This morning I am posting an article I wrote four years ago upon returning from Israel. I came across this this other day and decided to post it here. Its a little long please stick with it to the end.
Mary of Bethany in light of Middle Eastern Customs
As some of you know I was privileged to travel to Israel in July of 2010. Along with the sightseeing and touring that I got to do I also had a wonderful cultural experience with the Bedouin people in the Negev Desert. The Bedouin people are one of the groups of people who still maintain a large portion of the customs and life style that have been practiced in the Middle East for centuries. I was shown and taught about customs that were practiced as far back as Abraham’s time and also during Jesus’ time.
The Bedouin, when entertaining guests in their homes have separate rooms for men and women, generally they do not socialize together. They do at times all meet together in a meeting room or open porch area but even there they separate, the men on one side and the women on the other. They do not eat together the women prepare the meal and serve the men. When the men are finished eating the women and children eat in another room while the men are having their coffee. In most Bedouin homes, as was the custom that we see throughout the Bible, they recline when entertaining and eating. They have cushions that are about six inches thick which they sit on either cross legged or leaning on a stack of pillows with their legs stretched out to the side. Women must keep their legs under them covered with their skirts. You do not sit with your feet outstretched in front of you, to show the bottom of your feet to others while you are seated is an insult.
After I returned home I was reading an article about the story of Jesus going to Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s home. The statement was made, in the article, that Mary was breaking Middle Eastern customs by being in the room socializing with the men. I has excited because I had seen that very custom in Israel. However, there is more in this passage to look at than Mary just being in the “men’s section.” An object lesson I saw in Israel and a comparison of Luke 10:38 – 42 has given me new light on the story of Mary of Bethany. The scripture says;
Now as they were traveling along, He (Jesus) entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, ” Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38 – 42 In this passage there are several things of significance, foremost we see Mary sitting at Jesus feet. When we look at this from an American perspective the way I have heard this taught and even taught it myself we paint a picture of Jesus sitting in a chair and Mary sitting on the floor at his feet. We put Mary in the position of a small child listening to her daddy tell stories, or that of an attentive pupil listening to the teacher or even a little puppy adoring its master. At any rate in our minds we have placed Mary in a very stereotypical subservient position. However, when we look at this from the Middle Eastern perspective, which is the correct way to look at it, we see something completely different.
One of the afternoons we were in Israel we were invited to the Bedouin Village of Laqya (Lik-key- ah) to the home of a family whose daughter had been one of our interpreters for the week. Her older brother “B” (I have been asked not to give names due to persecution from the Muslims), was the host, as the father had passed away. “B” invited us into the front porch area of the home where cushions and some lawn chairs (for the Americans who have a hard time sitting on the floor) were spread around the perimeter of the porch. “B” as the host took his place on the cushion at the front which was in kind of a head table type set up. “B” sat cross legged and “held court” asking and answering questions of the guests, making introductions of the family and meeting all of us. When the ladies brought out the first of several rounds of refreshments, “B” reclined leaning on a stack of pillows to his left and stretching his feet out to the right side of his body. He then invited the leader of our group “D” to come and sit with him at the head cushion. He patted the place on the couch where he wanted “D” to sit and said, “this is the place of honor.” This is where the most honored guest sits. It was the position right at “B’s” feet.
The Middle Eastern custom remains today as it was in Jesus day that the host gives the guests their places to sit and those places are decided based on the honor the host wishes to bestow on the guests.
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.” Luke 14:8
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom. Matthew 20:19 – 21
Let’s look again at the story of Mary sitting at Jesus feet based on the Middle Eastern Custom. She was not sitting like a child at her daddy’s feet but as an honored guest in the most honored position at the feast. The conclusions to be drawn from Mary sitting at Jesus feet are pretty astonishing. First, she was in the area that was designated as the men’s area instead of assisting the women with the food preparation. This was a huge breach of etiquette and custom and Martha’s outrage at this situation had as much to do with Mary being an embarrassment to the family as it did to Martha needing more help in the kitchen. Mary was breaking the rules and everyone there knew it. Why hadn’t someone else already sent Mary back to the women’s quarters? Lazarus her brother who was apparently the head of the house was there, he didn’t say anything. The disciples who were never afraid to point out things that were unfair didn’t say anything. Why not, why didn’t any of the men send Mary back to her proper place with the women? The answer is simple and also very astonishing it’s because Jesus had invited her to sit there at his feet.
