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Women in the World of Jesus: Mary of Bethany

April 1, 2007

John 12:1-19

All four gospels mention Palm Sunday, but we get most of what we know about this day from the Gospel of John. The passage before us today includes two bits of information not found in the other gospel accounts. We learn here that the people waved palm branches as Jesus came into Jerusalem on a Sunday. Palm Sunday is an important day in the life of the church, not just because of Jesus’ arrival and not just because people were waving palm branches. This event had a very memorable past in the minds of the Jewish people, and it has a very clear future in the minds of Christians.

In the year 165 B.C., about 170 years before this event, the people of Jerusalem were living under a Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes. He had a Greek name because the Greeks had conquered the world under Alexander the Great. Antiochus was brutal to the Jewish people. He did not allow them to observe Passover, to read the Torah, or to celebrate their children’s bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The Jewish people could not go to the temple to offer sacrifices. Antiochus added insult to injury by slaughtering a pig, an unclean animal, on the altar in Jerusalem. Daniel 11:31 talks about that event as “the abomination of desolation.” The Jewish people felt his action was a desecration.

In that year, a man named Judas Maccabees rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, coming down the Mount of Olives from the little town of Coroth. The people spread their garments on the ground, waved branches, and greeted him as he came into the city. Judas Maccabees came in as a revolutionary with his army. He cleaned house and cleansed the temple. He went into the Holy of Holies and discovered that the eternal flame had not burned in a long time. Finding only a small container of consecrated oil, he again kindled the flame, representing the presence of Almighty God there. It took eight days to consecrate new oil, and the miracle was that that small amount of oil, enough maybe for only one day, burned for the entire eight-day period. To this day, the Jews celebrate that event with the Festival of Lights or Hanukkah.

Jesus’ ride down the Mount of Olives on a donkey with people spreading garments on the road, waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna” created a vivid memory in the minds of these people. They thought that Jesus, like Judas Maccabees, was coming as a revolutionary leader. When Jesus cleansed the temple, they thought for sure that his purpose was to overthrow the current army of occupation, the Romans. It was not, of course. Jesus did not come to lead a revolution. He came into Jerusalem in preparation for offering to us, the whole world, the gift of salvation.

Palm Sunday is important because it helps us remember what is ahead. It is the prelude. We know what happened that week during Jesus’ life. On Thursday, Jesus met with his disciples in an upper room, where he observed the Passover meal, the Last Supper. On Friday at noon, he was crucified on a Roman cross. The following Sunday, one week later, he conquered death itself through the resurrection. On Thursday night of this week, we, too, will observe the Lord’s Supper together and have a Service of Shadows. Friday at noon, we will meet here in the Sanctuary for a brief Good Friday service. Palm Sunday is our gateway into Holy Week.

In the passage before us, Jesus was in Bethany, being honored at a meal on the Sabbath. Perhaps this was a Shabbat meal. Jesus had performed a miracle. He had raised Lazarus, his good friend, from the dead. Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary and Martha, were so grateful for what Jesus had done that they gave a meal in his honor. Besides Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, the disciples were there, as found in Matthew 26.

We can look around the table and see in the faces of these people some of the characteristics that are so clear about each of them. Martha, always the “hostess with the mostest,” was the servant. She was always busy, the queen bee of the household. She was involved with food preparation and cleanup. We have Morningside members who are like Martha now. They are unable to come to prayer meeting on Wednesday nights because they are serving meals to others in the Fellowship Hall. They are often unable to worship because they are serving in Extended Session, taking care of the little children.

The Bible does not say much about Lazarus, but I can promise you that he had a smile on his face. Eugene O’Neill wrote a play simply entitled Lazarus Laughed. This play focuses on the life of Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead. Lazarus cannot speak a word during the play because he is always laughing. You can be sure he had a smile on his face at this meal. He was glad to be there. He had been dead, but Jesus returned him to his family. Lazarus was grateful.

