I am currently reading through the book of John. A few days ago, I read the familiar story of Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus. In John, chapter 11, the initial focus is on Lazarus. This gives the Apostle John a perfect opportunity to present another of his many “I AM” statements. Here, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
However, what caught my attention in this morning as I began to read chapter 12, was some details about Lazarus’ sisters that I had not been aware of before. It was one of those “Aha!” moments that I want to capture on paper and share with others who may not have seen these things before either.
The same one who poured perfume on the Lord
When we are first introduced to these siblings from Bethany in John 11:1, we quickly get a bit of foreshadowing. John writes, “This Mary . . . was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair” (v. 2). I asked myself, “Who? “What? “When?” “Where?”
Now, there are several Marys in the New Testament. Obviously, Mary, Jesus’ mother was not this Mary. I always thought that it was Mary Magdalene who did that. Perhaps I was wrong.
We do not have to look far to find the story. In John 12, we read that six days before the Passover, Jesus went back to Bethany for a dinner given in His honor (Jn. 12:2). Martha is mentioned first, then Lazarus, and last, Mary. John briefly describes the scene for his readers: “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” (John 12:3).
Thankfully, in my margin notes, two parallel passages were listed. This event is also recorded in Matt. 26:6-7 and Mark 14:3. These two Synoptic Gospel writers (notice who is missing) give us one detail that John does not. They both report the name of the host, Simon the Leper. However, the name of the woman in this story (who we know is Mary from John’s Gospel), is not given.
So, nothing earth-shattering here. I offer just a simple observation that John’s perspective and the slightly different one of Matthew and Mark collectively served the author’s purposes. John did not need to tell us who hosted the dinner party, but he did need to mention Mary’s role in it. Matthew and Mark chose to tell us that Simon the Leper gave the party for Jesus, but did not feel the need to mention the siblings that Jesus loved in John’s Gospel. All accounts are equally reliable and true.
Martha serving and Mary seeking
Next, let me share some interesting observations about the sisters found in John and elsewhere.
When we read John’s account of these close siblings in John 11, we do see some small distinctions in how they greeted Jesus when He arrived after their brother had died. Martha greeted Jesus first in John 11:20-27. She expressed what initially appears to be disappointment, exclaiming that “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21). But then, she expresses her faith in Jesus, declaring, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (Jn. 11:22). They exchanged a few more words and she departs to tell her sister Jesus wanted to see her (v. 28).
Mary goes out to meet Jesus in Jn. 11:29-32. She says virtually the same thing as Martha had first said to Jesus. She was obviously very emotional, as John mentions that Jesus saw her weeping (v. 33). Jesus asks where Lazarus was laid, and the crowd that followed her led Jesus to the tomb.
This is interesting to me; it seems to put Martha in a better light than another passage that does not.
Where have we seen Martha and Mary before? It is not in John’s account in chapters 11 and 12. It is not in Matthew’s or Mark’s Gospel either, which may be why they did not mention her name in their account of the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet. It is in Luke’s Gospel we need to go.
In Luke 10:39-42, we read the only account in the four Gospels where Martha’s and Mary’s priorities seem to be contrasted. This supposed rivalry has been the subject of many sermons. We notice that the village of Bethany is not even mentioned by Luke, and neither is Lazarus. We learn that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to what He said. Martha, on the other hand, was taking care of all the details that needed to be done in order to be hospitable to her important guests.
When I compared the actions of each of the sisters with Jesus near Lazarus’ tomb in John 11, at the dinner party in John 12, and at this occasion in Luke 10, I observed some similarities worth noting.
Based on her actions, perhaps Martha might have the spiritual gift of serving (Rom. 12:7), helping, or administration (1 Cor. 12:28). She was busy making a meal for her Lord in Luke 10. She had a detailed conversation with Jesus in John 11. She was seen serving dinner again in John 12. Mary, on the other hand, did not have these same spiritual gifts. Her acts of reverential worship that were motivated by deep emotions lead me to speculate that her spiritual gifts were more along the lines of encouragement or mercy (Rom. 12:8). Mary expectantly sat at Jesus’ feet in Luke 10. She was too overcome with emotion to carry on a deep conversation with Jesus in John 11, and she expressed her adoration of Jesus most beautifully in John 12.
I love finding patterns scattered throughout Scripture and tying the details together. It makes me want to be like Mary and sit, learn, and worship at Jesus’ feet, which He said was a good thing. It also makes me want to be like Martha, serving meals for His glory, and blessing those who visit. It is a good thing to serve the Lord with our spiritual gifts, whichever ones we have been given.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.