Mary, Martha and Lazarus were special friends of Jesus. They opened their home to him, listened to him and ministered to him. He in turn taught them, loved them, wept with them and raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus spent time with this special family in the final days before his death. At a feast given in his honour each of the three siblings related to him in line with their own personalities. We can learn from each of them about relating to Jesus.
The readings at the 2pm service on Thursday were Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 49:5-10 and John 12:1-8. My reflection follows:
Today we remember Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Companions of our Lord. This family and their home in Bethany seem to have had a very special place in Jesus’ affections. We’re told a little earlier in John’s gospel that Jesus loved these three people. When he arrived at Bethany to find Lazarus dead and buried for 4 days, Jesus was deeply troubled by the tears of grief of Mary and Martha and their friends. He wept himself as he got ready to visit the tomb where Lazarus lay. There can be no doubt about how Jesus felt towards these friends.
Jesus appears to have left the area after raising Lazarus, having become aware of the plans of the leaders of the Jews to do away with him. We’re told of an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin and an order put out that anyone who knew of Jesus’ whereabouts was to report it. When Jesus returned to Bethany six days before the Passover it was the last week of his life on earth as things reached their climax. Jesus seems to have enjoyed the hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus – a home for the man who had nowhere to lay his head, a place to relax and be ministered to.
It may be that the meal referred to in the gospel passage is a feast of some kind, possibly to honour and thank Jesus for raising Lazarus. The fact that the men at the meal reclined suggests that this was a special festive meal. It is thought to be the same meal as that mentioned in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany rather than at the home of Jesus’ friends.
Each of the three friends plays a part in this special celebratory event. Lazarus was a guest at the meal also, reclining with Jesus. We have no knowledge of how Lazarus responded to Jesus’ message over the time that they were friends but having a friend there for support, someone who was not being trained as a disciple, could have been very pleasant for Jesus. Good friends whom we love and who provide uncomplicated companionship are a great gift to us.
In Luke’s gospel when Jesus was with Martha and Mary, Martha was busying herself and getting stressed with all her tasks to such an extent that she tried to make Jesus back her up in her sense of the unfairness of it all. Her tasks seemed to cause her to come across as resentful and shrill. The picture given during this event is very different. Martha is referred to as doing a service. The word used gives us the term ‘deacon’. Perhaps Jesus’ gentle chiding and pointing to a better way helped Martha’s practical nature to mature with the result that she served without complaint from what we can tell. There is no record of a repeat of her complaints against Mary.
Mary’s action at the feast fitted well with the contemplative personality Luke described. If Jesus was using her home in Bethany as a base to return to each evening, there would have been plenty of opportunity for Mary to sit at his feet once more and listen to his teaching. Jesus knew he had returned to Jerusalem to die. If Mary continued to hang on his every word it could well be that she had understood more of his intentions than the disciples did. Perhaps that is what moved her to anoint Jesus’ feet as the feet were the first part of a corpse to be prepared for burial or perhaps it was her way of showing her gratitude for the life of Lazarus. As we’re not told, we can only surmise.
Whatever Mary’s motivation, the ointment she used for the anointing was very costly. A (Roman) pound was 11.5 ounces or 327 grams. Such a quantity of ordinary perfume or ointment could be bought for 10 denarii but this was worth around 300 denarii, a year’s wages. Some commentators suggest it was Mary’s dowry or her life savings. This particular ointment was made from nard which grows in the Himalayas. The lower stem and root are very fragrant and were dried for use in perfumes and ointments. Having to be transported so far made it very expensive to buy in Israel.
Mary was prepared to use her life savings or her future security in an act of love and devotion towards Jesus. It was a hugely extravagant gesture on her part, one which gave Jesus everything she had to give. She took the position of a lowly servant, lower than her sister who served at table. Only the lowest dealt with feet. Mary’s action can be interpreted as one of submission and humility as she recognised Jesus as Messiah and king. Mary even gave away her reputation in response to Jesus by loosening her hair in order to wipe his feet. It was a shocking thing to do. Any woman apart from a prostitute would only let her hair down in front of her husband.
Whether intended or not, Jesus recognised Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial and defended her against the complaints from his disciples about her extravagance. John’s comment that the aroma of the ointment filled the house suggests an eyewitness account of the meal. In Rabbinic literature there is a saying that “The fragrance of good oil is diffused from the bedroom to the dining hall, but a good name is diffused from one end of the world to the other.” In Mark’s version of the story Jesus said that Mary’s action would be told along with the gospel story throughout the world and that is indeed true as our commemoration today shows.
Perhaps we learn from each of these siblings that there are different ways to relate to Jesus, our Saviour and Friend. Like Lazarus we can keep company with Jesus, listening and talking in comfortable conversation, not like those who wanted to trip him up and find fault or those who hoped to gain some kudos from having this famous rabbi in their house; instead just enjoying his presence. Like Martha we can serve gladly without complaint, not asking for recognition, not whining about the load we carry or the lowliness of our station in life. Like Mary we can risk offering everything that gives us worldly security in humility and gratitude for all that Jesus has done for us.
It’s up to each of us to do a little of all those things: listening and talking, serving, giving in proportion to the grace given to us and in line with our personalities.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor