Chapter 23.1 What is Best
Tabernacles to Dedication A.D. 29 (about three months from autumn to winter)
What Is Best, composite digital image by L. Lovett, April 2007
What Is Best, composite digital image by L. Lovett, April 2007 (CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

Mary and Martha

Autumn brought the annual season of the final harvest of the year, celebrated with rejoicing and thanksgiving to God in what was called the Festival of Tabernacles. Everyone who could make the journey went up to the Temple in Jerusalem; but the real celebration took place in pilgrims’ shelters that surrounded the city during the festival. However, most booths were built at home with boughs of green trees woven together to produce a cool, leafy arbor, either on the roofs of their houses or in the courtyards. All the ordinary activities—playing, eating, sleeping, and the like—were conducted in the shelters, the house becoming for that period only a secondary dwelling. The cool autumn days were ideal for enjoying this brief period of freedom from encompassing walls before being shut into the houses for the winter season.

The day after the feast began, Jesus and his apostles arrived in the area of Jerusalem but did not enter the city’s walls. It was too dangerous to stay there now, so they followed the road along the Kedron valley and turned east toward the small lovely village of Bethany (Judea), less than two miles away on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

Two sisters, Martha and Mary, and their younger brother Lazarus had a home there. The older sister Martha took on the role of caretaker when their parents had died. She was well qualified, being vigorous, thrifty, and conscientious. Under her guidance, Lazarus had managed the estate well and it had continued to prosper.

Mary was especially busy with preparations for their large booth in the walled courtyard, directing the servants in weaving the last of the green branches from which it was made and moving in sleeping pallets and utensils for the festive meals which were to be served there during the period of the feast. She was happy at her task for not only was she creating something of beauty, but she was also taking part in the worship of the Most High.

The shelter was almost completed when Mary, looking up, saw two men enter the courtyard. They both appeared to be tired from a long journey and their robes were dusty, so she judged them to be pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem for the festival.

“Shalom, my daughter,” the tall man said. “Could we drink from your well before going on?”

“Of course,” Mary said warmly. “I will draw water for you myself.”

Moving to the well, she drew water in a jar; and taking a cup from beside it, filled it first for the tall man and then for the slighter one. She could see they were friendly, and not like the rabble that often clogged the roads on their way to beg in Jerusalem during the feast periods.

“My name is Simon Peter,” the big man said, “and this is John. We are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth and have walked ahead to seek a lodging place near Jerusalem for the Master. He and the other ten are on the road a little way behind us.”

Mary’s eyes brightened with recognition. “Nicodemus, a friend of ours in Jerusalem, has spoken favorably of Jesus.” Then a thought occurred to her. “You said you are seeking a place for him to stay?”

“Yes,” Peter told her. “It must be outside the city, but close enough to reach Jerusalem easily.”

“Wait here,” Mary told them. “I will be gone only a short time.”

The two men rested in the cool shade beside the well, while Mary ran into the house. They noticed the large comfortable home and booth in the courtyard. It would be an ideal place for him to stay, far better than the camps pilgrims usually made on the slope of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, and the distance to the city was only a little greater around the mountain.

Martha was near the oven, baking bread when her younger sister came in with the exciting news, “Jesus of Nazareth is coming! Can he and his disciples stay with us during the festival?”

The older sister straightened up and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. Already she had more work than she could do at this holiday season. Lazarus had gone into Jerusalem for the feast, so he was not home to entertain their guests.

To convince her, Mary added, “You remember when Nicodemus was here. How he told us about Jesus, that he is a compassionate man who heals the sick, and that many believe he is the Messiah—even Nicodemus himself. The Rabbi needs a private place to stay, away from the city.”

For all her thrift, Martha was fundamentally generous and kind. The thought of anyone without a place to stay during the Festival of Tabernacles was something she could not ignore. “Yes, he can stay,” she said wearily.

Mary, in her happiness at the thought of having the Teacher in her own home where she could listen to him as long as she wished, ran back outside to Peter and John with the good news, “My sister welcomes Jesus and all of you into our home.”

“We are grateful for your kindness,” Peter told her, as Martha came out to join them. She could see, as Mary had, that these men were no rabble. Their friend Nicodemus had indeed spoken correctly of the Master.

Martha replied, “We will be honored to have the Rabbi join us in our booth for the festival. I will go make preparations for all of you.”

And so Christ came, bringing with him heaven’s own light and peace.

What Is Best

The sisters were concerned how best to do him honor. To Martha it seemed as if she could not do enough in showing him hospitality. With such an important visitor, she wanted to be sure everything was exactly right, and hurried about the kitchen, preparing food and directing the servants in making room in the booth and surrounding buildings for the disciples.

As soon as the Teacher had washed the dust from his hands and face, he sat down in the shade of a large tree. Instead of helping Martha, Mary would do him all highest honor. She took a place at his feet, eagerly absorbing every word he spoke, forgetting all else. A new light, another day had risen upon her; a fresh life had sprung up within her soul.

As Martha moved forwards and backwards on her busy errands, she saw her younger sister sitting and listening each time she passed by. Shadows lengthened and still Mary sat there, while in the background came distant voices and clinking of cooking utensils. Finally, when Mary did not come to do her share of the work, Martha’s irritation reached the boiling point and she dared to complain to the Master about it, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

Christ looked at Martha and a warm smile came over his face. He saw that she was troubled and understood the reason, for many people to whom he wished to bring the great truths of God’s kingdom were too busy with mundane affairs to listen and comprehend. He said to her, “My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it and has chosen what is best—and I will not take it away from her.”

In her concern with the material side of entertaining her guest, Martha had only thought of the things of the moment—food, its serving, the Master’s comfort and accommodations. But Mary, because she was the younger and more sensitive of the two, had preferred to listen and to pay the respectful homage that was the Lord’s due, and had chosen what was best.

Jesus consoled Martha by gently wrapping his right hand over her fretful hands, and then he put his left hand on Mary’s shoulder to symbolize that there was a place for the offerings of both women. His words also had a deeper meaning which neither woman understood. His stay on earth was limited, and there was so little time in which to give his great Spirit to any who would receive it and understand.

Later that evening, Lazarus returned from Jerusalem. He sat down quietly near the Savior, not interrupting the talk, but listening as Mary was listening, chin on hand and intent dark eyes never leaving his Friend’s face.

Christ remained at the cool pleasant home in Bethany, while the crowds and Pharisees waited in Jerusalem to see when he would come to the Temple. This brief two-day interlude of peace and happiness was precious to him. His new friends at Bethany grew very dear, and he stayed with them whenever he was in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Little did his friends know how a future event in their family would help shape the course of history by bringing immortality to light.

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