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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: Martha and Mary of Bethany

March 21, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross:  Martha and Mary of Bethany
Text:  John 12:1-10; Luke 10: 38-42; John 11


A different cross appears on the cover of the worship bulletin each Sunday during the season of Lent.  The cross this week is a Trinitarian cross.  You can clearly see the three-in-one theme in the depiction of the cross of Christ.  If you draw a cross in each quadrant of the Trinitarian cross, you create a Jerusalem Cross.  Those of you who have been to the Holy Land are familiar with this depiction of the cross, but perhaps you do not remember the meaning behind this five-cross configuration.  The large cross in the center stands for the city of Jerusalem.  Each of the smaller crosses represents a city, village, or town.  One cross represents Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born.  A second represents Nazareth, the town where Jesus lived as a child.  The third represents Capernaum, the city in Galilee where Jesus made his headquarters.  You remember that he stayed at the home of Simon Peter there in Capernaum right by the Sea of Galilee.  The final small cross represents the little village of Bethany, his home-away-from-home when he went to Jerusalem.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany.

When I selected the Scripture for the sermon this morning, I focused on John 12.  I invite you to turn to that passage, and listen as I read for your hearing just the first eight verses:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor.  Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.  Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.  And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?  It was worth a year’s wages.”  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put in it. 

Leave her alone,” Jesus replied, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.  You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

When I was thinking about this sermon in our series Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross, I thought that we were going to focus on one woman, Mary of Bethany.  I selected this passage; but the more I studied, I realized that we had to consider this entire household, consisting of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Three passages of Scripture provide information about these three individuals who encounter Jesus.

Luke 10 offers just four verses that tell us about Jesus’ encounter with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as they open their home to Jesus in Bethany.  Jesus considers their home his home-away-from-home.  There, Jesus can count on being a welcomed guest, count on getting some time for himself.  He can lie back, kick off his sandals, put his feet up, and relax.  Anybody with any celebrity status at all – a professional athlete, a movie star, a politician – has very little privacy.  Jesus is very popular, and the “paparazzi” pursue him.  You remember the time he tries to get away from the crowd for a time of rest and relaxation with his disciples.  He is unable to have respite because the people follow him around to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  It is there that he feeds the 5,000.  Just getting away and having some time to unwind is very difficult for Jesus.   These three friends, who are fully aware that Jesus is the Son of God and later even confess him as the Messiah who was to come, look forward to having him as a guest in their home.

Luke 10 also provides information about the dynamics of the household.  First, we see that Martha is identified as the head.  Apparently, she is the oldest of the three siblings.  We read in Luke 10:38, “…a woman named Martha opened her home to him.”  Having a woman as the homeowner is unusual.  Second, it is striking that their parents are not mentioned.  We do not know for certain what has happened to them.  Perhaps they died.  We also gather from these verses that the three are rather affluent.  Their house must be rather large, as it accommodates quite a crowd, including Jesus and all of his disciples.  They, too, are free to come here and stay with Jesus.  Fourth, no mention is made about how Martha, Mary, and Lazarus earn their living.  Apparently, they inherited their money.  It is amazing that none of the three is married, at least as far as these accounts go.  In the first century Judaism, both men and women were expected to be married. 

On this first occasion in Luke’s Gospel, we see quite a contrast between Martha and Mary.  Martha fusses over the details.  She wants to be the “hostess with the mostest.”  She runs through the house, trying to take care of the meal and the place settings and making sure the house is clean.  She frantically tries to get everything done.

I have preached on this text before, and I have often pondered why Martha is so worried over the small details.   Out of the blue, it finally hit me this week.  Martha is red-headed!  Of course, she behaves like this.  She is an aggressive woman.  Now, do not get me wrong.  I love red-headed women.  I work with red-headed women, and I have some in my family.  Please do not take offense at the fact that I am talking about red-headed women.  I think of flaming red hair as being like the red blinking light at an intersection.  It is a type of warning sign, a mark about being cautious. 

You cannot imagine how many red-headed stories I heard this morning after the first service.  My Aunt Ann told me a story about the time she made a bell pull for my grandmother.  Aunt Ann covered a large piece of needlework with several different angels.  One of the angels was red-headed.  My grandmother looked at that handiwork and said, “Ann, I cannot believe you made a red-headed angel!”

Aunt Ann asked, “Why not?”

“Well, I am not sure there are any red-headed angels in heaven.” 

