Lesson 7: Mary of Bethany
Someone has said, “The most important thing about you is what you think about God”--a simple but profound concept.
What is God like? How does He feel? More specifically, what does He think of women? Did He really intend for us to be on a little lower rung of the human ladder? Is it His will that we be abused and violated? The media is saturated today with women’s issues: issues that are constant reminders that women will not disappear into the woodwork or go back to the good old days. We have to commend much of what has been done to correct injustice and prevent abuse. But most of us would agree that in some areas, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, the church has not always been helpful in what it has contributed to this controversy. One of the reasons is that people often go back to church history to see what decisions the church fathers made over the years. The trouble with that approach is that even great scholars and godly men brought their own presuppositions, bias and just plain ignorance about women into their decisions. Tradition and Scripture are not synonymous. Tradition is human and fallible. Scripture is divine and infallible. And tradition is particularly dangerous when it is mixed with Scripture. That's why we must always go back to the Bible. Then when we hear a position, we can know what to accept because it is truth and what to reject because it is not supported by a proper interpretation of Scripture.
Women will always be uniquely women, thank God. No amount of theorizing can change the fact that God created a male and a female, equally in His image, equal in personhood, yet different in function. He created us not to compete, but to complete each other. God made women influential. We each have a sphere of influence whether we are conscious of it or not. Our greatest influence has historically been in the home.
There's no question that the devaluation of mothering and homemaking has contributed to the terrible disintegration of the family which we are all witnessing today. But women have also made an enormous impact on every other sphere of life--business, education, missions, politics, and philanthropy. The woman’s touch brings beauty grace and compassion wherever she goes. Yet we are not always appreciated as we would like to be. There are stereotypical remarks and attitudes that hurt and often hinder us from realizing the potential God has in mind for us. That's why it's essential to know how God values us. God loves women. Three little words that are important because they can give us a solid foundation upon which to build our lives.
One of the major influences in forming our ideas about God is our relationship with our parents-- especially our fathers. You see, when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God becomes our Father. And our experiences with our earthly fathers greatly influence our concept of God, our heavenly Father. If your father was kind, attentive, loving and wise, it’s easy to transfer those qualities to your heavenly Father. But if your father was harsh, hard to please, distant, cold, abusive, or absent, it’s hard to believe God is loving, caring and ever-present.
When the Bible uses an earthly example or picture to explain invisible realities, we can't help but transfer our impressions of the earthly to the heavenly. Since sin in human beings has distorted the earthly example of fatherhood, God went to a lot of trouble to show us what kind of Father he is. He sent someone that people could see, touch, and hear.
Read John 1:18 and 14:6-11.
John 1:18 (NIV):
“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.”
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."
Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”! Jesus revealed to us for all time the character of the Father--His great heart of love for his children; his sensitive compassion; his accessibility; his hatred of sin, but his forgiveness of the sinner. When Jesus acted, the Father was acting. When Jesus spoke, the Father was speaking. We must allow God to change the distorted concepts we have of Him by looking at Jesus and realizing that in Him we have the only accurate picture of our heavenly Father.
For this reason I'd like us to study today the way Jesus treated women, because only there will we see what our heavenly Father really thinks about us. Jesus set the example for all time. If his example had been followed in the church through the centuries, many injustices and misconceptions about women would have been avoided.
Jesus broke with the traditions of his culture in the way he treated women. A rabbi would never speak to a woman in public--not even to his wife. This restriction didn't bother Jesus. Remember his long conversation with the Samaritan woman? The rabbis also had a saying that you might as well teach a dog or burn the Scriptures, as to teach a woman. But Jesus taught women spiritual truth, such as Martha and the Samaritan woman.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus and his disciples were able to travel on an itinerant ministry when they were not bringing in an income to support themselves and their families? Remember these were working men. Jesus was a carpenter, others were fishermen. Who provided for them? Who cared for Jesus, cooked his meals, washed his clothes, and supported his ministry?
Read Luke 8:1-3.
