Women in the Bible
Mary and Martha
A Tale of Two Sisters - Resurrection Realized
John 11:17-27, 32-44
“In Death, are planted the seeds of Resurrection and Life!”
David Sloss, 2018
INTRODUCTION: This series on Women of the Bible raises some important issues about equality apart from gender. History discloses some very biased views on this issue. What Jesus demonstrated in this account has taken centuries to rectify in Christian culture. cf. Jeremiah 31:22 “How long will you go this way and that, rebellious daughter? Indeed, the LORD will create a new thing on the earth; a woman will protect a man.” cf. Ephesians 5:21 “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” 6:1 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Typical First Century Palestinian/Israelite home)
(Van Gogh’s Resurrection of Lazarus)
Martha and Mary: two sisters
Beloved friends of Jesus of Nazareth
Two sisters, Martha and Mary
Martha means ‘lady of the house.’ Mary means ‘wise woman’ or ‘lady;’ it is a Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam or Mariam. It was a popular name at the time of Jesus, perhaps because of the beautiful young Jewish princess Mariamme, married to King Herod the Great and murdered by him on a false charge of infidelity. Naming your child Mary or Miriam was a not-too-subtle protest against King Herod and what he had done. Lazarus means ‘God has given help’
The story of Martha & Mary has 3 parts.
1 Jesus visits Martha and Mary – see the Bible text Luke 10:38-42
Martha and Mary offered hospitality to their friend Jesus of Nazareth, a respected but controversial Jewish rabbi. Their house was near Jerusalem, and Jesus often stayed there. Mary sat and listened to him as he talked, but Martha objected to the fact that she was left with all the work. Jesus told Martha not to worry about small things, but concentrate instead on what was important.
2 Martha and Mary ask for Jesus’ help – John 11:1-44 Their brother Lazarus was mortally ill. In desperation Martha and Mary sent for Jesus. He delayed coming, and Lazarus died. When Jesus arrived, both Martha and Mary reproached him for not coming sooner. But Martha also made an extraordinary statement of her faith in Jesus. He went to the tomb, prayed, and called to Lazarus. Lazarus came out, alive, from the tomb.
3 Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus John 12:1-8
Martha, Mary and Lazarus gave a dinner for Jesus. During the dinner, Mary anointed Jesus with expensive nard perfume. Judas objected to her extravagance, but Jesus defended her action. Mary may have been at the crucifixion, which happened just a few days later.
The role of women in the Christian church. At the time the gospels were recorded, the early Christians were arguing about what women could and could not do in the early Church. Should they be ministers? Should they be allowed to speak in public meetings? Should the traditional Jewish custom be followed, with ministry held by men only? Or might the Christian communities have priests and priestesses, as other ancient religions did?
(Rembrandt’s Resurrection of Lazarus)
(Ancient perfume bottle
which may once have
The truth of the Resurrection. Stories about Martha, Mary and Lazarus suggest that women’s testimony should be given equal weight with men’s. This was vitally important in the Christian story, since the first witnesses to the Resurrection had been women. Could they be trusted?
Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary – Luke 10:38-42
Martha and Mary are two sisters who offered hospitality to Jesus and the people traveling with him.
They had a brother, Lazarus, who appeared in a story in John’s gospel. The three young people were friends of Jesus. They behaved with him in a natural way, speaking openly about what they thought. Jesus, who was quite capable of overwhelming people with his presence, was informal and easy in their company.
This was important for a man like Jesus. People who are held in high esteem, as Jesus was, are often isolated, even though they are at the center of the crowd.
Who were Martha and Mary?
We know little about the background of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They may have been well-to-do orphans who had the management of their own lives, since there is no mention of their parents. Moreover the eldest of the three, Martha, appeared to be in control of the household.
They seemed to be affluent. They had a house large enough to accommodate many people, as their hospitality to Jesus and his group of friends shows. They appeared to have no occupation. Mary could afford to buy a very expensive perfume called nard. It was a special gift, not an everyday item, but it showed they were people of means.
None of the three appeared to be married. This was unusual in Jewish society, where people were usually married before the age of 20. It may mean that they were quite young, perhaps still in their teens, or that they were on the edge of society, and not acceptable in some way. In any case, they seem to have been young, comparatively well-off, independent, and intelligent.
Jesus visits Martha and Mary
The first story about them occurs in Luke’s gospel. It happened in a town near Jericho, which is between Galilee, where Jesus came from, and Jerusalem, where he died.
Jesus visited their house. Martha prepared food for the guests; Mary sat and listened to Jesus. What did they eat?
The main meal was taken in the evening. It might consist of a lentil stew seasoned with herbs like cumin or coriander. It was served with cheese made from sheep or goats’ milk, olives, onions and bread. Fruits included fresh figs and melon, as well as dried pomegranates and dates – dried fruits were a staple item in the Middle East. Wine, water, and curdled milk similar to liquid yogurt accompanied the meal.
