Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42

Oh no! Not another Mary and Martha discussion! We get it. We’re all one or the other and we’re trying hard to morph a little into the opposite. To be less like “us” and more like “her.” In the story above, Mary wins the day. She earns Jesus’ approval. But somebody still had to cook dinner!

You know what? We’ve misunderstood Mary. The problem is, many of us never sit down. We are busy, busy, busy. So when we do take a minute to sit it’s to watch HGTV or surf Pinterest or YouTube. We sit to relax, to goof off for a bit. And we assume it was the same with Mary. She was tired. She was bored with all the housework and sick of her bossy sister, so she snuck off for a little rest and devotion with Jesus. And can you believe the injustice of it when she gets a pat on the head for it!

We are wrong about Mary. She wasn’t lazy. She was a rebel. She was outlandishly obedient. God saw it. And he used it in a mighty way.

Take a trip back in time with me. Let’s go to Bethany. About a mile and a half from Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives lay this little village, the “House of Dates and Figs.”   And here lives a family that Jesus loves. Martha is the big sis, Lazarus is the baby brother and Mary is the middle child. Lazarus and Jesus are friends. Can you imagine your baby brother having such a friend? Jesus likes to stay with them when he comes to Jerusalem. They have a nice home. They’re wealthy and popular. How do we know? They have a lot of friends. They have the space for big parties: twelve disciples and Jesus, plus guests!   They probably have enough rooms for these folks to stay the night too, since these parties tended to go on for hours. They have enough food to feed them: lamb, figs, dates, wine, and bread. Not to mention servants to help. Mary owns nard, a pretty pricey perfume. Martha probably has a bottle, too.

Jesus has come to dinner. And it’s a big deal.

It’s important to note that during this period the cultural climate for women was extremely restrictive. Women were not allowed to be taught by rabbis. They were only permitted to listen in the back, because it was thought they were incapable of learning and understanding religious matters. It was a waste of a man’s time to teach them. They were considered only slightly better than children and slaves. One ancient rabbi is quoted as saying, “It would be better that the words of the law should be burned than that they should be given to a women.”   Wow! Why so harsh? Why such anger? According to the beliefs of the day, women were blamed for the original sin of Eve. They bore the entire fall of mankind on their shoulders.

Jesus, Sweet Redeemer! Watch what He does.

Mary certainly wouldn’t have started out in that room. She was probably hurrying in and out of the kitchen, bringing dishes, tending to the male guests. Imagine with me, she hears Jesus’ words as she’s serving. Words of life, hope, love. They are so compelling.   She pauses…she listens…she lingers. And her heart is captivated. She looks at Jesus. Does He look back? Nod? Smile? Somehow she knew she was welcome.

And so she does the most outlandish thing. The thing no one would expect of her. The thing her culture considers brash, arrogant, and wrong. She gathers up her skirts and her courage and makes a bold statement.

She sits.

In Bible times to sit at someone’s feet meant something. It was a highly symbolic message. It meant you were a student of higher learning, a role reserved for the “best” men. It was a sign of readiness and respect. Mary was saying, “I’m here, too. I need to learn!” There were probably scowls and stares.   A few of the disciples may have cast sideways glances at Jesus. Did He see what was happening here? Was he going to do something about this?

He saw. He knew. From before Mary was born, the Lord had marked her as a learner. Heaven felt no surprise when she sat at the feet of Jesus. She was taking a spot that had always been reserved for her. Heaven breathed a sigh of approval. It was a radical moment for women. It was a building block for all of us.

But now we can also understand Martha a little better. She was probably trying to shoo that wayward middle sister back to the kitchen where she belonged, asking Jesus for help. But Jesus knew that Mary was exactly where she belonged.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42

Jesus needed a meal yes, but just a few dishes. Not an extravagant spread. Who can blame Martha? If Jesus came to my house for dinner, I’d over plan and over cook, too. But, Jesus was a teacher. What He really needed was a student. That’s why Mary had chosen what was better. She chose to learn from The Teacher. It was bold. It was risky. It was always her destiny.

And so began her journey as a disciple. The precedent Jesus set with Mary would impact the role of women from then on, right down to us! And her faith would impact the destiny of the world. That’s a dramatic statement, I know. But it’s justifiably dramatic.

Join me at another party a few years later. A lot has happened to our friends. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Remember that story?  (John 11)   Simon, the leper, who was also healed by Jesus, throws a dinner party in Jesus’s honor. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are there. Martha has been asked to play hostess, so once again she’s doing her thing, serving the guests. This is a celebration for Lazarus being raised from the dead. For Simon being healed. For Jesus and all he has done for them. The time of the crucifixion is near – just days away and Jesus knows it. The chief priests are looking for a reason to accuse him. Get rid of him. Can you feel the importance of the moment? The anticipation in the air? Jesus’ ministry has reached an apex and so has his opposition. Three gospels record what happened next.

 “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

‘Leave her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.  You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’” John 12:3-7

 Nard was pricey stuff. This was most likely Mary’s dowry. She pours out her dowry and, in scandalous devotion, she takes down her hair. This was an extremely intimate act for a woman in Bible times. One reserved for a husband. Why did she do this? She was giving Jesus, her heavenly Bridegroom, all of her future. And it was a calculated move. In Bible times, you would anoint someone’s head. Not their feet. Not unless you were indeed preparing a body for embalming and then you would anoint their whole body. Just as Mary did.

 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” Mark 10:33-34

Listen, Jesus had been telling his followers he was going to die. The disciples couldn’t understand, didn’t want to believe it. But Mary knew Jesus could rise from the dead. She saw Him do as much for her brother. She didn’t try to argue or talk him out of it. She gave her future wealth to help him prepare, all she had, her very best goodbye. And the aroma of her offering filled the house.

But to Judas it stank. Perhaps he thought, “This has gone too far! First he allows women to sit with us, now this extravagant waste!”

Down here in the dust of earth, we don’t know how God’s plans are woven together. Max Lucado said, “His ultimate will is inflexible, but the implementation of His will is not. He does not change in His character and purpose, but He does alter His strategy because of the appeals of His children.”

The cross was near, that much we know. But I wonder if God saw Mary’s spontaneous act of extravagant love and thought, “Yes, let it begin now with her…”

The very next thing the gospel of Mark records is this:

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” Mark 14:10-11

Was Mary the straw that broke Judas’ back? Was it her act of sold-out, devoted worship that set in motion a chain of events planned before the beginning of the world? Maybe it was.

We do not know where our bold acts of faith will lead. We do not know what one act of love can accomplish. Mary did what she could and when she did it, she set in motion the salvation of the world.

Where is God asking you to defy convention to sit at His feet? Where is the place of your scandalous devotion? Where can you do what you can and give all you have for Him? Who knows what your simple act of faith might do!

Jesus was at a banquet. And he needed a meal. But Jesus, The Teacher, also needed a student. Mary met that need and He transformed her faith into an example for the ages.

Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Mark 14:9