There’s just a little time before Hebrew class, and I decide to spend it here on Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall. After waiting in line for a fluffy pita stuffed with roasted eggplant and Israeli salad, and dripping with tehina and savory mango sauce, I sit, eat, and enjoy the street violinist.
While engaged in this innocent pastime, I nearly find myself —
Engaged. A slight, suit-clad young man stops to chat, and once again I realize that at first glance, I am hardly distinguishable from the girls who grew up here. Communication isn’t easy, but I gather from his Hebrew that matches are made in heaven … and don’t I want to join him under the huppah?
I politely decline.
Religious Jewish parents raise their sons for three things: joining God’s covenant, participating in His law, and standing under the wedding canopy. In a culture where arranged marriages are perfectly acceptable and playing the matchmaker for a friend is a good deed, talking to a strange girl on Ben Yehuda Street is probably just the logical modern equivalent of Abraham’s servant stopping at the well to find a wife for Isaac.
In a society where the Biblical command to be fruitful and multiply takes center stage, marriage is most definitely the default position. In a context where “home” and “family” are often used interchangeably, a man who dies without sons has evaporated off the pages of history. In a people with such a long history of devastating persecution, childlessness continues to be an individual, familial, and even societal tragedy.
With all this in mind, Jesus’ innovation of singleness for the kingdom’s sake appears much more bold, much more startling — and much more sacrificial.
In one breath, Jesus radically elevates the marriage bond; in the next, He honors purposeful celibacy. He warns us not to end up like Noah’s contemporaries who were so engrossed in ordinary life (including making marriages) that they were caught completely unawares by the Flood. But the hero of that story is a married man who was tuned in to God’s plan.
Marriage is most definitely the default position in the Bible. God mourns over those who long for mates: the rejected, the bereaved, the deserted, and the seemingly forgotten. He also calls some to singleness.
“To marry, or not to marry?” we ask. That, Paul seems to say, is not the main question. “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none … for the present form of this world is passing away.”1 Corinthians 7 No wonder John Piper speaks of “this momentary marriage.”
And this momentary singleness? It may be a lifetime; it may be a season; it may be hardly any time at all. But the Bible says there is a time for every purpose: even a time to recklessly waste our earthly potential — never for our own selfish ends — but for the growth of His glory.
Let’s try to see it through 1st-century Jewish eyes.
* * *
I opened the courtyard door and Jesus was there.
“Peace to you!” I said, gently giving Him the usual cheek-to-cheek kiss of welcome, while I scanned the street for signs of soldiers. They must be watching our home for Him, I thought.
“And to this house,” He replied warmly. There was something new and nameless in His eyes as He smiled at me. Doesn’t He know how dangerous it is to come here? I wondered.
“Why — ?” I began, but my brother Lazarus rushed up to claim Him, taking Him inside to meet the other guests.
“Martha, what about us?” rumbled a familiar voice.
Relieved to set my forebodings aside, I turned to the small crowd of travel-weary men still outside the gate. “What, let you bandits inside?” I said in mock horror. Peter laughed out loud, a white smile splitting his heavy black beard. Tall, slim John and his stocky brother James scowled at me with unconvincing ferocity, but white-haired Nathaniel brushed past the others and gave me a bear-hug. Then they all filed inside, laughing, and leaving twelve large and dusty pairs of sandals in a mound by the door. I bent over to arrange them in a neat row along the wall.
When I stood up, my sister Mary had arrived home from an errand, tenderly hugging a small bundle to her chest. “I can’t believe they’re finally here!” she said, cheeks flushed and eyes shining.
“Well, then go in and see them,” I said dryly. “You can make sure Obed brings the basin of warm water. They’ll be footsore after their long journey.”
“I will,” she agreed, and drifted dreamily though the door. Still in our courtyard kitchen, I began putting thin, flat loaves of Passover bread into the oven. Made with finest flour, the dough felt like silk to my touch. I smiled to myself, thinking of Mary’s plans. As orphans under the guardianship of an invalid brother, we’d been too poor to dream of marriage. I was quite happy playing perfect hostess to a steady stream of friends. Mary, however, had fallen in love with a fisherman who was even poorer than she — especially since he spent his time following Jesus around the country. But rather than pining, Mary had set to work weaving and selling elegant curtains, stealing enough time from her household chores to earn, in three years’ time, the wages a man could in one. With the contents of her tiny, prized bundle she would quietly signal to John that at last they could afford to marry.
Mary came in, her face taut. “It’s Jesus. Obed won’t —” She pulled me inside the lamplit dining room, where the guests were already lounging comfortably around the U-shaped table. The room was deathly quiet, and all eyes were fixed on our wizened slave, Obed. He stood defiantly in the middle of the room, a basin in his hands. Opposite him sat Jesus. His worn sandals lay to one side, and His feet were dusty, cracked, and bleeding. A few crimson beads of blood had already fallen onto the mosaic floor.
A funny thing, blood — with the power both to cleanse and to contaminate. Obviously Obed saw it as the latter.
