Women of Hope: Mary of Bethany

Everything in my body pulses with anticipation. My breath comes quickly. My hands shake. My heart is sure to burst with gratitude and love for my Lord. The jar in my hand warms at my touch and dampens with my tears. Father in Heaven, may this gift be acceptable in your eyes…

Eyes. They bore into me as I kneel at His feet, the fragrance of the oil filling the room. But I have eyes only for this man, this Son of God, who has not only raised my brother to life but who has welcomed me into His following and loved me like a sister.

This anointing of His feet feels more like an anointing of myself. Perhaps it is a connection of the Spirit that binds me to Him – because the more I look to Him, the more I see. The more I know that He is Messiah. Father in Heaven, thank You for sending your Son to us. Receive my love just as I have received yours, and my gift just as I have received your Son.

Mary of Bethany. Sister to Lazarus and Martha. Disciple to Jesus. A woman who defied propriety of her day in order to sit with the men of Jesus’ following. A woman who consistently chose the better part.

We see more of Mary of Bethany than most women of the New Testament. Three times, tucked into three stories, Mary rises to the forefront and demonstrates a heart willing to be still before her Lord and to take-in all He has for her, thus becoming our teacher. She shows us what it looks like to be transformed by the hope found in Christ.

Sitting At His Feet

Each of the Gospel writers were careful in their creations to paint pictures with words that would offer images of life with Jesus while He walked the earth. By writing with intention and purpose, these men consistently revealed more than facts of Jesus’ ministry. They also wove together stories of the people around Jesus in such a way that their actions and words illustrate the message of the gospel. We get to feel the tensions and sorrows, see the way people wiggle with Jesus’ upside-down ways, and witness the profound moments of revelation. In three such stories, we have the privilege of observing a first-century woman step into her extraordinary role with dignity and devotion.

Our first glimpse of Mary comes as she joins others in her sister’s house to hear Jesus teach (Luke 10:39). She sits at Jesus’ feet. A woman sitting at a man’s feet in the presence of other men – not to serve but to be instructed – was unheard of. In her day, women didn’t follow rabbis. They didn’t get to skip on the hospitality bit in order to be taught. Yet, Jesus defends Mary’s choice to plop herself in front of Him, saying, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her” (v.42). 

Despite her sister’s complaints, Mary’s focus remains firmly on her Rabbi. Her complete dedication to Jesus and to all He was doing becomes for us a standard. Just as then, the temptations of busyness still long to distract us from the One we’re meant to be with. Demands on our time and energy still beg us to draw our focus from the One we’re meant to devote ourselves to.

It’s important to note here that Jesus doesn’t scold Martha, Mary’s sister, in a way that demeans what she has chosen to do – to serve behind the scenes. Did Martha need to refocus? Sure! But her call, her offerings were different than that of her sister.  As women there will always be responsibilities that require our attention, but as followers of Jesus we’re meant to choose Him first. Not so much out of duty but desire. Yes, out of obedience but also because we are driven to sit at His feet by our love for Him. Then, it’s out of that fullness of love that serving comes more freely and joyfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Falling at His Feet

The next time we see Mary, she collapses at Jesus’ feet overcome by grief. Lazarus has died, and she’s especially broken because she knows Jesus could have healed him (John 11:32). Her faith is such that she’s confident Lazarus would not have died had Jesus been there, yet she can’t comprehend why Jesus would have chosen not to be there (John 11:5-7). Though Mary cannot foresee the greater good at work in Jesus’ tardy appearance, she doesn’t have to wait long to see it. Jesus surprises everyone by raising Lazarus from the dead (v.44). 

“The Raising of Lazarus” by Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (1857)

The interaction between Mary and Jesus before the resurrection moment gifts us a glimpse of Mary’s strength of faith in Jesus. In the depths of sorrow, in the pit of confusion, Mary falls at the Son of God’s feet and weeps. She pours out her heart with the truth of all she feels. And, we get to see Jesus’ response. He weeps with her. Then He steps into action.

This image of grieving Mary in a crumpled heap at the feet of Jesus stands as our reminder of the kind of faith that laments loudly yet never gives up on our Savior. Jesus’ tear-stained face becomes a portrait of the One who is always with us, who cares and catches every tear we shed (Psalm 56:8). Faith doesn’t have to fade, friends, because we hurt or don’t understand. Faith carries us through these moments and seasons – just as Jesus carries us. 

Kneeling at His Feet

The final scene for Mary of Bethany happens in her brother’s home where a dinner is underway. Lazarus lounges at the table near Jesus when Mary interrupts. Her heart overflowing with gratitude and love,1 Mary approaches Jesus at the table, kneels before Him, then pours twelve ounces of the most expensive perfume on His feet. The stunned men in the room watch agape as she wipes the essential-oil-like liquid with her hair (John 12:3). 

“Forgiven” by Daniel F. Gerhartz

When he comes to his senses, Judas vents his frustration that such an outpouring is a waste – just think of how many poor could have been fed (to be read with sarcasm, John 12:5-6). Once again criticized for her unusual choices, Mary is once more defended by her Lord. Not only is her act deemed good but is lauded because it acknowledges a truth no one else in the room has yet to grasp: Jesus won’t be long with them (John 12:7-8). 

John doesn’t give us insight into Mary’s motives. He offers no clue as to her emotions or her desired outcome. But, what he does show us is a woman unmoved by dissenters, a woman completely zoned in on the One she anoints – Messiah, the Anointed One.

