Nor other thought her mind admits
But, he was dead, and there he sits,
And he that brought him back is there.
Then one deep love doth supersede
The story of Jesus and the Bethany home is intensely interesting. Every thoughtful Christian has a feeling of gratitude in his heart when he remembers how much that home added to the comfort of the Master by means of the hospitality, the shelter, and the love it gave to him. One of the legends of Brittany tells us that on the day of Christ's crucifixion, as he was on his way to his cross, a bird, pitying the weary sufferer bearing his heavy burden, flew down, and plucked away one of the thorns that pierced his brow. As it did so, the blood spurted out after the thorn, and splashed the breast of the bird. Ever since that day the bird has had a splash of red on its bosom, whence it is called robin-redbreast. Certainly the love of the Bethany home drew from the breast of Jesus many a thorn, and blessed his heart with many a joy.
We have three glimpses within the doors of this home when the loved guest was there. The first shows us the Master and his disciples one day entering the village. It was Martha who received him. Martha was the mistress of the house. "She had a sister called Mary," a younger sister.
Then we have a picture as if some one had photographed the scene. We see Mary drawing up a low stool, and sitting down at the Master's feet to listen to his words. We see Martha hurrying about the house, busy preparing a meal for the visitors who had come in suddenly. This was a proper thing to do; it was needful that hospitality be shown. There is a word in the record, however, which tells us that Martha was not altogether serene as she went about her work. "Martha was cumbered about much serving." A marginal reading gives, "was distracted."
Perhaps there are many modern Christian housekeepers who would be somewhat cumbered, or distracted too, if thirteen hungry men dropped in suddenly some day, and they had to entertain them, preparing them a meal. Still, the lesson unmistakably is that Martha should not have been fretted; that she should have kept sweet amid all the pressure of work that so burdened her.
It was not quite right for her to show her impatience with Mary as she did. Coming into the room, flushed and excited, and seeing Mary sitting quietly and unconcernedly at the Rabbi's feet, drinking in his words, she appealed to Jesus, "Lord, dost thou not care that my sister did leave me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me."
I am not sure that Martha was wrong or unreasonable in thinking that Mary should have helped her. Jesus did not say she was wrong; he only reminded Martha that she ought not to let things fret and vex her. "Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things." It was not her serving that he reproved, but the fret that she allowed to creep into her heart.
The lesson is, that however heavy our burdens may be, however hurried or pressed we may be, we should always keep the peace of Christ in our heart. This is one of the problems of Christian living, -- not to live without cares, which is impossible, but to keep quiet and sweet in the midst of the most cumbering care.
At the second mention of the Bethany home there is sore distress in it. A beloved one is very sick, sick unto death. Few homes are entire strangers to the experience of those days when the sufferer lay in the burning fever. Love ministered and prayed and waited. Jesus was far away, but word was sent to him. He came at length, but seemed to have come too late. "If thou hadst been here!" the sisters said, each separately, when they met the Master. But we see now the finished providence, not the mere fragment of it which the sisters saw; and we know he came at the right time. He comforted the mourners, and then he blotted out the sorrow, bringing back joy to the home.
The third picture of this home shows us a festal scene. A dinner was given in honor of Jesus. It was only a few days before his death. Here, again, the sisters appear, each true to her own character. Martha is serving, as she always is; and again Mary is at Jesus' feet. This time she is showing her wonderful love for the friend who has done so much for her. The ointment she pours upon him is an emblem of her heart's pure affection.
Mary's act was very beautiful. Love was the motive. Without love no service, however great or costly, is of any value in heaven's sight. The world may applaud, but angels turn away with indifference when love is lacking. "If I bestow all my goods to feed the poor ... but have not love, it profiteth me nothing." But love makes the smallest deed radiant as angel ministry. We need not try doing things for Christ until we love him. It would be like putting rootless rods in a garden-bed, expecting them to grow into blossoming plants. Love must be the root. It was easy for Mary to bring her alabaster box, for her heart was full of overmastering love.
Service is the fruit of love. It is not all of its fruit. Character is part too. If we love Christ, we will have Christ's beauty in our soul. Mary grew wondrously gentle and lovely as Christ's words entered her heart. Friendship with Christ makes us like Christ. But there will be service too. Love is like light, it cannot be hid. It cannot be shut up in the heart. It will not be imprisoned and restrained. It will live and speak and act. Love in the heart of Jesus brought him from heaven down to earth to be the lost world's Redeemer. Love in his apostles took them to the ends of the earth to tell the gospel story to the perishing.
