Martha: Pragmatism on Steroids

Just prior to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus again visits the quiet village of Bethany near the Mount of Olives. Instead of returning to His hometown of Nazareth, He comes here to fellowship with His beloved friends. Scripture says Jesus loves Martha, Mary and Lazarus (John 11:5). He seems to have a closer relationship with them than any other family members and uses His conversations as teaching tools.

Martha Distracted

Martha is probably the older of the two sisters, for she presumes to give orders concerning the household. She always appears practical, straightforward and honest. There is more dialogue between Jesus and Martha than with Mary, while no words of Lazarus are recorded.

Jesus was ministering to two different personalities, yet He communicates respect and compassion for both women while lovingly establishing priorities. Martha is distracted (periespato) because she has many domestic responsibilities (Luke 10:40). The verb pictures one with a haggard face, distracted in both mind and appearance.  Martha’s comment that Mary left her to serve alone may imply she had been helping her previously (Luke 10:40). However, no part of the conversation implies Mary feels housework is beneath her or Martha is too practical to join Mary at His feet. Instead of asking Mary herself, Martha insists Jesus instruct Mary to assist her. Her comment suggests physical needs should take priority over spiritual ones.

Jesus gives Martha an affectionate reproof (Luke 10:41). His double repetition of her name calls attention to her person, a rhetorical device used by Christ in conversations with both Peter and Paul (Luke 22:31 and Acts 9:4). Jesus affirms her divided attention and agitation by His use of the word “anxious” (merimnais). He also adds the word “troubled” (thorubazei).  Whereas anxious denotes inward uneasiness, troubled bespeaks outward confusion.

Although it is Martha who is directly addressed, her sister is more than a footnote. Mary is not praised for simply sitting; Jesus draws Martha’s attention to why she sat. By mentioning Mary’s choice, He prioritizes communicative listening skills. This verbal exchange with Martha verifies His mission is more than settling domestic disagreements (Luke 12:14). 

While He does not condemn Martha’s activities, Mary’s attentiveness to His teachings is deemed a “better portion” (agathen merida). His use of the phrase is a word play, meaning “the best dish on the table.” Spiritual nourishment is more essential than physical sustenance. Jesus also indicates she will not be denied her portion (Luke 10:42). Had He ordered Mary to assist her sister with home care logistics, she would have been deprived of the teaching for which she hungers most. All disciples should be encouraged to listen and learn from the words of Christ. 

Martha Bereaved

The next episode in which Martha dialogues with Christ is at her brother’s graveside. Neither of the grieving sisters grasps the fact that Jesus can raise their brother from the grave. Energetic Martha takes the initiative to converse with Jesus outside. As with the woman at the well, Jesus’ conversational methods involve building faith. Martha laments the fact that Jesus has not arrived sooner (John 11:21). Mary later echoes these exact words (v. 32). Perhaps it is a subtle reproach for His delay, but it is laced with poignant grief.

Martha believes the presence of Jesus would somehow have precluded Lazarus’ death. He tells her that her brother will rise again, allowing her the opportunity to develop her spiritual worldview. His ambiguous response gives Martha enough information to lead her toward a more complete understanding of His nature. She believes He must be physically present to prevent death, but as in the case of the Syrophonecian’s daughter, He has already proven His ability to heal at a distance (Matt. 15:28). Martha’s confidence in His capabilities appears limited, but optimism surfaces as she affirms God will answer Jesus’ request (John 11:22). 

Although her response reveals she does not comprehend His comment, she does affirm faith in a future resurrection. Martha believes her brother will rise again eschatologically. Christ rekindles her fires of hope as He reveals himself as the embodiment of the resurrected life in the present tense. This spark of faith dispels the gloom of her bereavement as He prompts her to revise her estimate of His omnipotence (John 11:26).

The woman at the well said she knew the Messiah was coming, but Christ stated He was here already (John 4:26). Jesus lovingly corrects this woman and Martha, redirecting their focus from future events to Him. The Lord leads Martha from a futuristic hope to a contemporary miracle. Taking into consideration her pragmatic nature, Jesus brings her from a hazy view of the resurrection to crystal-clear reality. The resurrected life embodied in Christ was about to manifest via the personal resurrection of her brother.

