Mary and Martha

A story of growth

No two people have the same relationship or walk with God, and the “mountains and valleys” experienced on our spiritual journey also vary. One of the clearest examples of this is in the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 on an occasion when Jesus visited their home. Martha appears to have been the senior person in the home as she was the one who received him into her house. We don’t know whether Jesus was already a loved friend, or whether this was the first time they had spent time together, but at the very least he was a welcomed guest.
Each sister showed honour to Jesus in different ways. Martha believed that the best way to do this was with a high degree of hospitality and hard work. Her sister meanwhile was spending time with the honoured guest, sitting at his feet in the time-honoured mark of respect, and listening to his teaching.

Martha’s desire to honour Jesus in the way she believed was best soon became overly performance-based, to the point where she became overwhelmed with much serving. Rather than admit to herself that the company of the guest had become less important than her desire to serve in the way she thought best, Martha asked Jesus to command her sister to leave his side and participate in what Martha was doing instead.

This is a common trap to fall into and certainly not one confined to Jesus’ time on earth. While we know that the way in which each of us follows God isn’t the only way to do so, and that a relationship with Him takes many forms, it is always tempting to think or even say that our way is the best way. We can even pray that God will tell others to do it our way, or to change them so that they will join us in the same walk, or share the same priorities. We don’t see such prayers as manipulative, but they are.

Jesus’ reply to Martha showed that He understood where both were coming from, and the difference in their personalities and approach. Although He refused to be manipulated by Martha, He paid tribute to her by showing that He had noticed her efforts and understood that she was a person who took care over, and strove for excellence in, all she did. He showed Her that she didn’t need to be burdened with performance, and that doing something simple that freed her to join her sister and hear what He had to say would be choosing “the good part”.

If that was the only account of them, it would be easy to remember them both, as so many people do, as an example of service versus relationship, with Mary categorised as the more “spiritual” of the two. Perhaps she was on that occasion, and yet each was demonstrating honour according to their particular “love language” – Martha in doing things, and Mary in worship.

But the story of these two women doesn’t end there. Each of them progressed in their faith journey at a different pace, with different results shown on separate occasions.

The raising of Lazarus

John 11 records that the brother of Martha and Mary became very ill. He also records that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus”. Rather than harbouring resentment towards Jesus for his reproof of her attitude on the earlier occasion recorded in Luke 10, Martha had not allowed any possible offence to colour her relationship with Jesus, and instead she, her sister and her brother had all become His loved friends. So when Lazarus became desperately ill, his sisters lost no time in sending a message to Jesus to tell him of the calamity that had befallen their little family, confident that His love for them would propel Him to immediately come to their aid.

Jesus had said on many occasions that He did everything according to His Father’s instructions. Rather than allow His natural love and affection for the little family to override His Father’s will by rushing immediately to their side, Jesus spoke that the situation had been allowed as part of His Father’s wider plan to demonstrate who Jesus really was. He then stayed put for two more days before setting off, in the face of some opposition from His disciples who were concerned at the potential for religious opposition and danger.

So not only did Jesus not arrive in time to heal Lazarus, by the time He did arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had been in his grave for four days. The sisters reacted to Jesus’ arrival in different ways. As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him. Mary, however, remained in the house.   

Was she too overcome with grief to venture out, or was a sense of disappointment in Him leading her to avoid Him at that moment? We don’t know for sure, but when she did encounter Him later in the story, her reaction was only one of reproach for His delayed response. Although it didn’t stop Martha from going to meet Jesus, this was also her initial reaction – “Lord, if you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t have died”. This is a statement of mingled faith in Jesus’ healing power and disappointment at His delayed response. We’ve all heard the statement, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” Clearly, now that there was no life left in her brother, Mary had lost hope, but amazingly Martha hadn’t quite. There is no suggestion that Martha loved Lazarus any less than Mary did, or that her grief was any less real for her lack of visible weeping, but she had not allowed her disappointment to derail her faith, which then quickly rose to a whole new level with her statement that even now Jesus could pray and God could still do something miraculous!

Jesus assured her that her brother would rise again, and Martha’s response showed that her faith was underpinned by scripture and its assurance of a future resurrection. The revelation with which Jesus then rewarded Martha’s faith is now one of the most frequently quoted, and yet it is mind-blowing in its implication – “I AM the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die – do you believe this?” He was telling her that the resurrection is not just an event to which we can all look forward, but that it is an indivisible part of the very Person standing in front of her. It is His unstoppable all-powerful Life force that clothes those who believe in Him, so that even when their earthly body dies, they will live on. Martha’s response showed that she did believe that He was the Son of God, and able to do this.

Armed with this assurance, Martha went to fetch and encourage her sister, telling her that Jesus was there and asking for her. This time Mary responded to the invitation to come to Jesus. She came to Him with an open heart, with no attempt to hide from Him her overwhelming grief and disappointment – “Lord, if only you had been here, this would not have happened.” Jesus’ response both to her grief and the grief of the people surrounding her showed that He did care very much, and that He was going to do something incredible about the situation. The outcome was an outstanding miracle, with the complete restoration of their brother to life, and an extremely controversial demonstration of just who Jesus was.

Mary's prophetic act

The next occasion when we see the two sisters showed that Mary had leaped forward again in her faith and relationship with Jesus.

As recorded in Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8, Jesus was again eating in the company of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, a few days before His last passover. While Martha again served Him in the way she now did best, and Lazarus enjoyed His company at the table, Mary took some very expensive ointment and anointed Jesus with it, to the extent that the whole house was filled with the perfume of her actions. Jesus made it clear that He understood that Mary’s actions went beyond the ordinary anointing of a guest, and were in fact a prophetic action in light of His impending death.

She was the only one of His disciples at that point who had understood Jesus’ repeated announcement that He was about to die and be raised again. As she had already anointed Jesus’ body for burial while He was still alive, Mary of Bethany was not among the women who went to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus after His death. Jesus therefore paid such tribute to this woman’s faith and her true understanding of what was to happen, that He commanded that wherever the gospel was to be preached in the future it had to include an account of Mary’s prophetic action as a memorial of her!