The Bible mentions several women with the name Mary (see for example John 19:25). It was clearly a popular name at the time of the first Christians. It is the same name as Miriam, which was the name of Moses’ sister.
Mary, or Miriam, was a Jewish name; all the women with that name were Jewish at the time of the Bible. Therefore, this Mary, who lived and worked in Rome, was also Jewish. The Jewish people are Israel’s people, from the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Paul mentions how hard Mary worked. She did not work for herself, however, but to serve other people. In that, she showed a truly Christian attitude (12:9-11). That is the kind of love that Paul encourages in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Mary would have worked harder than Paul or even Rome’s Christians knew about. She did not do her work in public so that other people would approve of her (contrast Mark 12:38-40). She was working for God, and only he needed to see her actions (Matthew 6:1-4).
Paul’s word for her ‘work’ may perhaps also express the idea that she suffered much. It is the same word that Christ uses for hard work in Matthew 11:28. Mary would have suffered the loss of her home when Rome’s rulers ordered the Jews to leave Rome (Acts 18:2). Probably Paul met her at that time. However, Mary still chose to return to Rome, to continue her work there.
It seems that Mary also suffered the loss of her husband. That seems likely because there is no mention of him here. If he was with her, we would expect Paul to greet him too. Perhaps Mary was a widow, or perhaps her husband left her because of her trust in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Paul urged the churches to support those older widows who truly worked for God, and to serve his (God’s) people (1 Timothy 5:9-10). He (Paul) respected them greatly.
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© 2018, Keith Simons.