Mary & Martha

There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. [1]


John 11:2 – 3



Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor and Martha served. That was what Martha loved to do. From what the Scriptures tell us about her, she was in her element. She was a guest in Simon the Leper’s house, but she was in charge. No doubt she had been up the night before, getting things ready so at earliest dawn she could fire the oven. All day the aroma of a celebration meal had traveled through the rooms of the house. Nothing was too good for Jesus. Martha had used her best recipes, and she loved bringing course after course to Jesus and his men. They loved it too. She was doing her thing, and everybody was happy.


Good old Martha! In the past things had not always been quite so happy. Remember the other dinner for Jesus that Luke records? Remember how Mary had drifted off and Martha had said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me”? But Jesus had said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her”. [2] What an embarrassing time that had been for both Mary and Martha. But at this dinner things were different. Even though Mary, who had no doubt been helping serve the meal, had wandered back to the feet of Jesus, Martha seemed to be at peace. What had happened?


Circumstances had not changed, but Martha had. She had not mistaken what the Lord said on the earlier occasion. He did not say she was supposed to become a Mary. That is good, because if she had, they probably would have starved! She understood that Jesus’ insistence that Mary had chosen “what is better” did not mean that serving in the kitchen and at the table was bad. She understood that Jesus was saying that her harried, depressed, unhappy attitude was separating her from him. She knew that service can be worship, if it is done with the right attitude.


Many of us are familiar with Romans 12:1. There Paul tells us to present our “bodies,” our entire lives, as “spiritual worship.” Martha understood that true worship also involves service. Preparing a meal can be worship. Fixing a bicycle can be worship. Balancing your checkbook can be worship. Taking a test in school can be worship. Professors’ grading a test can be worship. Administering your own business can be worship. Attitude is the defining factor.


Catherine Booth, the wife of the founder of the Salvation Army, was a woman with immense gifts and a remarkable public ministry. Her son wrote in her biography:


She began her public ministry when I, her eldest child, was five years old, but her own home was never neglected. Both alike had been opened to her by her God. She saw his purposes in both. In the humble duties of the kitchen table, her hands busy with the food, or in the nursery when the children were going to bed, or at the bedside of a sick child, she was working for God’s glory.1


No matter if she ministered publicly or at home, Catherine Booth realized it was all worship for God.


I remember hearing about a sign hanging over a kitchen sink that said, “Divine service held here three times daily.” That is really true. It could also apply to laboring over a lathe or a desk. Divine service occurs when the proper perspective is there. Martha knew that when her spirit was right, her service was akin to the dramatic outward worship of Mary.


The options are always before us. We can complain about those who are not doing their job, we can be sour, or we can do our work lovingly and gently. Those are the choices. The transcending point is that loving service is always the characteristic of those who have had their hearts truly touched by Christ.


As the meal progressed and the familiar glow of contentment settled on the apostolic band, Mary left the room. Mary had been influenced by an incident that had taken place earlier in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Luke described it in the seventh chapter of his Gospel. In that incident Jesus was reclining at dinner at the table of a curious Pharisee. The Pharisee had not been considerate. He had not washed Jesus’ feet or anointed his head, and as they were reclining with their feet away from the table, in came a prostitute. She was clutching a vial, and as she came to Jesus, she was intending to anoint Jesus’ head. But she lost control and began to weep, and her tears fell on Jesus’ feet, which were all dusty, making quite a mess. The prostitute did not know what to do, so she used her hair to clean his feet. As she did so, she was again overcome with emotion. So, according to Luke 7:38, “she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them,” thus anointing his feet.


Mary undoubtedly had this incident in the back of her mind. She thought, I want to do the same thing for Jesus. I want him to know how much I love him. It was not an impetuous act. It was calculated. She knew exactly what she was doing. She left the room and, according to verse 3:


     Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil or expensive perfume, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet, and she wiped his feet with her hair. And John tells us the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.


