Mary of Bethany – Love Beyond Measure


As an undergraduate student at university, I was motivated by Steve Clark’s encouragement to young people in the charismatic renewal to seek the Lord regarding “state of life” choices. Subsequently, after serious prayer and discernment, I made a lifelong commitment to live “single for the Lord,” that is, to live a celibate life dedicated to God, available to follow and serve him in whatever ways he would lead me. 

Moreover, Steve’s wisdom and teachings about Scripture and about formation in Christian living impacted me greatly. And his advice to me personally guided me into several of the paths that my life has taken: the pastoral care for women in their various states of life; the development of Scripture-based material for women’s retreats and conferences; and professional work as an author of inspirational articles, poetry, books, and Bible study guides.

Thus, it is with great gratitude to the Lord and to Steve that I contribute the article “Mary of Bethany: Love beyond Measure” to this book in Steve’s honor. The article reflects many aspects of how Steve has profoundly influenced my life.

At the Feet of Jesus 

Mary of Bethany was a simple first-century woman from a negligible village in a country overshadowed by the Roman Empire, yet the memory of her has endured through two millennia. Her fame is widespread, even though relatively little is known about her life. The evangelists tell us nothing of her birth, family background, or social standing. However, the descriptions they vividly painted of her encounters with Jesus give us a truer picture of her than we would gain from an entry in Who’s Who? And in each of the gospel accounts about Mary of Bethany, we see her in the same place – at the Lord’s feet.

In the House of Martha and Mary Luke 10:38-42

 Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” 

Luke 10:38-42

Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus were dear friends of Jesus (cf. John 11:5). Their home was a haven where he found rest and refreshment in its loving atmosphere. 

Hospitality is regarded very highly in the cultures of the Middle East, so it’s natural that Martha wanted to serve Jesus well. She loved Jesus deeply, and expressed this love concretely by offering him refreshment and preparing him a fine meal. 

Martha received Jesus with open arms and then got on with the work of meeting his needs. Welcoming the Lord into her house shows Martha’s immediate realization of his humanity. Martha, in a sense, comprehended the concrete reality of the Incarnation – that Jesus was a human, a man with human needs for rest and food. In her friendship, Martha welcomed him and allowed herself to be involved in the experience of the Incarnation in a very real way. We should admire Martha for her human warmth and hospitality that offered to meet and supply Jesus’ human need. Jesus knew that Martha’s solicitude was genuine, that she was translating her love for him into hospitable acts.

However, Martha lost sight of the Lord in her work. She was a busy hostess, so occupied with caring for Jesus and serving him that she couldn’t take the time to sit down with her guest. Jesus appreciated Martha’s loving care, but urged her to relax and enjoy his company. 

When Martha indignantly asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” (Luke 10:40), she showed a self-concern that robbed her of the ability to appreciate the precious gift of the moment – fellowship with Jesus. In her complaint we find the same Greek verb, melei, that the disciples used in their accusation of Jesus during the storm at sea: “Do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus responded the same way to both upheavals: He calmed the troubled hearts and storms that swept around him. Jesus gently reproached Martha – ”You are anxious and troubled about many things (worried and distracted).” His words were not a harsh reproof. He recognized the generosity of her bustling nature, but his response was meant to help her recognize how senseless and unnecessary her anxieties were. Only one thing is needed (Luke 10:41-42).

Martha may have been troubled, even resentful of serving alone, yet she had a profound love for Jesus; she was at ease with him, comfortable and secure in his love and her friendship with him. She knew where to go when she needed help – to Jesus – and he pointed her on the right track, helped her to unify her life and prioritize her concerns.

Wholly Present to Jesus

Unlike Martha, Mary was wholly present to Jesus, wholly there for him. She stayed near to him, not wasting any of the brief moments he spent in their house. She simply sat still at Jesus’ feet and listened to his conversation. She didn’t want to miss a single word he spoke. She had indeed chosen the “good portion” (Luke 10:42). Mother Basilea Schlink, founder of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, described Mary well: 

In Bethany Jesus found open hearts that loved him and eagerly awaited him at all times. Mary laid all else aside; it was of secondary importance to her. When Jesus came, she hastened to him and devoted herself fully to him. She was completely captivated by Jesus. She had eyes and ears for him alone, for him whom her soul loved. To love Jesus, to hear words of eternal life from his lips meant everything to her.2

When the Lord came to their house, Martha spent herself in giving to him. But Mary had no thought for what she could offer but understood that Jesus was coming to give himself, his friendship, to them – to offer the gift of himself as the Word made flesh. And so Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, ready and eager and open to receive from him. Poverty of spirit and simplicity of heart characterized her attitude; she had nothing to do, nothing to say. She had only to receive what the Lord was pouring into her heart and her life. In Mary’s experience, the important thing was not what she did or had to offer, but what God was doing in her.

As Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, she was still and attentive. There, so close to him, she became sensitive to what was on his heart. 

Mary was occupied solely with the presence of Jesus and kept her vision focused on him, not on herself. Often in prayer, my focus is on myself, either how I’m doing in life and what I need, or how I am doing right then in the prayer time. But Mary was focused on the Lord and was available to him, at his disposal. We, too, can ask ourselves:

How can I simply “be there” for Jesus? What does this mean for you practically? 

She listened to Jesus’ word – and it was a living word for her. She found truth and comfort and strength and wisdom in it. Similarly, Jesus wants to be a living word to us, wants us to find truth and strength from our Scripture reading and reflection and our daily prayer times.

Mary had an undivided love – something divided is separated; lacks unity; is shared out in portions; divergent; partial. She had a single-heartedwholehearted love – she was united in heart within herself; without inner conflict; not at cross-purposes; integral and integrated; not portioned out piecemeal; entire.

We may feel sorry for Martha, left to fix the dinner alone, and resent Mary’s “portion.” But rather than seeing the two postures as mutually exclusive, might we not find in Martha and Mary complementary aspects of the call given to all followers of Christ? As we balance action and contemplation in a creative tension in our own lives, we dynamically express our love for Jesus through both.

Both Martha and Mary welcomed the Lord with love, each in her own way. Here is what Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero of Turin wrote:

It is clear that these two are not opposed, they do not negate one another. No one can say: I take my stand with Mary; or I stand by Martha. Both of them together tell us in very impressive fashion something precisely on the lines of the friendship, love, intimacy with which we should greet the Lord. In our house there is room for Martha and room for Mary and we must occupy both places. We must be Mary because we are welcoming the Word; and we must be Martha because we are receiving the Son of Man, the Word who became incarnate precisely in order to share the human condition, and within it to save humanity and the world…. The house is one and Mary’s task and Martha’s are not alternatives, but dispositions which give full realization to the welcome that should be made to Jesus.”3

At the Raising of Lazarus: John 11:1-44

Mary’s attentiveness to Jesus and her availability to him are also evident in the story of the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead. John tells us that Mary had stayed behind grieving in the house, allowing Martha to speak with Jesus first as he arrived on the outskirts of the village (John 11:20, 30). But when Martha told her, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you,” Mary responded immediately to her master’s request and quickly rose to go to meet him (John 11:28-29). “Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet” (John 11:32).

This simple, straightforward exchange between Jesus and Mary can be a model for us in our own responsiveness to the Lord. Jesus asks us to be available to him, ready to answer his call and his wishes at all times. That includes those difficult times when we are weighed down by some concern or sorrow, like Mary was when she was mourning for Lazarus. But we also need to set aside time to sit at Jesus’ feet in the course of our day-to-day lives, like Mary did when Jesus visited her house for refreshment, to enjoy his presence and keep him company. 

In 1978, during the papal conclave, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was shaken by the way the voting began to indicate that he might be elected pope. “Pope John Paul II himself has provided one small detail about the conclave. At a certain point in the proceedings, his old rector at the Belgian College, Cardinal Maximian De Fürstenberg, approached him and asked, in words reminiscent of the liturgy for the ordination of a priest, ‘Deus adest et vocat te?’ [God is here, and calling you?].”4 In these words, put to him in the form of a question both challenging and encouraging him to embrace the surprising will of God, Wojtyla would have also recognized the words of Martha to Mary, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you,” and he responded willingly.

The Anointing: John 12:1-8 (see also Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9)

John’s Gospel places the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet shortly before the Passover. Slightly different versions appear in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, where an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with precious oil.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him.