The two concepts of resurrection and life are inseparable; Christ’s resurrection must precede the gift of eternal life. The Lord’s use of synonymous parallelism in this verse reinforces the idea that without Christ, eternal life is impossible. As He communicated to Nicodemus, the new birth is the rite of passage from death to life. By faith in Christ, recipients of eternal life continue to live (John 3:15). By adding the words “and the life,” Jesus includes all that is vouchsafed to believers by their union with Him (11:25). In order to obtain immortality, Martha must appropriate what she has heard. Mental assent is insufficient. Eternal life is promised to believers, but He asks Martha if she personally believes in Him as the resurrection and the life (v. 26). Belief in Christ seals the promise of eternal life, just as the living water offered to the woman at the well of Sychar. From deep within the heart of women, Jesus causes hope to manifest.

Martha now affirms her complete faith in Christ. “I have believed” is the perfect active indicative of pisteuo, indicating a settled and firm conviction (John 11:27).  Her statement is comprehensive and equal to the confessions of both Nathaniel and Peter (1:49 and 6:69). It is remarkable that she affirms her faith in Christ amid such grievous circumstances. When illuminated by Christ, the path of faith is often seen more clearly in times of crisis.

The parameters of Martha’s faith are best represented by the words of a local citizen who asked whether or not the man who opens blind eyes could have prevented Lazarus’ death (John 11:37). Because Jerusalem was less than two miles from the pool of Siloam, many in that area would have known of the miracle performed there three months earlier (9:7).

While the anointing of the dead was a common Jewish practice, embalming was not. Martha responds with typical pragmatism by pointing out that Lazarus’ decomposition will be odorous. The command to remove the burial stone would have been startling. Equally repugnant is the thought of the public viewing of his decomposing body (John 11:39).

The harsh reality of her entombed brother diverts Martha’s attention from what Jesus has told her. Moments before, Christ promised her a manifestation of God’s glory (John 11:25). Martha is now reminded of their previous conversation in which she affirms His Messianic power (v. 27). Regardless of her earlier statement of faith, her words now prove Martha did not expect her brother to come back to life. The Lord continues to strengthen her faith, knowing it will be made complete by the resurrection of Lazarus. Her expostulation only adds to the magnificence of the miracle.

Martha Content

In the final passage regarding this Bethany family, Jesus is a guest at a festive dinner party. Characteristically, Martha is serving others. In every passage where Mary of Bethany is mentioned, the feet of Jesus are prominent. She sat at His feet (Luke 10:39), fell at His feet (John 11:32), and now anoints His feet (12:3). The fact that Mary is willing to perform this act at a meal in the presence of others shows she is not ashamed of her love for the Master. Her actions express more devotion than any words that might have been exchanged between them. Having been lovingly corrected by Jesus earlier, Martha is silent. If she does not appear worried and distracted now, perhaps it is because Lazarus is at her table.

Before the last curtain falls on the scenes involving Martha, several questions can be proposed. Did her faith come to fruition when she saw her brother raised from the dead? Did she learn not to object to Jesus’ timing and methodology? Did she join her sister at the feet of Jesus? In what ways did Christ’s question and answer strategy prove beneficial to her? Men can draw some valuable lessons from the ways Jesus interacted with Mary and Martha as they encourage their wives and daughters to value the words of Christ. Jesus taught that His personal communication with individuals is of primary importance. Husbands can ensure their wives enjoy a continual spiritual feast by establishing Biblical priorities. It was in the home atmosphere where Martha and Mary demonstrated respect for the instructions of Jesus. What can be learned from His personal conversations with others is priceless information for couples. Like the family of Bethany, familial spiritual maturation will positively impact surrounding communities (John 11:45).

Martha’s faith is perpetuated by His discussion and interaction with her. The resurrected Christ now communicates with His Church through the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Men should remind their wives of Christ’s admonition to Martha to place trust in what He says (John 11:40). Every man should seek to bring his wife into a more complete understanding of Christ’s intent. As couples pray together, everything that hinders personal communication with Jesus will be revealed.

Jesus’ Feet     – by Annie Johnson Flint

Martha is busy and burdened, serving her Lord divine;
Cleaning the cups and the dishes, bringing the bread and the wine.
She is stressed-out and anxious; nervous in thought and in word;
She has no time to be listening… she is serving the Lord.

But Mary is quiet and peaceful; pondering what Jesus says;
She is growing wisdom; eating the Living Bread.
Partaking of His riches eternal; feeding her mind and her heart;
Learning the mind of the Master; choosing that “better part”.

Daily chores are essential; all ministry has its place.
But one thing is far better: looking up into Jesus’ face.
Many strive for education – only to find defeat;
Neglecting the one thing essential: sitting at Jesus’ feet.

There is so much He will tell us, if daily with Him we will meet;
For the problems of life will only be solved….as we listen at Jesus’ feet.

Maxim of the Moment

The bonds of matrimony don’t profit you unless the interest is kept up.