Martha and Mary of Bethany were leading members of a family who sponsored the travelling preacher and healer, Jesus of Nazareth. They seem to have been close friends with Jesus. Their house was near Jerusalem, and Jesus often stayed there.
Jesus said and did many things during the course of his life. Only a fraction of these are recorded in the gospels. So when we read the stories, we ask
These questions are especially important in the stories about Martha and Mary, because the early Christians were arguing about what a woman could and could not do.
The stories about Martha and Mary staked a claim for women: their testimony would be given equal weight with men's. This was important, since the first witnesses to the Resurrection had been women.
Two Sisters: Martha and Mary
The story of Martha
and Mary has three episodes:
2 Martha and Mary ask for Jesus’ help
3 Mary of Bethany anoint Jesus (John
* Go to Martha and Mary in the gospels for all these Bible texts.
They had a brother, Lazarus, who appeared in a story in John’s gospel. The three young people were friends of Jesus. They behaved with him in a natural way, speaking openly about what they thought. Jesus, who was quite capable of overwhelming people with his presence, was informal and easy in their company.
This was important for a man like Jesus. People who are held in high esteem, as Jesus was, are often isolated, even though they are at the center of the crowd.
Leonardo da Vinci captures this isolation in his painting of The
Last Supper: Jesus is sitting in the middle of a table with his
friends all around him, but he seems alone, as those dearest to him lean away
from him, separating themselves from him as they will do later, when he is
arrested and faces death.
We know little about the background of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They may have been well-to-do orphans who had the management of their own lives, since there is no mention of their parents. Moreover the eldest of the three, Martha, appeared to be in control of the household.
They seemed to be affluent. They had a house large enough to accommodate many people, as their hospitality to Jesus and his group of friends shows. They appeared to have no occupation. Mary could afford to buy a very expensive perfume called nard. It was a special gift, not an everyday item, but it showed they were people of means.
None of the three appeared to have a spouse. This was unusual in Jewish society, where people were usually married before the age of 20. This may mean that they were quite young, perhaps still in their teens, or that they were on the edge of society, and not acceptable in some way. In any case, they seem to have been young, comparatively well-off, independent, and intelligent.
The first story about them occurs in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus visited their house. Martha prepared food for the guests; Mary sat and
listened to Jesus.
‘Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Lord answered her “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by
many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better
part, which will not be taken away from her”.’
The two women had complementary personalities. Martha was a doer, a capable young woman who
organized and ran a fairly large household. Mary was a thinker, interested in ideas.
Several points emerge:
Lazarus was very ill, so Martha and Mary sent a message to Jesus, asking him to come. Jesus received the message, but put off coming for two days. In the meantime, Lazarus died of his illness.
As was the custom, a continual stream of friends and relatives came to comfort Martha and Mary, and to mourn for Lazarus.
After a funeral, the family of the dead person stayed at home for seven days, sitting barefoot on the floor or on a low bench. They did not wash themselves or their clothes, or do any work. They did not cook, but were given food by relatives. (See 'Major Events' for further information on death and burial in ancient Jewish culture.)
When Jesus eventually arrived, Lazarus had already been buried in the tomb for four days.
The length of time, four days, is important. It means that the custom of inspecting the body three days after burial, to make sure that the person was dead, had already been carried out.
So Lazarus was not merely unconscious, as modern skeptics suggest. This point is driven home by Martha in verse 39, when she
described the stench of the rotting body.
‘When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.
Martha said to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”. Jesus said to her “Your brother will rise again”. Martha said to him “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”.
Jesus said to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of
God, the one who is coming into the world”.’
Distraught, Martha reproached Jesus for being absent when he was needed. Modern interpretations of the New Testament assume that women at that time were down-trodden and docile, but Mary said what she needed to say.
But then as Martha continued talking, she named Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. This is the central moment of the story.
Martha said the same words that Peter said in Mark 8:29. On the strength of these words, Peter went on to become the first leader of the Christian community. The writer of John’s gospel suggests that Martha had an equal right to authority, because she had an equal understanding of who Jesus was.
John inserted the story into his gospel to stifle the argument that was raging in the Christian community. Since the day of Pentecost, when the Christian church began, women had been acting as deacons, preaching about Jesus and presiding over eucharistic meals.
But opposition had arisen because this did not mirror the position that women held in society at the time. By telling the stories about Martha and Mary, John showed that Jesus treated women as the equal of men, and implied that Christian practice should do the same.
After speaking with Jesus, Martha called Mary. Mary ran to Jesus, weeping with terrible grief, and Jesus was deeply upset by the sight of her pain.
Jesus went to the tomb, had the stone taken away from its entrance, prayed, and then called loudly to Lazarus. Lazarus appeared, alive, still wrapped in the linen strips of cloth used to cover his corpse.
Many Jews believed in Jesus after witnessing this event.
The term ‘the Jews’ is used in several ways in the gospels. In the story you have just read, John meant ‘the Jewish friends and relatives of the family’. Remember that Jesus and the people he knew were Jewish. At other times, when John spoke of ‘the Jews’, he meant any people with closed minds. People like this can be found in any nationality.
John was writing for a community of Jews who had moved away from traditional Judaism, so his portrayal of Jews often reflected the dislike this community felt for traditional Jews.
This was the week before his death. All his friends knew that Jesus was in grave danger. They did not want him to go anywhere near Jerusalem (see John 11:8 and 11:16). The house at Bethany was a safe place, a refuge.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus gave a dinner for Jesus and the people who were with him.
In was the custom when guests arrived for dinner to give them a refreshing foot bath. Then they either sat at a table, or lay propped up on couches surrounding a central food table.
People always ate from a communal center platter, which contained the main dish. There might be small side dishes. It was essential to wash themselves before eating, because they ate with their fingers from the one plate - knives and forks were not used, and food was scooped up with a piece of bread (see John 13:26).
Depending on the circumstances, women and men might share a meal, sitting
together. Because they prepared the food, women also brought the food to the
table, as Martha did in this story. Martha served at the meal.
of the dinner, as told by John, is set on a Sunday evening, when members
of the early Christian communities met to share a eucharistic celebration.
This was no accident. John, writing circa 100CE, used several levels of
meaning in the story. At the first level, Martha ‘served’ at the
During the meal, Mary took a container of oil of nard (oil extracted from a balsam tree), broke it, and anointed Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Then she wiped his feet with her hair.
Anointing with oil has always had deep religious significance. It is
performed at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a
symbolic action which announced that the person anointed was especially
favored by God. In the Old Testament, prophets anointed future kings, for
example, Samuel anointed the future King David.
Judas, a close friend of Jesus, objected to the waste of money. He reasoned that the money should be given to people in need - and of course he had a point. Judas was particularly aware of the value of money because he was the organizer of the group who traveled with Jesus, in charge of the money that they carried with them. He paid for food and lodging from the contributions that wealthy supporters gave Jesus.
In a bitter aside written long after Jesus' death, the writer of John’s gospel suggests that Judas was not honest in this task.
But Jesus defended Mary’s apparent extravagance. He knew he was in great danger, and that the path he meant to take might end in a terrible death.
Being fully human he could not see into the future - this is one of the great mysteries of Christian faith about which theologians ponder. He was both fully human like us and so could not know the future, but he was also God and thus all-knowing.
event, Jesus knew the
probable consequences of the actions he planned. He had many enemies who
would bring him down if they could.
Bible Study Resource, Martha
and Mary, New Testament Women: Two Sisters, friends and disciples of Jesus