John 12:1-2 

During the last days of Jesus’ life he taught daily in the temple and withdrew to the Mount of Olives or to Bethany at night, perhaps to avoid being arrested by his enemies. Most likely, it was in the house of his three friends that Jesus took refuge when he was unable to spend the night in Jerusalem because of the plots of the Pharisees. 

So, several nights before Passover, Jesus was having dinner in Bethany with his friends, and

Mary took a pound of costly ointment 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 ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:3-8

We know already that Mary loved to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him. Now she found another way to show her love at this dinner party.

It was the custom to honor guests by offering them scented water and washing their feet. Mary carried out this act with special love and refinement and delicacy.

She wasn’t concerned about what the other guests might think of her. She cared only for Jesus and what he thought, and she was moved to this generous act by her love for him. Her love was not self-seeking or self-interested.

This ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus was the aromatic essence of spikenard. This small plant bears only inconspicuous flowers, but its hairy stem gives off a rich, sweet-smelling fragrance. The dried stems, used to make perfume, became an important trade item in the ancient world, being transported on camelback from the Himalayan mountains where it grew, to merchants in the Near East.

Or another variety of nard grew in Palestine – a soft, rich brown moss that grows in the hollows of rocks. It required more than 200 pounds of moss to yield a single liter of perfume. So the product of either of these plants was quite costly. Mary wasn’t stingy in pouring out this oil, which represents her lavish love.

Mary and her family probably weren’t wealthy – Martha prepared and served the meals herself, so they probably didn’t have servants. Yet the perfume was worth 300 denarii. A laborer’s wage at that time was a denarius a day, so the perfume was equivalent to almost a year’s wages. What would you think of spending all the money you earned in a year on a bottle of perfume and then pouring it out all at one time?

John tells us that Mary used a pound (some translations say liter) of this fragrant oil, which is no small amount.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 14:3) adds that the perfume was held in an alabaster jar that Mary broke. Alabaster, a fine, white or translucent variety of gypsum or calcite, was used for carving ornamental objects such as flasks, lamps, and vases. This flask may have been a family treasure.

Breaking this exquisite vessel allowed the last drop of perfume to flow out, but also showed that the flask was to serve no one else and no other purpose. Mary showed by doing this that Jesus merited everything.

The jar filled with costly perfume is a symbol of Mary’s love and devotion, broken and poured out on Jesus. Do you have something precious in your life to offer Jesus? Your hopes, your dreams, your energy, your willingness to obey God or surrender totally to him? Or do you have something you must willingly break, for example, your rebelliousness or your fears and inhibitions, your false expectations and preconceived ideas about God or about others, or about yourself?

The Nature of Love’s Generosity

What are some truths that we can see and learn from Mary and carry out in lavishing our love upon Jesus?

Love is extravagant and never calculates; love wants to give its all, the utmost. Prudence and common sense would caution that this gesture was an extravagant waste, but love obeys the dictates of the heart. 

It’s lavish and profuse, abundant, unstinting. These words embarrass us or seem exaggerated, but they are the way we should respond to Jesus, whose love for us was even more generous, more total in its giving.

Mary illustrated the nature of love’s generosity and total self-giving to another. Love doesn’t worry much about the cost of a gift to the beloved. The gift must symbolize the total surrender of true love, regardless of the price, which may be big or small. If the price is small, but that is all one has, that is total giving. Mary focused her loving attention completely on Jesus. Her deed was simplicity itself, humble, direct, uncomplicated, selfless, loving.”5

The disciples complained of this extravagance, indignantly saying: “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor” (Matthew 26:8-9). 

But it was Jesus himself who interpreted Mary’s gesture as a “beautiful” thing, a “good” thing, a “kindness” (Mark 14:6). The actual Greek word means more than moral good, but something lovely and beautiful.

Jesus also explained that this anointing was in preparation for his burial (Matthew 26:10; Mark 14:6, 8). At Jesus’ birth the Magi had presented the gift of myrrh (Matthew 2:11), commonly used when wrapping a body in a burial shroud, which foreshadowed Jesus’ death. Now Jesus attached the same significance to Mary’s deed of anointing him with pure nard.

Mary’s gesture was spontaneous. She seized the moment. Often things must be done when the opportunity arises, or the moment will pass us by. How often have you been moved by a generous impulse, but failed to act on it? Missed your chance and couldn’t regain it?