Now, let me explain that my grandmother had some history behind this notion.  My grandfather’s sister Bertha was red-headed, and she was quite a pistol.  My grandmother had to put up with her and put up with her and put up with her. 

 Aunt Ann explained, “You know that angels of all types will be in heaven.  Surely there will be some red-headed angels.”

My grandmother said, “I just don’t know.  They have not put up a very good show here on earth, and I don’t know how they are going to do in heaven.”

Please know that if you are red-headed, I love you. 

Martha is who she is.  She cannot be anyone different.  Jesus talks to Martha about fussing and fretting over so many things.  Only Jesus could get away with talking to a red-head like that.  Jesus says, “Settle down, Martha.  There has to be some balance here.  You cannot be all one way.  Running around doing all the right things is not enough.  At times you simply must stop, pay attention, and live the life of devotion.”  Do you think that Jesus does not appreciate all that she is doing?  He certainly does.  He loves her.  Jesus is not nullifying, negating, anything that Martha is doing.  The gift of hospitality is a spiritual gift.  He wants something more.  Jesus wants balance.

Mary has found the better part.  In her, you have a model for holding still.  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Mary seems to know almost intuitively that Jesus really does not expect a banquet at this point.  A small supper would have been fine with him.  While Martha scrambles around the house, Mary goes over to Jesus and sits down at his feet.  We see Mary seated at the feet of Jesus in all three accounts.  A disciple sat at the feet of the teacher.  Disciples worshipped at the feet of the Messiah, worshipped the feet of the Lord.  You see here in Mary the posture of a disciple.  She sits at his feet and learns from him.  You see in her a person of devotion. 

I saw something for the first time this week that has really helped me understand this passage.  I had never paid attention to the fact that immediately before this passage is the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is obviously very intent on people doing what is right.  He tells people that they are to love their neighbor, that they are to behave in a way that is in keeping with the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  The entire parable of the Good Samaritan is about doing what is right.  Look at the passage in Chapter 11 that immediately follows the account of Jesus’ time at Bethany.  Jesus turns away by himself for prayer.  The disciples have often interrupted Jesus on other occasions during his time of prayer.  This time, though, they wait until he finishes before making a request.  They say to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  Jesus does teach them how to pray.  On either side of this account of Jesus in Bethany is a model for doing what is right.  In Martha and Mary, you see both sides of the equation. 

We see the group next in John 11 when tragedy strikes the family.  Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that Lazarus is sick.  They want Jesus to come be with them; and though they do not say it, they want Jesus to heal Lazarus.  Jesus delays his visit and becomes engaged in conversation with his disciples.  They know that the Jewish religious leaders and the political leaders are out to trap him, and they are worried that Jesus will be put to death.  They caution him about going to Bethany, located about two miles away.  Jesus takes their concern under consideration but ultimately returns to Bethany.

Some scholars believe that Jesus delays his visit to Bethany on purpose.  Jesus knows Lazarus is going to die and knows what he will do when he gets to their home.  Jesus wants no mistake about the fact that Lazarus is really dead before he carries out his miracle of resurrecting his friend.  All pastors know exactly how it feels when they cannot arrive the second people want them to come.  I certainly know.  Sometimes I wish I could be two places at once, but I just have not figured out how to do that.  I can only be one place at a time. 

Before Jesus reaches their home in Bethany, Martha hears that he is coming.  True to her nature, she runs out to meet him.  We find that the family and friends are about halfway through that seven-day period of grieving after Lazarus’ death.  Look at Verse 21: “‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”  Martha does not mince words.  Not afraid to confront Jesus, she asks, “Where were you?  Why weren’t you here?”  Martha might appear aggressive, forthright, and confrontational.  She might speak her mind, but she is a woman of faith.  She can see that Jesus is the Son of God.  She affirms him at this point, which is before the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Look at her next statement:  “But, I know that even now God will give you whatever you have asked.”

Jesus’ response, “Your brother will rise again” does not suit Martha a bit. 

She, in essence, replies, “Don’t give me any of that theological gobbledygook.  I know that he will rise at the resurrection on the last day.” 

Jesus makes a very profound point here, one that is more important than even the resurrection of Lazarus.  He tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).  Immediately after that statement, he asks Martha a very important question:  “Do you believe this?”

Look at Martha’s response: “Yes, Lord.  I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.”  Where have you heard that affirmation before?  Remember that Jesus asked Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).  We see the very same affirmation of faith. 

