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Thursday, July 4, 2024

Mary of Bethany--Doing What You Can

Sometimes even when we do well we receive criticism and blame as though what we did was evil rather than good.  Such was the case with Mary of Bethany, a friend of Jesus and one whom Jesus loved (John 11:5).  If you are not familiar with the story of Mary who anointed Jesus with some very expensive oil of spikenard not long before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion you can read the account in Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8.

I will summarize the story for you briefly.  A supper had been made for Jesus (John 12:2) in the home of Simon the leper (Mark 14:3).  Jesus was there as the invited guest along with others which included his disciples (Matt. 26:8), and Martha, Lazarus, and Mary (John 12:2-3), the latter three being a brother and his two sisters.  This was the same Lazarus that Jesus had raised from the dead (John 12:1, 9).  While Jesus was reclined at the table, according to the custom of the time, Mary came up behind him with a flask of fragrant oil (John 12:5), opened it, and anointed both his head and feet with the oil (Matt. 26:7, John 12:3).

This angered some among them.  "When his disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, 'To what purpose is this waste?  For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.'" (Matt. 26:8-9 NKJV)  Mark says, "They criticized her sharply." (Mark 14:5 NKJV)  Jesus intervened on her behalf saying, "Let her alone.  Why do you trouble her?  She has done a good work for me. … She has done what she could.  She has come beforehand to anoint my body for burial.  Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the whole world, what this woman did will also be spoken of as a memorial to her." (Mark 14:6-9 NKJV)  Is that not what we are doing even now as we bring up this story and seek lessons from it?

Mary of Bethany loved Jesus deeply and had "sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word" gladly (Luke 10:39 NKJV) at an earlier time.  On that earlier occasion, Jesus said of her, "Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:42 NKJV)  Mary was still choosing that good part which would not be taken away as she poured the oil onto the Lord's head and his feet wiping his feet with her hair (John 12:3).  The oil was not cheap.  A footnote in the New Living Translation of the Bible at Mark 14:5 says that the 300 denarii cost of the oil would be the equivalent of 300 day's wages.

What lessons can we learn from this account?  There are several.  (1) When you love someone money doesn't matter.  If you have it you are more than willing to give it whether little or much.  Mary was not alone in this.  Remember the poor widow who gave "all that she had, her whole livelihood?" (Mark 12:44 NKJV)  Remember the churches of Macedonia of whom Paul spoke of their "deep poverty" (2 Cor. 8:2 NKJV) how that Paul says, "I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints?" (2 Cor. 8:3-4 NKJV)  Loving God means we long and desire to give to him and his work.

We cannot bestow our goods on Jesus directly as did Mary of Bethany but we must remember that the church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 1:18, 24).  When Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the church and Jesus met him on the road to Damascus he said to Saul, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4 NKJV)  When we give to the church (notice I said "the church," not a denomination) we are giving to Jesus.  Saul was persecuting the church yet Jesus associated that with being persecuted himself.  Why?  Because, the church is Christ's body.

It is understood that in giving to the church the funds given will be used for the purposes God would have them be used for else they are not being given to God at all.  One cannot take out of the church treasury funds to take a group to a recreational site to enjoy themselves and say "It is God's work."  God's work is to preach the gospel, help the poor, and do the work God's people are supposed to do.  Entertaining ourselves is not a part of that.

I was recently watching a travel show on television showing some of the exquisite cathedrals of Europe, inside and out.  Words fail one in speaking of the beauty of some of these man-made monuments.  Words like amazing, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, incredible, stunning, all seem to fall short as descriptive terms for some of the most magnificent.  Yet, God never meant money contributed to the church to carry on his work to be used to satisfy man’s vanity in building such structures.  Their appeal is to the carnal, fleshly man, not to the spiritual man.  It was the sinful side of man that built them, not the spiritual.  Those vast sums of money spent to build these monuments should have been used in preaching, teaching, and benevolence.

(2) Another thing we can learn from the account of this story about Mary of Bethany is that worship of God is as important as good works.  I would call what Mary did an act of worship on her part.  No doubt those complaining about what they considered a waste of money were right about the fact that much good could have come from selling this expensive oil and using it to help the poor.  God is all for helping the poor (a good work) but helping the poor is not all there is to being a disciple. 

Should we stop worship services saying it is a waste of time and the time could be better spent out in the community helping the poor keep up their houses, doing errands for them, etc.?  Let every member cease assembling together for worship and use the time instead to do good works and no doubt much help could be rendered but God is to be worshipped.

