MARY OF BETHANY John 12:1-11

A Sermon with the Anglican Community in Paphos, Cyprus, April 6, 1998

by Robert Brow  (

This is the last of a series of Lenten sermons we have titled "Spiritual Spring Cleaning." And today I want to stress that for each of us the way we do that is very different. We have defined repentance as turning to God. And I described one of those big dishes on a farm in Canada which turns to focus on a satellite. When it is pointed in the right direction there are hundreds of different channels to choose from. Similarly God does not want mass produced uniformity. He delights in many ways of loving and being loved. That means he has a different spiritual channel for each one of us gathered here this evening in this ancient church building.

Mary's spiritual channel was quite different her sister Martha, or her brother Lazarus who had been raised from the dead. This is what we have just read in the Gospel reading. "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead" (John 12:1). When you have been raised from the dead, you are never the same again. The Gospel reading goes on: "There they gave him a dinner. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him" (John 12:3).

Jesus had been in that home in Bethany before, and you remember Martha's reaction when she was busy preparing a huge meze meal with many more dishes than Jesus needed. "Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks" She came to him and asked., "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one dish. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42). I don't think Jesus was rebuking her for being a Martha who loved to cook. The problem arose when she wanted Mary to be the same as she was. The art is to enjoy doing what you want to do in Jesus' service, but to respect the right of others to be very different.

The interesting thing is that Luke introduces that occasion as "a woman named Martha welcomed him to her home" (Luke 10:38). And in two other Gospels the home that they gathered in was "the home of Simon the leper" (Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:3). But in our Gospel it is described as the home of Lazarus (John 12:1). Why would the house be first described as belonging to Martha, then as owned by Simon the leper, and then as the home of Lazarus? I imagine she had to run the home when her husband was put out of the village for having contracted leprosy.

In the previous chapter John had described how Lazarus was raised from the dead, and this had resulted in a meeting of the Sanhedrin where Caiaphas the acting high priest had decided the only solution was to have Jesus die to save the Jewish nation (John 11:45-51). It was obviously a very dangerous situation, and this is perhaps why John avoided mentioning that the brother in law of Lazarus (or the father of the family) was a leper. And that being the case, Lazarus would have been counted as the male owner in his place. But it was Martha who ran the house.

I like to think her husband Simon had been healed through Jesus, and had to wait till he was declared free of leprosy. He also would have had his own experience of faith with all the prejudice of having been a leper. And some of you have lived with the experience of terrible sickness, being rejected, and despised. That is also a way of loving the Lord.

But Mary's style of faith experience was different from her sister Martha, or her brother Lazarus, or Simon the leper, and also different from the disciples who were invited to this dinner that was so charged with fear and foreboding.

Mary had "a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard" (from Nalda in India). The Gospels tells us the ointment was worth at least $10,000 dollars. And it is almost certain that Mary had bought this and set it aside, as was the custom, for her wedding day. To the astonishment of all at table she went and brought the flask, broke the stopper, poured the ointment on Jesus' feet , and wiped it with her hair. John remembered how the whole house "was filled with the fragrance of the perfume" (John 12:3).

Jesus was not the least embarrassed by this devotion. And when Judas objected that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus said "Leave her alone." And in Mark's Gospel he explained "She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her" (Mark 14:8). In most missionary situations Mark's Gospel is usually the first to be translated and given out for people to use. And that has in fact taken place in well over 2000 languages.

Now you can see Lazarus was certainly grateful to Jesus, but he did not think of doing this. Nor would his sister Martha, since she was probably minding the serving and clearing up the meal. Simon was still awaiting to be free to come back in society. And the apostles never even thought of washing Jesus' feet at the last supper, let alone anoint them with perfume from India. But Mary's impulsive act of love and devotion was greatly appreciated by Jesus. None of us can anoint Jesus's feet, however much we love him. But each of us in our own unique way can be a joy to him as we serve in his Kingdom.

Postscript I preached this sermon five years ago in Paphos. As I have just written it up, I have realized how relevant it is to me. When I began the website ten years ago it was mainly for me to keep a record of my life and work. Now I can view it as my little offering for the Lord to make himself known in the world. But I am very conscious of the millions of brothers and sisters who each in their own way make their contribution to his work.

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