerning care of the poor. This opportunity will be ongoing and should be addressed, but Jesus, God’s incarnate presence among us, was but a moment in time, a time to be cherished.
Loving our neighbor is good and something that we should be ever mindful of, but it should flow from our love and devotion to Christ otherwise it can become something we do for our own benefit.