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The prophet Isaiah preaches these familiar words, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Nowhere is this contrast between the mind of God and the mind of man more pronounced than in the cross of Christ crucified.
In divine love, the holy God comes into the world that He created to reconcile fallen and rebellious man to Himself. Fallen men and women are so blinded by their sin that they do not recognize their Creator who is among them. In fact, rather than embracing Him, they deeply resent the fact that He thinks that they are not worthy of heaven and that only He can save them. They become so angry with Him that they decide that He must die. They are so deranged that they actually think that they are being faithful to God by killing Jesus. The arrangements are made and the deed is done.
If that were the end of it, this would simply be a sad commentary on the depravity of man. Look how low man has fallen. We have killed our Creator who came to save us. But this of course is not the end of the story. As it turns out, it is by His death on the cross at the hands of sinful and fallen men, that God accomplishes the very purpose for which He came into this world. By His death, God reconciles Himself to His creation and His humans through the forgiveness of their sins. Now suddenly, this is not just a story of man’s GREAT depravity but it is also the story of God’s GREATER love. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
What we have just done is to sketch out the ‘big picture’ of God’s plan for our salvation and the centrality of the cross in that plan. We know the story ‘as a whole’ and how it turned out in the end, maybe something like the way that we know about the Revolutionary war and the Civil war and how they turned out in the end.
But within this ‘big picture,’ there are hundreds and hundreds of individual participants, men and woman who were actually there and personally involved in it. Some found themselves on one side, others the other side, and some were caught in the middle.
One way to enter into the ‘big picture,’ is through those who were there, for whom the ‘big picture’ was intensely personal and immediate. I was with a friend last week who’s wife has cancer and he said, ‘you know, I always knew that cancer was there, but until Tina was diagnosed and started her treatments, I never knew how many others have gone through what we’re going through and how much of your life it becomes.’
The fact the four gospels are not simply doctrinal outlines of theological truths but the telling of the individual stories of those involved in the encounter with Christ and His cross, tells us that the Holy Spirit invites us into this encounter through their individual stories.
This will be the approach that we take through these mid-week Lenten services this year. We’ve selected six men and women who were actively involved in that six day period of time that we call “holy week.” They represent those on both sides and those caught in the middle. I pray that with each mid-week service, we may be drawn into the ‘big picture’ through them, in such a way that we too are confronted by Jesus Christ and His cross.
Mary of Bethany
And so tonight, ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Mary of Bethany. As you know, there are many Mary’s in the gospels. Mary was a very common name in those days as it is today. One Mary was distinguished from another in a variety of ways. Often it was by a spouse, Mary the wife of Clopas. Sometimes it was by their children, Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses and Salome. Of course, THE Mary is identified as Mary, the mother of Jesus. If there were no significant others to identify them by, it was where they lived. Mary Magdalene was from Magdala.
Mary of Bethany is known by where she lives. For awhile, many thought that Bethany, meant “the house of Dates.” ‘Beth’ is the Hebrew word for ‘house’ and ‘anay’ sounds like the word for ‘dates.’ But ‘anay’ also sounds like the word for ‘poor.’ And many now think that Bethany was known for its poverty. It’s where the poor lived, a ‘shantytown,’ maybe even what we would call, ‘the ghetto.’
Bethany is located about two miles outside of Jerusalem, over the Mount of Olives and past the Garden of Gethsemane. Whenever Jesus was in Jerusalem, he would spend the nights either in the Garden of Gethsemane or in Bethany. He must have found a welcome reception among the poor there. They were willing to open their house to him and give him a place to sleep.
That is where we first meet Mary of Bethany. Luke tells us, “now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. A woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” (Luke 10:38-39). According to typical middle-eastern hospitality, guests are always given something to eat. It would be an insult not to do so.
And we know how this story goes. Mary sits at Jesus feet and listens to what He has to say, completely ignoring her social responsibility to serve Jesus a meal. Her sister is more interested in upholding social customs and wants Jesus to tell Mary to help with the meal. Jesus replies, “Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42).
So, from our first introduction to Mary of Bethany, here’s what we can say that we know about her. She lives with her sister, and as we soon discover, also with her brother who’s name is Lazarus. She is probably poor. And she sees something in Jesus and what He is saying that makes her willing to ditch all social custom for. Jesus is with her ‘here and now,’ and as long as He is with her, she is going to focus all of her attention upon Him. And to this, Jesus gives His clear approval. As He has already said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." (Matthew 20:28)
We meet Mary of Bethany again at the death of her brother, Lazarus. John writes, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, (we’ll come back to this) whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”… Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:1-5). The two sisters return to Bethany while Jesus remains where He is for two days.
