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.
This account of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany is recorded not only in John’s Gospel, but also in Matthew and Mark’s. Admittedly, there is some confusion because both Matthew and Mark record the anointing after he enters Jerusalem while John records it before, and both Matthew and Mark have the setting at dinner in the home of a man named Simon the Leper. When the details of the event are compared, though, it’s most likely that, at the very least, John and Mark are retelling the same encounter, although Mark’s Gospel never mentions the person’s name. Regardless, the stories tell of a woman anointing Jesus, and showing the depth of devotion needed of a disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe it was Mary of Bethany who teaches us best.
They were gathered at dinner. Can you imagine what kind of dinner guest Jesus must have been? Consider the possible guests at this dinner in John 12. If Mark’s account is indeed the companion text we’ve got Simon who has been healed of leprosy and Lazarus who has been raised from the dead. Can you hear Simon? “Yeah, it was amazing. Jesus reached out and touched me, and immediately the leprosy was gone!”
And Lazarus chimes in, “That’s really something, but let me tell you, I was dead, wrapped in grave clothes for four days when Jesus showed up and called me out of that grave!”
The men were busy swapping war stories, trying to one-up each other in their relationship with Jesus, but it’s Mary of Bethany who teaches us the greatest lesson—the extravagant nature of worship.