MARY: UNWAVERING FOCUS

 

Week of May 28, 2006

 

Bible Passage:  Luke 10:38-42; John 12:1-8.

 

Biblical Truth:  People can remain focused on Jesus by listening to Him, giving Him their best, and having greater concern for His approval than that of others.

 

Background.  In this chapter, we meet two extraordinary women – Mary and Martha. They lived with their brother, Lazarus, in the small village of Bethany. That was about two miles southeast of the Temple’s eastern gate, just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem’s city center. Both Luke and John recorded that Jesus enjoyed hospitality in the home of this family. He went there on at least three crucial occasions in the gospels. Bethany was apparently a regular stop for Him in His travels, and this family’s home seems to have become a welcome hub for Jesus during His visits to Judea.

 

John records that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus [John 11:5]. We are not told how this particular household became so intimate with Jesus. But the relationship obviously developed into a warm and deeply personal fellowship. The fact that Jesus actively cultivated such friendships sheds light on the kind of man He was. It also helps explain how He managed to have an itinerant ministry in Judea without ever becoming a homeless indigent, even though He maintained no permanent dwelling of His own. Apparently, people like Martha and Mary regularly welcomed Him into their homes and families, and He was clearly at home among His many friends.

 

Scripture gives three significant accounts of Jesus’ interaction with this family. First, Luke 10:38-42 describes a minor conflict between Martha and Mary over how best to show their devotion to Christ. That is where we initially meet Martha and Mary in the New Testament. The way Luke described their clashing temperaments was perfectly consistent with everything we see in two later incidents recorded by John. A second close-up glimpse at the lives of these two women comes in John 11. Virtually the entire chapter is devoted to a description of how their brother Lazarus died and was brought back to life by Christ. Jesus’ personal dealings with Martha and Mary in this scene highlighted their individual characteristics. The third and final account where both of these women appeared together is in John 12:1-11. Here John records how Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wiped His feet with her hair.

 

Listen to Jesus: Luke 10:38-42.

 

[38] Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. [39] She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. [40] But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” [41] But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; [42] but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”  [NASU]

 

Martha seemed to be the elder of the two sisters. Jesus had apparently come at Martha’s invitation. She was the one who welcomed Him in, signifying that she was the actual master of ceremonies in this house. Martha wanted everything to be just right. She was a conscientious and considerate hostess. Much in her behavior was commendable. Soon, however, Martha grew irritable with Mary. She complained to Jesus and asked Him to intervene and set Mary straight. Jesus’ reply must have utterly startled Martha. It did not seem to have occurred to her that she might be the one in the wrong, but the little scene earned her the gentlest of admonitions from Jesus. Luke’s account ends there, so we are probably safe to conclude that the message penetrated straight to Martha’s heart and had exactly the sanctifying effect Christ’s words always have on those who love Him.

 

Jesus’ gentle admonition to Martha is first of all a reminder that we should honor others over ourselves. Humility had been a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching, and a difficult lesson for most of His disciples to learn. Martha’s external behavior at first appeared to be true servanthood. She was the one who put on the apron and went to work in the task of serving others. But her treatment of Mary soon revealed a serious defect in her servant’s heart. She allowed herself to become censorious and sharp-tongued. Such words in front of other guests were certain to humiliate Mary. Martha either gave no thought to the hurtful effect of her words on her sister, or she simply did not care. Furthermore, Martha was wrong in her judgment of Mary. She assumed Mary was being lazy. In reality, Mary was the one whose heart was in the right place. Her motives and desires were more commendable than Martha’s. Jesus knew it, even though no mere mortal could ever make that judgment by observing the external behavior of the two women. But Jesus knew it because He knew the hearts of both women. Martha’s behavior shows how subtly and sinfully human pride can corrupt even the best of our actions.

 

What Martha was doing was by no means a bad thing. She was waiting on Christ and her other guests. In a very practical and functional sense, she was acting as servant to all, just as Christ had so often commanded. But the moment she stopped listening to Christ and made something other than Him the focus of her heart and attention, her perspective became very self-centered. At that point, even her service to Christ became tainted with self-absorption and spoiled by a very uncharitable failure to assume the best of her sister. Martha was showing an attitude of sinful pride that made her susceptible to several other kinds of evil as well: anger, resentment, jealousy, distrust, a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and unkindness. Worst of all, Martha’s words impugned the Lord Himself: Lord, do you not care [10:40]. Did she really imagine that He did not care? But Martha’s thoughts and feelings had become too self-focused. She turned her attention from Christ and began watching Mary with a critical eye. Naturally, it began to ruin the whole evening for Martha.

