Mary and Martha

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the New Testament

  • Martha and Mary were sisters living in Bethany, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
  • Martha’s name is the feminine form of the Aramaic word Mar that means Lord.  It might be a pun on the fact that she was the mistress (or Lord) of the house.  Mary is the Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam. WHAT DOES MIRIAM MEAN?  Lazarus is Hebrew for “he whom God helps.”  (Interestingly, one name is Aramaic, one Greek, and one Hebrew!)
  • When Jesus arrived, Mary sat at his feet listening to his every word.  (The image is one of a rabbi teaching his students.  It was highly unusual for a woman to be accepted as a disciple.  Few rabbis would “lower” themselves to doing this, although it was not forbidden per se for a woman to be instructed in the Torah.)
  • Whenever someone “sits at one’s feet,” it symbolizes acknowledgement of his or her authority. 
  • It is possible that Jesus was there for a meal and was reclining on his side at the table.  In that case, Mary would have been sitting (literally) at his feet.
  • As hostess, Martha was very distracted; making sure everything was just perfect for her guest.  This would have been a typical expectation for a woman (especially one who was head of the household) in the first century.
  • When Martha asked Jesus if he cared that Mary had left her alone to do all the serving, she phrased the question in a way that indicated she expected him to say, “Yes, I care.”
  • She continued by asking him to tell Mary to help her.  This would not have been an appropriate request.  As a guest, Jesus should not have been asked to settle a family dispute.
  • Jesus rarely answered the questions that were put to him.  Rather he used them for teachable moments.
  • In this case, he said to Martha that Mary had chosen the “good” part and that it should not be taken away from her.  Yet, by saying, “Martha, Martha,” Jesus indicated great tenderness and concern for Martha.
  • Mary never said a word.
  • Despite the tension between the two sisters, scholars say this story is not about the contemplative life versus an active life.  It is about discipleship, and the fact that it is about women makes it that much more extraordinary.
  • This story attests to the fact that in Jesus’ ministry, women were not second-class citizens; they were recognized as being fully entitled to receive instruction from a teacher.
  • But that is not the end of the story.
  • Mary and Martha have another encounter with Jesus in the gospel of John (see John 11).
  • In that gospel, we find out that they had a brother named Lazarus.  (He must have been considerably younger for Martha to be the owner of the house.)
  • When Lazarus was sick, the sisters sent word to Jesus, “The one whom you love is sick.”  (They don’t directly ask him to come to them.)
  • Later, John recorded that Jesus loved all three of them.  But because it’s written as “Martha and her sister,” scholars think Martha was of some stature.
  • Because Jesus tarried, Lazarus had lain in the grave four days before he arrived.
  • The moment Martha heard Jesus was near, she ran to meet him, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Most scholars see this as a statement of fact and not complaint.  But complaint was an important aspect of Judaism and does not mean that Martha lacked faith.  This is especially noted in Martha’s next statement, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
  • Martha continued to have confidence in Jesus, though it is unlikely she expected him to raise Lazarus.
  • Jesus’ response was intentionally ambiguous: “Your brother will rise again.”  (She might have heard this very statement from the many mourners who had been trying to comfort her.)
  • Martha assumed he was talking about the end times when the dead would be raised.  This would have been one of the tenets of her faith.
  • When Jesus announced, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was making an important theological claim.  “I am the resurrection” meant physical death had no power over believers.  “I am the life” meant Jesus brought eternal life to those who believe.
  • Martha’s response was typical of a formal confession of faith: “I believe….”
  • She acknowledged Jesus with three Christological titles:  Messiah, Son of God, and the one who is coming.  (This puts her in the same company with Peter’s confession.  [Not bad for a busy hostess!]).
  • Then Martha went to get Mary who was sitting in the house with the professional mourners.  (Sitting was the custom during mourning.)  She told her that the “teacher” wanted to see her.
  • The fact that the mourners “were from Jerusalem” was another indication of the stature of Martha and Mary.  These women were well known in the community.
  • Mary immediately got up to go to Jesus.  The mourners followed her, thinking she was going to the grave.  (Mourning was characterized by loud wailing, not silent tears.)
  • Mary said exactly the same words to Jesus that Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  But then she fell at his feet (either this was a sign of worship or she simply collapsed into tears).  There is no affirmation of continued faith, no revelation from Jesus, and no confession of faith with Mary.  (This is surprising, since she was the one sitting resolutely at Jesus’ feet while Martha was busy serving.)
  • Jesus’ response to Mary’s weeping and that of the professionals has baffled scholars forever.  The words are aggressive, used for the snorting of horses.  They indicate anger and indignation (not compassion, as they are sometimes translated).  It is unclear what Jesus was responding to.  Most scholars agree that it was not because he loved Lazarus (he was about to raise him up).  The other likely explanation is that he was upset at the unbelief of Mary and the Jews.
  • Likewise, Jesus’ tears are a mystery.  Again, they are not because he so loved Lazarus.  Perhaps it was an acknowledgment of the pain and suffering caused by death in the community.  (The “you” in “Where have you laid him?” is plural, addressed to everyone, not just Mary.)
  • The word for Jesus’ weeping is different from the word used for Mary and the Jews.  Their word refers to that loud demonstration of grief; Jesus’ word is for silent tears.
  • When Jesus asked for the stone to be removed, Martha objected because Lazarus had already been in the grave for four days (a hint that she really didn’t expect Jesus to raise Lazarus.  Despite her earlier confession, it was hard for her to fully grasp what the fulfillment of those words might mean.)
  • Jews believed that after four days, people were really dead.  Up to that point, the spirit hovered around the body hoping to possibly reenter it.  By the fourth day, however, the spirit was gone.  Death was final.
  • Jesus’ gently reminded Martha of their earlier conversation that if she would only believe she would see the glory of God.
  • (The raising of Lazarus was the final straw for those who opposed Jesus.  Thereafter, they only wanted to kill him.)
  • There is one final story about Martha and Mary (See John 12:1-8).
  • Jesus went to their house again for dinner.  Martha served again.  This time Mary brought perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.  (This is slightly different from the stories in the Synoptic gospels.)
  • Because the perfume was worth a year’s wages, Judas thought it would have been better to give it to the poor.
  • Nonetheless, Jesus validated Mary’s actions, thereby indicating she was the ideal disciple (especially in contrast to Judas who was disapproving of her loving actions).  Mary modeled the love that characterized Jesus’ followers.
  • Her anointing also indicated that Jesus’ “hour was at hand.”
  • In a sense, then, Mary has come full circle.  She was the devoted disciple in the beginning.  But when it came to putting those teachings into practice, she faltered.  (Martha appeared to have the better understanding for their time of crisis.)  Yet, in anointing Jesus, it was Mary who had the insight that Jesus’ own death loomed near.


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