John (Part 38): Lazarus, Mary, and Martha – cont’d (ch 11)
We found that John assumes his readers know of Mary because of the inclusion of the anointing story in Matthew and Mark. But why does John mention it? Why does he want his readers to recall, at this point, exactly who Mary, and, therefore, her sister, is? If he were intent on simply telling the story, we as readers would get to the anointing by the next chapter. But John wants his readers here at the outset to recall the characters. So, as interested readers, we should go back to the Synoptics to recall what we already know about this family.
There are two major stories regarding Mary and Martha. We’ve already mentioned the anointing incident. The other is in Luke 10:38-42. For a moment, clear your mind. Forget everything else and simply read the next paragraph. As preparation for this paragraph, let’s assume that Peter (the disciple) had another brother besides Andrew. Let’s call him Abner. Abner believes in Jesus, but does not travel with him around Palestine. Instead, in taking the words of Jesus to heart, he attempts to conduct Kingdom ministry there in his home community at Capernaum. With that in mind, read the following paragraph.
“While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, he entered a village, and a man named Abner welcomed him. He had a brother named Peter, who also was a disciple of Jesus and learned from him.
“But Abner was overburdened by his many ministry duties, and he came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my brother has left me to minister alone? So tell him to help me.” The Lord answered, ‘Abner, Abner, you are caring of and stressed about many things, but one thing is necessary. Peter has chosen well, and it will not be taken away from him.’”
Okay, now, having read that paragraph, did you, from that paragraph, get the sense that Abner was busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for Jesus and the disciples, and he was upset because Peter wouldn’t help him in the kitchen? No? But when we change the names to Martha and Mary instead of Abner and Peter, and read this same story from Luke 10:38-42, the traditional interpretation includes Martha busy in the kitchen with meal preparation while Mary is refusing to help her, choosing rather to sit in the living room at the feet of Jesus listening to him talk.
The difference is in assumption, helped along by Greek idiom and translation. With women as the characters along with words like diakonia (word from which we get our English word deacon, which means—and is translated variously—serve or minister) and sitting at the Lord’s feet, we somehow decide that this is a household squabble about kitchen duties at a particular point in time. But understanding service as ministry, sitting at the feet as student of, and was listening to as learning from, suddenly we are transported away from a domestic dispute and into the realm of ministry application.
The story in Luke 10 very well could be a lesson in how to understand ministry. And, in fact, this story comes at the end of a string of incidents back to chapter 8 in which Luke is stressing ministry. Martha, who the text implies is a follower of Jesus, is serving in her home village of Bethany. She knows people. She knows their needs. She cares about these her friends and neighbors. But there are so many people she knows and cares for, she is overwhelmed. Mary, on the other hand, while also a follower of Jesus, has chosen to follow Jesus—literally. She is one of those women described just two chapters earlier in Luke 8:3, who make up the traveling group that follows Jesus and supports him (it appears that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were well off). There is no direct indication that we are looking in on a teaching setting of Jesus. We may have gotten the impression that it is a teaching setting because of the phrase sitting at the feet of and was listening to. But both those phrases refer to the student-teacher relationship and on-going learning activity, not a specific instance. So the scene is that Jesus and the Twelve and the other disciples—men and women—that follow him, arrive in Bethany. Mary is possibly with this group. Perhaps it was Mary that suggested going to Bethany where she offered lodging at her home. Martha welcomes Jesus because she too believes in him and loves him. But at some point, she goes to Jesus—most probably in a private setting—and wonders at Mary’s action of leaving her to simply go around listening to Jesus preach and possibly doing some ministry to strangers along the way when there was so much ministry to do right there among her friends and neighbors. Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary that she is needed right there in Bethany.
But Jesus says no. Certainly there is need, and Jesus acknowledges that Martha can see that need and is quite overwhelmed by it. But Jesus reminds her that the important thing in all of it is relationship with God through him. Mary has chosen well. Her life and heart and thoughts are wrapped up in that important thing. And her ministry, directed by the Spirit, was not going to be changed because Martha needed help. It was not that Martha’s ministry was not important. But it appears that Martha’s eyes were cast a bit lower, elevating the immediate needs of the people (perhaps in helping the sick and the poor, etc.) and her own stress above that ultimate purpose of relationship with God in Jesus.
And this, then, is perhaps what John wants us to remember as we begin this passage in John 11. Martha is a woman who loves Jesus and God but see the importance of her immediate ministry as the ruling priority. And that priority she has imagined has made her judgmental toward Mary and feeling slighted. Mary seems to lead with her heart, having a more general attraction to ministry. We will see these two attitudes played out in the chapter before us.
In this introduction, John also tosses in a curve ball. We understand that by bringing the anointing incident to mind, John forces us to go back to recall what we know of these characters. But his helpful reminder may appear confusing. John says, “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair” (11:2a). Well, yes, we recall the anointing story from Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. But, as we read through those stories, we find something missing. Those stories do not include any mention of Mary ever wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair. So if John’s purpose is that he wants us to recall the incident from the Synoptics, why would he mention something that the Synoptics don’t even include? Complicating this even more is that there is another story in Luke with another woman who also anoints Jesus and, in fact, does wipe his feet with her hair! Is John confused?
