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Published Date: July 31, 1996

Published Date: July 31, 1996

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Revisiting the Story of Martha

Of all the things I know about Martha, the most thrilling to me is the fact that she and Peter had almost identical Christological confessions (John 11:27, Matt. 16:16).

Martha: Su ei ho Christos ho huios tou Theou.
Peter: Su ei ho Christos ho huios tou Theou tou zontos.
Martha: You are the Christ, the Son of God.
Peter: You are the Christ, the Son of the God the living.

Martha knew who Jesus was. He was her friend; but he was also the Christ, the Son of God.

Traditionally, Martha is known for her hospitality. She lived in the first—century village of Bethany with her sister, Mary, and her brother, Lazarus. In commentaries, she is most often depicted as a bossy, yet efficient, housewife and cook. But by remembering these two facts about Martha—her knowledge of Christ, and her efficient hospitality—we can come to her story with a greater understanding of this fascinating, multi-faceted woman, so that we see more than some one-sided picture of Martha as only a busy homemaker who failed to choose the “better part.”

Martha and Jesus were friends. Her home in Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem and thus a convenient retreat for Jesus and his disciples, a place where they could be away from the following crowds. This home was probably made of stone, rectangular in shape and with an open court in front. There was a room for domestic animals, sleeping quarters for the family, and a central room with a hearth for cooking. Steps led to the roof, and possibly a guest room. Although in a house this size there would almost certainly have been servants, Mary and Martha probably did much of the housework and cooking themselves.

Planning and preparing food for Jesus and his disciples would have been a huge task: thirteen guests, and possibly more if “disciples” included members of his larger entourage. In addition to fresh-baked bread, the menus might have included baked or fried cakes coated with honey and sprinkled with seeds and nuts. Figs, grapes, beans and lentils could have been served as well, and then—in honor of the special guest—there might have been roast meat.

The Luke 10:38-42 account tells us that Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made for this meal. But distracted from what? I think she was distracted from sitting at the feet of Jesus where she would rather have been.

Was Martha working hard at her servant task, while at the same time wanting to enjoy the conversation and teaching of Jesus? I wonder if it was her mounting frustration, as she watched Mary neglecting her usual housekeeping tasks and instead doing what she—Martha—would rather have been doing, that drove Martha to ask, “Lord, don’t you care?”

In his understanding and Jove, Jesus gently, I think, quietly calmed her down by repeating her name twice. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset.” But he might also have said, “We both know that you know who I am. Mary needs to understand that too. This conversation with Mary is more important than housework for her right now.”

I don’t think we can say that Mary chose the things of the Lord and that Martha did not. They both had household tasks to do. They were both friends of the Lord. Martha knew Jesus was the Christ; Mary was sitting at his feet learning the same thing. And most likely, Mary later helped Martha with the serving.

I never liked my first given name, Martha, and have been reluctant to use it, until I studied her story more closely. She was certainly more than “just a housewife.” As we know from her interaction with Jesus in the account given in John 11:1-44, Martha was strong and she was spiritual. She was responsible. She was loved by Jesus.

My dad always told me, “Martha is in the Bible; hers is a good name.” Now I believe him.

Editor’s Note

In both Luke 10 and John 11, Martha appears to be more of an activist than Mary, and so we could speculate that Martha bore more responsibility for the household’s management. Yet, significantly, although Martha was again serving when Mary anointed Jesus with the costly perfume (John 12), Martha is not recorded as joining the protest against such a “wasteful” gesture. Therefore we could also speculate that, despite their different personalities, the two sisters were united in their gratitude for Jesus’ loving restoration of their brother Lazarus to them.

In his book, Miracles of our Lord, George MacDonald wrote: “Joy of all joys! The dead come back! Is it any wonder that this Mary should spend three hundred pence on an ointment for the feet of the Raiser of the Dead?” And surely it would also be no wonder if the activist Martha fully supported her sister in this act of extravagant devotion to the One who had clearly shown them both that he was the resurrection and the life.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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