Mary’s Three Encounters with Jesus’ Feet

The first time we meet Mary of Bethany in the Bible, her family is hosting Jesus. Mary’s sister, Martha, was “distracted with much serving.” Luke 10:38-42 doesn’t say the disciples were with them or whether Martha was even preparing a meal, though I had always assumed both. Jesus was teaching, so probably more people were there than Him and the siblings. But however many people were there and whatever Martha was doing for them, she was “anxious and troubled.” I’ve been in poor Martha’s shoes many times. I can only imagine how frenzied I would be, wanting everything to be just right, if someone as important as Jesus was in my home.

I’ve always thought of Martha as the older sibling and Mary the younger. I’m not sure where their brother, Lazarus, fits in, but I’ve assumed the middle.

Mary is found at Jesus’ feet, listening to His teaching. Rabbis didn’t usually teach women, but Jesus welcomed Mary. Mary’s posture indicates she looked up to Jesus, both literally and figuratively. She was so caught up in what He was saying, she seemingly didn’t even notice Martha’s bustling about.

Martha spies Mary listening to Jesus. With older-sister indignation, Martha says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

I don’t know how well Martha knew Jesus at this time. John 11-5 says “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Jesus is often spoken of as coming to or from Bethany, so He probably visited with these siblings many times. But the beginning of this incident simply says, “A woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house” (Luke 10:38), as if they hadn’t known each other before. Martha is quite bold to speak to the Lord so, especially if this is their first encounter. She seemed confident that the Lord would side with her in her busy service.

But He didn’t. He acknowledged her care and concern, but He said, “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Nancy Leigh DeMoss Wolgemuth paraphrases Jesus saying to Martha, “Your company means more to Me than your cooking. You are more important to Me than anything you can do for Me” (Place of Quiet Rest, p. 43).  

The second time we see the sisters, Lazarus is seriously ill (John 11). They send for Jesus, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” So by this time, the relationship between Jesus and the siblings is deep and well-established.

But Jesus purposefully waits to come and see them. By the time He arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days and has already been buried.

Martha comes away from the mourners to talk with Jesus. But Mary, coming a little later, “fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'” Both women expressed faith, but in different ways. Mary was not afraid to share her sorrow and anguish. Perhaps she was also hurt and confused that Jesus had not come sooner. She laid it all at Jesus’ feet.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4).

The final time we see Mary of Bethany is in John 12, just six days before Jesus’ final Passover with His disciples. Martha is serving once again, but uncomplainingly this time. Mary takes “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (This appears to be a different incident from that in Luke 7:36-50, though there are a few similarities.)

Mary’s action brought criticism. Judas wondered aloud why this ointment could not have been sold and distributed to the poor (not, Scripture indicates, because he was concerned about the poor, but because he kept the money for the group and helped himself to it.) He not only thought such extravagance was a waste on Jesus, but he coveted it for himself.

But Jesus came to Mary’s defense once again. “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” A pound of ointment would have been much more than was needed for a pair of feet, so perhaps Jesus was saying that the rest would be used for His burial.

However, the New Living Translation says, “She did this in preparation for my burial,” and a few others have similar wording. If this is correct, Mary got what so many others missed: that Jesus was going to die.

I tried to discover what significance might be attached to anointing feet in Bible times. Scripture speaks of washing feet. People wore sandals on dusty, unpaved roads. So a host would have a servant wash the feet of guests. Jesus does this, taking on the role of a servant, in the Upper Room at the last supper. One article suggested Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet is a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do.

Jesus is the Christ or Messiah, both of which mean “anointed one.” One article indicated Mary’s anointing was in recognition of Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah.

Isaiah 52:7 proclaims, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Perhaps Mary was so thankful for the feet of Him who brought the good news of salvation to her that she wanted to anoint them.

But Jesus references His upcoming burial in connection with Mary’s anointing.

Several things stand out to me about Mary.

Her humility. In each of these encounters, Mary is at Jesus’ feet. I had known about each of these incidents, but I just recently made the connection that they all involved Jesus’ feet. James tells us, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6)

Her devotion. She was caught up in listening to and worshiping Jesus, no matter what else was going on around her. She was willing to give sacrificially to show how much she valued Him.

Her lack of self-consciousness. Scripture doesn’t indicate any of her actions were done for self-glory or attention from others.

Her lack of defending herself. She let the Lord handle criticism of her. She knew He understood, even if others didn’t.

Her confidence. She knew Jesus well enough to trust Him with both her worship and her sorrow.

Her intent listening. She hung on His every word.

Her perception. By listening, truly listening to Jesus, she apparently understood what others did not about His coming death.

The only words of Mary that the Bible records are after Lazarus’ death. Obviously, those are the only words of hers that the Holy Spirit wanted to reveal in Scripture. But this and Martha’s outspokenness seem to indicate that Mary was the quiet one. Another Mary, Jesus’ mother, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary of Bethany seems the same type of person. Jesus loved both sisters, and physical quietness is not necessarily more spiritual than outspokenness. But “a gentle and quiet spirit . . . in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4).

Mary could not have known that her humble and loving actions would become inspiration for Jesus followers for more than 2,000 years.

We can’t sit at Jesus’ feet physically, but we can join Mary there spiritually as we humbly and intently listening to His Word and lay our sorrow, confusion, questions, and loss before feet of the One who knows, loves, and cares for us best. We can worship with abandon, giving our all in His honor.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

15 thoughts on “Mary’s Three Encounters with Jesus’ Feet

  1. I oft wondered some of these same things Ms. Barbara. While I can’t know, I’ve accepted that my not knowing will one day change. You’ve helped in part my friend.

    • It’s funny how much we assume about a passage, either from cursory reading or faulty remembering or preaching. But with all the details that aren’t there, God has given us plenty to chew on with what is there.

  2. Thank you very much for this, Barbara! So beautiful! An eye opener too for me. It is only now I realized how Mary had sat thrice at the feet of Jesus. God bless you more!

  3. Very interesting insights about Mary and Martha — I love the idea that Mary was perhaps the quieter one, maybe more overlooked compared to the more “out there” Martha. Thanks for this way to start my morning!

    • I hope I didn’t make Mary’s quietness sound better than Martha’s outspokenness. I love that the Bible says Jesus loved all three siblings. Maybe Lazarus was the quietest of all since we have no recorded words of his. 🙂 And Jesus’ instructions to Martha are some of the dearest we have. But Mary’s quietness struck a chord with me because I’m more like that–yet more prone to anxious busyness like Martha. I’m glad God loves and uses both.

  4. I especially needed to hear the message of allowing Jesus to defend us—all too often I want to jump in and defend myself (loudly!) when someone criticizes me. Thank you for pointing this out.

    • That’s my tendency, too. And sometimes in Scripture people do justly defend themselves. But it’s good we can leave it with Him and then respond or not as He directs.

  5. Barbara I love this exploration of Mary at Jesus’ feet. I see the tremendous humility and self-denial her devotion displayed. So often I want to be busy “doing” for Jesus, rather than humbling myself to seek Him in the intimate place at His feet.

  6. Beautiful insights. I’d never noticed that all three mentions of Mary place her at Jesus’ feet, so that’s interesting. What little we know about her and yet she is clearly a wonderful example of a devoted disciple of Jesus, and what my heart’s posture should be towards him. Thank you for sharing this – I love it!

  7. I enjoyed this so much, Barbara. I especially love how Mary didn’t try to defend herself but let Jesus do that for her. Such a good model for us today, in any season of our lives, really.

  8. Pingback: May Reflections | Stray Thoughts

I love hearing from you. I've had to turn on comment moderation. Comments will appear here after I see and approve them.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.