Mary of Bethany is one of the most popular women in Scripture. There are many questions about her identity and whether or not she appears under other names or in other stories.
I will not address those debates in this post as this space is about building faith through Bible study. So, in this post we will dive into Mary’s life. We will explore her characteristics and lessons we can learn from her.
Who was Mary of Bethany?
Mary is one of the very popular trio of siblings whom Jesus loved. Her sister was Martha of Bethany and her brother was Lazarus of Bethany.
These three were very close friends of Jesus. Their home was a place where Jesus could find rest and repose. In this post, we will look at her a little closer.
Characteristics of Mary of Bethany
Mary appears in a few stories in the New Testament. From each of these accounts we can gather some of the various qualities of this character.
Here are a few things about Mary of Bethany.
Characteristic #1: Mary had a thirsty, yearning heart
Mary is popular in the Bible for a few reasons. One of them is based on the story of her choosing to listen to Jesus at dinner rather than serve.
You see Mary, did this because she felt her need for Jesus. She was keenly aware of her spiritual condition. Jesus had the answers to questions she didn’t even know she needed to be asking.
I will stop here on this point as I explain further later in this post.
Characteristic #2: Mary was grateful
During the dinner at Simon’s house, Mary created quite the stir. While Jesus was lounging at the dinner table, Mary came and fell at his feet in tears.
She broke upon a bottle of perfume that would have cost one year’s salary and used it to anoint Jesus’s feet. That perfume mixed with her tears to do the job.
While others stood on and criticized her for wasting such a precious perfume, Jesus rescued her from their judgment.
Simon was one of the biggest critics. It was at this point that Jesus told the parable of the two debtors (Luke 7:40-47).
There is so much to what Jesus said but He ultimately wanted to make one point: Mary knew that her sins were great. But she also knew that Jesus had forgiven her for them all.
Her heart was so full to the overflowing with gratitude that there was nothing too good or too expensive to give to Jesus.
Mary was so grateful that she wept openly and worshiped Jesus openly.
Characteristic #3: Mary was brave
Mary took a great risk uncovering her hair publicly. Jewish women of a certain age never went out of their homes with their hair exposed.
In her act of anointing Jesus’s feet, Mary removed the covering she head covering she wore and used her hair to wipe Jesus’s feet.
An act like this would have been severely punished. Mary could have been killed for that.
But clearly, Mary didn’t give two cents about those rules. Her courage was propelled by her love for Jesus and her gratitude to Him. Whatever was going to be the cost, it was worth it all to Mary.
Characteristic #4: Mary had strong faith
When Lazarus died, Mary was beside herself with grief.
Jesus had arrived on the scene a whole four days after Lazarus had been buried. In that Palestinian heat, the corpse was very much well on the way to decaying.
After having her private audience with Jesus, Martha went and got Mary. Mary reeled very off the very same words that Martha used…
Lord, if you were here my brother would not have died.
Like her sister Martha, Mary believed in Jesus’s power to heal the sick. She was sure that He could have prevented the death of her brother.
Mary’s faith was strong enough to allow her to believe Jesus could do what he had done for many others. She was certain that this sickness was not a problem that Jesus could not fix.
But her faith was about to get to another level because of what Jesus would do next.
Her disappointment would be turned to dancing. Because those who trust the Lord will never be disappointed (Isaiah 49:23).
Lessons from the life of Mary of Bethany
So, what do we learn from Mary of Bethany in the Bible?
There are lots of lessons to learn from the life of Mary of Bethany. This post would be way too long if we were to explore them all.
Let’s look at a few.
Lesson #1: Develop a thirst for hearing and reading God’s word
When Jesus visited their home for a meal, Mary was helping Martha. But according to Martha, Mary left her to do all the work.
It wasn’t that Mary did it suddenly either. The picture painted in the story is one in which Mary gradually became less and less interested in hosting. She probably brought a round of drinks and lingered a while.
Then brought a round of something else and leaned against something and listened. Before she knew it, at some point, when she served some food to Jesus, she just sat down right at his feet.
Mary was drawn helplessly to Jesus because she was so spiritually thirsty. Jesus and His words were a tall, cool, glass of refreshing water in the dry, parched desert of her soul. She just wanted to drink every single word He spoke. She just couldn’t get enough.
Her attitude reminds of the Psalmist:
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? Psalm 42:1
I pray today that your heart and soul are as thirsty as Mary and the Sons of Korah who wrote Psalm 42.
If it’s a struggle, pray for God to make you thirsty. His Word says it is He who draws us to him. (John 6:44)
Lesson #2: God wants you close to Him, no matter what others think of you
In nearly, if not all, the Biblical accounts of Mary of Bethany, she can be found at the feet of Jesus. Check out these references and see for yourself.
- At dinner in her home – Luke 10:39
- When Lazarus died – John 11:32
- At dinner at Simon’s house – John 12:3
I’ve already talked about how spiritually thirsty she was. But here is something else to consider.
