Lent 2022, The Women Around Jesus: Mary of Bethany

From a sermon given at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: John 12:1-8, Luke 10:38-42 (with reference to John 11 as well)

My name is Mary and I was a friend of Jesus.  I’d like to tell you a little bit about my story.  I was born into a Jewish family.  We followed and lived by Jewish law and tradition in a town called Bethany, near Jerusalem.  After my parents died when I was young, I continued to live in the same household with my sister, Martha, and my brother, Lazarus.  Martha, Lazarus and I were all close friends of Jesus.  I don’t remember when we first met him exactly, but I remember that we were immediately drawn to him, and he was drawn to us.  Do you know when you meet someone and somehow it feels like you’ve known them all of your life?  That’s what it was like.

Martha, Lazarus and I were all good friends with Jesus— the same Jesus who was the son of God, who actually was God in flesh.  The same Jesus who spoke parables, healed people, and had many followers.  The same Jesus who got into lots of trouble with the authorities, both Jewish and Roman.  The same Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, but who was also resurrected.  The same Jesus who is called Christ.

I knew Jesus when he walked on the earth.   He was a friend.

Jesus was also my teacher.  I remember one day when Martha welcomed Jesus into our home.  On that particular day, Martha got especially caught up in what was involved in preparing the meal that we were all going to share (preparing a meal in those days was a lot of work; you have no idea) and she got upset with me for not helping her.  I was so caught up in the things Jesus was saying.  I ended up sitting there, at his feet, completely captivated.  It was so amazing to hear stories about God’s love for all and about what it means to be in a community with love and friendship at its core, what it means to love God and love our neighbors.  I couldn’t disengage myself, even though, in the back of my head, I knew that Martha was working hard in the kitchen.

At some point, Martha came purposefully into the living room.  She was so angry.  She wouldn’t even look at me.  She interrupted Jesus and told him to tell me to help her out. 

Jesus, though, in his calm but strong voice, reminded her that she shouldn’t get so worried and worked up.  He pointed at me and told her that I was doing the better thing.  Although it sounded like Jesus was scolding her, that isn’t quite right.  It was Martha’s role, as the oldest, to take responsibility for the household and she took that job seriously.  But, with that responsibility, Martha sometimes got so caught up in the tasks of the day, that she forgot to take a little time to learn, to pray, to nurture the spiritual part of herself.  Jesus just wanted her to see.  He would enjoy the meal she was cooking, but he didn’t need or want anything lavish.  It was more important to him that we, those of us who were his friends, to take time to care for our spiritual lives.  Martha sometimes forgot about that.  Maybe that’s something that you can understand?

The teaching part of this story ought to be explained as well.  Traditionally, Jewish rabbis would never teach a woman.  Jesus, though, included many women into the circle of people that he taught.  I think that he wanted all people to learn about God.  I tried to listen very carefully to what Jesus taught, which was different from many of the others who often just assumed that they knew what was happening instead of really listening to Jesus’s words or thinking about his actions.

For awhile, we saw Jesus fairly frequently and we were eager to learn more from him.  But, as time went on, Jesus became more and more popular, and we began to see him less and less.  Somewhere along the way, Lazarus, our brother, became very ill.  Martha and I were very concerned, as Lazarus seemed to get worse each day.  We sent word to Jesus because we thought that even his presence would make Lazarus feel better.  But Jesus didn’t come and Lazarus died.  Martha and I were devastated.

After Lazarus had been dead for about four days, we heard that Jesus was on his way to our village.  Martha went out to meet him.  After a short time, Martha came back and pulled me aside.  She told me that Jesus was waiting outside the village and that he had asked to see me.  I went immediately.  Martha, along with all of our friends who had gathered with us when Lazarus died, came with me too.  When we reached the place where Jesus was waiting, I went up to him and knelt by his feet and poured out my grief and heartbreak.  Without even thinking about it, I blurted out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus put his hand on my face and brushed away the tears that had begun to fall.  He looked at the crowd and said to them, “Where have you laid him?”  They replied, “Lord, come and see.”  I could see that Jesus himself had begun to cry.

In silence, we walked to the cave.  When we got there, we showed Jesus the stone that we had used to cover the opening.  Jesus looked at a few of the stronger ones in the group and said, “Take away the stone.”  You should have seen the look on Martha’s face.  She told Jesus that Lazarus had been dead for four whole days.  Surely, the stone should not be rolled away.