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
It was unheard of for women to travel with a rabbi. But Jesus was different. These women could travel safely with Him. And he accepted their support, which arose from hearts filled with gratitude and love. Women supported the earthly ministry of Jesus from their private resources. This was a diverse group of women, from different levels of society. Some were married women, and some were single. For instance, we have no evidence that Mary Magdalene was anything other than single. And Jesus accepted them and appreciated them just as they were.
However, today I'd like to talk about one very special woman and her unique relationship with the Lord. I know that we'll be encouraged by what we learn. We first meet her in that familiar domestic situation which has become proverbial.
In their travels, Jesus and his disciples arrived at the little village of Bethany, about two miles outside Jerusalem. There a woman named Martha opened her home to him. Martha had a sister, Mary, and a brother, Lazarus. The scene is familiar, even today. The women were in the kitchen working hard to put the meal on the table and the men were in the living room or on the patio waiting and talking. But there was something different that day. Jesus was talking, and among those listening was Mary. She sat at his feet. This was the position of a learner, a disciple. When Martha, irritated that she was left to do the work by herself asked the Lord to get Mary into the kitchen, his answer is interesting.
Read Luke 10:41-42.
"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 away from her."
He didn't say that what Martha was doing was wrong, but her attitude was--and Jesus gently chided her for her worry and distraction about many things. Mary was focused, single-minded. She had chosen the better thing. She had chosen to learn from Jesus, to listen to his words, to open her heart and mind to Him. She had her priorities in proper order. And rather than rebuking her, Jesus applauded her choice.
How like Martha most of us are! We work hard to serve the Lord, and what we do is necessary. But do you ever get stressed out in your service? Do you get upset because the person who team teaches with you is always late or unprepared? Or you offer your home for a pot luck dinner, but getting everything ready really frays your nerves? And you're a little resentful because some people never open their homes? But we miss the better part--time spent with Him, listening to Him and worshiping Him. Wouldn't it make our service easier and more fruitful if we put first things first? Our Father wants our company more than He wants our busy-ness, even for Him.
As the months and years of his ministry continued, the friendship between Jesus and this family deepened. Their home was his whenever he needed it. So it's understandable that when they had a great need, they sent for Him. Lazarus was critically ill and nothing was helping him. So the message was brought to Jesus. "Lord, the one you love is sick." Then we read something that seems strange.
Read John 11:4-5.
When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
Jesus love Lazarus, Mary and Martha, but he didn't rush to Lazarus' side. He waited two more days. They wanted him to heal Lazarus. He had something far better in mind: something that would bring glory to God and to God's Son. Waiting for God is one of the hardest things we ever have to do, isn't it? But think of what they would all have missed if Jesus had just done what they wanted--heal Lazarus. We mustn't put God in a box and limit his options. Can you think of times when God didn't answer your prayers in the way and at the time you wanted? But what He did for you in the end was far better.
What disappointment or heartache are you experiencing now? You've prayed and it seems as though God doesn't hear or doesn't care. The problem is that God just doesn't follow our time schedule. Would you be able to accept your situation now if you knew just how God would be glorified as a result? But the faith that pleases God doesn't have to know how or when God is going to act. Faith just keeps on believing that God is in control and will make all things work together for our good. Philip Yancey puts it this way: faith believes ahead of time what can only be seen by looking back.
We all know that Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from the dead. But I just want us to focus our attention on Mary in the midst of the activity that went on. When word came that Jesus was finally there, she quickly went to meet him and fell at his feet. This time she was there because she was disappointed and heartbroken. Her beloved brother was dead, and Jesus could have healed him if he had been there. No one seems to have remembered that Jesus could heal people from a distance, as he did the son of a synagogue leader. Mary and their friends were loudly wailing in their grief as they still do in those cultures.
When Jesus saw her weeping, He was deeply moved. Jesus was moved by her tears! Even though he knew that in just a few minutes he would call Lazarus back from death, he shared her grief. Jesus wept. His was not a loud wailing, but gut-wrenching sobs as tears streamed down his face. This should help us to see that expressing our sorrow and grief is not wrong. If crying were sinful or unmanly, the Son of God would have never cried.
