By Gregg Bing
We often hear the question asked: “If you had the chance to have dinner with anyone who ever lived, who would it be?” Most respond with sports figures, others with entertainers or politicians, but often people want to have dinner with Jesus Christ. A close-knit family in Bethany, Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, experienced this many times during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Lazarus is the most well known member of the family, having been raised by Jesus after he had been dead four days. As amazing as his experience was, Mary seems to have been more personally affected by the time she spent with Jesus than either her brother or sister. The reason for this? Each time we see Mary with Jesus, we find her in the same position—”at the feet of Jesus.”
Mary’s first encounter with Jesus is recorded in Luke, chapter 10. When Jesus entered Bethany, Martha invited Jesus into her home. During Jesus’ visit, she was so busy working and serving Jesus that she spent little time with Him. However, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to the words He spoke. Seeing her sister sitting there, Martha complained to Jesus, demanding that He tell Mary to help her with the work. Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary seated herself at Jesus’ feet, assuming a humble position of worship. There she listened to Jesus’ powerful words and teaching, enabling her to grow in grace, and faith, and knowledge of God. Trying to serve the Lord, Martha found herself worrying and fretting over many things. Jesus pointed out to her that in His presence, only one thing is needed, the good thing that Mary chose—spending time with Jesus. The relationship Mary was developing with Jesus, the things she learned as she heard Him speak, were things that would never be taken from her.
The next time we find Mary with Jesus was a time of great sorrow for her and Martha. In John, chapter 11, we read that their brother Lazarus became sick, so they sent word to Jesus. Knowing Jesus loved their brother, they trusted He would immediately return and heal Lazarus. Jesus did love this family. However, He waited two days before He returned to Bethany in Judea, so that by the time He arrived, Lazarus would be dead. Jesus knew these things had happened that He might raise Lazarus from the dead and “that the Son of God might be glorified through it.”
When Jesus neared Bethany, Martha went out to meet Him, while Mary remained behind, sitting in the house. Martha’s first words to Jesus were, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” She believed in the resurrection at the last day, but this did not seem to ease her present grief at the loss of her brother. Jesus assured her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” While Martha declared her belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, she did not truly understand the powerful meaning of His words.
Martha then returned home and told Mary that Jesus was calling for her. When she heard that, Mary hurried to Him. The Jews thought she was going to the tomb to weep, so they followed her. Though Mary was filled with sorrow, possibly even somewhat disappointed with Jesus, she still fell on her knees at His feet when she came to Him. Like her sister, Mary’s first words were, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus was troubled in His spirit when He saw Mary, as well as the Jews who followed her, weeping and wailing in grief. Jesus asked where the body of Lazarus had been laid. As they led Him to the tomb, Jesus Himself shed tears, not in sorrow over the loss of Lazarus, but because of the unbelief of these Jews, especially Mary. They had seen Him heal the lame, the deaf, even the blind, but, they never considered Jesus had power to raise the dead.
Lazarus’s body had been laid in a cave and a stone rolled across the opening. Jesus told them, “Take away the stone.” Martha protested, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus responded, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” After they took away the stone, Jesus lifted His eyes and gave thanks to His Father, that the people watching, especially Mary and Martha, might believe that the Father had sent Him. Jesus then cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
Lazarus came out of the tomb, his hands, feet, and face still bound with the tightly wrapped grave clothes. Jesus commanded them, “Loose him, and let him go.” What a tremendous learning experience for both Martha and Mary as they watched their brother brought back to life. The statement they each greeted Jesus with must have seemed foolish now. Jesus’ declaration to Martha that He was “the resurrection and the life” had been demonstrated in a powerful and personal way. However, Mary seems to be the one who truly understood the full impact of Jesus’ words.
The day before Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He again had supper with His friends in Bethany (John 12). Lazarus sat with Jesus at the table, Martha served, and Mary, once again, sat at the feet of Jesus. She took a pound of expensive oil, anointed Jesus’ feet with it, and then wiped His feet with her hair.
The Scriptures tell us “the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” as Mary lovingly worshipped her Lord. Using that which was a woman’s glory, her hair (1 Cor. 11:15), she wiped Jesus’ feet giving Him the glory and honor He was due. Not only did the fragrance of the oil fill the room, so did the sweet smell of her humble service.
Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus, questioned why this valuable oil was not sold and given to the poor. Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he knew if the oil was sold, he would have a chance to take some of the money for himself (Judas carried the moneybag for the group and would often take what was put in it). Judas was not alone in thinking what Mary did was a waste; the other disciples complained about it as well.
Jesus defended Mary, explaining her actions with these words: “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” Far from being a waste, Mary had kept the oil for the day of Jesus’ burial. Why, then, do we find her anointing Jesus with the oil at this time?
Before returning to Judea, Jesus had told His disciples what would happen to Him in Jerusalem.
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-34)
Jesus’ disciples understood none of these things for the saying was “hidden from them.”
Having witnessed the resurrection of her brother, Lazarus, Mary may have come to see something the twelve disciples did not—that Jesus Himself would rise from the dead.
The Jewish burial custom was to anoint the body with fragrant spices and oil and then to wrap it tightly in strips of cloth (grave clothes). After Jesus’ death, as the high Sabbath drew near, Jesus’ body was hastily prepared and laid in a tomb. A group of women watched as this was done. Following the weekly Sabbath, the women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning intending to anoint Jesus’ body according to the Jewish custom. Two of the women were named Mary: Mary, the mother of James, and Mary Magdalene. Mary of Bethany was not with them.
Mary seemed to realize that Jesus must die, but she also understood that Jesus would rise again. She believed Jesus when He declared: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This is why she took the oil that had been kept for His burial and anointed Him with it that evening in Bethany. How would Mary know and understand such things, truths that even Jesus’ disciples had not grasped?
Mary had listened to Jesus’ words; she had watched Jesus as He worked the works of God. She experienced Jesus’ power firsthand seeing Him raise her brother from the dead. Mary knew Jesus; she believed in Him as Lord and Christ. She had developed a relationship with Him. She knew Jesus loved her and her family, and she loved Him. All this happened because Mary spent time sitting “at the feet of Jesus.”
Oftentimes, we are like Martha. We work hard trying to serve the Lord, but we find ourselves unsatisfied, “worrying and fretting over many things.” Certainly, we are called to do good works (Eph. 2:10), but before we can effectively serve the Lord, we must choose, as Mary did, “that good part, which will not be taken away”—spending time with Jesus Himself. We cannot literally sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him speak, but we can spend time listening to what He has said in His Word. As we read, study, and meditate on God’s Word, we come to know more of our precious Savior; we develop a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him; we learn to love Him more and more, and His love compels us to worship and serve this One “who is our life” (Col. 3:4).