Jesus—His Life and Message: Martha, Martha
June 4, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Martha, Martha
Three times within the Gospels we read about Jesus’ interaction with two sisters and their brother who were His close friends—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Jesus was particularly close to this family, as seen by the statement Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.1 In the Gospel of John, we find two instances in which Jesus interacts with them—when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead,2 and when Mary pours ointment on Jesus’ feet and wipes it with her hair.3
The third instance is found in the Gospel of Luke, which says:
As they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. A woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”4
Though the name of the village isn’t specifically stated in this passage, it seems likely that it was Bethany, which is about 1.5 kilometers from Jerusalem, as in the Gospel of John it’s stated that this family lived there.
A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.5
The name “Martha” is the feminine form of the Aramaic term Mar, which means mistress. Martha appears to have been the mistress in charge of the house, in virtue of her being the one to issue the invitation. She is presented as a patroness, someone who is perhaps prosperous,6 independent, and ready to host Jesus and those with Him. Jesus had been welcomed into her home and was teaching there. Martha’s sister Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him. In Israel those who sat at a rabbi’s feet and listened to his teachings were generally considered to be disciples of that person. Mary was responding to Jesus as a disciple.
Martha, on the other hand, was distracted with much serving. With a number of guests in the home, it was expected that food and drink would be served, and as the mistress of the home, Martha was preparing the meal on her own without Mary’s help.—And she wasn’t happy about it. So much so that she left her work and interrupted Jesus, accusing Him of not caring that she was doing all the work without the help of her sister, and demanding that He tell Mary to come and help her.
She went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
Her demand bordered on accusing Jesus of being insensitive to the situation. It was also stated in such a way as to indicate that she expected that He would do something to remedy the issue.
Most likely Martha wanted to be in the room listening to Jesus as well, but she felt that as the mistress of the house, it was her responsibility to do the work required to show proper hospitality to the guests in her home. However, she was overburdened and distracted with serving, so much so that her perspective and priorities were skewed.
Jesus’ response fits a pattern seen elsewhere in the Gospels. When someone asked Him to help resolve a dispute, He was generally reluctant to take the side of the one seeking His help, since He was aware that there are other points of view. For example,
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”7
In another situation,
they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” … As they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”8
Jesus was tender in His response to Martha, as seen by the double use of her name, Martha, Martha. There are other examples of this double usage as a sign of emotion found throughout the Gospel of Luke, such as:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”9
They went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”10
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!11
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.”12
The making and serving of a meal in order to be hospitable was important; however, it wasn’t as important in this situation as sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from Him. He pointed out to Martha that her sister, in this instance, was doing the most important thing.
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Rather than being focused on preparing a meal, Mary had chosen the good “portion”—which was a way of saying she had chosen the right meal.
Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.13
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup.14
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”15
Mary was commended for setting aside all else and focusing on Jesus and what He was teaching. She was acting as a disciple should by giving priority to God’s Word. Martha, by contrast, was busy with the cares and duties of life. In medieval times, some interpreted the differences between Martha and Mary as showing the difference between Christians who lived a cloistered life and those who lived a secular life, inferring that living a monastic life was superior. But it is clear that this was not the intent of this exchange or the point that Jesus was making.
Life’s demands can be quite consuming, and we generally live with these demands on a daily basis. It can be a temptation in our busy lives to put our family, work, and duties ahead of our devotion to the Lord, communing with Him, and spending time in His presence. We are obligated to fulfill our responsibilities, and it is wrong to shirk them; however, as important as they may be, being faithful to maintain our relationship with God is vital to our spiritual lives.
As much as we all want to reflect Mary’s action of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him, it’s likely that at times we find ourselves caught up in the demands of everyday life to the point that we become Martha-like to some extent. As the apostle Paul wrote,
I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.16
We all miss the mark sometimes. However, when we do, we can also remember that Martha, who on that particular day was cumbered about with much serving, is the same Martha to whom Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”17 She answered, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”18 Her response to Jesus’ question was as profound as the apostle Peter’s response when Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”19
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 John 11:5.
2 John 11.
3 John 12.
4 Luke 10:38–42.
5 John 11:1.
6 In John 12:3–5, we find that while Jesus was visiting with Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus, Mary took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. This would indicate that the family was wealthy. Judas complained because the ointment was worth three hundred denarii. One denarius was the daily wage of a laborer, so three hundred denarii was a significant amount of money. This could be indicative of Martha and her family being prosperous.
7 Luke 12:13–14.
8 John 8:4–7.
9 Luke 6:46.
10 Luke 8:24.
11 Luke 13:34.
12 Luke 22:31.
13 Deuteronomy 8:3.
14 Psalm 16:5.
15 John 6:35.
16 Romans 7:18.
17 John 11:25–26.
18 John 11:27.
19 Matthew 16:15–16.