Jesus shared her sorrow. Have you ever wept with your child when he or she has been hurting? Think of your heavenly Father being moved by your tears, sharing your sorrow. He wants us to come to him today whatever our need. Heb. 4:15 says that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, so we can come with confidence to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Our Father understands our nature and our emotions as women. He sympathizes with us in our pain. He won't scold us when we come to Him. Have you been hesitant to take your aching heart to Him? Don't be. He really cares for you. You'll receive mercy, grace to endure, and healing for your pain.
Raising Lazarus from the dead brought two reactions. Many of the Jews that were there now believed in Him--but others told the religious rulers what He had done. Instead of rejoicing, this just solidified their intent to get rid of Jesus. He was a threat to their position and authority, and Jerusalem became increasingly hostile territory for Jesus.
Even so, when it was time to celebrate the Passover, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He stayed in the home of his friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. During that week before his death, a man named Simon, a leper whom Jesus had healed, held a dinner in his honor. His disciples were there. Martha as usual was helping to serve. Lazarus reclined at the table with the other guests. They didn't sit in chairs as we do. They reclined on couches, lying on their sides with their heads near the table, eating with one hand. Their feet were extended outward. We've accounted for Martha and Lazarus, but where was Mary?
Mary came in quietly with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. These jars had long necks. She broke the neck and poured some of the perfume on Jesus' head and poured the rest on his feet. Then she did something very personal and intimate. She unbound her hair and wiped his feet with it, even though a respectable woman did not let down her hair in public. She didn't care what anyone thought. Her gratitude for her brother's life, her faith that Jesus was the Messiah, and her love for Him personally motivated this sacrificial act to express her utter devotion. This was her original way of publicly declaring her total abandonment and commitment to Jesus Christ.
We each are so different. We each have different ways of expressing love and devotion to our families, friends, and to God. I'm frequently amazed by the creative things that other women do that never enter my head. Instead of feeling guilty, jealous, or inferior when someone does something we think is better than what we do, we should recognize and accept the fact that we are all unique creations and that God loves and accepts us just as we are.
Jesus loved Martha--practical, busy Martha, who provided for his creature comforts so willingly. And Jesus loved Mary--thoughtful, sensitive Mary, who listened carefully to his words and believed what he said. Over and over, Jesus had told his disciples that he would be killed in Jerusalem and then rise again. But they just didn't get it. It was Mary who knew there was not much time left. The opposition to Jesus was stronger every day. There was a contract out on Him. She had to let Jesus and everyone else know how much He meant to her. There was nothing she owned that she would not spend on him. The fragrance of the perfume filled the house. And then the buzzing started. Judas started it for his own personal reasons, and the other disciples quickly took up the refrain.
Read John 12:4-6.
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 into it.
The other Gospels tell us that all the disciples were indignant and rebuked her harshly. They were angry with Mary and expressed their displeasure in no uncertain terms. What a waste! A whole year's wages just poured out for nothing! Think of how many poor families could eat for a week on that. Can't you see them frowning in disapproval as they rebuked her publicly?
Have you ever had your motives questioned or misunderstood? Have you ever had someone criticize the way you serve the Lord or the amount of money your give to the Lord? It's bad enough in private, but public rebuke and criticism is humiliating. How does one defend himself or herself in that situation? What did Mary do? She didn't say a word in her own defense--but Jesus did.
“Why are you bothering this woman? Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” She did what she could. Jesus defended her devotion.
No one understood but Jesus. He knew her heart. He knew the depth of her love. He understood what she was saying by this extravagant deed. He said, "She has done a beautiful thing to me." He told them that the fragrance of this perfume would linger on his body while he hung on the cross and when he was buried in the tomb. He wasn’t remotely suggesting that helping the poor wasn't important. Provision for the poor was built into the Mosaic Law. But Jesus himself would not be with them physically much longer. The time to show their devotion to him in his humanity was rapidly coming to an end.
