May 14, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd
You know the type. Perhaps you’re even one of them—those amazing, wonderful people who rest at the feet of Jesus, soak up his words, and seem to be plugged into his heart. Pastors often point to them as examples of how to focus on Christ and surrender to Him, implicitly and sometimes explicitly calling on the rest of us to be more like these modern-day Marys and less like Martha.
But with due respect to Mary, I think Martha has gotten a bad rap over the years. Martha and Mary represent two equally important parts of the Body of Christ, and there is much to learn from both.
The first half of Mary and Martha’s story we know well. Luke tells us that Jesus and the disciples came upon Martha’s house after a period of preaching and casting out demons. There may have been 12 with Jesus at the doorway, or maybe far more: Recall that Luke 10, which ends with “Jesus and his disciples” at Martha’s front door, begins with Jesus sending out 72 of his disciples to preach the good news.
Whether it was 72 or 12, there was a lot of extra cooking to do. But it didn’t matter to Martha. Luke explains that she opened her home to them and prepared a feast. (See Luke 10) As she busied herself with the cooking and cleaning, Martha noticed that her sister wasn’t helping. Instead, Mary was soaking up Jesus’ words, literally sitting at his feet.
Imagine that scene. Mary has muscled her way to a seat front-and-center before Jesus. She’s not intimidated by his entourage of holy men. She just wants to be in the presence of God. It no doubt blesses Jesus to see such boldness, such devotion, such surrender.
But Martha was not happy with her sister, and who could blame her? “Don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” she asks Jesus. “Tell her to help me,” she demands. Jesus doesn’t fulfill Martha’s request, but notice that he doesn’t tell her to stop working. “Mary has chosen what is better,” he explains, “and it will not be taken away from her.”
That’s where the story of Mary and Martha ends for most of us. But there’s more to the story; and there’s more to Martha than this somewhat petty episode. Martha wasn’t just a cheerless worker bee. She was as bold as Mary. In fact, Martha was bold perhaps when it mattered most.
A Bold Faith
John picks up the story of Mary and Martha in the eleventh chapter of his gospel. He tells us that Lazarus, who was Mary and Martha’s brother and a friend of Jesus, was terminally ill. As his condition worsened, the two sisters turned to Jesus for help. But Jesus was preaching in another city, and he wouldn’t return to the home of Lazarus for another four days.
Some of us forget that it was Martha—not Mary—who went out to look for Jesus when she heard that he was on his way. Perhaps Mary was too grief-stricken or too angry to go searching for Jesus. After all, he didn’t come when they asked for help. He stayed away for two extra days as the life drained out of Lazarus. By the time Jesus arrived on the outskirts of Bethany, Lazarus was dead and buried.
But when Martha hears that Jesus is finally coming, she races to find him. And when they meet, she reveals a deep faith—a faith not even a brother’s death or an unanswered prayer could shake. “If you had been here,” she cries, “my brother wouldn’t have died.” Her next sentence underscores that her words aren’t meant to wound Jesus, but rather to acknowledge his authority and power. “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask,” she says.
Jesus answers with a promise: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha’s response reveals something profound—something that even those holy men who walked around with Jesus had trouble grasping: "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Martha has obviously done much more than busywork during Jesus’ visits. She has also listened to his words.
But Jesus is talking about more than the hereafter—he’s talking about the here-and-now. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus explains. “Do you believe this?” Martha’s answer is unwavering. “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ,the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Revived and refreshed by Jesus’ words, Martha heads back to her grieving sister to encourage Mary to go to the source of comfort and hope. When Mary arrives, she greets Jesus with the very same statement as Martha: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." However, Mary doesn’t soften the verbal blow with an affirmation of His power to work a miracle. She just weeps. Perhaps that recognition of his authority was understood. Or perhaps Mary’s silence says something more.
We can never know for certain, but we do know what Martha said and how she responded when she heard Christ had arrived. This woman of action went to Jesus in the hopes that he would make things better. She acted, but not because she thought she could fix the problem on her own, not because she thought God needed an extra pair of hands. To the contrary, she acted because she knew her own limitations. She acted because that’s how she was made—in David’s words, that’s how God had knitted Martha together in her mother’s womb.
Martha then watches Jesus roll away the gravestone (over her momentary Type A objections), lift his eyes and voice to heaven, and raise her brother from death.
Gifts and Gaps
Mary had her moment with Jesus, and Martha had hers. Mary had her role, and Martha had hers. Jesus would not take it away. In fact, in John 12, we see Martha hosting a feast in Jesus’ honor. Mary is again at His feet, Martha is again serving the meal, and all is right in the world.
So if that’s the whole story, what can we learn from it?
-Being a Martha is not all bad. As Paul wrote, we are one body with many parts, many functions. The Marys of the world are blessed with the gifts of worship and patience. They know that sitting at Christ’s feet is a precious, priceless gift. But the Marthas of the world have gifts to offer as well. They worship with their hands; they express their love for Christ by working; and they know that moving at Jesus’ feet is a way to share his gifts with the world.
-Marthas and Marys need each other. While no one is 100-percent Mary or 100-percent Martha, most of us can identify with one of the sisters more than the other. And if we’re honest, we can see the gaps inside ourselves. I know I can. As a Martha, I can get ahead of Jesus; I can get frustrated with people who don’t “do their fair share;” I can worry so much about getting things done for tomorrow that I fail to experience Christ today. Marys help us keep things in perspective by reminding us that Jesus is what matters.
Even so, Marys have their gaps too. Sometimes they fail to move toward Jesus. Movement is arguably as important to the abundant life as stillness. After all, Jesus implored his disciples to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Marthas remind us that faith is incomplete without action.
-Marthas know there is more to life than sitting still, even if it’s at Jesus’ feet. Marys know that all the hard work and good works in the world are meaningless if we are motivated by something other than Jesus. And Heaven knows there’s a place and purpose for both of them.