In my forthcoming book, If Only, I touch briefly on one of Jesus’ encounters with Martha. I’ve been thinking about her a lot since writing it, and wanted to look at her story more deeply. So I thought I’d do it here.
Martha has a pretty bad reputation in women’s Bible studies. Not as bad as Jezebel, maybe, but we all know she’s the sister who gets it wrong, the one who is so busy serving Jesus she forgets to listen to Jesus. The one who makes the wrong choice. The lesson we learn is, ‘Don’t be like Martha’.
But I don’t think we give Martha enough credit. I don’t think we see her the same way Jesus does.
First of all, I’d never noticed that the story above begins:
“…Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” – Luke 10:38
It is described as Martha’s house, even though I’ve always assumed the sisters lived with Lazarus. That would seem to be more normal for the culture. Yet the home is considered Martha’s, and she seems to have taken the initiative of inviting Jesus into their home.
In that culture, it would have conveyed great honour on Martha to have this great teacher choose to accept her invitation. (As it would today if, say, the Queen chose to visit your home.) Jesus honoured Martha from the start, and Luke, scrupulous with the facts, made sure that was clear.
Then, Martha took her complaint not to her sister, but to Jesus himself. What a lesson that is! She may have grumbled and griped for a while – I’ve always pictured her huffing and sighing and clattering dishes in the kitchen, just as I would have done – but when push came to shove, she wasn’t afraid to go and talk to the Lord about what was bothering her. She didn’t bottle it up and give Mary an earful when all the guests had gone. She didn’t moan about her to the other women in the kitchen. She took it to the source of help.
We don’t know whether this was Jesus’ first encounter with the family or if they knew him well already. Either way, in this patriarchal society where women were expected to quietly serve the menfolk then fade into the background, Martha felt able to speak up directly to the Lord.
And she very perceptively identified what was really bothering her – it seemed like Jesus hadn’t noticed how wonderful she was being. It seemed like he didn’t care.
“Don’t you care?” she asked. But then immediately realised that couldn’t be it. “Since I know you do care, tell her to help me.”
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replied, his very public correction softened, I imagine, by this double use of her name. He pointed her to her error, saying, “Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.”
And Martha went away chastened.
But Martha was a thinker, as we shall see. Yes, she was a doer, she is very active in everything we read about her, but there were deep waters there, too. As we see when we next meet her, in John 11.
The death of Lazarus
First of all, look at verse 5:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Mary doesn’t even get named. She was named earlier in the passage, and identified as the Mary who was to break the jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet, but here we see Martha once again taking precedence. It’s like God didn’t want us to miss that Martha was loved. She hadn’t been put aside at that earlier mealtime. She hadn’t blown her chance when she chose service over sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus loved Martha.
Then we see one of the oddest uses of ‘so’ in the whole Bible:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
He loved them so he waited when they wrote to him in distress?! That doesn’t sound very loving. Until you see what happened next.
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him [up and doing, again, while Mary sits!], but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'”
Then look at this:
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?'”
I’m picturing this like a film scene, the pivotal moment, where whatever the person says next, will determine the outcome of the whole story. There’s a pregnant pause. Jesus looks into Martha’s eyes, and all the angels in heaven crane forward, brimming with anticipation as to what will happen next.
Jesus never asked a question to which he didn’t know the answer. If he asked, it was to teach something, to draw out of his interlocutor some truth that they had not recognised, or given voice to. So he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” and as she looked at him, and felt him waiting for her answer, she found, miraculously, that she did:
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
There were very few people in Jesus’ adult life who had grasped that. John the Baptist had, Peter had, Legion had. But it wasn’t something everyone who knew him was sure about. But Martha the thinker had obviously been paying attention, even while she was cooking and cleaning. She had heard his teachings, and had no doubt heard about all his signs and wonders, and she’d thought about it all. And now it was time to pull all the threads together and come to a conclusion.
In that moment of deep grief, face to face with the one who she thought had let her down, everything clicked, and she knew the truth, and put her trust in it.
I imagine Jesus smiled, pleased with her, proud of her for thinking through what so many learned men had missed, and coming to the right conclusion. Was this why he had waited for two days before going to Bethany, because he loved Martha and he wanted to give her this revelation of himself?
What a precious, wonderful moment.
And there was nothing more to be said. So she went to fetch her sister.
When Mary got to Jesus, she opened with exactly the same words, but she uttered them from her typical, Mary-ish, emotional position in a sobbing heap at his feet. And Jesus also wept.
With Mary he engaged emotionally, meeting her at her point of need. But with Martha, the one who most of us write off as ‘just a cook’, he engaged intellectually, theologically. How many men at that time took the effort to engage with women’s brains? I just love the way he treated her as someone worth talking to, someone who had depths that had rarely had an outlet. Depths few others, probably, had seen.
The anointing at Bethany
Martha is only mentioned by name on one other occasion, and it is a tiny, fascinating detail.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” – John 12:1-2
We know from the parallel passages that this meal was given at the house of Simon the Leper. Lazarus was clearly a guest, and here was Martha, serving again (and Mary, in the next verse, at Jesus’ feet once again, making a big, dramatic, emotional display).
But why was Martha serving? Had she not learned her lesson?
What do you think?
I think it’s a hugely encouraging detail. This time we don’t see her rushing around, frazzled and annoyed with Mary. Nor does Jesus rebuke or correct her. As a woman, this was probably the only legitimate way she could be near Jesus at a meal time. I suspect too, that for big, special meals like this, the neighbours would often come in to help with the cooking and serving. But what I find most helpful is that Martha didn’t take Jesus’ earlier correction as a blanket statement that she should never serve, but spend all her time in studying the scriptures and pondering Jesus’ every word. It’s not so much about what you’re doing, as the heart and attitude you’re doing it with.
The lesson we can often take away from the first story is that serving is wrong, that doing things is at best a distraction from the ‘best’ thing, and at worst trying to justify yourself by works instead of faith.
But tasks do still have to be completed. Serving teams need volunteers (at least, when the churches are open they do!). Families need to be fed. Homes need to be cleaned. It is not more godly to sit around hoping someone else will do the work while you sit and meditate on God’s word.
I think Martha was able to serve without resentment by the time of the third story, because she no longer had anything to prove. She didn’t have to make sure Jesus (and everyone else) knew how hard she was working. She didn’t need to vie for Jesus’ attention, or to be afraid that Mary was worming her way into Jesus’ good books and leaving her out. There was no competition left for her to lose.
She knew Jesus was the Messiah, and she felt seen, known and respected by him. And that knowledge gave her the freedom not to worry about the opinions of man any more. She was free to be herself, to serve as she loved to serve, to think as she loved to think, and to rejoice in the honour Jesus received from Mary without a twinge of jealousy.
Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.