July 29

Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus

The gospels present two different views of Martha and her sister, Mary. In John 11, she welcomed Jesus in the aftermath of her brother’s burial, only to question his tardy arrival. In Luke 10, she busied herself as a host, only to complain that her sister sat at the feet of Jesus like a disciple. In both gospel traditions, Martha could not see the bigger picture. Devotion to the Lord outstripped all other concerns.

First Reading and Psalm from Daily Readings

Gospel A: John 11:19-27

19 Many of the (the people around Jerusalem) visited Martha and Mary in order to comfort them concerning (their) brother. 20 So, when she heard that Jesus was coming, Martha met HIM. But Mary sat at home. 21 Thus, Martha said to JESUS ,"Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever (petitions) you ask God, God will give you." 23 JESUS told her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to HIM, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." 25 JESUS told to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. The (person) trusting me, even if he should die, will live. 26 Everyone living and trusting me does not die in the (final) age. Do you believe this?" 27 She said to HIM, "Yes, Lord! I have (and continue to) believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One coming into the world."

11:19 "(the people around Jerusalem)" is literally "the Jews." 11:18 gives the context for the visitors: "Bethany was near Jerusalem, about fifteen stades" (three kilometers or two miles). Obviously, John meant common Jews from the surrounding area. However, he also used the term "the Jews" for the religious leadership of the capital.

11:20 "But Mary sat at home." Sitting was the traditional posture of mourning and comforting in the ancient world.

11:26 "Everyone living and trusting me does not die in the (final) age." This sentence has two areas that need explanation. First, "living" could refer to physical life or spiritual life. In the first case, the translation could read "everyone living (today) and believing in me." In the second case, "living" and "believing" were synonymous.

"...does not die in the (final) age." The "(final) age" referred to the Second Coming and was equivalent to eternal life.

11:27 "You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One coming into the world." The three titles in this verse summarized the gospel writer's view of Jesus: the Messiah, the Son who had a unique relationship with God the Father, and the Word who came into the world.

Jesus delayed his arrival for days. By the time he arrived, he found Lazarus had been buried for four days. [11:5, 17] Many Jewish rabbis held a soul hovered near the body for three days; beyond the third day, there was no hope of reviving the corpse.

When Martha heard Jesus was coming, she left her home (the customary place of grieving) to meet him. As she greeted Jesus, she believed in him only as a healer. Yes, placed her faith in Jesus and in his relationship with the Father. God still worked through Jesus. But, only if things were different...

When Jesus announced Lazarus would rise again, Martha responded with an answer many Jews at the time of Jesus held; Lazarus would indeed rise on the day of judgment. [11:21-24] She could not see beyond her assumptions.

Jesus, then, revealed himself to Martha: "I AM the resurrection and the life." Just as he identified himself to the Samaritan woman in John 4:26, Jesus used the phrase "I AM" to denote his own divinity and his relationship to the Father. He was God and he was God's instrument.

Jesus directed his identity toward the subject at hand. "I AM the resurrection and the life." Those who entrust themselves to Jesus will never see spiritual death. In spite of physical death, they will always have life in Christ. (Perhaps, we should reverse the phrase. In Christ, we have eternal life now that will bring us to resurrection). In 11:23 Jesus inferred Lazarus had eternal life because he would be raised. Did Martha entrust herself to Jesus, so she, too, could have life? [11:25-26]

Yes, Martha believed. She saw Jesus was more than a mere healer. In Jesus, she experienced God. She professed Jesus to be the Messiah, the One promised in the Scripture. [11:27]

Top of the page

Or Gospel B: Luke 10:38-42

38 During their travels, HE went into a certain village. A woman named Martha welcomed HIM (into her home as a guest). 39 That one (had) a sister called Mary [who] sitting at HIS feet, heard his word. 40 But, Martha was dragged around many tasks (of service). Standing toward (him), she said to him, "Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister left me alone to serve (everyone)? Tell her so she might help me." 41 Having answered, the LORD said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and agitated about many (things). 42 One (thing) is needed. For Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be lifted away from her."

10:38 Martha was a woman of means. In a gender segregated society, such women were the exception, but they were not unusual.

10:39 "a sister called Mary [who] sitting at HIS feet, heard his word." The actions of Mary were highly unusual. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary assumed the position of disciple learning from a rabbi. In other words, as a fellow student, she made herself the equal of her male counterparts. Jewish women were not expected to receive an education. Her presence and position would have caused scandal as outrageous behavior. (However, upper-class Gentile women many times had some education. Luke's Gentile audience may not have been as shocked as Jewish Christians who heard this narrative.)

10:40 Martha approached Jesus so he could shame Mary into helping her. This way, Mary would return to her social role of servant, with the approval of the people around her.

10:42 "One (thing) is needed. For Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be lifted away from her." Jesus responded with a meal analogy. While Martha was frustrated with the burdens of service, Mary focused only on one thing, the teaching of the Lord. He likened her choice to choosing a portion at a meal. What she chose would not be taken from her. Implicitly, Jesus recognized her rightful place at the meal of the community.

What is more important when we welcome a guest: getting about the business of serving them, or seating down so we can listen to them?

In the gospel, Martha and Mary represented the two problems in welcoming people. Martha got busy serving her guest, while Mary simply wanted to listen. Harried with the work and frustrated with her sister's lack of help, Martha complained to Jesus. In response, Jesus told Martha to stop worrying and start listening. [10:40-42]

Jesus did not reject the need for serving others. Helping guests is the sign of a gracious host. What Jesus did insist upon was balance. There is a time to prepare for guests and there is a time to socialize with them. There is a time to serve and a time to listen.

The two gospel traditions presented Martha as a concerned friend of Jesus. But even her best intended worries got in the way of her faith. In our busy lives, we should take a hint from the passages above. Yes, there is a time for planning and working the plan. But we should never let the plan substitute for faith. Intentions do not replace relationships. Trust in the Lord trumps all other concerns.