Sitting at the feet of a rabbi was the position of disciples. Rabbis didn’t have female disciples. That was unheard of. In fact, as I’ve mentioned in my post on Martha, the jews thought it was a waste of time to teach women.
But Mary sat at Jesus’s feet anyway because she was ready to be taught by Jesus.
And Jesus allowed her!
He didn’t chase her away with some remark of indecency.
He didn’t wave the rule of society in her face.
In fact, at the banquet he commended her. Jesus crushed all the rules of society that kept women under bondage of any kind.
He brought back the value taken off women by the enemy. He affirmed the idea that women should also be educated especially about the Scriptures.
And most of all, women should not only learn but also participate in ministry as well.
This can only happen when we answer God’s call to come closer. Get to Jesus’s feet as often as you can.
The Holy Spirit is waiting to teach you all the truth you desire to empower you for your call.
Lesson #3: Be intentional and undistracted in your quiet time.
There is a colorful picture painted of Mary in Scripture that our English words fail to articulate.
She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. Luke 10:39
Mary found herself right next to Jesus. Know this: when a Rabbi like Jesus came to town, it was a full house.
People from the whole village would show up. But Mary ensured she occupied one of the best seats in the house.
And she made good use of it too.
As she sat their, the Bible said she listened to Jesus. Now this isn’t the kind of listening in which your mind wanders off every few minutes and you miss whole sentences.
The word used to describe Mary listening means to be intentional and deliberate. Mary did not just hear what Jesus said. She also understood him clearly. She listened with both her ears and her mind. There was an intellectual component.
She ate up everything that Jesus said. In those moments, there was nothing or nobody that could get her attention.
Again, her soul was so thirsty that she could shut out everything around her to focus on Jesus.
I pray for you and me, a Mary spirit, to be undistracted and focused as God tries to speak to us.
Lesson #4: Focus on what will last
Jesus would soon be murdered. Soon neither his disciples nor Mary would have physical access to Jesus.
For Mary, there was no time like the present to capitalize on the presence of Jesus.
For the first time in her life, Mary was truly sold off on something that would last. Her investment of time in sitting at the feet of Jesus formed the solid foundation she needed to build her relationship with him.
As Martha exploded at Jesus for allowing Mary to sit while she served, Jesus affirmed Mary’s decision with a powerful statement…
“…Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:42
While Martha was consumed with being the perfect host, she was taken up with feeding people who would soon forget how wonderful her spread was.
She would be left tired and exhausted with only personal satisfaction that would last as long as the next feast.
It was temporary satisfaction built on the expectations of human beings and shallow, misguided, and shifting social rules.
Mary, on the other hand, chose to be served by Jesus himself. She chose to be filled by Him. She decided to have her soul watered with the only water that could quench her spiritual thirst in a way that she would never thirst again (like the Samaritan woman at the well).
Mary clung to the one thing that would last far beyond this life into eternity.
Each day, we make little decisions that indicate if we’re choosing what will last.
How are you fairing?
There is a God-sized hole in your heart. Nothing else will fill it. Anything else that you try will not last.
Lesson #5: God gets your gratitude and your worship
There are two separate accounts in Scripture about a woman with an alabaster box anointing Jesus’s feet.
Naturally, there is debate about whether or not it’s the same woman. That’s not what this space is for.
What we do know is that Mary of Bethany was clearly involved in this glorious act of humility and worship.
You see, Mary knew her struggles. She knew the kind of spiritual and emotional and mental bondage she was under. And she also knew how Jesus’s love and compassion lifted that heavy load she carried in her spirit each day.
When she broke that alabaster jar, there was so much that Mary was saying without using one word.
And you know what?
She didn’t have to explain herself with words to Jesus. He understood her completely and perfectly. He knew her heart.
When you worship, rest assured that God gets you. Even if you say not one word, God understands your tears. He can translate your sighs and groans. God knows your heart when you don’t have words to worship.
So whatever your worship looks like, you can be completely honest before God.
Are Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene the same?
This is a debate that has been raging since forever. I have to admit that I am not so sure the debate is worth the effort. I do not know whether or not Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same and I cannot say I am overly concerned about it right now.
What’s most important to me is that Jesus saved and delivered both women. And if He saved them, then He can save me too.
What is the significance of Mary of Bethany in the Bible?
The story of Mary of Bethany is important for a host of reasons. One major one is that Jesus’ response to Mary and the way he treated her tells us that Jesus came to liberate women from the heavy societal burden placed on them. He came to right the wrongs that have been done to women in terms of the value placed on religious and spiritual education.
Jesus came to set women free to receive complete healing and use their story as a testimony to win others to him. On the day that Mary anointed Jesus, he did say she would never be forgotten for that deed. What are the odds that the books of the gospel which contain her story ended up in the Bible we have today! Tal about a prophetic word fulfilled!
Final words on Mary of Bethany
I hope you enjoyed this tiny Mary of Bethany character study. Her story is filled with so many lessons. Between her and Martha and Lazarus, this trio of siblings could keep us in our Bibles for weeks on end. Want some more on Mary and her sister?