Ephraim, by the wilderness
Jesus had been keeping a low profile in Ephraim, some distance away from Jerusalem, for about a month or so after Lazarus’ resurrection. Many of the temple elite had been there to mourn with the sisters and had witnessed the raising up of Lazarus’ dead and decaying body. Martha and Mary had run to unwind their brother, with trembling hands, and ragged breath. Were his shroud clothes, stained with the fluids of corruption, now unclean? Or had they been purified by the might power that had raised him up?
The others had watched in dumbstruck awe, unconsciously clutching their own robes tightly around them. Horror battled with hope, for who or what would emerge from those long strips of linen?
Then Lazarus’ face had broken free, and he had cried out with joy, and now his arms were wrapping around his sisters in a fierce embrace. Jesus had watched, quietly. Many fell to their knees as they looked on, raising their hands and face to Almighty God, their praises ringing out in the crisp air. The professional mourners now became dancers and singers in a victory celebration,
The Lord is my strength and my might,People of Israel by the Red Sea, Exodus 15:2-3
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
They shouted the ancient conqueror’s canticle.
But there had been some among the Pharisees who were deeply shaken and had hurried back to Jerusalem, just two miles away, to consult with those in authority there. Now, as Thomas and the others had predicted, Jesus was in serious risk of stoning.
So, they had come here to Ephraim, the region nearest to the wilderness, where Jesus had been well-received, and where news did not travel fast. For a month and more Jesus had taught and healed, and stolen away to quiet, remote places to be in communion with the Father.
One morning, as the sun was just easing over the horizon, the shadows melting back, and the disciples were waking from where they had slept in small wooded copse, a figure walked toward them, catching the light in his flowing robes. It was as though molten rays rippled around him. He called out to them, Let us go, and the old familiar whoosh of wind coursed through them, lifting a smile here, and a flash in the eyes there.
The Feast of Pesach was approaching, they knew, and Jesus meant to go back to Bethany to stay until Passover, just six days away.
Simon the Leper’s Banquet
John’s twelfth chapter opens with what sounds like a dinner given in honor of Jesus by all the local inhabitants of Bethany, maybe all those who had been there when Lazarus was raised from the dead.
- Simon the Leper, probably someone Jesus had healed, was the host.
- Martha was serving the meal.
- Lazarus was a guest of honor.
- Besides Jesus and his disciples there were other guests.
By its description, it sounds like it was a sizeable feast. Yet, everyone there was taking a chance, so near Jerusalem, for there was an active arrest warrant out on Jesus.
Alabaster Jar of Nard
At some point during the evening, Mary brought out an alabaster jar containing a pound of pure nard, which would have been worth about $40,000 today. Nard was an aromatic oil that came from the resin of a plant that, at that time, grew only in India. It was something she had apparently been saving for a while.
The other gospels note that Mary first poured the perfume on Jesus’ head, then poured the rest on his feet. As the oil poured out, she loosened her hair and wiped up the excess, so that all the perfume would be on Jesus, and none would drop to the floor.
Months earlier another woman had done the same thing for Jesus, weeping as she wiped his feet at another function in a Pharisee’s house.
A Woman’s Glory
A woman’s hair was considered her glory and was to be enjoyed by no other man than her husband. It was unthinkable to loosen her hair in an open setting. Yet she openly expressed her affection and adoration for Jesus in a way that would have made everyone uncomfortable in that room.
Symbolically Mary linked herself with Jesus, having given to him her worldly treasure, her womanly glory, and her prospects for the future. She joined her life with his.
Everyone in the house was affected by Mary’s gift as they breathed in the rich scent of this expensive perfume. Since she had the perfume now in her hair, wherever she went she would be reminded of of this cherished moment.
A Family Affair
In an early story about Martha and Mary, they had opened their home to Jesus, and his disciples as they were on their way to Jerusalem.
Apparently, Mary had not been the least bit interested in all the preparations that were distracting Martha so. Mary just wanted to be with Jesus, receive his teaching, maybe even just take in his presence, listen to his voice, watch his beloved face.
Both loved Jesus.
Both pulled out the stops for Jesus.
Neither one of them had any complaint about Jesus dropping in unannounced, and with a big entourage. In fact, they both seemed delighted to throw open the doors of their home to Jesus.
Martha wanted to feed Jesus’ body, but Mary wanted to feed Jesus’ soul.
Martha wanted to make sure Jesus had everything he needed, Mary wanted to affirm Jesus in who he was.
Both gifts were beautiful, and both gifts were needed.
We know Jesus and his disciples often were hungry, seldom got rest, and Jesus even talked about how they regularly had nowhere to rest their heads—in other words, they slept outside in the rough. Martha’s invitation to come into her home, eat, rest, have a place to stay, was a rich and wonderful gift.
Gift of Intimacy
Mary’s gift was different.
So few people really listened to Jesus, let alone believed him. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not listen that well; their hearts were sometimes even hardened. Jesus talked about the people’s calloused hearts, not listening, not understanding, about the religious leaders—who should have been among Jesus’ most ardent supporters—having hard hearts. John had earlier written “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.”
Yet Jesus was entrusting himself to Mary.
Martha could not see that what Mary was giving Jesus was as worthy as what Martha was trying to do for Jesus. She
- was trying to make her sister do what Martha thought was the better work, the “right” work.
- could not see her sister for who she really was; and Martha’s sense of injury for herself was real.
- felt overworked, underappreciated, and even unnoticed by the Lord.
Jesus intended for Martha to become aware of her sister, and of the value of what Mary chose to give to the Lord, and to receive from him.
Here, once again Martha was serving dinner.
I get the sense Martha was deeply satisfied and at peace serving at this banquet. She was worshiping in her gift set and skill set, giving to the Lord the very best of herself. She also was setting the scene for Mary to give the very best of herself to Jesus.
Both sisters were in harmony, recognizing each other’s strengths and gifts.
They supported each other in their service to the Lord. Both sisters were ministering to the Lord in both the ways Jesus needed, to his physical needs of food, a place to stay, a gathering of friends, safety. And also to his emotional needs of being understood, of being known.
- By bringing together his closest friends, and in honor of two of the people Jesus had miraculously brought back to life, Martha was giving Jesus a sanctuary of safety and comfort, a place to rest, to be fed, to be taken care of.
- By anointing him in front of his disciples, Mary was entering into Jesus’ anguish over the coming cross, and demonstrating to Jesus’ disciples the meaning of what was about to happen. It is one of the most intimate scenes in Jesus’ whole life.
Jesus received from Martha that night, and he received from Mary. Both worshiped in their ways, giving the Lord a rare blessing. In their working together, supporting each other, Martha and Mary’s love and honor to Jesus was multiplied.
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