Mary of Bethany was a woman who didn’t conform to acceptable behaviour for women in 1st century Jewish society. Had she always been like that? Or was it because of Jesus? It’s true she was quiet, but you don’t have to be noisy to be rebellious or a bit of a pioneer. The stories about this Mary are among my favorite gospel stories. Mary of Bethany lived with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem. These three were disciples of Jesus. He loved them and could be sure of a welcome in their home. As a woman I identify with both Mary and Martha, but Martha’s story will have to wait for another post.
There are 3 stories about Mary of Bethany in the gospels.
In the 1st story Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Luke 10: 38-42
Having welcomed Jesus into her home, Mary’s sister Martha provided food and drink for Jesus and his disciples but otherwise remained out of sight. Meanwhile Mary
“sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”.
Instead of staying in the women’s parts of the house, Mary sat in the public room, where Jesus and his male disciples were welcomed. The women might enter to serve food, but otherwise they were supposed to keep quiet and out of sight. Mary not only stayed publicly with the men, but she “sat at the Lord’s feet”. To sit at someone’s feet meant to be their student. Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi. If you wanted to become a rabbi, you sat at the feet of a rabbi to learn, but this was a male not a female role. That’s why what Mary was doing upset her sister, who complained to Jesus about it. The further shocking thing was that Jesus affirmed Mary’s desire to sit at his feet as a disciple. Students did not have a right to choose their teacher. It was for the rabbi to choose his students who would then teach what their Teacher taught. So Mary is an example of women, who in listening to Jesus know that God calls them to speak to others of Jesus and his kingdom.
In the 2nd story Mary accused Jesus of not preventing Lazarus’ death. John 11: 1-45
Mary’s brother Lazarus was ill, so she and her sister sent for Jesus, knowing how much he loved their brother. By the time Jesus arrived Lazarus was dead and buried and the sisters faced the frightening prospect of being without male support in a man’s world. They had seen Jesus’ power to heal, so Mary, as well as her sister told him,
“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died”.
Mary had come out from her private place of grieving to meet Jesus only when she heard that he was calling for her. She fell at his feet weeping. And Jesus wept too. Then came the astonishing miracle. Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb and said,
“I am the Resurrection and the Life”.
In the 3rd story Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. John 12: 1-8:
Mary’s gratitude to Jesus after restoring her brother to the household must have been enormous. She wanted to do something beautiful for him. Jesus was enjoying a feast in Martha’s home. Lazarus was there among other men seated at the table. Mary came in uninvited and anointed Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfumed ointment. Even more shockingly she wiped his feet with her hair. It was an outrageous extravagant gesture which inevitably drew criticism, but not from Jesus. He saw a deeper symbolism, which perhaps Mary did too and asked that Mary should use what was left for his burial.
On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I noticed a plaque outside the church of St Lazarus in Bethany. It has this reflection on Luke 10: 42
“Today as in the past, the love of Jesus seeks a refuge, where he is lovingly expected and where He can rest. He finds our hearts are filled with distractions – people, work, our own interests – He longs for us to empty our hearts and lovingly receive Him.”
For Further Study or Reflection
Read one or more of the stories of Mary of Bethany in Luke 10: 38-42, John 11: 1-45, John 12: 1-8 and imagine yourself as one of the people in the story. What do you see, hear, smell or feel? How will you respond?