 

Mary, by contrast, was so consumed with thoughts of Christ that she became completely oblivious to everything else. She sat at His feet and listened to Him intently, absorbing His every word and nuance. She was by no means being lazy. She simply understood the true importance of this occasion. The Son of God Himself was a guest in her home. Listening to Him and worshiping Him were at that moment the very best use of Mary’s energies and the one right place for her to focus her attention. Mary’s temperament seemed naturally more contemplative than Martha’s. Mary wanted to listen intently to Jesus, while Martha bustled around making preparations to serve the meal. It is interesting to read this narrative and try to imagine how the average woman might respond if placed in a situation like Martha’s. In a real sense, Martha’s feelings were natural and somewhat understandable. What Martha expected Mary to do was, in itself, perfectly fine and good. Nevertheless, what Mary was doing was better still. She had chosen the good part. She had discovered the one thing needful: true worship and devotion of one’s heart and full attention to Christ. That was a higher priority even than service, and the good part she had chosen would not be taken away from her, even for the sake of something as gracious and beneficial as helping Martha prepare Jesus a meal.

 

Mary’s humble, obedient heart was a far greater gift to Christ than Martha’s well set table. This established worship as the highest of all priorities for every Christian. Nothing, including even service rendered to Christ, is more important than listening to Him and honoring Him with our hearts. It is a danger, even for people who love Christ, that we not become so concerned with doing things for Him that we begin to neglect hearing Him and remembering what He has done for us. We must never allow our service for Christ to crowd out our worship of Him. The moment our works become more important to us than our worship, we have turned the true spiritual priorities on their heads. Worship which is epitomized here by listening intently to Jesus’ teaching is the one thing most needed. Service to Christ must always be subordinate to that.

 

Give Your Best to Jesus: John 12:1-3.

 

[1] Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. [2] So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. [3] Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.    [NASU]

It appears that this gathering was a close group of Jesus’ friends and disciples. Perhaps it was a formal celebration of Lazarus’s return from the dead. If so, this group of friends had come together mainly to express their gratitude to Jesus for what He had done. Mary knew exactly how best to show gratitude. Her action of anointing Jesus was strikingly similar to another account from earlier in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 7:36-50].  Nard is an oil extracted from the root and spike of the nard plant, grown in India. Its purity and origin account for its high cost. Mary took the most precious thing she possessed and spent it all on Jesus. Love is not love if it nicely calculates the cost. It gives its all and its only regret is that it has not still more to give. Since those who were eating were reclining, their feet extended away from the table, making it possible to anoint as much of the person as one might wish, including the feet. The feet signify the utmost in self-humbling devotion and love. Mary let down the tresses of her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. This was not done by a woman in public. This was the sign of an immoral woman. But Mary never considered that. Instead her heart went out to her Lord and she gave expression to something of her feelings in this beautiful and touching act.

Therefore ties this section of the narrative in with the preceding. The chief priests and the Pharisees were seeking to put Jesus to death. He had retired to a quiet spot. At the set time Jesus came up to the city where he would be delivered up to death. Notice John’s interest in precise detail. He tells us exactly when Jesus came to Bethany; six days before the Passover. It was coming very near the end for Jesus. To come to Jerusalem for the Passover was an act of the highest courage, for the authorities had made him in effect an outlaw [John 11:57].

 

Seek the Approval of Jesus: John 12:4-8.

 

[4] But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, [5] “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” [6] Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. [7] Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. [8] For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”     [NASU]

 

Here we get a clear picture into the character of Judas. We see how a man’s view can be warped. Judas had just seen an action of surpassing loveliness; and he called it extravagant waste. Judas points out that nard was valuable. He asks why the perfume was not sold and the money given to the poor. But John tells us that Judas did not speak in this way out of concern for the poor but from motives of dishonesty. This is the one place in the four Gospels wherein Judas is shown to be of bad character prior to the betrayal. Mark 14:10,11 makes it clear that it is this episode, including Jesus’ sharp rebuke, that finally prompts Judas to approach the religious authorities with the proposal of betrayal.

 

Jesus would have nothing to do with the criticism brought against Mary. Mary meant this to be an act of costly, humble devotion. Mary seemed to be able to discern Jesus’ true meaning even better than any of the twelve disciples. Her gesture of anointing Him in preparation for His burial at the beginning of that final week in Jerusalem shows a remarkably mature understanding. That was the fruit of her willingness to sit still, listen, and ponder. It was the very thing that always made Mary such a sharp contrast to Martha, whose first inclination was usually to act, or react. Opportunity is to be seized while it is there. The poor are always present. But Jesus is not. The time for actions of devotion toward Him is much shorter than those at the table think. Our Lord accordingly welcomes the action of Mary.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.   What did Martha apparently think it meant to serve Jesus? Observe Jesus’ solution to Martha’s complaint. What kind of service was most important to Him? What does this passage teach about the relationship between worship and service?

 

2.   Compare Mary’s action with Judas’ reaction. What does this reveal about their character, their motivations, their attitude towards Jesus?

 

3.   How does Jesus evaluate what Mary has done? Is Mary’s action prompted by her understanding of future events? What can we learn about love from this passage?

 

References:

Luke, Darrell L. Bock, Baker.

The Gospel According to John, D.A. Carson, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Twelve Extraordinary Women, John MacArthur, Nelson Books.