We next see Mary, by herself though mourners are gathered around her.  What a strange conundrum.  How can she be by herself if mourners are surrounding her?  The situation reflects the way the Jewish people grieved.  Family and friends would sit together, not talking lot, eating, or even bathing.  They were restricted from doing many day-to-day activities until the body was buried.  Even after the burial, they sat for seven days. 

Consider Mary’s reaction when she learns from Martha that their Lord has come.  Verse 32:  “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”  Martha had expressed essentially the same sentiment, but Mary’s comment just does not sound the same, maybe because of her posture of humility.  Jesus is deeply moved by Mary’s weeping and the weeping of the Jews who are with her.  He is troubled in spirit. 

You know how this story unfolds.  When he goes out to the tomb of Lazarus, our Lord weeps as he grieves for his friend.  Then he prays and calls to Lazarus, who has been entombed several days.  Martha, true to form, cautions, “Lord, the body is going to smell bad.”  The Scriptures put it more indelicately by saying that the tomb will have a stench.  When Jesus calls to Lazarus, Lazarus walks out and joins his family and friends.  What is so amazing about these accounts is that Lazarus never says a word.  Of course, how could he say anything in a home with two sisters like this?  A play written about Lazarus after his resurrection, Lazarus Laughed, depicts Lazarus as laughing at everything that happens but never saying a word.  Once Lazarus was raised from the dead, the plot thickens.  Now the religious leaders are really determined to get Jesus.

We see Jesus returning to Bethany for a third visit as the time of Passover draws near.  This scene unfolds in Chapter 12 exactly the way we would expect.  Christians gather for this meal, which occurs on a Sunday night.  It is like a Eucharist meal.  Martha is true to form, running around taking care of the meal given in Jesus’ honor, while Lazarus sits at the table, maybe just laughing, with many other guests.  The word “servant” is used in both of the Gospels of Luke and John to describe Martha.  We see her taking the servant role at this meal.  The Greek word for “servant” is Diakonos, which is where the word “deacon” originates.  Martha has a servant heart.  She is serving, fulfilling the role of a deacon.  Many scholars believe that the early church interpreted Martha as having assumed the role of a deacon.

Such a contrast occurs between these two sisters.  While Martha worries over the meal preparation, Mary comes to Jesus with a precious possession, her alabaster jar containing pure nard.  Most scholars believe the jar contained a very expensive and fragrant perfume made from balsam.  As she pours this expensive liquid on him, Mary again sits at the feet of Jesus.  It was customary to give a refreshing foot bath to a visitor who had made a long journey.  Mary goes beyond that, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiping them with her hair.  Her behavior is an act of love, sacrificial love, self-giving love.  

Years ago when I went to seminary in Kentucky, I attended a conference at the University of Louisville.  A nun from Bellarmine College, a Catholic college in Louisville, sat with me at the table.  I struck up a conversation with her, asking her name, and she said, “My name is Sister Mary Martha.” 

I asked, “They gave you both names!” 

“Yes, they did.  Do you know why?  I am both people.” 

Isn’t it true that most of us are both Martha and Mary?  We are people that ought to take some action, do something even if it is wrong, live by the great swoosh that commands us to “Just do it.”  Jesus seems to affirm that we need to be people of action.  Jesus also affirms that we need to be people of prayer, people of devotion, people who can stop and pay attention, people who can sit at the feet of Jesus.  The nun at the conference was a great example of the way it really is for most of us.  We are both Martha and Mary.  In Martha, we see that love that tells us, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  In Mary, we see the love that is the love of God.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.”  Jesus cherishes both parts of our lives.  Both parts are important. 

We see a prelude to what Jesus will do for his disciples and for Mary when she breaks the alabaster jar and gives to Jesus a very expensive gift.  Her anointing of Jesus’ feet points to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  Jesus will pour out his life as a very expensive gift, broken on that old rugged cross.  His gift was not just for his disciples.  His gift was not just for Mary.  It is for red-heads and blondes and brunettes.  It is for people who have lost their hair, for people who have grey hair, for people who change the color of their hair.  It is a gift given for everyone.  This precious gift that is so expensive was given freely for the salvation of the whole world.  I have seen these two sisters, but I do not just see just these two women.  I see all men and women, all Christian disciples of all kinds.  I see this attraction to Jesus, this attraction to the crucified Christ.

Who died to take away the sins of the world?  Do you know him?  Have you accepted Jesus as your Savior?  If not, could I please invite you to make that decision?  Acknowledge Jesus as the Savior of your life.  We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010

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