Mary and Martha are the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both Luke and John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke's story, though only four verses long, has been a complex source of inspiration, interpretation, and debate for centuries. John's story, which says the sisters had a brother named Lazarus, spans seventy verses. Though some earlier interpreters blended the person of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50, current scholars believe she was a different person.
According to Luke, Martha was head of the household; she welcomed Jesus into her home. Mary was probably younger. Like most sisters, these two women had conflicts which emerged because of their different personalities, roles, and simply the fact that they were siblings.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).
Modern readers often regard Martha as a "homemaker" type of woman, concerned with household details. Some also view her as hospitable, a highly esteemed practice in Jesus' day. Mary often is seen as a more scholarly or spiritual woman, with a feminist personality. That she sat at Jesus' feet, a scene that has portrayed by painters such as Tintoretto, means that she was his student or disciple.
Some suggest Jesus went against Jewish culture by teaching Mary, saying that women were forbidden to learn the Torah. At least one scholar, Jane Schaberg argues against this view. She notes that women could study the Torah in Jesus' day; therefore Jesus and Mary were not as radical as some modern Christian interpreters have suggested.1
Jesus gently rebukes Martha for being "worried and distracted" by her many tasks and her resentment of Mary's behavior. Jesus tells her that she has lost her focus; she needs only one thing. And what is that one thing? The answer is in the story of the Good Samaritan, which precedes this one. Martha needs to focus on loving God and her neighbor as herself; to do this one thing is to choose the better part, to be a disciple of Jesus.
The context for John's story (11:1--12:11) of Mary and Martha is frought with danger and reveals the courage of Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus. Their brother Lazarus is very ill; so the sisters send word to Jesus. After tarrying for two more days, Jesus, who loves all three siblings, risks his own life to see them. His disciples fear that the Jesus' enemies in Jerusalem, which is close to Bethany, will kill him.
In John's narrative, Mary and Martha are more central than their brother. Lazarus never speaks a word, even after he is raised by Jesus, but ample dialogue and action occurs between both Jesus and Martha and Jesus and Mary. Martha's words are especially powerful when she declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Mary is known particularly because of her action of anointing Jesus' feet (John 11:2).
By the time Jesus and the disciples arrive in the village, Lazarus has been dead for four days; his sisters are in mourning. Martha is an assertive, well-spoken woman with a deep faith; she is not "distracted" by many things. She runs out to Jesus while Mary stays at home. After complaining about his tardiness, Martha affirms her belief that even now God will do anything Jesus asks. Jesus says that he is the "resurrection and the life" and asks if she believes this. Martha confesses, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (John 11:27). Her words are similar Simon Peter's reply to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15-16).
After making this statement, Martha fetches Mary, telling her that Jesus is calling her. Mary answers Jesus' invitation, runs out, and falls down weeping at his feet. Her faith is not as deep as Martha's. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:32b).
"Jesus' conversations with Mary and Martha transform this story from a miracle story about the raising of Lazarus into a story abut the fullness of new life that is possible to all who believe in Jesus.... Martha and Mary model how people are to live as they struggle to free themselves from the power of death that defines and limits them and move to embrace the new promises and possibilities of life available through Jesus."2
Notice that, like Luke, John places Mary at Jesus' feet, but does so for different reasons. John puts her at Jesus' feet not just once but twice. The second incident is when Jesus returns to Bethany at Passover, a time when the religious leaders of Jerusalem actively seek his arrest. Despite the danger to Jesus and Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and their brother courageously give a dinner for their friend. Martha serves, Lazarus sits at the table with him, and Mary anoints Jesus' feet with a costly perfume, wiping them with her hair. The anointing anticipates Jesus' death. Mary's washing his feet with her hair is an act of love that anticipates Jesus washing of the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-11).
"The power and witness of Mary's discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fullfills Jesus' love commandment before he even teaches it (e.g., 13:34-35).... She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour."3
"Truly, Mary and Martha were courageous women who loved and dared. They lived in a precarious situation. To commit themselves to the movement of Jesus, while living in Judea so close to Jerusalem was risky."4 The two women were bold followers of Jesus who have inspired others through the centuries to offer hospitality, study the scriptures, and love God and neighbor-- even in the face of danger.
Annotated Bibliography: Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Courageous Women Resource (includes material about Mary of Bethany)
Choral Reading of Gospels: Women of the Anointing, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (The Four Marys)
The Moving Word: Liturgical Dance and Biblical Interpretation
A workshop outline, online video and transcript
1Jane Schaberg, "Luke" The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville: John Knox/Westminter Press, 1992), p. 289.
2Gail R. O'Day, "John," The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville: John Knox/Westminter Press, 1992) p. 299.
3Gail R. O'Day, "The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 703.
Tintoretto, Jacopo Robusti (Italian, 1518-1594), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1570-75, canvas, Pinakothek at Munich. From Carol Gerten-Jackson's CJFA fine arts web site.
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