Few biblical women stir as much controversy as Martha of Bethany.
For many people, Martha is a warning, a sort of spiritual boogeyman intended to guilt you into being a better person. For others, Martha is a thankless heroine, a paragon of womanhood and a tough-as-nails leader who isn’t afraid to get the job done. We tend to highlight Martha’s shortcomings or her strengths, but both emphases fail to paint an accurate portrait of what Scripture reveals to us.
There are two main accounts of Martha in the Bible, and each one gives us a unique insight into who she actually was. The first one is a mere five verses:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And 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’ (John 11:38-42).
This account has been used as a warning to good Christian girls who are striving to be Proverbs 31 women. The takeaway, many claim, is to be Mary, not Martha. Nobody wants to be Martha. Nobody wants to be rebuked by Jesus for having her priorities screwed up. For goodness’ sake, girl, get your mind off the earthly distractions and onto heavenly priorities. Stop being so particular. Stop being so busy and frenetic and start making time for Jesus.
The problem with this view is that it simultaneously elevates and diminishes Martha’s importance. Viewing this account as a warning to “not let this happen to you” raises Martha to the role of the main character. Her downfall is the focus, and her reaction is the one that is highlighted and warned against.
However, in this account, the focus is actually not on Martha’s weakness but on Christ’s strength. Jesus answers Martha in love, offering her the same eternal rest that he offered to Mary and to his disciples. All of Scripture points to Christ as the one thing needful, the only answer to our pain, our sin, and our death. In this account we see Christ offer himself as the one thing necessary, the Bread from Heaven who serves himself to us as “the strength of [our] heart[s] and [our] portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). In the light of the Son, we see not the endless striving to create our own peace but Jesus himself as our peace, our only source of reconciliation with the Father – not an earthly calm or cessation from our busy lives, but the fact that because Jesus has forgiven our sins we are able to approach the Father through him.
On the other hand, in recent times some commentators have agreed that we have been too hard on Martha. A quick internet search reveals several recent lists of “good women of the Bible” that include Martha, and even a few books sing her praises and hold her up as a hardworking woman who is doing the best she can. Unfortunately, these interpretations tend to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction based on a misunderstanding of the second account that Scripture records.
This account starts off on a very different note: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha...So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’” (John 11:1,3).
Another request, this time not for help convincing a sister to do her fair share, but to heal a brother. Commentators point out that once again, Martha is petitioning the only one who can truly help her. It certainly displays that she trusts in Jesus as her help and her salvation. However, as we read further into the account, we discover that Jesus does not immediately go to Bethany. He waits, and waits, and waits until we read in verse 17, “Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.”
No longer is the main concern who is setting the table or scrambling to find food for a house full of guests. Nor is the concern even the suffering that a loved one is experiencing. “So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (John 11:20-21)
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
As I was writing this article, those words repeated over and over in my head like a church bell. I grew tired of counting the tolls, knowing that each one was a death-knell that marked the earthly departure of someone I loved, an occurrence that has too frequently shaken my world in recent times. That verse haunted me because in it I heard my own accusation: if he had been here, my life would be different. I thought I could hear the tone of Martha’s voice, her utter confusion at Jesus’ seeming disregard for her earlier message for help.
If you had been here. How many times have I thought that over the past months? Why weren’t you there, Lord? Why weren’t you there when my loved one suffered and died? Why weren’t you there when I was overwhelmed with just trying to get through each day? Why did you ignore my plea for help?
Trying to read Martha as either the villain or the heroine misses the point. Death, as they say, is the great leveller: not only when it comes to our own mortality, but when we are brutally confronted with the deaths of those we love the most. If the accounts of Martha are only models for our behavior, we are crushed either by the weight of what we should be doing but aren’t (single-mindedly focusing on God as our only refuge in trouble), or what are doing but shouldn’t be (allowing the cares of this life to interfere with our relationship with Christ).
Those who have wept at the graves of loved ones feel the unbearable weight of Martha’s words. Those who are brought up short by their own sins don’t need another flannel board Bible story telling them how to be a better person.
Those who feel the oppression of sin and death need life.
The account continues,
[Martha said,] “‘But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’” (John 11:23-25).
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
I paused and reread that verse once, twice, three times. Martha has certainty in the promise of the resurrection. She believes that she will see her brother again. My mind’s eye flashed back to funerals where I had been advised by well-meaning friends to “not cry” because my loved one “is with Jesus.” In Martha’s account, I heard the reply I wanted so desperately to make:
And I am shattered anyway.
Martha’s pain is not met by a to-do list. Jesus’ reply is not that she should try harder or change her behavior. He doesn’t say, “Well, if you’d only made time for me earlier, you wouldn’t feel so distant from me now,” or, “Stop crying, we all know this world isn’t the be-all, end-all anyway,” or even “You clearly just need to try harder to believe in me.” Instead, we read, “Jesus said to her, ‘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?’” (John 11:25-26).