In the beginning of the animated fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” beauty Belle is seen going through the town contending with ‘same old, same old.’ Then, with her nose in a book, she seeks the adventure inside while fluttering, flowing and twirling through the humdrum streets.
Look there she goes that girl is strange no question. / Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell? / Never part of any crowd. / Cuz her head’s up on some cloud. / No denying she’s a funny girl that Belle…
Belle cries, “There must be more than this provincial life!” Still, the onlookers say, “It’s a pity and a sin. She doesn’t quite fit in. She really is a funny girl–that Belle!”
I think Belle and Mary of Bethany–the sister to Martha and Lazarus–would have totally clicked with each other. I’d love to hang with the likes of these two women too, all eyes dancing with revelation and passion. Each one saying, “I knew there had to be more! I just knew it!”
In my experience, Mary of Bethany has traditionally been viewed as a devoted women with the priorities to choose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him while her sister whirred busily around the kitchen. Perhaps we think of her plopping down giddily like, “Ooo, tell me a story, Jesus! Scooch over, Peter! This is so interesting! The falafel can wait.”
But look closer at this peculiar woman. This Mary of Bethany. She was a bold beauty–and an intelligent one.
“Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:39). Okay, lest we stay stuck on our picture of cross-legged, hands-on-her-chin story time for Mary, we need to know in Jewish culture what it meant to sit at the feet of a rabbi. You see, Jesus was not some uneducated drifter that sauntered into town. He was a Jewish, learned rabbi, educated in the scriptures and allowed at age 30, like other rabbis, to begin His ministry. To “sit at the feet” of a rabbinical teacher was to be learning from Him intimately as a disciple. Even Paul used the saying that he “trained at the feet” of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, to become like him in character, and to eventually teach in the community.
Mary–a woman–was learning as a disciple when and where she could. I don’t know, but if women “counted” in the disciple roll call back then, she probably would have easily pushed the number up past 12. This was not just a lady who had her priorities straight to do her devotional time. This was a woman who straight up was breaking a societal norm big time to be educated like the boys by this Jewish rabbi. She didn’t DO devotions. She WAS devoted. And Jesus endorsed it! Very peculiar, indeed.
This is a time in history when Jewish wisdom literature says that rabbis were supposed to keep at least six feet away from a woman at all times. Not only that, but here was a little nugget for rabbinical disciples of the day to abide by: “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna [hell].” Oh, and…“Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman … Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.”
Jesus basically said a big “so what” to this accepted idea of what a woman’s place should be. And, this Mary–this young, unmarried woman– was so captivated by Jesus that she risked everything to follow Him, and to study under His teaching. In fact, she wouldn’t stay away from His feet.
After Lazarus had died, John 11:32 says, “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus loved this family, and Mary’s deep hurt made Jesus weep. She had that affect on Him.
First, she sat at His feet. Then she fell at His feet. Finally, she poured her earthly picture of worth out on His feet, and then scandalously let her hair caress His oiled feet. What is wrong with this woman? Is she crazy? Is she naive? Is she too emotional? Has she lost it?
Mary takes a jar of expensive perfume–worth around $40,000 in today’s economy–and pours it out on Jesus’ head and feet. We normally will say, “Wow, she must have been just so thankful for what Jesus did to raise her brother from the dead to so extravagantly thank Jesus.” But, wait, what was she saying with her actions that day?
In those days, for a woman to personally own an expensive possession usually meant it was her dowry and was reserved for her one-day husband. Her entire worth and future was wrapped up in that offering. Once a woman was of marrying age, her family purchased an alabaster box for her and filled it with expensive ointment. The size and the value paralleled the size of the family’s wealth.
But Mary didn’t reserve her worth to present to her earthly bridegroom; she gave it to her spiritual bridegroom. This was the gesture of a woman asking for Jesus to empty out her attachment to her wordly treasure so she could receive the highest treasure of the world to come. She abandoned her own security to the Worthy One, for He had won her total affection.
As if that wasn’t shocking enough, Mary took her hair from her covering and wiped Jesus’ feet with it. Did you know that for a Jewish woman in that time to expose her hair in public and to any man who was not her husband was akin to showing her private parts? A woman’s hair unbound in public was the sign of an accused adulteress! You see, this was not just a view of humility for her to use her hair as a towel. What was Mary thinking?!?
This type of devotion to Jesus is shocking and rare, even a scandal to grace. The spiritual intimacy she felt for Jesus was so strong that she didn’t care what society or “normal” or even her fellow disciples had to say about it, as long as it would honor Him. Song of Solomon 1:3 points to a lover saying to her king, “Your name—your person—is like perfume poured out. No wonder the women love you.” Mary exchanged her perfume for the fragrance of His eternal presence.
Do you know what Jesus had to say about this bizarre behavior of this woman who wormed her way in to being taught, trained, and discipled like a man and then came before those men to be as feminine as she could in a way that was only to be reserved for a husband? He said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me… Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Did Mary of Bethany know she was also anointing Him for burial, the sweet scent lingering on Him as He sweat blood in the garden and laid His skin open through His bloody crucifixion? We don’t know. But, I kind of think she had a revelation and that she did know. None of the male disciples would accept or try to understand the clues Jesus gave that He would be dying soon. They were still picturing Him as a great leader there to restore their physical kingdom. But, I think that woman, that Mary of Bethany, listened hard and studied hard and knew what Jesus was saying was going to happen.
While Jesus had to ask Peter several times, “Do you love me?,” only to go on to deny that he was a disciple of Jesus’, surely Mary of Bethany risked not only her reputation but her life to say in no uncertain terms that she was a devoted disciple of Jesus. It’s the women who discerned. It’s the women who anointed. It’s the women who stayed until His last breath. It’s the women He appeared to first after He was risen.
Why has history told women to “do” devotions rather than to be devoted? Jesus invites all to the table to engage both spirit and truth like Mary did. Feel. Listen. Study. Learn. Love. Teach. Do.
Lest you think this is a post just to simply rah rah women, and is not meant for men and women alike, let me say that Jesus calls the Church His Bride. Collectively, Jesus seems to be looking for some female qualities out of His Church to partner with. Perhaps Mary of Bethany is an example of what extraordinary beauty He is looking for. How about stand out from the crowd in carefree humility to not only think on Him, but to also demonstrate love for Him in boundary-pushing ways?
Where religion is “same old, same old,” an intimate, head-over-heels relationship with the lover of our souls is a bit more peculiar looking. There is more than this provincial life.