It is not enough to try to hew and fashion a character into the beauty of holiness, until every feature of the image of Christ shines in the life, as the sculptor shapes the marble into the form of his vision. The most radiant spiritual beauty does not make one a complete Christian. It takes service to fill up the measure of the stature of Christ. The young man said he had kept all the commandments from his youth. "One thing thou lackest," said the Master; "sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor." Service of love was needed to make that morally exemplary life complete.
The lesson is needed by many Christian people. They are good, with blameless life, flawless character, consistent conduct; but they lack one thing, -- service. Love for Christ should always serve. There is a story of a friar who was eager to win the favor of God, and set to work to illuminate the pages of the Apocalypse, after the custom of his time. He became so absorbed in his delightful occupation that he neglected the poor and the sick who were suffering and dying in the plague. He came at last, in the course of his work, to the painting of the face of his Lord in the glory of his second coming; but his hand had lost its skill. He wondered why it was, and realized that it was because, in his eagerness to paint his pictures, he had neglected his duty of serving.
Rebuffed and humiliated by the discovery, the friar drew his cowl over his head, laid aside his brushes, and went down among the sick and dying to minister to their needs. He wrought on, untiringly, until he himself was smitten with the fatal plague. Then he tottered back to his cell and to his easel, to finish his loved work before he died. He knelt in prayer to ask help, when, lo! he saw that an angel's hand had completed the picture of the glorified Lord, and in a manner far surpassing human skill.
It is only a legend, but its lesson is well worthy our serious thought. Too many people in their life as Christians, while they strive to excel in character, in conduct, and in the beautiful graces of disposition, and to do their work among men faithfully, are forgetting meanwhile the law of love which bids every follower of Christ go about doing good as the Master did. To be a Christian is far more than to be honest, truthful, sober, industrious, and decorous; it is also to be a cross-bearer after Jesus; to love men, and to serve them. Ofttimes it is to leave your fine room, your favorite work, your delightful companionship, your pet self-indulgence, and to go out among the needy, the suffering, the sinning, to try to do them good. The monk could not paint the face of the Lord while he was neglecting those who needed his ministrations and went unhelped because he came not. Nor can any Christian paint the face of the Master in its full beauty on his soul while he is neglecting any service of love.
We may follow a little the story of what happened after Mary brought her alabaster box. Some of the disciples of Jesus were angry. There always are some who find fault with the way other people show their love for Christ. It is so even in Christian churches. One member criticises what another does, or the way he does it. It will be remembered that it was Judas who began this blaming of Mary. He said the ointment would better have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor. St. John tells us very sadly the real motive of this pious complaining; not that Judas cared for the poor, but that he was a thief, and purloined the money given for the poor.
Jesus came to Mary's defence very promptly, and in a way that must have wonderfully comforted her hurt heart. It is a grievous sin against another to find fault with any sweet, beautiful serving of Jesus which the other may have done. Christ's defence and approval of Mary should be a comfort to all who find their deeds of love criticised or blamed by others.
"Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me." The disciples had said it was a waste. That is what some persons say about much that is done for Christ. The life is wasted, they say, which is poured out in self-denials and sacrifices to bless others. But really the wasted lives are those which are devoted to pleasure and sin. Those who live a merely worldly life are wasting what it took the dying of Jesus to redeem. Oh, how pitiful much of fashionable, worldly life must appear to the angels!
"She hath done what she could." That was high praise. She had brought her best to her Lord. Perhaps some of us make too much of our little acts and trivial sacrifices. Little things are acceptable if they are really our best. But Mary's deed was not a small one. The ointment she brought was very costly. She did not use just a little of this precious nard, but poured it all out on the head and feet of Jesus. "What she could" was the best she had to give.
We may take a lesson. Do we always give our best to Christ? He gave his best for us, and is ever giving his best to us. Do we not too often give him only what is left after we have served ourselves? Then we try to soothe an uneasy conscience by quoting the Master's commendation of Mary, "She hath done what she could." Ah, Mary's "what she could" was a most costly service. It was the costliest of all her possessions that she gave. The word of Jesus about her and her gift has no possible comfort for us if our little is not our best. The widow's mites were her best, small though the money value was -- she gave all she had. The poor woman's cup of cold water was all she could give. But if we give only a trifle out of our abundance, we are not doing what we could.