‘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.” ’
The two women obviously had complementary personalities – this is common in families. Martha was a doer, a capable young woman who organized and ran a fairly large household. Mary was a thinker, interested in ideas.
Martha objected to the fact that she had to work while Mary sat and listened. Jesus said that Mary had made the better choice.
Several points emerge:
Mary ‘sat and listened.’ This was the usual posture of a disciple of any teacher in the ancient world. But disciples were usually male, so Mary must have been quietly breaking the rule that reserved study for males, not females.
Her sister Martha was not merely asking for help. She was demanding that Mary keep to the traditional way of behaving.
Jesus was ignoring the traditional role of women, and encouraging Mary to think and learn. He upheld her right to listen, think about ideas, and to develop her mind. She should not be limited to the tasks that society laid down for her, but be allowed access to ideas, as Jewish men were.
Jesus had previously encouraged the idea of service among his followers, so he did not say that Martha’s role of service was unimportant. This would have gone against all his other teaching. What he did say was that being a disciple, and learning about the ideas he was explaining, was even more important.
A second story about Martha and Mary occurs in John 11:1-44 It happened in the town of Bethany, a small town near Jerusalem but separated from it by the Kidron Valley (see map of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem). It was about three kilometers east of the city, a comfortable walk for people at that time.
Lazarus was very ill, so Martha and Mary sent a message to Jesus, asking him to come. Jesus received the message, but put off coming for two days. In the meantime, Lazarus died of his illness.
The house went into mourning. As was the custom, a continual stream of friends and relatives came to comfort Martha and Mary, and to mourn for Lazarus.
There were strict rules about what could and could not be done after a death in the family. After the funeral, the family of the dead person stayed at home for seven days, sitting barefoot on the floor or on a low bench they did not wash themselves or their clothes, or do any work. they did not cook, but were given food by relatives. (See ‘Major Events in Women’s Lives’ for further information on death and burial in ancient Jewish culture.)
When Jesus eventually arrived, Lazarus had already been buried in the tomb for four days.
The length of time, four days, is important. It means that the custom of inspecting the body three days after burial, to make sure that the person was dead, had already been carried out.
So Lazarus was not merely unconscious, as modern skeptics suggest. This point is driven home by Martha in verse 39, when she described the stench of the rotting body. As Jesus approached, Martha went out to meet him on the road. She reproached him for being so long in coming.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.
‘Martha said to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” ’
Distraught, Martha reproached Jesus for being absent when he was needed. Modern interpretations of the New Testament assume that women at that time were downtrodden and docile, but Mary said what she needed to say.
But then as Martha continued talking, she named Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. This is the central moment of the story.
Martha said the same words that the apostle Peter said in Mark 8:29. On the strength of these words, Peter went on to become the first leader of the Christian community. The writer of John’s gospel suggests that Martha had an equal right to authority, because she had an equal understanding of who Jesus was.
Why is this story so important?
John inserted the story into his gospel to stifle the argument that was raging in the Christian community. Since the day of Pentecost, when the Christian church began, women had been acting as deacons, preaching about Jesus and presiding over eucharistic meals.
But opposition had arisen because this did not mirror the position that women held in society at the time. By telling the stories about Martha and Mary, John showed that Jesus treated women as the equal of men, and implied that Christian practice should do the same.
After speaking with Jesus, Martha called Mary. Mary ran to Jesus, weeping with terrible grief, and Jesus was deeply upset by the sight of her pain.
Jesus went to the tomb, had the stone taken away from its entrance, prayed, and then called loudly to Lazarus. Lazarus appeared, alive, still wrapped in the linen strips of cloth used to cover his corpse.
Many Jews believed in Jesus after witnessing this event.
Note: The term ‘the Jews’ is used in several ways in the gospels.
In the story you have just read, John meant ‘the Jewish friends and relatives of the family.’ Remember that Jesus and the people he knew were Jewish.
At other times, when John spoke of ‘the Jews,’ he meant any people with closed minds. People like this can be found anywhere.
John was writing for a community of Jews who had moved away from traditional Judaism, so his portrayal of traditional Jews often reflected the dislike this breakaway community felt for those who did not share their faith in Jesus.
Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus
In the last year of his ministry, Jesus again visited his friends at Bethany, just prior to going into Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.
This was the week before his death. All his friends knew that Jesus was in grave danger. They did not want him to go anywhere near Jerusalem (see John 11:8 and 11:16). The house at Bethany was a safe place, a refuge.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus gave a dinner for Jesus and the people with him.
In was the custom when guests arrived for dinner to give them a refreshing foot bath. Then they either sat at a table, or lay propped up on couches surrounding a central food table.