But did you notice what else Jesus said? He said, “She did what she could.” Mary was the one who was spiritually in tune with Jesus. She believed his words about his coming death and resurrection. She did what she could while he was alive. It's interesting to note that she was not one of the women who stayed at the cross or went to the tomb. She, of all people, had reason to believe his promise that he would rise from the dead. After all, hadn't she seen Lazarus brought back from death? It was enough for her that Jesus knew that she did what she could for Him.
What does Jesus reveal to us about our heavenly Father and his understanding of us as women? It tells me that he knows our talents, our resources, our genetic heritage, our personality types, our families of origin, our physical stamina, our education, our marriages, our restrictions and limitations, our opportunities, our diverse kinds of suffering, our weaknesses and our strengths. All that he asks of each of us is that we do what we can. I don't have to be like anyone else and no one has to be like me to please the Lord. There are no clones in God's family. If God decorated the world with thousands of flowers in every shape, size and color, why would we think that he wants all of us to look and act alike? What freedom this gives each of us to be ourselves, controlled by the Holy Spirit! No competition, no comparisons.
Let me add a word of caution here. There are seasons in our lives when we are freer to do some things than others. I believe that what the feminists say is true to a point. Women can have it all. The error is in what they leave out: women can have it all, but all at the same time! The years when we are raising young children may limit us for other activities. But that's OK, because the Bible says that raising children is a good deed! Among the “good deeds” listed in 1 Timothy 5:10 are “bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints,” and “helping those in trouble.”
Some of you are caring for aged parents. Jesus calls that obedience to the command to honor your parents. It pleases Him. Some of you have a full time job outside the home and another one at home. Some of you have put your education on hold. We have to know what we are able to do in conjunction with all our other responsibilities and keep our priorities in order. And when we do what we can, it pleases the Lord no matter how little or big it may seem to us.
The friendship that Jesus had with Mary should enrich our understanding and encourage us in the security of our heavenly Father's love.
- He applauded her choice to learn from Him.
- He was moved by her grief and shared it.
- He defended her devotion when others rebuked her.
We have a Savior who revealed to us the love and acceptance of our heavenly Father. He is always present with us and accessible to us. He is not distant or silent, as we sometimes imagine. He wants us to serve Him with all our resources, spirit, mind, emotions, will, and body. We women bring a unique contribution to the church and society in general. We are creative, relational, and nurturing. And we are absolutely essential to the health of the home, church, and community, and to the accomplishment of God’s purposes.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). All of life is sacred. You don't have to wait till you get your daily tasks done to have a ministry. All of life is ministry for the woman who wants to serve God. We can make an eternal impact in the midst of our mundane, daily responsibilities if we keep this perspective. All that God asks is that we do what we can.
From the example of Jesus, who revealed to us the character of God, our heavenly Father, we learn something very important. We learn what God thinks of us!
- God made us women
- God accepts us as women.
- God understands women.
- God loves women.
- God made women influential. We influence our husbands, children, friends, co-workers and our community.
Because God has wired us like this, He gives us a responsibility that only we can do. Only a woman can model godly womanhood.
Read Titus 2:3-5.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
It’s our job to befriend and be godly role models and mentors for the women coming after us. All of us have something to share from life’s experiences and our walk with God. Let's determine with God's help that our influence will be godly.
Now back to my first statement: what you think about God is the most important thing about you. If your concept of your heavenly Father doesn't line up with the picture Jesus gave us of Him, then the adjustment is yours to make. Come to your Father and tell him, "Father, I don't feel comfortable with the idea of you as my father, because of the way I feel about my earthly father. But I am willing for you to change me. I choose with my will to believe what Jesus revealed about your character. Only you can change my feelings." Then the next time a negative thought about God enters your mind, go to the Scripture. Read about Jesus and transfer his love, sympathy, compassion and power to your heavenly Father, because Jesus and the Father are one, and she who has seen Jesus has seen the Father.