Summary: Mary of Bethany displays the extravagant nature of worship as she anoints Jesus, and in so doing gives us all the model of the life of a disciple.
Mary is a popular biblical name. As a matter of fact, it was the single most popular name in first century Palestinian culture. One in every five girls born carried the name Mary. Wow! 20% of the women named Mary! Contrast that to the Social Security Administration’s latest “most popular name” statistics and we don’t even find Mary in the top 100. The fact that it was such a popular name in the first century makes it a little hard to keep up with the Mary’s we find in the New Testament. The name appears 61 times in 53 different verses, with each reference providing only the bare minimum of information. Even scholars have a hard time pinning down who the authors are talking about all the time.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the easiest one to identify. Then, there’s Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Mary, the wife of Clopas. We can’t forget Mary, the mother of Mark, and in the later New Testament, Mary of Rome. And don’t forget Mary Magdalene—you know, woman of the night, perhaps, even demon-possessed—don’t you remember Jesus casting seven demons out of her? Then, there is Mary of Bethany, whom we encounter in John 12. She is the sister of Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead, who also had a sister named Martha. It is her story we tell today. It is from her that we learn a lesson of deep devotion. It is from her that we learn what the model disciple looks like.
Mary of Bethany is one who we get to know only a little better than the other Mary’s in the Bible. We first encounter her in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus shows up at their house for a meal. Her sister Martha is busy expressing her gift of hospitality while her brother Lazarus sits around talking to Jesus. Martha becomes exasperated trying to get everything in order when finally she blurts out to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you see me her doing all this work and Mary is just sitting at your feet, doing nothing?”
Jesus responds, “Martha, you’re worried about all sorts of things, but don’t you see that Mary has found the more important thing?”
The next encounter we have with Mary of Bethany comes in John’s Gospel in chapter 11. Her brother Lazarus has died and been buried. Martha and Mary had called for Jesus, but he didn’t come in time. Martha has gone down to the tomb, but Mary sits at home mourning her brother’s loss. Jesus finally arrives at the tomb, encounters Martha, offers words of encouragement and hope, and then sends word for Mary to come, too. Martha goes to get Mary and upon hearing that Jesus wants to see her, she runs to the tomb, and what does she do? She falls at his feet. It is then that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
In John 12, we find Mary of Bethany where we always find her—at the feet of Jesus. He’s returned to Bethany on his way to Jerusalem. The cross is firmly in sight for Jesus…he knows where he’s going…and John’s Gospel confirms that. Chapter 12 has been called the last chapter in John’s “Book of Signs,” and it forms the pivot of John’s Gospel. Mary of Bethany is at the center of that pivot.