The disciples there were worried. Chapter 11 in John’s gospel tells us that when they received word that Lazarus was sick, they were in Galilee, far to the north near the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus said that he was going to Bethany, they tried to discourage him because they knew the religious authorities wanted to kill him. They knew that Jesus’ life was in danger. Jesus had a price on his head, thirty pieces of silver that were paid to Judas. When Jesus went anyway, Thomas, the doubter, spoke up and said, “Let’s go with him. We will die with him.” Just a few verses later, we are told of the plot to take the life of Jesus. Chapter 12:9-10 tell us, “Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well.” They wanted to take away the evidence of the miracle by killing this man who had come back to life. They would do anything to try to destroy Jesus. No wonder the disciples were apprehensive.

We must be careful when we come to the name of Mary. In the last week of the life of Jesus, at least four women named Mary play important parts: Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary Magdalene, who was from Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons; Mary, the mother of Jesus; and Mary, the mother of Cleopas. This is Mary of Bethany. She, no doubt, had a special relationship with Jesus.

Some of you are familiar with the Jerusalem Cross, a configuration of five crosses. The central cross is larger than the other four that are in each corner of the configuration. The central cross stands for the city of Jerusalem. Each of the other four crosses represents towns in which Jesus resided. Bethlehem was the place of his birth, and Nazareth was where he lived with his family when he was a child. Capernaum was his home-away-from-home in the region of Galilee at the home of Simon Peter, while Bethany was Jesus’ home-away-from-home in the region of Judea, near the city of Jerusalem. Bethany was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.

Turn with me to Luke 10, beginning in Verse 38, where we find Jesus visiting this same home in Bethany on a previous occasion. Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said. Martha, however, was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” You can see what I mean when I say that Martha is a woman of activity. She is constantly working, constantly serving. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.” We learn from this earlier visit that Mary was devoted to Jesus. She believed that sitting at his feet, listening to him, and learning from him were more important than setting the table or washing the dishes. She believed that spending time with the Lord was more important. Jesus affirmed that thought.

Mary, as recorded in John 12, enters the room, bringing the most valuable possession she owns, an alabaster jar or box. Inside that stone container is one pound of pure nard, a very expensive perfume imported from India. This amount of perfume was worth one year’s salary for an average laborer. Mary carries this container to Jesus, who is reclining at the table. She pours all of this perfume on his feet and begins wiping his feet with her hair in an act of devoted humility. Mary anointed Jesus with a very precious and valuable possession.

On observing her actions, Judas Iscariot spoke up, “Why this waste? Why this waste? Where is the common sense? Don’t you know that we could have sold this jar of perfume and given the money to the poor?” On face value, Judas’ summation that Mary’s impulsive act seems wasteful and extravagant seems right. His interest in the poor suggests he is a benevolent man. John’s gospel, however, tells us that Judas had ulterior motives. John’s side comment informs us that he really was a greedy man. Imagine a person going to T.O.T.A.L. Ministries, St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic, Miracle Hill Ministries, or SPIHN and saying, “I want to make a gift of one year’s salary.” Suppose somebody gave a gift similar to Mary’s gift. Think about how much help one of those wonderful organizations could give to the poor. Judas has a point, but Jesus speaks in Mary’s defense, saying, “What she has done is beautiful because she is preparing me for my burial.”

Many people have repeatedly distorted and taken out of context Jesus’ next comment, “The poor you will have with you always.” People have used that as an excuse not to help the poor, asking, “Why bother with helping the poor? They are going to be here forever.” Jesus had a heart for poor people. He even said to the rich young rulers, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor…Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus certainly cared about the poor. On this occasion, following Mary’s act of humble devotion, Jesus says, “Listen, nothing is more important than your expression of love for me.” Mary did demonstrate her love for her Lord. Her actions were an act of love, an extravagant act of love. People do something like that for somebody they love, for those who are about to die. Maybe Mary knew something the others did not know. This was the last time Jesus was going to be in her home. She understood that he was on his way to death. I am not sure anybody else understood that.

