Jesus defended Mary when her sister Martha complained that Mary was not helping her. Martha expected him to side with her; after all, hospitality and serving are excellent virtues. Instead, Jesus commended Mary for using this time to learn "at his feet" as his disciples were doing and as Paul learned "at the feet of Gamaliel".
John wrote that Jesus loved this family. He may have often rested at their home. They sent for Jesus when Lazarus became fatally ill, expecting his swift intervention as he had done for so many others. Instead of hastening to them, he delayed until he was sure that Lazarus had died. As soon as Martha heard Jesus was on his way, she set out to meet him.
Mary, overcome with grief and, perhaps, resentful that he had not come immediately to prevent Lazarus' death, stayed home. When Martha returned for her and brought her to Jesus, Mary's words reveal that she may have blamed him because he had not come immediately. It hadn't occurred to her that God would use this tragic situation to teach many other Jews to trust that he is the Son of God and their Savior. Her attitude would change as Matthew, Mark, and John later recorded.
Jesus stopped in Bethany six days before he was sacrificed as our Passover. During his stay, he was invited to a banquet at the home of Simon the Leper. Martha was serving. While Jesus and the other guests were reclining at the table, Mary broke the neck of a sealed alabaster jar full of an expensive perfume and poured it on his head and his feet; then dried his feet with her hair. She had used all at once, on one person, an oil that normally would be used in small quantities for many uses. The disciples were horrified that in one extravagant act she had "wasted" a year's income. Once again, Mary is harshly scolded; this time by Jesus' disciples, and especially by Judas whose motives were not as noble as his words implied. Once again, Jesus defended her, promising that she would be remembered wherever the gospel was preached.
Mary's generous gesture flowed out of her gratitude towards the One that she had learned to trust. She had valued his teaching and his friendship and, through the resurrection of Lazarus, she understood he was much more than a great teacher and family friend. The three glimpses that we have into her character reveal she had a deep value for spiritual things, a sincerity that did not always conform to the expectations of society, and a deep love and gratitude for God her Savior.
Luke (Luke 7:36-50) wrote of a similar incident which occurred at a banquet given by a Pharisee named Simon. A woman with a sinful reputation wept tears of repentance which fell on Jesus' feet. Having no towel, she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them. The prominent Pharisee looked scornfully on both Jesus and the woman. Jesus contrasted the Pharisee's hardhearted lack of repentance with the woman's deeply felt, repentant act of worship. Since the host did not recognize his own need for forgiveness, he was unable to love wholeheartedly. This social outcast was given forgiveness and reconciliation with God because she knew her need and recognized Jesus as the One who could fill that need.
Both Mary and this unnamed woman
teach us the response to the Gospel God desires--belief, repentance, and
trust that salvation is through Jesus, the Son of God, who deserves our
wholehearted love and worship. This response leads to reconciliation with
God and the gift of His favor.
For the scripture reference list and related Bible Study Guide, go to Bible Study Guide: What is a disciple?