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The Memorial

A Case for Mary of Bethany


          Amazing!  During His incarnation on the earth, Jesus only established one explicit memorial.  As that’s the case, we know it must be important!  Webster’s Dictionary defines a memorial as “serving to help people remember some person or event.”  Strong’s Greek word for memorial is #3422: a reminder i.e. record, memorial.  This is the word that was used in Mt 26:13, Mk 14:9, and also in Acts 10:4.  In the first two of these Scriptures, Jesus is speaking:

                   “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  Mt 26:13 NKJV


                   He says the exact words in Mark as well:


                   “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  Mk 14:9

          From the above definitions and Jesus’ words, we see that His intent is not just to recognize an event where He was being anointed for burial, but it was to recognize and remember the person who performed this act.  It only stands as a memorial to her if her actual identity is known.  In the Acts Scripture above, Cornelius’ alms and prayers came up as a memorial to God – same word use.  They were tied specifically to Cornelius in God’s eyes – not to anyone else.  Thus, because Jesus wanted a record as a memorial to this woman – it then stands to reason that we must be able to recognize and know this woman’s identity from Scripture.  That is in fact the case.  Let us examine the Scriptures to uncover the case for Mary of Bethany.

We begin by looking at the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John: Mt 26:1-13; Mk 14:1-9; and Jn 12:1-8 — three similar accounts of the anointing of Jesus before the Passover.  Both Matthew and Mark record the time-frame as roughly two days before the Passover –so we know it is the same event even though they are from different gospels.

Matthew 26:6-13 says Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany.  A woman (unnamed) comes before Him with an alabaster flask of costly fragrant oil.  She pours it on His head as He sat at the table.  The disciples were indignant and complained of the waste.  They said it should have been used for the poor.  Then Jesus responds to them not to trouble the woman.  He says she has done a good work for Him.  Important for later — He also says, “you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not always have.”

Now let’s look in Mark 14:1-9.  Again we see it is in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper.  The account is very similar.  The woman, still un-named, comes in with an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard.  She breaks it and pours it on His head.  Now however it says that “some” were indignant rather than the “disciples” of the previous account.  The issue of waste is addressed just as before.  Jesus again tells them to leave the woman alone.  The poor are also spoken of in the same manner, and it concludes very similar to the Matthew account.

Now let’s look at John 12:1.  John recounts that it is six days before the Passover (a minor difference although still in same time ballpark as the others).  It is also in Bethany, although John does not disclose whose house Jesus is at.  Here, however, much more detail is given.  We see Martha is serving the dinner and Lazarus is in attendance.  It says that Lazarus had already been raised from the dead by this time.  This is very important!

In verse three we see that some “Mary,” takes a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, and anoints the feet of Jesus, and wipes His feet with her hair.  As you look at the text you see Martha is serving, and Lazarus is present.  He has already been raised from the dead.  The previous accounts record she anointed His head – but here it is His feet.  We might be tempted to dismiss this as a different event, but then it continues in a similar vein as the previous ones.  Now, however, just one of the disciples – Judas — complains about the waste.  But it clarifies that he complained not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and was stealing from the money box. Jesus clinches the event as being the same by commanding them (as in the other accounts) to let her alone, for she has done this for His burial.  Also, He refers to the poor in the same way.  So even with John’s additional reporting on Judas and minor discrepancies on how many days previous to the Passover this occurred – we can tell this is the same event as reported in both Matthew and Mark.  Here from John’s account we first see that someone named “Mary” is involved, and Martha and Lazarus are also named.

In studying these three accounts from three different gospels, you may wonder why if it wasn’t also addressed in Luke.  Indeed it does not occur at all in Luke — at least not the same anointing event.  However, there is another anointing account which occurs earlier in time, and we should look at that before we come to the clincher on why it is Mary of Bethany who is the “Mary” referred to.

