Read the text here: John 12:1-11
Mary: Model Disciple
When you hear the word disciple what, or whom do you think of? My guess is that you probably think of those 12 men that Jesus called to be his followers in the Gospels. The most prominent of these are Peter, John, James, Andrew, Matthew, Thomas and Judas. Because of this we could almost get the idea that a disciple was someone who had a special status in relation to Jesus and that this select group was limited in number (12 only) and that only men were allowed.
During the time of Jesus there were many travelling Rabbis who would attract students (the Greek word – mathetes – translated as disciple actually means student). There were several different classes of students. The first group were the beginners. This group tended to be a larger group of young men, but after a certain period of time, and after covering specific material this group would reduced substantially to a much smaller group of more serious students. The others would return to their homes and villages with the basic knowledge they had gained from the teacher and resume their lives. The advanced smaller group would begin a very rigorous study. They might stay with the teacher for years and would often assist him with teaching the new novices. Finally, there was one final group, those who showed particular brilliance and who would be on a track to become a Rabbi themselves. There were very few of these, sometimes only one every few years.
This is the system that was in place when Jesus was a traveling Rabbi in the Galilee. Jesus is both a part of this system and alters it in a couple significant ways. If you read the Gospels carefully you will notice that at any given time Jesus is always attracting large crowds to listen to him teach. Not only that, but he has a larger group of followers that are always with him. This is particularly the case in the Gospel of Luke. In other words, there is a large group of disciples/students that follow Jesus throughout his ministry. This larger group is like the beginners-novice group and includes the 12, but is not limited to them. The 12 serve as the inner core of disciples/students that are like the more advanced group above. There seem to be no disciples/students out of either of these groups that Jesus has promoted to the future Rabbi track (thought one might argue that Peter, James, John and possibly Judas might qualify.)
So the Rich Young Ruler petitions Jesus to become a disciple/student and then decides it will be too demanding. (Luke 18:18-30) Others get picked up here and there. After the crucifixion the famous and wonderful story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27), tells the story of 2 students who encounter Jesus, one who’s name is Cleopas. These two are not part of the inner 12, but they are clearly identified as disciples.
But perhaps the most radical difference between Jesus and other Rabbis of his age was the fact that Jesus welcomed women to be disciples/students. While the inner 12 were men, the larger group of Jesus disciples/students included many women, some of whom had some means and provided financial support. This group included Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother Mary seems to be a part of this group as well. Then we have Joanna, Salome (not THAT Salome, a different Salome – see Luke 24:10) Martha and Mary (the sister of Martha). In the famous passage from Luke, Mary is pictured listening at the feet of the teacher - the position of a student/disciple. Martha’s objections to this are completely understandable in the context of the times: women are not students in 1st century Palestine! Jesus’ response makes it clear that this is something that he is changing and that women are students of his. (Luke 10:38-42)
Not only is it significant that Jesus welcomed women as disciples/students but it is also significant that it is these women disciples who are often models of discipleship. The men had lots of baggage, they did not understand where Jesus was going and what he was doing, they often jostled for position and tried to manipulate Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is particularly harsh with his inner 12. But it is the women who consistently seem to “get it.” It is the women who do not flee and hide after the arrest but follow Jesus to the cross (Matthew 27:55); it is the women who come to the tomb early in the morning and are the first witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 24, Mark 16, Matthew 28). And in our Gospel story from today from John 12 is it a woman – Mary (sister of Martha) who anoints Jesus for kingship and for burial, who washes his feet with her hair and is thus a model of discipleship. In chapter 13 Jesus will do the exact same thing for his disciples and they (represented by Peter, their spokesman) will object (John 13:1-11). But in chapter 12, Mary does it willingly on her own initiative. She understands who Jesus is, what is about to happen and what it means to be a disciple/student of Jesus. She is ahead of the curve. She gets it!
In this way is Mary a model for us. For we too are called to be disciples/students of Jesus - to sit at his feet and learn; to sup with him; to give ourselves to him and to serve others in his name!