When He finally arrives at Bethany, John provides some wonderfully precise details of what happens. Before Jesus gets to their house, word reaches the sisters that Jesus on His way. Martha leaves the house, goes to where Jesus is, and scolds Him for not coming sooner. She firmly believes that if He had, He could have prevented her brother from dying, a bold statement of what Martha’s faith in Jesus. But Mary stayed in the house. She was mired in grief. “The Jews who were in the house were consoling her.”
When Martha returns to the house, she speaks to Mary privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you. And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.” “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She repeats the same words as Martha had spoken to Jesus. The same commendable faith in Jesus.
It seems obvious that throughout the course of their brother’s illness and subsequent death, their thoughts and conversations had been centered upon Jesus. When things got really bad, they went to Him asking Him to come. In the midst of their crisis, their thoughts are on Jesus. Jesus has become the object of their thoughts; their hopes; their dreams and they believed that if Jesus is present, things were going to be okay.
As we heard already, when John reports the episode of the raising of Lazarus, he identifies Mary as “the one who anointed Jesus with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.” Chronologically speaking, this hadn’t happened yet. But for the Christian community to whom John is writing, this seems to be what identifies this Mary.
Before we consider this however, there is something else that is taking place that we need to understand if we are going to accurately enter into this story. The social and religious atmosphere in the region of Judea and Jerusalem had become increasingly intense over the previous year because of the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, John reports that the Jews plot to eliminate Jesus. John writes, “So from that day on they made plans to put Him to death.” “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:55-57).
The religious authorities have raised the security level for the upcoming Passover in Jerusalem to it highest level. Jesus was the #1 terrorist – ace of spades, and anyone who laid eyes on him was to report to the authorities.
And the next thing that John writes is, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany. So they gave a dinner for him there.” (John 12:1-2). From Matthew’s gospel we learn that the dinner was not at Mary and Martha’s house this time, but at one Simon the leper’s house. (Names were also distinguished by past diseases). When they take Jesus into their home now, they are not simply giving him a place to stay. They are now hiding a wanted man. They’re harboring a criminal. They are placing themselves in great danger. And the disciples also know what great danger they are in. Now, as they have a meal together, the atmosphere is extremely tense.
John writes, “Martha served.” Martha, still the responsible one, sees to the meal. What about Mary? Where is she and what is she doing? “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.” (John 12:3).
“Nard” was a very expensive perfume. It kept its aroma as long as it was sealed in an airtight container. Little jars made of alabaster held one ‘dose’ of the perfume. The neck of the jar had to be broken off to access the perfume. These things could be passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. They were very valuable. Judas, whom we’ll meet him next week, quickly estimates its value to be “three hundred denari.” One denari was an average days wage. So, that little jar of perfume was worth a year’s wages. In 2010, the annual median wage in the U.S. was $26,000. That’s an idea of what this perfume was worth.
And what was this perfume used for? It was used for the same purpose as any perfume is, covering up bad odors, making things that smell stale or foul smell good. It was most commonly used to anoint dead bodies so that visitations could be made without the unpleasant experience of the smell of death. John, one of the disciples was there. He writes, “The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.”
It is Jesus who gives the interpretation of what Mary has done. “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” Jesus interprets Mary’s extravagant act as her way of preparing His body for burial.
SOMEHOW Mary accepts the fact that Jesus is going to go into Jerusalem and that He will be arrested and die. Unlike the disciples, she does not try to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem. She accepts it. SOMEHOW she understands that this is something that He must do to accomplish His mission. And when I say “SOMEHOW” I do not mean ‘magically,’ I mean, as a result of having sat at His feet and listened to Him with an undivided attention. This is how the Holy Spirit works true faith in us.
We need not think that Mary understands all the reasons for why Jesus must die. It’s okay to leave things at “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways.” The Holy Spirit will make all things known to all of us eventually, just as He already has for Mary.
But we must admire Mary for her acceptance of the cross as God’s will for her beloved friend, Jesus. Any death, but especially an untimely or violent death is never easy to ‘accept.’ This is not EASY for Mary. But she trusts that Jesus knows the will of God in a peculiarly intimate way. He has made it clear that it is necessary for Him to be handed over to the religious authorities, crucified and die and on the third day be raised. It will be terribly unjust and unfair. And yet, He has accepted it as the way He must go. And in love and devotion to Her Lord, so does she.
Interestingly, all four gospels, of all the various Mary’s who are reported to be present at the tomb where Jesus is buried, Mary of Bethany is not one of them. She is expressing her devotion here. The disciples want to take her devotion to Jesus away from her just as Martha had wanted to do earlier. “It would have been better to have sold it and give the money to the poor.” Once again, Jesus defends Mary saying, “she has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away from her.”
As we enter into this season of Lent through Mary of Bethany, we let her humble acceptance that Jesus must die and her extravagant devotion to Him, be our approach to His cross as well.