Mary of Bethany was a simple first-century woman from a village in a country overshadowed by the Roman Empire, yet the memory of Mary of Bethany has endured through the ages. Her fame is widespread, even though relatively little is known about her life.
However, the descriptions of her encounters with Christ give us a better picture of her than we would gain from an entry in Who’s Who? In each of the gospel stories about Mary of Bethany, we see her in the same place – at the feet of Jesus.
Jesus was on his way to Calvary. He had made it increasingly a matter of conversation since the time he spoke with Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-38). In the last week of his life, he made trips each evening to Bethany, a small town a few miles away from Jerusalem. He had stayed here on previous occasions at the home of a family of two sisters and a brother: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Those who lived in Bethany were still talking about the day Jesus had stood outside of Lazarus’ tomb, when he had been dead for three days, and said, “Lazarus, Come out” (John 11:43). The sight of him emerging from the tomb in bandages was a sight few would ever forget!
On this occasion, Jesus has been invited to the home of “Simon the Leper.” At the meal, while Jesus was reclining in typical eastern fashion: head and shoulders faced inwards toward a low table of some sort, something embarrassing occurs. There is the sound of breaking glass and then the kind of odor that would remind some of the first century equivalent of embalming fluid. Everyone looks and Mary is pouring the entire contents of a bottle of this liquid on Jesus’ head! The liquid is estimated to have been roughly equal to the average man’s annual wages, and the extravagance of this situation had everyone upset, especially the financial treasurer.
Mary had intended to do something for sure and this was not the kind of liquid a woman would carry with her in her purse! She had taken it to Simon’s house with the intention of doing something. We cannot be certain what exactly she intended to do. It rather looks like she may have done what she did as an act of spontaneous emotion, overcome by the sight and sound of Jesus. Perhaps she had thought of giving him the bottle of fluid since he had been talking with increasing conviction about being crucified in Jerusalem.
The fact still remains that Mary did an extravagant thing, and she did it out of a heart of love. Whatever her precise motives, what she did was an act of selfless love for Jesus Christ. The guests considered what she did as reckless and wasteful. Some of them were saying, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” (Mark 14:4). Mark suggests that they were in fact “snorting.” She was behaving with unimaginable serenity and they were responding like wild animals. There were suggestions that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. All they could see was money, but all Mary could see was Jesus.
However in the midst of all the different views, Jesus said that what Mary did was a “beautiful” thing (Mark 14:6). Jesus, in fact, did three things: first, he defended her, stood up for her. Isn’t that a wonderful characteristic of Jesus? Second, he asked the guests a question: “Why are you bothering her?” It suggests, of course, that the answer lies in a sense of guilt on behalf of the guests. They had done nothing! Third, he provides Mary’s action with an interpretation: “She has done a beautiful thing.” She had understood who he was, why he had come into the world, and what the significance of his death would become. She did it as a preparation for his burial!
It was, as it turns out, the only anointing Jesus’ body was to receive, for on the Sunday morning when the disciples came to anoint him his body wasn’t there. Mary knew Jesus because she had been at his feet, and spent time close to His heart. This Sunday at South Side we will continue to look at three encounters Mary of Bethany had at the feet of Jesus as we continue our sermon series, “Encounters With Christ.” Worship begins at 10:45 and we would love to have you and your family come grow with us!
South Side Church of Christ