It is worthy of notice that the alabaster box itself was broken in this holy service. Nothing was kept back. Broken things have an important place in the Bible. Gideon's pitchers were broken as his men revealed themselves to the enemy. Paul and his companions escaped from the sea on broken pieces of the ship. It is the broken heart that God accepts. The body of Jesus was broken that it might become bread of life for the world. Out of sorrow's broken things God builds up radiant beauty. Broken earthly hopes become ofttimes the beginnings of richest heavenly blessings. We do not get the best out of anything until it is broken.
"They tell me I must bruise
They tell me I must break
They tell me love must bleed,
Must it be always so
Ah, yes! By crushing days,
Even sorrow is not too great a price to pay for the blessings which can come only through grief and pain. We must not be afraid to be broken if that is God's will; that is the way God would make us vessels meet for his service. Only by breaking the alabaster vase can the ointment that is in it give out its rich perfume.
"She hath anointed my body aforehand for the burying." I like the word aforehand. Nicodemus, after Jesus was dead, brought a large quantity of spices and ointments to put about his body when it was laid to rest in the tomb. That was well; it was a beautiful deed. It honored the Master. We never can cease to be grateful to Nicodemus, whose long-time shy love at last found such noble expression, in helping to give fitting burial to him whom we love so deeply. But Mary's deed was better; she brought her perfume aforehand, when it could give pleasure, comfort, and strengthening, to the Master in his time of deepest sorrow. We know that his heart was gladdened by the act of love. It made his spirit a little stronger for the events of that last sad week. "She hath wrought a good work on me."
We should get a lesson in friendship's ministry. Too many wait until those they love are dead, and then bring their alabaster boxes of affection and break them. They keep silent about their love when words would mean so much, would give such cheer, encouragement, and hope, and then, when the friend lies in the coffin, their lips are unsealed, and speak out their glowing tribute on ears that heed not the laggard praise.
Many persons go through life, struggling bravely with difficulty, temptation, and hardship, carrying burdens too heavy for them, pouring out their love in unselfish serving of others, and yet are scarcely ever cheered by a word of approval or commendation, or by delicate tenderness of friendship; then, when they lie silent in death, a whole circle of admiring friends gathers to do them honor. Every one remembers a personal kindness received, a favor shown, some help given, and speaks of it in grateful words. Letters full of appreciation, commendation, and gratitude are written to sorrowing friends. Flowers are sent and piled about the coffin, enough to have strewn every hard path of the long years of struggle. How surprised some good men and women would be, after lives with scarcely a word of affection to cheer their hearts, were they to awake suddenly in the midst of their friends, a few hours after their death, and hear the testimonies that are falling from every tongue, the appreciations, the grateful words of love, the rememberings of kindness! They had never dreamed in life that they had so many friends, that so many had thought well of them, that they were helpful to so many.
After a long and worthy life, given up to lowly ministry, a good clergyman was called home. Soon after his death, there was a meeting of his friends, and many of them spoke of his beautiful life. Incidents were given showing how his labors had been blessed. Out of full hearts one after another gave grateful tribute of love. The minister's widow was present; and when all the kindly words had been spoken, she thanked the friends for what they had said. Then she asked, amid her tears, "But why did you never tell him these things while he was living?"
Yes, why not? He had wrought for forty years in a most unselfish way. He had poured out his life without stint. He had carried his people in his heart by day and by night, never sparing himself in any way when he could be of use to one of God's children. His people were devoted to him, loved him, and appreciated his labors. Yet rarely, all those years, had any of them told him of the love that was in their hearts for him, or of their gratitude for service given or good received. He was conscious of the Master's approval, and this cheered him, -- it was the commendation he sought; but it would have comforted him many a time, and made the burdens seem lighter and the toil easier and the joy of serving deeper, if his people -- those he loved and lived for, and helped in so many ways -- had sometimes told him how much he was to them.
All about us move, these common days, those who would be strengthened and comforted by the good cheer which we could give. Let us not reserve all the flowers for coffin-lids. Let us not keep our alabaster boxes sealed and unbroken till our loved ones are dead. Let us show kindness when kindness will do good. It will make sorrow all the harder to bear if we have to say beside our dead, "I might have brightened the way a little if only I had been kinder."
It was wonderful honoring which Jesus gave to Mary's deed, when he said that wherever the gospel should be preached throughout the whole world the story of this anointing should be told. So, right in among the memorials of his own death, this ministry of love is enshrined. As the odor of the ointment filled all the room where the guests sat at table, so the aroma of Mary's love fills all the Christian world to-day. The influence of her deed, with the Master's honoring of it, has shed a benediction on countless homes, making hearts gentler, and lives sweeter and truer.
 For a fuller treatment of this incident, see Chapter XI.