At some moments in the gospel accounts, Jesus asks his disciples questions, wanting to determine their level of comprehension of him and his mission. When they make a profound statement, you think for a moment that they have finally caught on and understand. At Caesura Philippi, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Simon Peter made that tremendous affirmation of faith without what we might call an instant replay perspective. He knows the teachings and the miracles of Jesus, but he knows nothing about what is going to happen. He knows nothing about the cross. He knows nothing about the suffering. He knows nothing about the resurrection, yet he makes an affirmation based on what he knows: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We think for a moment that he finally has it. Then Jesus begins to explain that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. Simon Peter turns around and says, “Lord, I am not going to let that happen.” Jesus has to rebuke him almost in the next breath. So many times, the disciples seemed to understand but immediately behaved in such a way that proved otherwise.

Mary has this love for Jesus. When you love someone whose death is imminent, isn’t it true that you want to do everything possible for them?

Clare and I traveled on Friday to visit a little country church, Emory United Methodist Church, located between Saluda and Batesburg, South Carolina. Clare’s mother and father, her grandmother and grandfather, and several of her aunts and uncles are buried there in the church cemetery. People visit the graves of loved ones when they want to remember the lives of those people after they have died. As I looked into the face of my dear wife, I could see that she clearly is still grieving in some ways for her parents, and even for her grandparents who have been gone a long time. I could see the love in her eyes.

I was talking to Professor John Bullman, a retired professor of religion at Wofford College. He said, “At Easter, I always go to Winston-Salem. I attend a Moravian Love Feast, and I care for thirteen graves there. The Moravian custom is to scrub the tombstones white to remove the mildew and mold on the day before Easter. Those tombstones are gleaming white on Easter Sunday morning.” I asked, “John, what do you use?” He answered, “I use plain ole Ajax and a lot of elbow grease.” He is going to scrub the graves of people he loves.

One of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal, is located in the northern part of India at a place called Agra. The building, constructed out of white granite, is a tomb. Shāw Jahān built it, not just for his wife, but for his favorite wife, because he loved her. Anybody who looks at that tomb will say, “What extravagance!” Love makes people act in extravagant ways.

Mary loved Jesus. She was devoted to him. Her expression of love was extravagant, but the disciples failed to grasp the meaning of this moment. They failed to understand. They were worried about what was going to happen to Jesus, but John added a little parenthesis here in the Palm Sunday story. Look at Verse 16: “At first, his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.” John confessed that they did not understand what all of this meant until afterwards. I wonder if we would understand if we did not have that instant replay perspective. For a fleeting moment, they seemed to understand.

At Bethany, Mary understood what the Lord had done. She knew that by pouring out this ointment on his feet, she was foreshadowing the pouring out he would do on the cross. She knew that wiping his feet with her hair was foreshadowing the event in which Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples. Mary understood. One commentator said that Mary was really the first disciple because she was the first to understand that discipleship meant following Jesus completely. She gave her all because she knew that Jesus would do the same. Palm Sunday is our gateway to Holy Week. We know that we will come back by that place called Golgotha. We will remember again that our Lord and Savior was broken and spilled out for us.

When I thinking about this story, I just thought What if each one of us tried to find one item that we own, something like Mary’s alabaster jar with precious perfume? What if we chose just one possession that is valuable to us and brought it to the Lord? What if we said, “As an act of love, Lord Jesus, I want to give this to you”? If you decide to do that, do not make it too easy. Do not just write a check and say, “That is that.” Make your response an act of devotion.

The Lord Jesus made a commitment to you. Do you know how much he loves you? What he wants most of all is you, your life, your heart. If you have never made that decision, we invite you to make it today. Others have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision regarding church membership. I know people who are reluctant to make that decision. They say, “I just don’t want to be committed.” Jesus was committed, and our response to him needs to be one of commitment. You respond as we stand and sing together a hymn of invitation, one that is so appropriate, “I Surrender All.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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