When it comes to the three well-known siblings in Bethany, Martha always gets short shrift. Lazarus was the one with whom Jesus rested and dined. He was the one over whom Jesus wept and the one he raised from the dead. His sister, Mary, is known for sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to the gospel and for the lavish anointing of his head with costly spikenard. Martha, however, is rarely praised. In fact, most women are admonished not to be like her. She’s a frantic doer forever caught up in seemingly petty details. She’s a scrubber of floors, a washer of laundry, a server of food. In any sermon I’ve ever heard where she plays a part, she’s described in less-than-complimentary terms. Hence, I’ve always imagined her with strands of hair flying out of her mitpachat and flour on her sweaty, crimson face. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever written a book about having a Martha heart in a Mary world.
But I don’t think that’s fair. True, Martha doesn’t appear to be a contemplative soul. No, she’s a woman of action. She gets stuff done. And I think by examining what she does we can begin to see the surpassing excellence of this early disciple and perhaps learn from her example.
Rather than dwell on Luke 10:38-42, the story that is most often told of Martha, let’s look at John 11:1-44 when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Naturally, Lazarus is the human star of the show here. After all, he’s the one that comes walking out of the tomb wrapped in burial linens, but Martha shouldn’t be forgotten.
Despite her grief, she comes to meet Jesus while Mary remains in the house, and she makes four pretty amazing declarations:
- Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.
- I know that if you wish it, you can bring him back.
- Even if you don’t return him to me now, I still trust you because I know I’ll see him again at the resurrection of the saints.
- I believe you, Jesus, are the Son of God.
Those are some bold words, and—to my mind—a very courageous declaration of faith. Four days after burying her brother, after ninety-six grueling hours of mourning and all the work that comes with it, she stops. She wipes her tear-stained face, comes to meet Jesus, and asserts the truth she has learned from him.
In contrast, Mary waits at home, only rising to meet the Messiah when Martha returns and whispers, “The Teacher is calling for you.” Like her sister, she says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” and then she falls at Jesus’ feet in tears. She doesn’t make any statements like Martha. All she knows in this moment is grief, and judging by what Scripture says, she cannot see past it. She cannot fathom the possibility of resurrection or the life everlasting.
But Martha can. She knows it just like she knows how long to leave a loaf in the oven or the best way to mend a torn garment. Her words tell me as much. Now, ever the pragmatist, she worries about the stench that will come out of the tomb when the stone is rolled away, so we know her faith is still far from perfect. She believes Jesus can bring her brother back; she just doesn’t understand the particulars. And the particulars matter to her the same way they did to Thomas, Nicodemus, and Phillip. Those people—like some of us—long for evidence and explanation. We need to put our hands in his wounds. We come with our questions in the dead of night and strive to wrap our heads around the resurrection using what we know of biology. We beg Jesus to show us the Father. Our Savior understands this, and rather than withhold what we need or chastise us for it, he patiently waits while we touch and ask so that we may know.
I like Martha because, when it comes right down to it, I’m a lot like her. I work hard and accomplish much. Sometimes I don’t accept things on face value and have to learn them the hard way. And though my faith has come to me via a very circuitous route and doesn’t always look bright and shiny, it’s mine. I’m thankful she’s included in the Gospels because she, like so many people we meet in those pages, is real. And what she believes is, too.