Someone had to make Jesus dinner.
Or at least that’s what Martha of Bethany thought, “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (Luke 10:40). Maybe she didn’t know Jesus could go without food for forty days or that he could feed thousands with a little bread and fish. So she needed to make him dinner, and her sister Mary wasn’t helping.
I relate to Martha here. I’ve just had three events in three days, and my kitchen is still a disaster, dishes sliding off precarious stacks. In the chaos of details, I yelled at my family to join in, ignoring spiritual values in pursuit of religious obligations. I would have demanded help from Mary too.
When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better thing—sitting at his feet to learn—he dismantles the cultural expectation that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Theologian Craig Keener writes that in the first century, rabbis “dismissed the trustworthiness of women’s witness, and, with the possible exceptions of . . . the women followers of Jesus, women seem never to have been accorded the role or status of teachers or their disciples.”1 Jesus sets up a different value system and affirms a woman’s right to assume the position of a rabbi’s student, which, according to N.T. Wright, is exactly what Mary was doing by sitting at Jesus’ feet.2 In Jesus’ words, I think Martha heard more than a gentle correction; I think she heard an invitation to become a disciple.
I grew up religious, with heavy cultural limits on women added to Jesus’ teachings. I kept my work in women’s spaces, confused by my growing desire to participate fully in the public rooms—of the home and the church—with the men. Over the past three years, I have studied to understand the Bible more accurately, and I have heard Jesus’ invitation to me, a woman, free to learn and teach on equal footing with men. The Martha in Luke is the Martha I’ve been most of my life, but the Martha in John is the one I want to become.
Martha seems to have responded to Jesus’ invitation to become a disciple, because in the next story from her life, she shows faith, theological understanding, and a close relationship with Jesus. In John 11, Jesus delays responding to the sisters’ request that he heal their brother Lazarus, who dies before Jesus arrives. When Martha hears he is getting close, she runs out to meet him, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). After this questioning, though, Martha displays her faith: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:22). Jesus tells her that her brother will be raised up, and she offers her knowledge: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).
Jesus teaches her more and gives her hope: “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. . . . Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, MSG) Martha’s statement of understanding is powerful: “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world” (John 11:27, MSG).
Martha questions Jesus again when he tells the mourners to roll away the stone covering Lazarus’s tomb. She argues with him that the body will smell. Jesus doesn’t seem bothered by her challenges.
While the Gospels say Jesus loved the whole world, they don’t often say that he loved specific individuals. However, here is one: “Jesus loved Martha” (John 11:5). The honest dialogue in this scene captures the kind of relationship I want to have with God, one in which I can ask hard questions and still be loved.
In the final story told from Martha’s life, she hosts another meal for Jesus. The mention is short. At the dinner, “Martha served” (John 12:2). Mary is again at Jesus’ feet, while Martha is again serving. I believe this serving is voluntary, not expected. It is celebratory, not stressed. This time, Martha doesn’t stop Mary. They each serve the Master in their own way.
Martha’s story contains the gospel story. In these glimpses of her life, Jesus’ identity is revealed, his death and resurrection are promised, and both discipleship and eternal life are offered to his followers. The primary goal of evangelism, according to theologian Scot McKnight, is to get one question on the table: “Who do you think Jesus is?”3 McKnight says that the gospel “summons people to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord.”4 I tell Martha’s story to grieving friends, and in telling her story, I get to tell Jesus’ story; I get to evangelize. This tale of a woman puts the question on the table and gives the answer.
Who is Jesus? He is the promised one, the King. I want to grow as a student of Jesus, like Martha did, in faith, knowledge, relationship, and service. I want my life story to preach the gospel, just like Martha’s does.
- Craig Keener, “Man and Woman” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 589.
- N.T. Wright, “The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (Autumn 2006): 7.
- Scot McKnight, lecture in the class Introduction to New Testament Interpretation, Northern Seminary, Lombard, IL, September 1, 2016.
- Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 149.