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Mary of Bethany, an Alert Listener. Chapter Two from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

Mary of Bethany, an Alert Listener

Chapter Two from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

Let us abide by what we are told by the evangelists. The best way to do this will be to go back to the Scriptures again and again like the Jews, the people of Holy Writ themselves, do on questions of faith. At all times let us keep in mind the very special ways of story telling which we find in the Scriptures. References to older texts are important, so are numbers, symbols, parables and innuendoes.

Times were hard for the People of Israel, when Mary was born. The Twelve Tribes had broken up, the Jews were suffering from the oppression of an occupation army and all were eagerly looking forward to a saviour who would restore power to the House of Israel, maybe even reinstate the Kingdom. In all their synagogues they would read the prophecies of Isaiah about a herald of salvation Before the important meeting at Bethany a new prophet has appeared in Israel. His name is John, a powerful man, one who knows his vocation to be a messenger of the Lord, one who brings tidings of a coming saviour.

He teaches in the wilderness of Judea and the whole district of the Jordan. The people of Israel are quick to recognise the word of prophets, for the Law and the Prophets are at the roots of their existence. The Law tells Jews how to live with respect for Yahweh and for their fellowmen, the Prophets denounce them when they stray from these teachings. There is an ancient and deep-rooted tradition that, if the Chosen People are prepared to return from their unjust ways and convert to justice, a saviour will appear who will set Israel free from oppression. But they are like botanists who own the rarest of plants and who know full well that these will flower once only. Most of them have all the details in their learned books, but few only persevere in constant alertness and are rewarded by a sight of the secret opening of the magnificent flower. Will the people of Israel be awake at the moment of the appearance of their saviour? Will they be ready, have open minds? And most important, will they accept him?

Then, most suddenly, there is a new prophet in their midst, one who claims to be a harbinger of good news. The word spreads like wildfire and men and women in large numbers approach him in search of instruction. John is a man of authority and when he demands that they enter the waters of the Jordan as an outward sign of their wish to leave their sinful paths, they obey and ask him what changes they will have to make in their lives. John is very definite in his answers; he knows his people and his instructions are relevant. Their most important sin is that they have neglected their social duties, so they must repent and convert to a better way of life. In future those among them who have ample sustenance must share with their neighbours in need. Tax collectors must refrain from extortion and not abuse the laws of the oppressors to feather their own nests. Neither must soldiers, who must stop intimidating women. In short they must in all respects behave as good human beings.

Without any doubt our Mary has been among those that have come to listen to the prophet. Bethany is close to Jerusalem. Most people there are dedicated to Temple and Law, and Scripture contrasts the inhabitants of Judea with those of distant Galilee, Galilee of the pagans, as they call it. Yet we read that besides the inhabitants of Judea, all of Samaria and Galilee hasten to hear the new prophet, whose teachings seem to bear the stamp of orthodoxy, echoing as they do the well-known prophecies of Isaiah and others with their promise of a coming saviour. So why should Mary of Bethany be the exception, Mary whose first action we read about in the gospels shows she already understands that here is a great Teacher? Who else will have given her this insight than John the prophet? She must have been among the listeners. His tidings of the coming of a saviour must have been as music in her ears. Even now Jews live in the same expectation. They expect a saviour, the Messiah, the Anointed One. At their Passover meal they reserve a seat for Eliah, the prophet who will return to earth. He might be the Messiah, or at the very least bring tidings of his coming. Indeed, Jews mention the coming of the Messiah almost as a household word. Not so our Mary. Her heart is really full of hope. We must not forget that two thousand years ago, when there were not all the distractions the media have brought us, the Promise must have been even more alive than for present day Jews. A saviour? When, where? When we meet Mary in her own home, we come across an unbelievably avid thirst to learn more about these things She must have realised the extreme importance of John’s message, for it makes her to so disregard strong-felt social duties of hospitality. Mary of Bethany is one of those that want to be instructed by John. If ever there was a person eager to follow the path of righteousness it was this woman. An intense longing must have driven her to the feet of the Prophet Teacher. Subsequent events illustrate that she was driven by a strong sense of vocation, too, intuitively realising that one day her own life would actually be touched by the presence of the coming saviour that John was heralding.

She strikes us as an exceptionally gifted and strong-minded woman, whose inquisitive mind led her to recognise that John might well be right about Jesus. For such a woman the Promise must have meant a deep undercurrent to her being, a growing love, a longing one day to come face to face with this saviour.

Mary’s parents had named their girl child Maria, Miriam, after the prophetess Miriam, Moses’ sister. It was no more than a small gesture, but one inspired by hope and faith. When we meet her at Bethany, she has already reached maturity and has sound reasons for choosing to sit down to listen to him rather than prepare him a meal. One would even say that she must have met Jesus before. Could she have been the other disciple that accompanied Andrew that very first day, when he went to investigate what John had announced.

How else could she have acquired such insight into the overwhelming significance of this person staying at their house? Jesus himself, insists that ‘she has chosen the better part’. How the better part? True hospitality? Real care? A better ministry, which is after all another word for being a better servant?

I think she must indeed have realised that listening to him was called for even more than feeding him bread and wine. That he was hungry for their hunger and thirsty for their thirst. One day he would explain to his male disciples that he had had a food to eat that his apostles did not know about, when he was speaking to that other woman listener, who came, listened and believed.

From the frequent readings of Isaiah Mary had learned what type of saviour to expect, one that would reign his people in love. She knew what Isaiah had said:

´Go up on a high mountain,
Shout with a loud voice,
joyful messenger to Zion.
joyful messenger to Jerusalem.

Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God.’
Here is the Lord Yahweh
coming with power,
his arm subduing all things to him.

The prize of his victory is with him,
his trophies all go before him.
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock,
gathering lambs in his arms,
holding them against his breast
and leading to their rest the mother ewes.’

Meditating on his words and preparing to respond as soon as the Promised One would be announced, she was exactly what the Prophet must have hoped, she was alert. Therefore she acted when John the Baptist indicated Jesus of Nazareth. She went after him. Possibly with Andrew. It would have been hard for her not to.

© Theresia Saers

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