Turn over to Luke 7:37.  This is another dinner event, but it is at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  It takes place in the city of Nain, not in Bethany.  Nain is up north, just southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Bethany is far south, near Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the northern tip of the Dead Sea.  It is roughly two years earlier than the burial anointing described in the three gospels.  This is approximately 28 AD.  A woman from the city of Nain has heard that Jesus is dining with Simon the Pharisee.  She brings an alabaster flask, she stands behind Him weeping.  Then she begins to wash His feet with her tears, and kisses His feet and anoints them with the oil.  Jesus discusses this situation with Simon.  Jesus tells the woman that she is forgiven and her faith has saved her.  Simon comments to himself that if Jesus were a prophet he would know what manner of woman this was who was touching Him.  Apparently, Jesus knew exactly what manner of woman she was, and spoke to Simon explaining the concepts of indebtedness and forgiveness, and love.  Now hold this event in Luke uppermost in your thinking.  All will be revealed shortly, but let us go back to the gospel of John, chapter 11.

In John 11:1 we see Lazarus is now sick – but he has not yet died!  John 11:2 is quite clear:  “It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.”  Please get this!  Lazarus is identified as the brother of the “Mary” who anointed the Lord’s feet and wiped His feet with her hair.  This is identifying Mary (sister of Lazarus) as the one who anointed the Lord in Luke 7:37 that we just looked at – in the city of Nain, far from Bethany two years prior to the burial.  It cannot obviously be referring to the event still to come in Jn 12:3 (where John records that Mary anointed and wiped Jesus’ feet) – because Lazarus is still only ill.  He has not yet been raised which is spoken of in Jn 12:1.  So Mary of Bethany was the especially wicked sinner of Luke 7:37 — probably a prostitute, who anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon the Pharisee’s house.  It was there that she was forgiven for her sinful life. She cried and kissed His feet and then anointed them.  This was not for Jesus’ burial though! 

Sometime afterward, her life now greatly changed by Jesus, Mary returns to the family home where Lazarus now lies ill (Jn 11:1).  Jesus is sent for but has not yet come.  Pay close attention now.

Look across the page to John 12:3.  We examined this passage earlier as well.  Mary now anoints Jesus for His burial.  Recall this event is the same as in Matthew 26:7, and Mk 14:3.  But in a striking departure from parallel design, in John’s recounting he does not include a Scripture passage of Jesus calling for a memorial to remember this woman and her service.  Why this difference from the other two Gospels which mention the memorial?  Because here– in John’s account — the identity of the woman Mary is given.  In John 12:3, which is the same event as Matthew 26:7 and Mk 14:3, the woman is indeed identified as Mary of Bethany. 

What we must understand is that this is a memorial specifically to Mary of Bethany because of her service to the Lord.  It is not just that it was done – it was that she did it.  To lose or ignore her identity loses the power of a testimony of a life transformed.  She was previously an especially wicked sinner – know for her lifestyle of sinning in Nain.  In hiding or outcast from her family home, she was able to earn a good enough income as a prostitute to afford the spikenard to anoint Jesus’ feet.  By the time she attends Jesus for His burial anointing, her life is completely changed.

Examine how far she came!  Much farther than the geographic distance from Nain to Bethany!  In Christ she came the distance from sinner to saint.  Now she is a woman restored in the Lord and a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. More than that, Mary is honored to anoint Jesus for His burial.  This very same Mary who was once scolded (Luke 10:40-41) by her sister Martha for failing to help serve Jesus, is now being elevated for what she did.  And what she did was to sit at Jesus’ feet.  The greatest affirmation possible was given to her by Jesus when he told Martha that Mary has chosen the “better portion which will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus — was her better portion, as opposed to the busy service of Martha, and she lived that out as a life of worship before Him.  No cost was too great to sacrifice for Him, no other service could draw her away from Him.  And yet it is in her remaining at His feet that she was qualified to anoint Him for His burial.  Thus, Jesus gave to her – Mary of Bethany — the tribute of the only memorial which He ever bestowed.  Remember her!  But all that Jesus did for Mary of Bethany, He has already accomplished at the cross for you and I as well.  That is the full power of her memorial.

©2011 Sandra Gilloth

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