But Jesus looked at Martha and asked her to remember, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Martha nodded her head, slowly starting to look a bit more hopeful, anticipating.  So, they moved that stone.  Then Jesus looked up toward the heavens and thanked God.  Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!’  With our eyes glued on the cave, we held our breath.  And, as unbelievable as it may sound, Lazarus did come out of that cave, very much alive.  It occurred to me that all who were there had been given a great gift.  As for me, I knew at that moment that my friend was no ordinary man.  I knew that he was indeed the son of God.

After Lazarus came back to us, life didn’t exactly get back to normal.  In fact, life got complicated.  It was great to have Lazarus back, but we began to realize that a few of the others who had witnessed that event at the cave had begun to get suspicious and fearful.  Jesus had gone too far.  Some went to the Pharisees who were alarmed at the news. We began to hear little bits of rumor that the Pharisees were so deeply troubled that they were beginning to think of ways to put to an end what they saw as impending chaos.  Those Pharisees.  It didn’t take a scholar to know that they had difficulty dealing with this man who was increasing his following, and, to be completely honest, splitting the Jews into groups.  I think the Pharisees thought that the Romans would then be able to destroy the Jews as a people and the only way to stop that from happening would be to stop Jesus, even to the point of getting him killed.

But, that plan was not easy at first because Jesus had left town.  Some of his disciples went with him to protect him.  After he left, many began to wonder if he would surface for the upcoming Passover.  We heard that the chief priests and the Pharisees had sent around the message that they wanted to know where Jesus was so that they could have him arrested.  Martha, Lazarus and I began to fear for Jesus’s life.

Then we heard that Jesus was coming to our house to visit; he would arrive six days before the Passover.  We knew that he would bring his disciples, so we also invited some of the villagers whom we knew we could trust.  We were going to have a great party.  We really wanted to show Jesus how important he was in our lives.

Martha, of course, planned the dinner, which was, in those days, more than a regular dinner party.  It was more like a sacred and religious experience—a time for a close group to come together to share stories, a time to share our lives with each other, an opportunity to be together in a special way. 

As for myself, I gathered up all of my money.  I went to the market to purchase the best perfumed ointment that I could find.  Deep-down inside, I knew that I wanted to do something special and something dramatic.  Jesus was my friend.  Jesus was my teacher.  Jesus had raised my brother from the dead.  This was no ordinary man.  In my heart, I knew that he would not be with us much longer.  He was far too dangerous.

But, what could I do to let him know how I felt, to share what I knew?  I could have prepared a speech, but didn’t seem right, and, besides, there would be too many people.  I would never be able to get all the words out.  Martha was good at words.  Not me.

I wanted to do more.  I wanted to make a statement.  It wasn’t that I wanted fame or glory.  I wanted to leave a message.  I was a woman and Jesus loved me.  I was a woman and Jesus taught me.  I was a woman and Jesus respected me.

I bought that ointment, which cost almost a year’s wages, and I put it in safe place and I waited for the party to begin.  The meal did take place six days before the Passover.  I waited until I thought the time was right and then I went over to Jesus and anointed his feet with the ointment.  I undid my hair and I wiped his feet with it.  I wanted to show him that I not only knew who he was but I knew what was going to happen to him; and I wanted to do this in front of this room full of people. 

In the anointing with the perfumed ointment, I wanted to show that I knew that Jesus was going to die soon.  I wanted to share this wonderful, expensive ointment with Jesus while he was still alive, rather than after his death.  The whole house was filled with the scent of the perfume.  Everything got very still and quiet. 

Then, out of the peacefulness, Judas yelled, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  That Judas, he was always so concerned with the money.  He was one of the Twelve, yet he did not seem to grasp what was really happening.  Didn’t he realize that Jesus had been trying to teach us that caring for the poor did not just mean giving them money?  Jesus responded to him saying, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 

Although I really felt sad after the dinner was over, I also felt really good.  In some ways, I think that I was a comfort to Jesus, who was struggling himself with the implications of the events that were taking place so quickly.  I did what I felt was right.  I found the courage to do something I never thought I could do.  Jesus had given me that courage.  He had given me the respect I needed to assert myself.  Without words, I gave my testimony.  I became a true disciple: I served; I loved; and I shared in Jesus’s death so that I might truly be a part of his life.  I can only hope and pray that my story will be remembered and understood.

My name is Mary and I was a friend of Jesus.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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