I know people are hardly surprised when two or more persons have the same name. It is one of the coincidental circumstances we encounter in life. It is amusing to a certain degree, but certainly not funny if this causes confusion!
Having a common name is not unusual. Nevertheless, it is important that there are no mistaken identities that impact understanding and relationships. This will be the more distressing, if we only have a common name to get by.
This occurs in Scripture also, and the name that I have in mind is Mary. I think we can count at least four persons called ‘Mary’ in the Gospels, and certainly, some more Marys in the New Testament!
The first of these women in the Gospels was, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. Then there was Mary Magdalene, then Mary the wife of Clopas, and lastly, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus in Bethany.
Accounting Three Marys First
In the Gospels, after Jesus was crucified, Mary the mother of Jesus was also called Mary the mother of James. It is necessary to note this, so that none is mistaken that there was another Mary called the mother of James. Mary’s children included James, Joses, Simon, and Jude. (Matthew 13:55, Mark 15:40, 16:1, 3:31, Luke 8:9, 24:10)
On the other hand, Mary the wife of Clopas is clearly another woman. When Jesus was crucified, Mary the wife of Clopas was at the cross besides Mary the mother of Jesus. Here, we can note there is obvious close kinship between the two Marys, as it would only be possible for close relatives to be at the scene of an execution. John 19:25
The early church fathers said that Mary the mother of Jesus was related by marriage to Clopas, as he was Joseph’s brother. So Clopas was the brother in law of Mary the mother of Jesus. This means that Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary the mother of Jesus, were sisters in law.
However, I would not be able to place a family relationship for Mary Magdalene to Jesus. Jesus cast out seven demons from her, and she followed the Lord faithfully from then. (Luke 8:1-3)
These women deserved to be remembered. Their names were also linked on the first day of the week when they were joined by several others to go to the tomb where Jesus was placed after His crucifixion.
Women might not be in the lead role in the band of disciples. But the Lord honoured them because these women were the first to be told that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mary Magdalene was also the first to see the Lord after the Resurrection. (John 20:18, Mark 16:9)
And so, I write this brief account of some women to remember for Mother’s Day too.
Other Women Helping in Jesus’ Ministry
We know that Jesus went from town to town in Judea and Galilee, and preached also in Samaria and the coast round Phoenicia. The group of ladies were very important for the needs of the band that travelled with Jesus in our Lord’s ministry. They travelled with Jesus on many occasions as we read in the Gospels. (Luke 8:1-3, 23:55, Mark 15:41)
They provided necessary household help, to cook, to wash clothes, and tidy things on these journeys. I would not imagine Jesus and the disciples stayed in hotels, or eat in restaurants, wherever they went!
We know Mary Magdalene was one of them. However, I shall not do justice to several other ladies if I only speak of the Marys in the band of disciples. So I mention here also, Salome, Joanna and Susanna among these women.
Salome, as we know was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. She was called Mary’s sister in John 19:25, but as Salome in Mark 15:40. She was the mother of James and John, Jesus’ disciples. For this reason, we can understand why she came to Jesus and requested the Lord to make James and John to sit on His right and left hand! The other disciples were obviously very upset that Salome wanted Jesus to give special favour for relatives. It is in human nature, I guess! (Matthew 20:20)
Joanna was the wife of Cuza the manager of Herod’s household in Galilee. She was among the women who went to the tomb on the first Lord’s Day. Her presence would have been very helpful, as no man was among the group, and they were approaching soldiers guarding the tomb. Joanna would have some authority to speak as someone connected to King Herod’s household.
At Jacob’s Well in Sychar
Traditionally, the Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans. Yet, we remember Jesus and the disciples travelled through Samaria. On this memorable occasion recorded by the Apostle John, Jesus had not travelled by the normal route along the Jordan River to avoid Samaria. John 4:9
Naturally, this was problematic, as it would clearly be unbecoming for a respected rabbi to rub shoulders with Samaritans. Thus Jesus stayed by Jacob’s well at Sychar, instead of going into town. (Sychar is, of course, on the outskirts of the ancient ruins of Shechem, the town near where Jacob put up his tent after leaving Padam Aram. So we understand this was the well he dug at Sychar.)
On this occasion, it was also apparent the women were not present, for none was mentioned as being with Jesus at the well when the disciples left for town. There were evidently no women to tend to household chores, so the disciples went to town to buy food! (John 4:8)
Thus there was also no woman in the group to give Jesus a drink of water from the well. Jesus asked this Samaritan woman of low repute who came by, and this surprised her as well.
Nonetheless, the story of this Samaritan woman deserves a mention because she told the towns folk about Jesus, despite her personal disrepute. Thus she became the first woman evangelist we hear in church history!
The Other Mary, Sister of Lazarus
So also, I shall like to tell of the other Mary, sister of Lazarus. This Mary did not follow Jesus in His travels. It would seem there is nothing worthy to mention her, for she had not contributed much that we can speak of, in relation to Jesus’ ministry.