It would seem that Mary of Bethany gets who Jesus is in a more complete way than anyone else – at least among those sitting at the table. Mary’s love and complete devotion compelled her to extravagance. Mary’s faith could not be deterred nor could her hope be dislodged. Mary knew at Whose feet she knelt. The veil had been removed, and her eyes beheld the glory of the Lord. And we are given the privilege of observing how the freedom of the Spirit transforms a surrendered life to be like the glory of the One on whom she gazes (2 Corinthians 3:16-18). From glory to glory.

These three stories of Mary of Bethany hold within them the keys to hope: Listening to our Teacher, speaking all we feel to our Savior, and holding nothing back as we worship the One on whom we gaze. Distractions will always beckon. Demands will never cease. So, if we aren’t diligent to refocus our minds, realign our hearts, and remain firm in our call to sit at Jesus’ feet, we will lose the better part – and that, my friends, is time in Jesus’ presence, the place where peace reigns, love abounds, and hope never flees or fails. 

Father God, we once again thank You for Word. For the pages we can read and pour over. For the stories that inspire us to live more wholeheartedly for You. For your Son, whose lessons always do a work in us. Mary’s life shows us what it looks like to live with our focus on Jesus – no matter what distractions and demands beckon our attention. We desire to live with our eyes fixed on You in such a way that our gaze never shifts or drifts from your face because we know that in your presence is everything we need. Lord Jesus, the veil is lifting! Our eyes are opening! It’s like we’re awakening from a very long sleep – because suddenly we. see. You. We see your glory, feel your love, and long to sit at your feet forever and ever. We’re even beginning to understand that what You ask of us is not a list of to do’s but a time for realignment and refilling because of relationship with You. Holy Spirit, help us to choose this better part – every single day and moment. Tell us when our eyes no longer gaze upon the One we love. And help us, we pray, to re-fix our eyes upon Him. Teach us how to continuously receive the love Jesus offers us as Mary did – like an anointing oil that flows over us, in us, and through us to those around us. May we, then, absorb His glory, be transformed into His image each and every day, and go into the world reflecting the light of His glory to others. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(inspired by John 1:1; Matthew 27:37; Hebrews 12:2; Psalm 16:11; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18; Acts 3:20; Luke 10:42; John 14:26)

Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.

  • 1 – Make Your Move^ by Lynn Cowell has a chapter about Mary of Bethany. Along with many other writers, Lynn imposes emotions onto Mary that are not actually offered in John’s text. But in John’s Gospel, this scene immediately follows the raising of Lazarus, so it’s not hard to imagine all the feelings of joy, relief, gratitude, and love that would be coursing through Mary. All four Gospels have a story of a woman anointing Jesus. None are named except here in John, and it does seem that there could have been three anointings by three different women – Mary being one of them, as named in John 12. The other three stories offer more signs of the emotions that swept the women up into such sacrifices and scrutiny, and so, we can easily transfer those onto Mary. We still don’t actually know her emotions, but we can imagine.
    • Lynn is also the one who made the connection for me between Mary of Bethany and the incredible “reflecting glory” passage in 2 Corinthians 3. In my initial planning, I simply jotted down notes that stuck out to me with a get-her-done kind of focus. But when I went back to my outline to prepare for writing about Mary this week, those verses sparked something in my soul. That connection we feel between Mary and Jesus as she anoints His feet IS A PICTURE OF THE HOLY CONNECTION PAUL IS DESCRIBING: “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor 3:18, NLT). Whew. It still reignites something in me!
  • If you’re curious about how the four stories of women who anoint Jesus compare, this article is helpful.
  • The two songs that represent Mary of Bethany on our “Women of Hope” playlist focus on feet. Obviously, I’m not the only one who notices that this Mary spends her time at Jesus’ feet. 😉 Here’s a fun little story now that you know how the 2 Corinthians 3:18 verse connected for me this week: I created our playlist months ago, selecting songs that seemed to capture the heart of each week’s woman of hope. I literally looked for songs about being at Jesus’ feet for Mary of Bethany. What I didn’t know until the day I wrote this post is that one of the songs I’d selected, “All My Worship,” actually references that Corinthians passage. (insert mind-blown emoji). May Catherine’s lines become our prayer: “I will stay here for a little while until I look like the One I behold.” Amen!
  • Rhythms we can incorporate into our daily lives to aid us in our dwelling with God, living for Him, and putting our hope in Him:
    • This summer we’re continuing the rhythm of meditation. We’re filling our minds with our anchoring passage, Hebrews 11:1. Mary of Bethany — our third Mary in three weeks — looks and responds to Jesus in her own, unique ways. But, every glimpse we’re given of her reveals a woman who lives with strong conviction — despite the naysayers and distractions. In fact, my heart tells me that her anointing of Jesus could easily have come from a compelling by the Spirit — that she didn’t fully know why she was doing this thing, just that she was supposed to. That’s conviction. So. For our verse meditation this week, let’s ponder the NRSV version:

      “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” NRSV
  • Finally, as a community, let us not neglect sharing God’s hope with others! Share your God-stories with people around you. Share this site. Share God’s Word. Shine His light of His hope into the world!

Featured portrait: “Alabaster” by Jun Jamosmos at FineArtAmerica.com. Bits and Pieces photo by Photo by Zrng N Gharib on Unsplash.

^an affiliate link with which I may earn a bit 

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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