I scanned the faces around me. They were blank, uncaring, and even embarrassed. Nobody lifted a finger to help. For a moment Jesus’ face looked worn and sad — and deserted, somehow. Then He stood up, limped over to Obed, took the basin, and quietly began washing His own feet.
I fled back to the courtyard, back to my work. My bread! I snatched it out of the oven, but the parchment-like loaves were already blistered and browned past the point of perfection. Hurriedly, I scooped the last of the flour into the mixing bowl. I just had to make more!
Then a voice broke the silence in the next room. Incredibly, as if nothing had happened, Jesus was beginning another of His stories.
I stopped. Suddenly, I knew I wanted only one thing. Loading a large wooden tray with the scorched bread, I placed it before my guests. When I sat on a stool to listen, Jesus turned, looked directly at me, and smiled a welcome.
As the story ended, the curtain leading to the inner part of the house was swept aside and Mary entered the dining room. I put my hand to my mouth. Down her shoulders and back, her long, glistening waterfall of hair streamed loose and uncovered, as only a bride’s is worn. In her arms she cradled a small object as if it were an infant. She hesitated a moment. Then as she quietly approached Jesus, I saw that she held a delicate alabaster bottle, shaped like a pomegranate blossom. Swiftly she broke the bottle’s neck on the edge of the table. I winced — and then gasped with pleasure. A heavy golden fragrance filled the entire room like sunlight. Spikenard! A rare spice from the distant mountains of India, it could easily cost a year’s wages for a small bottle.
A year’s wages? Mary’s dowry! I opened my mouth to protest, then closed it again and watched as my sister carefully poured some of the healing herb onto Jesus’ feet, rubbing them gently with her silky hair. Then, cupping one hand, she emptied the bottle into it. She dropped the broken bottle on the floor and placed both hands on Jesus’ head, almost as if she held a crown. I watched the priceless ointment run down His temples and into His beard.
Suddenly, Jesus laughed and began shaking His head. His hair, glistening in the lamplight, swung out in every direction, spraying me with fragrant droplets.
* * *
The ointment’s scent still lingered on my cheek, even after I had finished washing the dishes and the house was dark and quiet. “For my burial,” He had said. He knew. And He accepted His impending execution. Why? Why? my mind screamed. Why this waste?
Taking the small clay lamp from the high windowsill, I cupped it in my hand. A golden bubble of light surrounded me as I entered the room where Mary lay. When she heard the whisper of my approaching bare feet, she turned and flashed me a wary look. When I placed the lamp in its wall-niche and sat down heavily on my bed, my sister sat up. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to scold me, too? Lazarus is angry, John’s mother won’t speak to me, and even Judas wants to know why I wasted all that money!” Her dark eyes were defiant.
“No, I don’t want to scold you,” I said. “I want to cry when I think of those three years of work … and John … I wanted so much to meet your children someday — and now, perhaps, I never will.”
She shook her head fiercely as if to clear it, but two tears forced their way from under her closed lids and rolled heavily down her cheeks.
“Martha,” she said at last, “You know that they’re going to kill Jesus, don’t you?”
“Oh, that old rumor,” I said, forcing a laugh. “Prison, maybe, but —”
“That’s what I thought. Then I overheard John’s mother telling Joanna that she’d asked Jesus to make her sons His right-hand men when He came into His kingdom.” She blushed. “It flashed into my mind that if Jesus died, John might take over His ministry — and I’d be the wife of a pretty important man. I was instantly ashamed — but if that’s the way I am…. And then, His feet: none of us cared, Martha! We were all thinking about ourselves.”
I blushed too. “And that’s when you knew,” I said softly. “If His own friends treat Him like dirt, then it’s no surprise that His enemies would kill Him.”
Mary nodded. “I wanted Him to know that somebody cares!”
“He did!” I said in awe. “He said, ‘She has done what she could.'”
Mary looked at me shyly. “I was so glad when you sat down with us, Martha.”
“Me?” I said, surprised.
“Yes. I know it’s not easy for you to stop working. When you’re afraid, you’re a whirlwind! I saw that when Lazarus was dying — and I saw it today.”
I laughed, embarrassed. “You mean it’s easier for me to fly than to let go of my precious work!”
“Your sacrifice helped me,” she said. “I was standing by the curtain, watching you through the crack. I had the bottle in my hand, but I just couldn’t do it. It seemed like my whole future, Martha! How could I give it up?” Tears were pouring down her face. “Then I thought that if God could waste a perfectly good Messiah on us — why couldn’t I waste something on Him?”
She looked up, her dark eyes filled with reckless love.
And then I knew what I’d seen in Jesus’ face when I met Him at the gate.Mary and Martha’s real stories can be found in John 12:1-7 and Luke 10:38-42. This fictionalized version was sparked by Anne Graham Lotz’s suggestion that the costly ointment represented Mary’s dowry, and thus her future. [Lotz, Anne Graham. (1999). God’s Story. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. (p 176)]
Copyright 2009 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.