Culturally there is no way that Mary would have been sitting in the men’s section at Jesus feet without being invited by Jesus to sit there. Jesus was the leader of the meeting that is clear from the fact that Martha addressed him to have Mary return to the women’s section. Why didn’t Martha go to Lazarus or one of the disciples to get Mary back in the kitchen? Jesus was in charge and Jesus was the one who was allowing Mary’s breach of etiquette and custom to take place.
Now the scripture says that Jesus said to Martha that Mary has chosen the good part. From this it has always been assumed that it was Mary’s decision to go and sit at Jesus feet. She obviously had made a choice in this matter; if she would have stayed in the kitchen with the ladies the story would have been much different. Mary took the risk to go into the men’s section maybe she had been sent in there with refreshments to serve the men and had lingered to hear the discussion or maybe she was excited and drawn to Jesus from her desire to worship. Whatever it was that led her there doesn’t matter as much as what Jesus did. Jesus saw her heart, he saw the choice that she had made, he saw the desire to learn and the desire to worship and he responded to her choice and told Martha “Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
If you don’t buy the conclusion I have drawn that Jesus invited Mary to sit at his feet you still have to admit that she was sitting there in the place of honor. When Martha asked Jesus to make her leave Jesus refused. The result is the same whether Jesus invited Mary to sit at his feet or if she just came and sat there and he allowed her to remain. The result is that Jesus, either through his action or inaction gave Mary the place of honor. Not only did Jesus allow Mary to sit in the place of honor at his feet He told everyone that this would not be taken away from her.
Later on shortly before Jesus was to be crucified Mary once again had an encounter with Jesus that raised eyebrows. In John 12, we have the story of how Jesus was again in Bethany at Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s house. Martha was once again serving and Mary came and anointed Jesus feet with very expensive perfume. Judas was critical of the cost of the perfume and that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor
Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” John 12: 1-8
Jesus again looks into Mary’s heart and sees not only the love that she has for him but the prophetic nature of her understanding. Jesus said that Mary was anointing Him for his burial. This is very similar to the prophetic nature of the actions of Agabus in Acts.
And when he was come unto us, he (Agabus) took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. Acts 21:11
I also see another reason for Mary anointing Jesus feet; it was the overflow of thankfulness for what he had done for her personally. Mary was so full of love and worship and thankfulness that she had to allow all of that to be expressed. “JESUS SET MARY FREE”, He treated her like a person instead of property, and He allowed her the expression of her soul. He took away the repression and allowed her to fulfill her gifting without criticism, denigration or cultural bias.
In conclusion; I believe that in the single act of Jesus inviting Mary to sit at His feet liberated women. In a culture that didn’t allow women to socialize and have discussions with men Jesus asked Mary to sit at his feet. In a culture where men said it would be better that the scripture were burned than to have it spoken by a woman Mary was learning from the Master along with the rest of the disciples. In a culture that separated men and women in their worship services Mary was allowed to sit and fulfill her heart’s desire by worshipping Jesus right there amongst the men. In a culture that only recognized men as leaders Mary’s prophetic gifting was recognized by Jesus. Jesus told Mary that she had chosen the good part and that it would not be taken away from her.
It is sad to see that in Christianity, we continue to take away from Mary what Jesus gave her. We profess to be set free from the curse but we continue to make rules and organize the structure of our associations so that the gifting of women are not recognized as equal with men.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28.
With love and sincere gratitude for the inspiring revelation of the Holy Spirit