Thanks to Biblical accounts in Luke 10 and John 11 and 12, stories about Mary and Martha are well known. These two women were friends of Jesus and sisters of Lazarus. They lived in Bethany near Jerusalem, and Jesus and his disciples were welcome to stay at their house whenever in the area.
"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:38-42
Also see Proverbs 24:14
"Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul;
if you find it, there is a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off."
Often this story is taught as an admonition that it is better to sit, listen, and learn from Jesus than to do all that is necessary to feed and house Him and His disciples for the night.
In support of this view, the things Martha wanted to do for the Lord distracted her and caused her to worry and to be upset with her sister. Why won't Mary help with the cooking? Doesn't she see all that needs to be done? Why does Mary just sit with the guests when there is so much to do? Martha tells Jesus what she wants ("tell her to help me!"), and He doesn't do it. Doesn't He care that she is overworked? Actually, no, He doesn't. But later, in John 11, we find out that Martha has had a lot of faith in what Jesus taught, including resurrection. Like Peter, Martha believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah God had promised the Jews. And like the later apostle Paul, Martha apparently was a Type A achiever. Perhaps Martha wanted help with all the work of hospitality so that she, too, could sit down and hear what Jesus was teaching.
Jesus told Martha - in Mary's hearing - that only one thing is needed, and that Mary had made a better choice to sit and listen. He said the results of Mary's better choice wouldn't be taken away from her. How encouraging that must have been to Mary.
Serving one another
We know from what Jesus taught elsewhere that service has importance and can bring blessings. But no servant is greater than the Master or His instructions.
Jesus described serving:
"Jesus called (His disciples) together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
Jesus demonstrated serving:
"When (Jesus) had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." (John 13:12-17)
Later Paul explained:
"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve...." (Romans 12:6-7)
Paul also wrote:
"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (Colossians 3:23-24)
Jesus wasn't pointing out to Martha that her food and hospitality were second rate. He was correcting her about her attitude while she served. She was serving the Lord directly, in person, but she couldn't let the details of fixing food and providing hospitality replace her attitude of righteousness, peace, joy, and especially - love. We don't get credit for doing something for the Lord our own way. We don't get credit for doing something for the Lord while grumbling or complaining about not getting enough help from others.
More of the story:
"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food." (Romans 14:17-20a)
"You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:13-14)
"Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Peter 4:9-11)
The next we hear of Mary and Martha begins as the sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus, their brother and His friend, is dying. Both sisters believe that if Jesus comes in time, their brother will live.
But Jesus delays coming, not because the sisters lack faith, and not because he is careless with their friendship. God had shown Jesus something else to do - a unique and unusual assignment.
And this assignment required staying away until Lazarus was definitely dead.
For some reason, when the sisters heard that Jesus was approaching their town, Martha went out to meet Him, but Mary stayed sitting in the house with many mourners who had come to comfort the sisters. Was Mary too grieved and disappointed that Jesus hadn't come quicker? She believed with all her heart that Jesus could have healed Lazarus had He come earlier. But He hadn't come and Lazarus had died. To Mary, dead was dead. The time frame of her hope had come and gone.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair [see John 12:3]. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."
When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
Then he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea."
"But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?"
Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light."
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up."
His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."
Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
Martha greets Jesus just out of town with the belief that if He had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus doesn't explain or apologize about His timing. But Martha's faith doesn't stop there. She believes:
- that God gives Jesus whatever He asks
Not everything has been revealed to Martha, but she knows that Jesus keeps showing more and more. And He sees things from a different perspective. Jesus had told His disciples that Lazarus' sickness wouldn't end in death, but it sure sounds like he's dead. Jesus had told His disciples that Lazarus was sleeping until they took that news literally and He had to be blunt. Martha knew about making judgements by appearances first hand. Many Jews saw Jesus as a mortal person, but Martha saw Him as Christ, the Son of God, who had been revealed bit by bit in scriptures.
