Biblical warriors are usually seen as armed with swords or bows or spears. But Martha and Mary of Bethany were warriors of the heart and soul, using tools of exhaustive hospitality and fierce love to engage Jesus as brother, friend and soulmate.
Standout figures in the New Testament, the women provided Jesus with a place of healing and respite, one to which he returned regularly. Without them, whom Christians celebrate this week, Jesus would have been absent that safe place for which we all yearn—especially in those heart-wrenching days before he was killed.
Picture the setting: Martha’s small home in Bethany, shared by the sisters and most likely, their brother Lazarus. A scant two miles from Jerusalem, the dirt-floor house was most likely two stories high, part of a square block of dwellings that shared an inner courtyard for cooking and socializing, fronting onto a hard-packed street.
In that home and within striking distance of it took place the three events for which the sisters are remembered: Martha’s irritation with Mary; Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead; and Mary’s anointing of Jesus with a costly jar of scented ointment.
Event #1–Martha’s irritation: (Luke 10:38-42)
As Martha prepares food for Jesus and his disciples, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, soaking up his presence. Soon, Martha is simmering as much as the vegetables and with good reason—for preparing dinner, alone, for at least sixteen people (the disciples, Jesus, and the Bethany trio) would have been exhausting. Boiling over, she tells Jesus to have Mary help her—because Mary is placidly sitting at Jesus’ feet, not moving—only to hear him respond that Mary has chosen “the better part.”
Such an admonition would have been hard to hear. Yet given Martha’s nature—practical, fierce and loving—perhaps she appreciated that dinner didn’t have to be perfect, that “one dish” was sufficient. No doubt Jesus wanted Martha to keep the joy in her soul as she flew about the room, trying to provide for so many guests.
Event #2:–The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
Lazarus is terribly sick, almost to the point of death. Martha sends a messenger for Jesus, sure that he will heal her beloved brother. No response; Lazarus dies. With tears and precious oils, the sisters anoint his body and place it in nearby burial caves.
Four days later, Jesus finally arrives.
Martha is angry. “Lazarus would not died if you had been here!” she says. “And even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus responds “Lazarus will be raised up.” Martha: “I know. On the last day.”
Jesus: “You don’t have to wait. I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. Do you believe this?”
Martha: “Yes. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”
Note: Right here, Martha offers up one of the most magnificent, and singular, confessions of faith in the New Testament. Even though she has yet to experience the resurrection, she presents an understanding of the eternal life by saying that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. She states that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world.
And then Martha runs back home to get her sister. When Mary approaches Jesus, with fellow mourners, she falls at his feet, weeping over the loss of her beloved brother. Seeing her in such distress, Jesus is deeply troubled.
“Where have you laid him?” asks Jesus.
Here we see another singular moment—Jesus cries. With Martha, he talks theologically. But something about Mary’s grief stirs his emotions. He feels her pain in his soul. This is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is recorded as weeping: clearly her grief caught him off guard, and he responded as a friend, a soulmate. Their bond was deep.
And then rush to the tomb.
“Lazarus, come out!”
By Jesus’ command, Lazarus is healed, restored, returned to life. And lest we think that he was merely sleeping, ever practical and so-true-to-herself Martha says this: “But Lord, the smell!”
The statement is pure Martha. She says what she thinks and she’s eminently practical. Who else would think of this?
Lazarus stumbles out, his eyes blinded by the light. What Martha and Mary know—that Jesus is the Messiah—has been confirmed, proven without a doubt.
Event #3–The anointing: (John 12:1-8)*
Once again—this time a week before the crucifixion—Jesus returns to stay with Mary and Martha. Jesus knew the danger of returning to the vicinity of Jerusalem, and it would seem that Mary did as well. In an extraordinarily sensual act, she washes Jesus’ feet and pours spikenard on them, an exotic and costly ointment. And then she wipes and dries them with her hair.
The disciples become outraged. Imagine their tension–for some say that the evocative scent of spikenard could be smelled up to a half mile away. Judas (of all people) reminds the others how that money could be better used to serve the poor.
“Let her alone,” says Jesus. “Let her alone. Let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me.”
Anointing took place for several reasons, including setting apart and consecrating royalty (e.g., Samuel anointing Saul and David long before they were crowned); marking God’s presence and consecrating worship space; healing; preparing one’s body for love; and symbolizing the abundance of God’s blessings.
By placing this story at the little house in Bethany days before the crucifixion, John demonstrates Mary’s attentiveness to Jesus in a time of crisis. Mary knew that the end was drawing near–and her actions gave Jesus strength to face the days ahead.
Truth be told, this narrative is classic Mary of Bethany with Jesus: offering the very best she has, shutting out others in the room, concentrating fully, and providing spiritual healing to One whose body will soon be bruised and cast aside.
Bottom line on Mary: She is fully present to Jesus, offering healing gifts and sharing the depths of her heart—and that soul compatibility is returned by Jesus.
Bottom line on Martha: She would do whatever needed to be done: make meals, sweep the floor, shelter the disciples, proclaim Jesus as Lord, even tame dragons (legend has it that she went on to be a missionary in France and tamed dragons on the banks of the River Aix)—all in service of the One she loved.
Question for us: In the turmoil and challenges we confront, how can we best draw from our deepest selves for our Lord, as did Mary and Martha?
*The story of a woman washing Jesus’ feet and pouring oil on them is reported in all four Gospels (compare Luke 7:36-50; Matthew 26.6-13; Mark 14.3-9; and John 12.1-8. John’s Gospel is the only one that names Mary of Bethany as the protagonist. Over the years, some have believed that Mary Magdalene is the “Mary” that is named, but most scholars and readers of the Bible, including me, believe the woman described is indeed Mary of Bethany.
Adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Published by Forward Movement, 2014. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman
Artwork: Mary and Martha of Bethany was lovingly painted by Karen N. Canton. From The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women, published 2010 by John Hunt Publishing.