People always ate from a communal platter, which contained the main dish. There might be small side dishes. It was essential to wash themselves before eating, because they ate with their fingers from the one plate – knives and forks were not used, and food was scooped up with a piece of bread (see John 13:26).
Depending on the circumstances, women and men might share a meal, sitting together. Because they prepared the food, women also brought the food to the table, as Martha did in this story. Martha served at the meal.
‘Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’
Why is the anointing with oil so important?
The story of the dinner, as told by John, is set on a Sunday evening, when members of the early Christian communities met to share a eucharistic celebration.
This was no accident. John, writing circa 100AD, used several levels of meaning in the story.
At the first level, Martha ‘served’ at the meal.
But on a second level of meaning Martha was acting as a deacon at a eucharistic celebration. The word ‘served’ in Greek was diakonein; it was the term used for deacons in the early Christian church. This word was used in both stories about Martha and Mary, in Luke’s and John’s gospels.
During the meal, Mary took a container of oil of nard (oil extracted from a balsam tree), broke it, and anointed Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Then she wiped his feet with her hair.
Anointing with oil has always had deep religious significance.
It is performed at the coronation of a monarch.
In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic action which announced that the person anointed was especially favored by God.
In the Old Testament, prophets anointed future kings, for example, Samuel anointed the future King David.
When Mary anointed Jesus, she may have been anointing him as a king, the Messiah – Mark’s gospel hinted at this when it said that what she had done would always be remembered (Mark 14:3-0).
The apostle Judas, a close friend of Jesus, objected to the waste of money. He reasoned that the money should be given to people in need – and of course he had a point.
Judas was particularly aware of the value of money because he was the organizer of the group who traveled with Jesus, in charge of the money that they carried with them. He paid for food and lodging from the contributions that wealthy supporters gave Jesus. In a bitter aside written long after Jesus’ death, the writer of John’s gospel suggests that Judas was not honest in this task.
How did Jesus respond to Mary’s action?
But Jesus defended Mary’s apparent extravagance. He knew he was in great danger, and that the path he meant to take might end in a terrible death.
Being fully human he could not see into the future – this is one of the great mysteries of Christian faith about which theologians ponder. He was both fully human like us and so could not know the future, but he was also God and thus all-knowing.
In any event, Jesus knew the probable consequences of the actions he planned. He had many enemies who would bring him down if they could.
Mary also knew the danger that Jesus was in, and that he faced an ominous future.
She offered her gift as a comfort and a reassurance to him, and perhaps as something more. She believed he was the Messiah, and the nard was her anointing oil.
5 Lessons Women Can Learn from Mary and Martha
Can you imagine opening your front door to find Jesus on the sidewalk, chatting with His disciples? I picture a scene a little like this when I read the story of Mary and Martha. (Luke 10:38-42)
So, if Jesus were out front, would you have the forethought to invite Him in for dinner like Martha did? And if you drummed up the chutzpah, what might come next? Would you worry about the curtains? Or your dusty wood floors? Or the threadbare couch? Or the dog hair covering the pillows?
It doesn’t seem that Martha was too worried. She eagerly invited Jesus in and showed Him the kind of authentic hospitality that throws the door wide and serves the best I have. Come to think of it, we can learn a few things from Mary and Martha.
1. True hospitality is always in style.
Never mind if there are jelly blobs turning crusty on the counter or a toilet that begs for a cleaning wand. Welcoming people into your home is a gift – a gift worth sharing, whether the place is pristine and decorated to perfection or not. Because true hospitality wraps a person up in a grace hug and makes them feel special. Never mind the dust bunnies or the random socks.
And hospitality is something you and I can do right now. We can open our homes and our hearts to the family next door with the noisy dogs, to the couple that sits right behind us in church, or to the women we chat with at Bible study. What’s the worst best that could happen? You cement a new friendship, laugh at some dust, and enjoy a little grace environment together.
2. Comparison only breeds anxiety and discontent.
As the Mary/Martha story unfolds, we find Mary smack in the middle of the living room, sitting with the boys, soaking up Jesus’s words. Martha? Well, she’s scurrying around the kitchen like a whirlwind, checking the roast lamb, setting the table, and finishing the cake. This woman is on a mission and will not stop until all of the guests are happily rubbing full stomachs.
But there’s just one problem: here’s poor Martha trying to serve dinner for fifteen or more with zero help! She flies past the living room and sees her sister out of the corner of her eye, and that’s the last straw. I can just hear Martha’s frustrated thoughts: How dare she do this to me? My own sister! Doesn’t she see that I’m doing everything on my own?!
And that’s where discontent begins – when Martha compares her current life to someone else’s and realizes she’s holding the short straw. Isn’t that the same kind of trap we get caught in sometimes? When I look at “her” life with those big, happy smiles on social media or the beautifully “perfect” children or the bigger, nicer house than mine, discontent perches on my shoulder.