- Jesus' explanation of the resurrection of the dead (also see Isaiah 25:8)
- Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who had been promised in the scriptures.
Jesus asks Martha to get Mary. Whatever is about to happen involves her, too.
Mary is devastated by Lazarus' death. After Martha specifically comes to get her, Mary goes to where Jesus is waiting. "If You had been here earlier, our brother would not have died." It seems her faith goes no further. Again, Jesus doesn't explain.
John 11:17-27 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
Just as Jesus had shared His faith with this family, now the sisters share their grief with Him, to the point that Jesus weeps with them and the mourners. The mourners realize that Jesus loved Lazarus. Others also think Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying if only He had come earlier.
Despite their faith, no one is asking Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life. It's rarely been done before. (see 1 Kings 17:17-24) Mary and some of the mourners believe Jesus could have done something earlier. Martha knows her brother will live again in the resurrection at the end of time. But now, ever practical, Martha points out that after being buried 4 days, Lazarus' decaying body would have an awful smell.
John 11:28-37 "And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. "The Teacher is here," she said, "and is asking for you." When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked.
"Come and see, Lord," they replied.
Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
The sisters trusted Jesus, and He was promising that they would see the glory of God. Not in some distant time, but right here, right now. They had no idea what was coming exactly or how anything could be changed, but they trusted Jesus.
So the sisters had some of the mourners obey Jesus to move the stone of the tomb. Jesus prayed, commanded Lazarus to come out, and ordered some on-lookers to unwind and take off his grave clothes. Many more people believed in Jesus because of Lazarus.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said.
"But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days."
Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
When the Jewish leaders heard the news, rather than believing, they were furious. This was the miracle that finally caused Jesus' life to be threatened because He would neither compromise nor obey the Jewish religious leaders. (See John 11:46-57) He could no longer travel openly near Jerusalem.
"So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
Mary and Martha soon opened their home to Jesus and His disciples again when their last Passover together was approaching. While Martha served the group, Mary poured an expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus knew what was coming for Him, and when Mary was criticized by Judas, Jesus defended her. There was much Mary didn't understand of what was coming, but somehow she realized this was the time to pour the perfume she had kept for Jesus onto His feet. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial," Jesus explained.
"Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. " It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.
It seems that Martha had a new attitude along with a new gratitude to Jesus for saving her brother. "Serve the Lord with gladness." She continued serving Jesus and His disciples, but with an understanding that replaced her old grumbling about Mary's lack of help with hospitality. Mary had a different assignment. The sisters weren't competing. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, but even brothers and sisters have different responses, different gifts, and different assigned duties to and for Him.
Mary may have introduced her sister, Martha, and brother, Lazarus, to Jesus after He forgave her many sins. In Matthew 26:6 ff, hours before Jesus and His disciples celebrated Passover and Judas betrayed Him to the chief priests, an unnamed woman in Bethany did to Jesus what Mary had done at least 2 times before, anointing His feet with ointment by her hair. (Parable: between 2 debtors, which of them would love the lender the most? The one he forgave the most, such as the woman in Luke 7:47.)
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him having an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table.
But when his disciples saw this, they were indignant, saying,
“Why this waste?
However, knowing this, Jesus said to them,
For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.”
“Why do you trouble the woman? Because she has done a good work for me.
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said,
For you always have the poor with you; but you don’t always have me.
For in pouring this ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.
Most certainly I tell you,
wherever this Good News is preached in the whole world,
what this woman has done will also be spoken of as a memorial of her.”
“What are you willing to give me, that I should deliver him to you?”
Mary apparently anointed Jesus' feet three different times:
When others criticize me for doing something I'm sure the Lord wants me to do, let me remember Mary.
Whenever I'm rushed, if ever I think others aren't helping me enough with things to be done, let me remember and re-apply what I've learned with Martha about my attitude and priorities to the Lord.
As death approaches, let me remember the faith of Martha and Mary, and of their brother Lazarus.