By Robin Gallaher Branch June 21, 2021 / Biblical Archaelogical Society
The New Testament mentions Martha, a disciple of Jesus, three times (Luke 10:38–42; John 11:1–44; 12:2). Her actions, statements, and profession of faith reveal a remarkable woman who grows into her role as one of Jesus’s most devoted followers.
Based on Luke 8:1–3, Martha is arguably one of the women of means who supported Jesus and the Twelve, his co-traveling, male disciples. She, her brother, and sister illustrate the concept of hospitality demonstrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Later, while experiencing her brother’s sudden illness and death and her keen disappointment regarding Jesus’s prolonged absence, Martha declares that Jesus is the Son of God (John 11:27).
Her interactions with Jesus provide added insights on his character. They show a woman of independent thought and bold assertions, one meriting study and shaping theology.
Hospitality (Luke 10:38–42)
The scene is Bethany, a two-mile walk east from Jerusalem. In the last year of his ministry, Jesus left Galilee and relocated to Judea. An entourage accompanied this itinerant preacher.
“Martha opened her home to him” (Luke 10:38) (italics added). Perhaps Martha was a widow with a large compound able to accommodate many guests.
It was unusual that siblings lived together; none seemed eager to marry. The family, especially the sisters who entertained a single man, broke the rules (Camille 2007:44–45).
Jesus chooses to “hang out” with this trio (Honeycutt 2019:10). He loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5). Among them, he sheds the stress of his ministry’s long hours and its harassment from religious authorities.
Displaying an eclectic schedule, Jesus shows up, perhaps unexpectedly. Traditional norms of hospitality (established already in Genesis 18) demanded that guests—in this case, Jesus and the dozen or more who accompanied him—be fed, protected, honored, and housed.
Martha starts cooking. But Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, enthralled (Luke10:39). Listening to him teach, Mary ignores any responsibility for food preparation as well as traditional norms of gender separation. Jesus does not send her away.
Meanwhile, Martha’s irritation rises. Interrupting Jesus, she demands, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40).
Martha ruins her own dinner party! She forces her honored guest to arbitrate a seemingly ongoing squabble: sibling household duties.
However, Jesus makes it a brilliant teaching moment. He acknowledges Martha’s service to him and others but names a detracting habit: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things” (v. 41).
Jesus then recognizes Mary’s different service: listening. He surprisingly states Mary has chosen “what is better.” Adjudicating Martha’s demand, he decides Mary’s choice “will not be taken away from her” (v. 42).
Jesus thus re-organizes traditional biblical hospitality around himself. Hospitality now includes service to him by doing and listening.
He thereby continued his pattern of changing established traditions. Earlier, he had re-ordered the family around himself, declaring that whoever does God’s will is “my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:31–35); and, likewise, the Sabbath, declaring “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).
However, Jesus’s teaching contains this sincere compliment: Jesus wants Martha’s company more than he wants her splendid meal.
It is also important to note that the doubling of Martha’s name (v. 41)—“Martha, Martha…”—presents interesting canonical parallels. Name repetition, a biblical rarity, denotes emphasis and a divine encounter. Consider, for example, God’s call to Abraham not to lay a hand on Isaac (Genesis 22:11), the call to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4), and Jesus’s appearance to Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:4).
Faith (John 11:1–44)
Martha’s second appearance verifies her importance. Often called the “Raising of Lazarus” the John passage is better seen as conversations between Jesus and his disciples and, individually, with Martha and Mary (Blessing 2002:399).
Through the sisters’ message, Jesus learns that Lazarus, “the one you love” (John 11:3), is ill. Obviously, Jesus will come quickly! But Jesus delays. The sisters must have watched the road ceaselessly, listening acutely.
Lazarus worsens, dies, and is buried. Jesus remains silent, absent, and mysterious.
Jesus arrives during the mourning period. He stops outside Bethany. Martha hurries to him. Foregoing a greeting, she says—bluntly and perhaps accusingly—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21).
Jesus answers Martha, likewise, directly: “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). Thinking eschatologically, Martha parrots a prevailing principle, that “he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v. 24). However, Jesus speaks prophetically about what will happen shortly at Lazarus’s tomb.
He honors Martha with one of his seven “I am” statements, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and challenges her, “Do you believe this?” (vv. 25–26).
His directness, piercing through her bewilderment and hurt, necessitates a response.
Without hesitation, Martha answers: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (v. 27).
Martha’s four-fold confession of faith ranks alongside Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20).
Returning home, Martha tells Mary that “the Teacher” (evidently the sisters’ pet name for Jesus) asks for her. Going quickly to him, Mary repeats Martha’s words but her mannerisms differ. She greets Jesus by kneeling and weeping (John 11:28–29, 32).
With Martha, Jesus was no-nonsense, channeling her grief by focusing her attention on himself. With Mary, deeply moved, he weeps (vv. 33–35).
Onlookers accompany them to the tomb. Riveting every eye, Jesus commands that the stone be taken away. The ever-practical Martha states the obvious: “By this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (vv. 38–39).
All stare at the darkened cave. Jesus shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43).
And he does!
In one of scripture’s most remarkable events, a shrouded form hobbles forth. No doubt all are astonished, speechless. Jesus breaks the silence by recognizing the obvious: bound Lazarus cannot loose himself. Jesus commands, “…let him go” (v. 44).
Resolution (John 12:2)
Shortly thereafter, in scripture’s final mention of the trio, a smell different from death but associated with burial occurs. Six days before Passover, Martha serves at a dinner in Jesus’s honor. Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus. Mary takes nard and opens it; a sweet smell fills the house. Mary pours it on Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:2–3).
The scene shows growth by its silence. Martha busies herself with serving; she offers no comment when Mary serves Jesus differently. Hospitality issues seem resolved.
However, Mary again receives criticism, this time from Judas Iscariot. Jesus again defends her, praising her extravagant gift as “perfume for the day of my burial.” The next day, Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph and to acclaim (John 12:4–8, 12).
Perhaps Jesus was scheduled to return to Bethany. One can picture Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, their compound aglow with oil lamps, waiting at the gate, watching the Jerusalem road.
Jesus never comes. He is seized, taken to the high priest’s house, tried before the council of elders, sent to Pilate then Herod, and sentenced by Pilate. On Friday morning he is crucified and dies that afternoon (Luke 22:47–23:49).
The sibling trio are not mentioned at the cross, the tomb, or later after the resurrection as among the 120 who were praying (Acts 1:12–14). What happened?
Perhaps when learning of Jesus’s sentence, they fled, hearing that the chief priests desired to kill Lazarus (John 12:9–11).
Early church lore says they were captured and put in a leaking boat without oars. The boat made it either to Cyprus or Gaul. One account says Lazarus became Bishop of Cyprus and died, peacefully, 30 years later (“St Lazarus,” 1956:IV:576). His feast day is December 17.
According to another account, Martha evangelized Tarasçon (in modern day southern France), where relics associated with her were enclosed in a shrine (“St Martha,” 1956:III:205). Her feast day is July 29. Early church thinking merges Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen into one person. Mary Magdalen’s feast day is July 22 (“St Mary Magdalen,” 1956:III:161).