     What do we learn from Mary’s actions? One, her action was very costly. Judas estimated the cost of that genuine spikenard ointment to be about 300 denarii, and a denarius was one day’s wages. Calculated at four dollars an hour, which isn’t much these days, comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000! Poured onto Jesus’ dusty feet! Notice, whenever we lavish love upon Jesus, he will not reject it! Perhaps, as Judas, you question the amount of this lavish gift and may consider it to be unnecessarily costly. When David danced before the Lord with all his might, stripped down to his undergarments, his wife mocked him. [3] David went on to continue worshiping the Lord all the days of his life. But Michal “had no child unto the day of her death.” The same is still true. Those who critique or find fault with worship will experience barrenness, dryness, and a lack of productivity. Ask Michal. Ask Judas. With this thought, G. Campbell Morgan is noted to have once said, “I would rather be a successor to Mary of Bethany than to the whole crowd of the apostles.” Mary certainly had a beautiful testimony. [4]


Mary gave her most treasured possession to Jesus, but our treasured possessions may not be worth as much as Mary’s. That was true for Martha. I get the feeling that Martha did not care about perfume. She valued work, acts of service. Her sacrifice to Jesus was perspiration instead of perfume, and it was just as noble and just as valuable as Mary’s sacrifice. At one time King David wanted to buy a field that belonged to Araunah the Jebusite. When Araunah found out David wanted it, he said, “O king, Araunah gives all this to the king.” But King David responded, as recorded in 2 Samuel 24:24, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”


What would we give for Jesus? What is our most valued possession? For some of us it is our bank account. For others it is our position. For some it is a relationship. The question is, would we give it? Will we make it available for Jesus’ use? Mary humbly gave her best to Jesus. As I understand this, she calculatingly got down on her knees and loosened her hair. Hair in that culture was symbolic of a woman’s glory, and she lavished Jesus’ feet with her glory. She was self-forgetting. She was passionate. And the Lord did not restrain Mary (or the prostitute) from what she was doing. There are times when we should not shy away from such open, passionate love and worship for Jesus. We should let our tears fall. Jesus said of Mary, “She has done a beautiful thing to me”.  [5]


John adds at the end of verse 3, “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” This tells us Mary did not use just a tiny pinch of spikenard to anoint Jesus. She broke the container. The aroma of Christ, so honoring to him and so refreshing to others, does not occur when we give him half our heart or half our pocketbook or half our talents or half our ambition or half our lives. It comes by giving him everything.


When Mary bent over Jesus’ feet, she wiped the perfume away with her hair. And when she arose and went about serving, she spread that beautiful aroma around the house. This completely unself-conscious act given to Jesus turned out to be the very means by which the aroma of glory to our Lord was spread to others. As Mary humbly gave herself, with no thought of her own glory, she became a primary means of spreading the blessing.


If you are not a blessing to others, if knowing you does not make others think of Jesus, if your life seems dry and unprofitable, do what Mary did. Get down on your knees before Jesus and give him your all. Pour your life out before him.


Many commentators believe that because of her devotion (always sitting at Jesus’ feet) Mary saw, more clearly than the rest, Christ’s approaching death. I believe this to be true as well [6] 



With respect to this view, Jon Courson makes an interesting point. He says, “the ointment she poured out upon Jesus was not used several days earlier on her brother Lazarus possibly because she was saving it for Jesus’ burial. Yet she did not use it at His burial either, for it was Mary Magdalene who went to anoint His body with perfume and spice on Easter morning—not Mary of Bethany. Nor was Mary of Bethany at the foot of the Cross. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there—but not Mary of Bethany. Why did Mary of Bethany seemingly have no part in the death and burial of her Lord? Because Mary evidently understood something no one else comprehended. Although Jesus had spoken directly to His disciples, saying, ‘I’m going to die, be buried, and rise again after three days,’ they didn’t get it. Mary is the only one who understood what was going to happen. She alone saw the big picture. She alone understood there was no need to save the ointment for Jesus’ burial—because He wasn’t going to stay buried. There was no need to go with the other Marys to the Cross—because that wouldn’t be the end of the story.” [7]


How did Mary have such profound insight? Perhaps it was because she was at the feet of Jesus constantly, passionately, and expectantly. I too believe that if you and I are worshipers in the morning at our devotions, if we are worshipers in church on Sundays and through the week. If we take time to passionately and expectantly sit at the feet of Jesus, we too may expect to hear the Lord’s heart and know things others don’t.



[1]The New King James Version. 1982 (Jn 12:2-3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] The New King James Version. 1982 (Luke 10:40-42). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

1 James Hastings, ed., The Speaker’s Bible, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1971), p. 31.

[3] 2 Samuel 6:20

[4] Moody Monthly, September 1974, p. 68.

[5] The New King James Version. 1982 (Mt. 26:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[6]Hughes, R. K. (1999). John : That you may believe. Preaching the


Word (291). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

[7]Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson’s Application Commentary


(538). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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