Yet Mary’s act also grew out of a long-practiced attentiveness to Jesus. She had loved to sit at his feet and listen to him. Surely she was attentive to his moods and very sensitive to his thoughts and his will.

The apostles hadn’t understood when Jesus spoke about his impending passion, but perhaps Mary sensed that he was troubled by the coming trials and she sought to comfort him with this last token of her love. We know a shadow was lying over the dinner party, since the raising of Lazarus had drawn so much attention to Jesus that the religious authorities secretly decided to have Jesus killed – and Lazarus also.

As Mary had knelt at Jesus’ feet, anointing them and wiping them with her hair, she certainly had no thought that her action would become famous and that her name would be known throughout the world for all generations to come. Her sole thought was to let the Lord know how much she loved him, and to honor him and bring him comfort.

Jesus treasured her love and in turn honored her, and gave her gesture a universal value. In Matthew’s account, Jesus said that 

“.. wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”

Matthew 26:13

This prophecy has been fulfilled. St. John Chrysostom wrote:

Certainly we do hear her story told in all the churches…. Wherever in the world you may go, everyone respectfully listens to the story of [Mary’s] good service…. And yet hers was not a deed of renown. For what renown was there in pouring out some ointment? Nor was she a distinguished person…. Nor was there a large audience…. Nor was the place one where she could easily be seen…. Nonetheless, even though she was a lowly person, even though only a few were there to witness it, even though the place was undistinguished, neither these facts nor any others could obscure the memory of that woman.

Today, she is more illustrious than any king or queen; no passage of years has buried in oblivion the service she performed.”6

Chrysostom wrote that more than 1,500 years ago, and it’s still true today.

A Divine Love Story

The story of Mary of Bethany is a divine love story. And it’s a love story that God invites each of us to participate in. 

God has created us out of love – freely, generously, graciously, simply because he wanted to share his life with us. God is love and life … there’s no life and love apart from him. His desire is for us. He yearns for us – and he wants our love in return. We were created in love, out of God’s love … and we’ve been created for love, created to love God in return. We are in a divine love story with God!

The one who began this love story is God himself – as the First Letter of St. John tells us: 

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son…. We love because he first loved us.” 

1 John 4:10, 19

That’s the greatest reality and truth of the universe, and it’s the foundation of our lives and of our relationship with the Lord. St. John also went on to say, 

“We know and believe the love God has for us.

1 John 4:16

God has loved us, laid claim to us, and wants to captivate us with his goodness, his mercy, and his generosity in sending his Son to us. He has captured each of us for himself and won us by his love.

It’s in response to God’s overwhelming love for us and the revelation of himself to us that we then love him. God is constantly wooing and pursuing us – and invites us to respond to his overtures by loving him in return.

God has loved us with a love beyond measure. It only makes sense that we love him in return. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux once noted: 

“You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he should be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love.”7

That’s how Mary of Bethany loved Jesus, pouring out the nard, pouring out herself, without measure. That’s how we, too, are to love Jesus. And when we do that, we’re doing just what we’ve been made for!

As Amy Carmichael, a Protestant missionary to India, once wrote: 

“Ours should be the love that asks not ‘How little?’ but ‘How much?’; the love that pours its all and revels in the joy of having something to pour out on the feet of its beloved; love that laughs at limits – rather does not see them, would not heed them if it did.”8

This essay by Jeanne Kun is excerpted from Festschrift — Essays in Honor of Stephen B. Clark, Chapter 4, pp. 51-68, published by the Servants of the Word © 2023.  You can access all the  essays online or download a PDF copy.


2. Mother Basilea Schlink, The Holy Places Today (Darmstadt-Eberstadt, West Germany: Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, 1975), 19.

3. Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, Martha and Mary: Meeting Christ as Friend (Middlegreen, UK: St. Paul’s, 1994), 39.

4. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York, NY: Cliff Street Books, 1999), 252.

5. Alfred McBride, The Divine Presence of Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992), 110-11.

6. John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, Homily V.II.3, 5-6. https://

7. Jeanne Kun, ed., Love Songs: Wisdom from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Ijamsville, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 2001), 31. 


Top image credit: Stained glass window depicting Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus, location at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Sparta, New Jersey, USA. Photo © 2009 by Loci B. Lenar at

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