Mary and Martha are two of the more famous sisters in the Bible. They’re usually lumped together as a compare and contrast with Mary being regarded as the better sister. But the two deserve to be studied individually. I’d intended to start with Mary, but after further consideration, I realized we can best understand Mary if we start by appreciating Martha and her relationship with Jesus.
The Bible provides us three scenes involving Martha.
We’re introduced to Martha in Luke chapter 10 verse 38, but let’s take a step back and look at the passage prior to that. In Luke 10:30 Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and gives the instruction to love and care for others.
The very next verse is 10:38 that says, “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.”
Immediately after the Good Samaritan story, Luke tells us that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Coincidence? There’s no such thing as coincidence in the Bible. No, those verses are together for a reason.
We learn that Martha was busy providing the physical care for Jesus and His disciples, preparing a meal and serving it. Mary, on the other hand, chose to sit and listen to Jesus rather than helping Martha with the housework.
Lest you get the wrong idea, note the details in verse 39. “And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.”
It wasn’t that only Mary was interested in learning from Jesus. No, Martha also sat at Jesus’ feet, but then it came time to eat and since it was her house and her job to prepare the meal, that’s what she got busy doing. Unfortunately, with Mary sitting around and not helping Martha, it took longer than it should have. Martha grew impatient to be done with the work so that she could join the discussion. She turned to Jesus for sympathy, asking Him if He cared that Mary was being lazy and not helping her serve.
He didn’t respond the way she expected, instead saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The next time we see Martha is in John 11. In verse 1 we learn that Martha and Mary had a brother named Lazarus who was sick. The sisters sent word to Jesus to let Him know about Lazarus, but rather than hurrying to them, He stayed where He was at for another two days before heading to Bethany where the distraught sisters and sick brother lived.
John 11:5-6 says, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.”
What? That doesn’t make sense. Because Jesus loved them, He waited two days before answering their desperate cry for help? Jesus used that time to prepare His disciples for what was to come. He tells them that Lazarus is dead, and He’s glad He wasn’t there because He’s going to use this as a lesson for them. Note also that John says Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. Martha wasn’t an afterthought. She was a priority.
In John 11:17 – 18 we learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days, that Bethany was two miles away from Jerusalem, and that many of the Jews have come to comfort the sisters on the death of their brother.
As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming their way, she left the house and other mourners so that she might meet up with Jesus. She confronted Him, telling Him if He’d been there, her brother wouldn’t have died, but nevertheless, she knew that whatever Jesus asked of God, He would give Him.
Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again.
She said she knew that, that he would rise in the resurrection at the last day.
He said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”
Martha assured Jesus that she did believe that He was the Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world.
This is a pretty deep theological discussion, especially one to be having with a woman.
Martha went back to the house to get Mary and let her know that Jesus had come. She took Mary to the outskirts of town where Jesus was, and the Jews who were in their house followed them.
Mary repeated Martha’s words, reminding Him that if He had been there, Lazarus would not have died.
Jesus asked where they’d buried Lazarus. He went to the tomb, which was a cave with a rock over the entrance, and said to take away the stone. Ever practical, Martha pointed out that he’d been dead for four days, so there would be a stench of his dead body.
Jesus reminded her that she would see the glory of God.
Then they removed the stone, Jesus prayed, then he yelled out, “Lazarus, come forth!”
And we all know how Lazarus came walking out of that grave.
As a result of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, many came to believe in Jesus, but others who witnessed the miracle went to the Pharisees and told them what happened. From that point on, the Pharisees and chief priests plotted to kill Jesus, and Jesus withdrew into the countryside with His disciples. The religious leaders initiated a search warrant for Him, saying that if anyone knew of His whereabouts to let them know so that they might seize Him.
We close with one final scene where Martha plays a minor but significant role.
Six days before the Passover feast, Jesus returns to Bethany. He enjoys a meal with His disciples, Lazarus, and others. And guess who served them? You guessed it. Martha. She took every chance she could get to spend time and serve her Lord.
The Rest of the Story
It’s easy for us to assume that Mary was the more spiritual of the sisters, and maybe she was, in a way, but let us not discount the spiritual strength of Martha. She was just as eager as Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus, but she also felt the need to serve Him as well. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, note how Jesus repeats her name saying, “Martha, Martha.” It’s a term of endearment He uses for a dear friend.
Jesus knew Martha’s heart. He saw her attitude of servitude. He knew that she was showing her love in her own love language. Just because He chided her and reminded her how important it was to stop everything and just be with Him, doesn’t mean He discounted her love and service to Him.
Then, when she meets Jesus outside the city after her brother died, we get a glimpse into the depth of her faith. Though she didn’t shed tears like Mary, she was every bit as distraught. But despite her disappointment of losing her brother, she remained faithful to Jesus. He trusted her with a deep theological discussion because He knew that she could understand and appreciate what He was saying. What an incredible testimony of their close relationship and the respect that He had for her.
Perhaps you’re like me and you’ve always connected with Martha but felt guilty, thinking you needed to be more like Mary. If so, give yourself some grace. While we can certainly learn from Mary, and we will look at her more in depth next week, we mustn’t assume that it’s wrong for us to show our love through serving. Remind yourself about the story of the Good Samaritan and how it’s so carefully placed right before the story of Martha.
On another note, perhaps, like Martha, you’re a single woman. Whether you’ve never been married or whether you’re single again due to divorce or death, you might feel inadequate to serve God the same as a married woman might. But this is just one of many examples of God having a soft spot for unmarried women. He saw them as having infinite value, and He sees the same in you.
Don’t feel like you have to be someone else in order to be used by God. He made You special. He gave you the skills and situations you need to be used by Him. Wherever you are, whoever you are, serve where you are with the giftings that He’s given you.
Lord God, thank You for loving us just the way we are. Thank You for seeing past the surface and seeing our heart. Thank You for allowing each one of us, male or female, to sit at Your feet and learn from You. Thank You for Your friendship. Thank You for always being there for us even when we don’t realize it. Forgive us those times we grow anxious and complain to You. Use those times of waiting to grow us and strengthen us. We love You so very much. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Tune in next week when we look at Martha’s sister Mary.
Backstory: Luke 10:30-37
Her Story: Luke 10:38-41; John 11:1-46; John 12:1-3
Bible Study Review
- Why did Martha complain to Jesus?
- How did Jesus respond?
- What did Martha say when she confronted Jesus after her brother died?
Thoughts to Ponder
- Why did Martha get impatient with Mary?
- How did Martha show her love of Jesus?
- What can we learn about Martha from her dialogue with Jesus?
- Do you ever get caught in the busy-ness of serving and not take the time to stop and just worship at Jesus’ feet?
- How do you react when God doesn’t act within your timetable?
- Are you willing to keep believing and trusting even when it seems God’s not doing anything?
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