Mary of Bethany lived near Jerusalem with her siblings Martha and Lazarus. She is likely single in a culture where women’s lives were perilous without a husband, brother, or father. Jesus welcomed Mary – an apparently average woman – as a disciple, even as it defied social expectation. (Luke 10) We next meet Mary grieving at Lazarus’ tomb. (John 11) If she and her sister are left alone, his loss had profound implications for their wellbeing. Before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps at Mary’s side.
The events at the tomb in Bethany put a target on Jesus’ back. That tension hangs in the air even as Jesus and his disciples celebrate with Lazarus. Mary throws herself in total, unabashed gratitude at Jesus’ feet. Her devotion is on full display as she anoints him – possibly pouring out her inheritance in an act of prophetic anticipation of his death. Here Mary provides a foil for Judas who, though one of the twelve, will lose the battle of competing devotions.
What to make of Mary’s act?
The narrative moves on but the question remains: What to make of Mary’s act? After eating the passover meal, anticipating his betrayal, Jesus searches for a symbol to give his disciples. This symbol would show them – and every future generation of Christians – the posture of discipleship. Jesus undresses, picks up a towel, and washes their feet. Without a word, Jesus points a third time to Mary as an exemplary disciple. (John 13)
What is it like to see Jesus through Mary’s eyes? It is hopeful to realize that Jesus sees beyond status and nurtures instead loyal, empowered humility.
In his brief but towering 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, theologian Howard Thurman examines Jesus through the eyes of people who, like Mary, find “their backs against the wall.” This portrait has fanned the flames of my love and devotion to Jesus. You may also find it an excellent companion as you complete your reading of the gospels this year.
Written by Sarah Bartley
Artwork by Lauren Wright Pittman, Anointed, © A Sanctified Art