No, John is not confused. But first we need to look at the story in Luke to make sure we understand that this is indeed a separate incident. A few interpreters believe it is the same event. These interpreters are of a more liberal bent who understand the Bible to parallel most works of man in manipulation of history for the purpose of advancing an idea or cause. To them it seems highly unlikely that Jesus would have experienced two such anointings in his life, both by women at a dinner. It is more likely that the followers recording the story may have changed some points or impressions based on failing memories and wanting to emphasize different points. However, although the stories do have some similar elements, there are too many significant differences to regard them as the same event. The chronology is wrong. Luke records his incident amid Jesus’ travels through Nazareth, not, as the others do, in Bethany of Judea within a few days of Jesus’ death. The response to the anointing is by Simon, the Pharisee, in Luke’s account. The response is by Judas and the disciples in the other. The import of Jesus’ reply and defense of the woman in Luke concerns the forgiveness for sin that the woman seeks. In the other accounts, Jesus gives the motive of the woman as interested in, and therefore, knowledgeable of, Jesus’ approaching death.
If the stories are different, why then does John seem to conflate the two? Some expounders have tried to make John’s account insignificantly plausible by saying the pouring of the oil on his head (as stated in Mark and Matthew) naturally dripped down by gravity and run off to his feet. So it was correct in Mark and Matthew that Mary anointed his head. But it is also correct in John that the result of pouring oil on his head was that his feet were anointed, and then Mary simply wiped that oil on his feet with her hair.
But this explanation leaves too many questions, the most significant of which is if John truly is trying to remind his readers of the story in the Synoptics, why does he try to remind them with a bit in the story that they would not have read before? My understanding is that John—and Mary—are revealing a deeper understanding in this event. The whole passage, from the beginning of chapter 11 through the anointing in 12, shows a realized truth by the three siblings of the mission of the Messiah. Jesus says as much in explaining Mary’s act. She understands that he is going to his death. That is the reason she anoints him. But if she understands he is going to die, she must understand the reason he is going to die. It is to cancel sin’s curse so that people may be born to Jesus and have renewed life with God. Therefore, her anointing shows both the understanding of Jesus’ death and the understanding of the purpose of his death—for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God. The anointing of his head prepared his body for death, as Jesus said. But Mary, then, also anoints his feet and intentionally wipes it with her hair in remembrance of the sinful woman who performed that act and was forgiven. Mary brings both elements of death and forgiveness in her one act of anointing. And it is this dual-purposed act that John wants his readers to get. So John calls to their minds the anointing with which they are most familiar (Matthew and Mark) emphasizing his death, and the other story in Luke emphasizing the forgiveness of sin.
It is interesting that the introduction emphasizes Mary, but by a few verses in (verse 5), we see a shift in emphasis to Martha. Martha is mentioned in verse 5, but her sister, Mary, is not even named. Who is the main character of this story? Does John recall the family in verse 1 by reference to Mary, but shift attention in verse 5 because the story is really about Martha? Well, I don’t believe the shift is to replace Mary with Martha as lead character. I think it is to deemphasize Mary because all three siblings share the spotlight in this story. All three were going to learn the same truth, but in different ways. That truth is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
The story begins with a message coming to Jesus while he is beyond the Jordan at the place where John had baptized (10:40). Lazarus is sick at Bethany. Perhaps Lazarus had been plagued with a sickness all his life. Perhaps that is one of the burdens that Martha had borne in ministry alone as Mary traveled with Jesus. But at this point, we find that Mary had not gone with Jesus across the Jordan. She was at home with Martha. Lazarus takes a turn for the worse. Perhaps Mary, who had more opportunity for seeing the healings performed by Jesus, suggests that they send for him. And so they do. Perhaps it was Martha, however, who emphasizes to the servant messenger to tell Jesus specifically “the one You love is sick.” We know from our history with Martha that she may be a bit manipulative. Perhaps the message is meant to saddle Jesus with an extra pang of burden to motivate him to hurry to Bethany. Martha, the one who concerned herself with ministry to those around her—those of friends and family and neighbors who needed help—was urging Jesus to stop for a moment going to strangers and come to help someone who really meant something to him, someone he really knew and cared about.
Jesus replies to the messenger, in the hearing of his disciples, that the sickness will not end in death. This is the message he is giving to carry back to the sisters. Obviously, we know that Lazarus does die. But Lazarus’s death does not contradict Jesus statement. The sickness has a purpose, and that purpose is not Lazarus to end in death. The sickness is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. The glory of God is not to show power in making someone who is dead rise so that the crowd can be stunned. Glory is the display of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. The display of that truth, goodness, and beauty through the Son is Jesus’ death that results in the conquering of death and sin so that life (everlasting love relationship with God) may be given. Therefore, Jesus is saying that the purpose of the sickness is not so Lazarus will end up dead, and it is not even so much that Lazarus will be brought back to physical life. It is so that through it Jesus will both show he has come to conquer death AND that this sickness is the means by which he will actually accomplish it. This is the truth that is taught through this section—Jesus will give his life in order for those in covenant faith to gain life. Resurrection requires death. The message to Jesus was to get him to come to Judea. The disciples rightly reason that if Jesus goes to Judea, he will be killed. Jesus decides to go to Judea, meaning, then, that by this Jesus is trading his life for not only Lazarus but all people who believe.