Comparison is a trickster, though, because he never tells the full story. When we look at someone else’s life, we only catch a snapshot. And just like the smiling Christmas photo that never hints at the pre-pose argument or the toddler’s screaming fit right afterward, we miss the rest of the story too.
Truth is, no matter how it looks on the outside, God is at work in every story. No two stories are exactly the same. And comparison doesn’t change her story or yours. It just steals your joy.
3. When you’re struggling, go to the best Source first.
Martha’s a smart cookie, though. When she gets disgruntled by the unfairness of her situation, she wastes no time. She knows exactly who can fix things. Martha marches right up to the highest authority in the room and commands Jesus, “Make my sister come and help me.”
There’s something to be said for knowing who can help. Sometimes we can be tempted to share our problems with everyone else – prayer requests, social media, mom, the bestie – when the wisest thing to do is to approach the One who can actually fix things first. Martha knew what she was doing.
4. You can tell Jesus anything.
How interesting that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Martha for her words. He doesn’t say, “ ‘Make your sister come and help you?’ Listen here, girlie, you do not get to speak to me that way. Don’t you know who I am?” Jesus accepts Martha where she is, as she is, and listens to her tirade without batting an eye.
You have that kind of audience with Jesus too. He’s a strong God, after all, who doesn’t get miffed or offended when you come to Him in the middle of emotional upheaval. He won’t mind if you tell Him exactly what you’re feeling. In fact He adores you and longs to hear about anything you face. Jesus is your perfect Friend and Brother: approachable, loving, and eager to listen.
5. The path to peace begins with one thing.
After Martha says her piece, Jesus offers her the path to peace. Jesus tells her, “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” (Luke 10:41-41).
Jesus reminded Martha – and us – what to be “concerned” with, where to focus, and what should take a front row seat in our brains: relationship with Him.
When we concentrate on Jesus first, we discover that we are never truly alone or without help. (Hebrews 13:5) We experience that His grace is sufficient for all that we face. (2 Corinthians 9:8) And we find inner peace and strength to face whatever comes our way. (John 14:27) Those are the kinds of truth that keep us calm in even the busiest seasons of life and serving.
So, here’s to throwing the front door wide. May we find the chutzpah and joy of inviting people in, and may we cling to the peace of the “one thing” in the middle of ordinary, crazy life.
Janna Wright adores crisp mountain air, deep talks, and chocolate peanut butter anything. Good stories fascinate her and she loves sharing them, often giggling at her own jokes before she gets the punch line out. A Performance Driven Life survivor, Janna’s passion is to see women of faith embrace their God-given identity and purpose and live their best adventure stories now. You can find stories and inspiration for real-life faith on Janna’s website, Grace Thread, and in her upcoming book, Grace Changes Everything.
1. Website of interest to women: http://godswordtowomen.org/by_title.htm
2. Provocative video: http://qideas.org/videos/the-state-of-women-1/
3. Abortions Victims: http://qideas.org/videos/womens-choice/
4. Racial Reconciliation: http://qideas.org/videos/bridging-the-race-divide/
5. Embracing Other Cultures: http://qideas.org/videos/bridging-the-race-divide/
6. Upcoming Women’s Conference with list of speakers (I wish I could attend like a mouse in the corner or at least get the post conference videos!:
QUOTES OF INTEREST FROM RECENT CHRISTIAN HISTORY
Charles Hodge (Princeton theologian 19th century) “If quoteI women are to be emancipated from the subjection to the law which God has imposed upon them, …if, in studied insult to the authority of God, we are to renounce, in marriage contract, all claim to obedience, we shall soon have a country over which the genius of Mary Wollstonecroft would delight to preside, but from which all order and virtue would speedily be banished … There is no deformity of human character from which we turn with deeper loathing than from a woman forgetful of her nature and clamorous for the vocations and rights of men.”
James H. Thornwell 1861 Manifesto declaring the views of Southern Presbyterians, in writing to his wife: “I have no doubts that the Assembly by a very large majority, will declare slavery not to be sinful, will assert that it is sanctioned by the word of God, … and that abolition is essentially wicked, disorganizing and ruinous.” In the Manifesto: “Africans are descendants of Ham, by nature inferior to whites, and therefore assigned by God to the status of slaves.”
Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference Resolution
Role of Women in Conference and Church Ministries (Revised Resolution)
Canadian Conference Yearbook, 1975, 106 “That the Canadian Conference of MB (Mennonite Brethren) Churches go on record as not favouring the ordination of women for the preaching and pastoral ministry nor their election to Boards and offices whose work is of the nature of eldership, such as the Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns, and the Board of Reference and Counsel or its equivalent.”
Compilation and comments © by Dr. David G. Sloss, PhD 2018