She was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and their home was in Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. What we know is that Mary and Martha were faithful servants of the Lord, all the same. Even though they were not in the thick of service or preaching, yet their home was Jesus’ preferred resident when the Lord came to Jerusalem! No one can ask for a more honoured Guest than having Jesus at his home! (John 12:1)
Naturally, this means Martha was always very busy when Jesus came. There were the disciples also, besides Jesus. That was why Martha asked Jesus to get Mary to help her in the preparations. Martha saw the need to get much work done. Luke 10:40
It is important to note that Jesus did not brush off Martha because she was a faithful servant. However, Jesus showed Martha the honor to sit at His feet. Mary was doing what a disciple would do by sitting at Jesus’ feet! This was a privilege that not many have. So Jesus said that what Mary preferred would not be taken away from her!
We also remember Mary did other needful things that Jesus wanted us to know. She was the only person to prepare Jesus for the day of His death by anointing the Lord’s feet with the diffusive woody incense perfume, nard, at their family home in Bethany. Jesus said that wherever the Gospel is told, what Mary of Bethany did for Him would be told.
This was Mary’s honor for what she had done would be prophetically remembered with our Lord’s last week in Jerusalem. In fact, when memories faded with time, and new generations might be confused with so many Marys in her time, John wrote carefully in his Gospel to identify her.
John called her in John 11:2, “It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick” (KJV).
She was “the same one” who anointed the Lord is an equivalent way to clarify this in contemporary speech. Obviously, long after the event, but having so many Marys, presented a dilemma which John the disciple took care to clarify!
A Sinful Woman in Perea
In speaking of washing Jesus’ feet like what Mary did, I would like to include here, the story of the woman who came to a Pharisee’s house when Jesus was in Perea. This account in Luke 7:36 happened on the banks across River Jordan from Jerusalem, but had sometimes been confused with the account of Mary anointing Jesus in Bethany.
It is not often that some well known Christians made this mistake, but it is known this sinful woman was famously confused with Mary! Thus, if anyone is mistaken, one can take consolation that this confusion is common and well known.
Luke told of Jesus being invited to a Pharisee’s home for a meal. The Pharisee was called Simon, and he had obviously invited other leading folks and friends to this dinner. Jesus was not the honoured Guest, as was the case in Bethany. (cf. John 12:2)
Jesus was not surrounded by His followers is clear because Jesus was reclining at the table with Simon’s other invited guests. This was a formal occasion in a Roman dining setting.
We know also that Simon was far from being a disciple of Jesus. He did not approve of friendship with sinners. We can see he disapproved of Jesus for allowing this sinful woman to touch Him (v.39).Those guests also were not among Jesus’ disciples can be noted from the way they talked among themselves. (Luke 7:49)
The woman was known to lead a sinful life in this town and had only heard that Jesus was going for this dinner! Thus Simon did not invite any “sinners” to his meal. (v. 37)
This woman stood behind Jesus at the Lord’s feet and wiped His feet with her hair, and poured perfume on them. If this seemed a strange description, it is because Jesus was reclining at the table, and His feet on the divan couch would be away from the table. We often see this reclining at a formal meal in movies with a Roman theme. The sitting arrangement is known as a triclinium (v. 38).
Jesus told the Pharisee Simon that He had something to tell him. Then Jesus told the parable of two men who were forgiven debts owed to a moneylender. Jesus asked Simon who would love more, the one who was forgiven a small debt, or the one who owed a large sum of money and was forgiven. It seemed natural that the one with the bigger debt would love more. (v. 43)
Jesus wanted Simon to know that he had made little effort to find God in his heart. Simon did not even offer the customary kiss, or water to wash hands and feet before a meal. It was obvious Simon had little love for the Lord. In fact, it does seem his invitation to Jesus was for people to know, and that was why the sinful woman got to know Jesus was coming for this dinner!
Simon had followed the customary practice of announcing the meal formally, and this was not an issue. However, the fact that he did not follow customary courtesies for Jesus, contradicted his supposed good intentions.
So we find that Jesus was reclining near the entrance where servants and the woman could stand nearby to him. Had Jesus been an honoured guest, this would not be likely because Jesus would be sitting in the centre, out of uninvited reach, and facing the upper room entrance.
Nevertheless, Jesus acknowledged that she was caught in a sinful life and had a bigger debt to be forgiven. But God forgives all who turn to Him for life. The woman had faith and Jesus blessed her.
The Lord did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The love of this woman for Jesus was evident, and her desire to walk with God was also seen from her tearful repentance. So Jesus said that the woman who had been forgiven for many sins, had loved God more. Her faith had made her right before God.
They also Serve who Stand and Wait
When we consider these women in the Gospel, we do not see many deeds that were notable achievements, or that showed outstanding abilities. Most of these women were only standing by, or doing menial tasks.
Yet I think the Lord did not ignore their love and their desire to serve God. God blessed them. So I think it is a worthy reminder that serving the Lord is not about doing great deeds and significant things. If it were, then surely housewives, servants, and labourers have no future with God.
So I think of what was lovingly written long ago by a blind English poet. He said,
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask: But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve Him best: His state
Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
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