It is not wrong to worship God because you are taking time away from helping the poor.  If all of our time, all of our money, all of our effort was used to simply help man and we exclude God from it all we end up with is a social gospel of sorts, one that pertains to this world only, and that benefits man only on a temporal basis.  One cannot exclude the spiritual replacing it with the material and hope for the eternal.  We must have and must be continually building a spiritual relationship with God. 

(3) One must accept the fact that one will be criticized even for doing good on occasion.   Read your New Testament and see how many times Jesus was criticized for doing good.  It would be interesting to add the total up.  Anyone who has ever read the New Testament knows this happened to him time and time and time again.  If it happens to a follower of Christ why should we be surprised? 

"A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.  It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!" (Matt. 10:24-25 NKJV)

Do not misunderstand, I am not comparing the disciples who criticized Mary of Bethany over the oil with those who criticized Jesus during his ministry but I am only saying we need to expect criticism while doing good and learn to live with it.  Our real problem comes when we never receive criticism.  "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:26 NKJV) 

(4) Finally, this is the point I have been wanting to get to.  The text (Jesus speaking) says of Mary, "She has done what she could." (Mark 14:8 NKJV)  What more could be asked of a man or a woman?  What more does God ask of any man or woman?  When a person has done all they can do that is it, it is the end of the line; they have gone as far as it’s possible for a man or woman to go and have done all God expects from them.  God does not expect of man more than man is capable of doing.  What a great epitaph this would make at one's passing from this life into the next.  He/she has done what he/she could do.

Every man and every woman is capable of obtaining just such an epitaph from God.  I would like to mention three of whom I believe this could be said.

The Poor Widow.  I have already mentioned this poverty-stricken woman but one who was rich spiritually.  As you recall Jesus was sitting opposite the treasury watching people putting money into it.  The Bible says, "And many who were rich put in much.   Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So he called His disciples to himself and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood." (Mark 12:41-44 NKJV)  She had done what she could.

Tabitha or Dorcas.  Of this lady, the Bible says, "This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did." (Acts 9:36 NKJV)  As you recall the Bible story Tabitha died.  Peter in a nearby town was sent for and when he came raised her from the dead.  Just before he raised her from the dead the Bible says, "And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them." (Acts 9:39 NKJV)  Tabitha was a Christian lady who had done what she could while living.

Lazarus the beggar.  Of this man the Bible says, "But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom." (Luke 16:20-22 NKJV)  You may well be wondering why I would include Lazarus in a list of those who had done what they could.  The answer is we need to realize that no matter how desperate a man's plight is, no matter how little it seems he has accomplished, no matter how great a failure he seems to be to other men still it matters none to God if he has done what he could in his life.  This ought to be encouraging to us for it ought to give the lowliest of us hope.

You may be saying how do I know this man had done what he could?  Because God saved him.  God will not save a man who will not try, who does not care, who is indifferent.  We are not saved by works.  If we were Lazarus would probably have little to show.  His condition was such as to not be able to help himself let alone help others.  Yet, he did all he was capable of and if that consisted only of faith then that was all that was required of him. 

There will come a time most likely, if we live long enough, where we will be unable to do a lot in God’s kingdom.  People often get to the point physically where they can no longer assemble with the saints which would under normal circumstances be sinful for we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25) but do we think God is going to hold that against those too frail and aged to attend, some even confined to nursing homes?  No, for they have done what they can everything else being equal.  God is not a God without mercy and understanding.  No doubt Lazarus was a condemned man in the eyes of many a man but not in God's eyes.

I have deliberately picked the 3 people I did here as examples because of their station in life.  None held positions of importance.  None were well known or known at all outside the immediate area.  One suspects that two of them were hardly spoken to during a normal day (the poor widow and Lazarus) and yet we have three saved people who as little as it might have been had done what they could.

We must remember there is no partiality with God.  Our station in life is inconsequential to him as far as our eternal destiny is concerned.  His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9) and he does not see as man sees ("for the Lord seeth not as man seeth" I Sam. 16:7 KJV).  "Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?" (James 2:5 NKJV)  "Not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called." (1 Cor. 1:26 NKJV)

The person who is saved is the person who has done what he or she could do (read the Parable of the Talents).  We can all obey the gospel if we will.  There is no reason the epitaph "she has done what she could" needs to be reserved exclusively for Mary of Bethany.  God would have us all have that epitaph.

One final admonition, do not say it is too late for me; I have not done what I could.  None of us has done so one hundred percent.  Surely, none of us think the poor widow, Tabitha, or Lazarus always lived sin-free.  If so why did they need Jesus?  Mary of Bethany was not sin-free.  Those who wrote about Mary--Matthew, Mark, and John--were not sin-free.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).  "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23) 

The question is not about the past but the here and now and now on.  What are we going to do here and now and now on?  While we will never be perfect we can do what we can. 

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