31 Days of Women from Scripture
Lessons from Martha, the sister of Lazarus
Yesterday we studied about Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Today we will look at Martha.
References to Martha can be found in Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44; and John 12:1-8.
In Luke 10:38 it says, “Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcome Him into her home.” This is the first time Jesus meets this family. Jesus comes into Bethany and is welcomed by Martha and invited into her home.
This is the story that is most associated with Martha. Most women who have studied women studies and home-keeping are likely familiar with “Martha, Martha”. It says she is “distracted with all her preparations” (Lk. 10:40). I believe this is Martha’s “thing”; her gift. She is good at home keeping, serving others, and preparing meals. We see in John 12:2 that she was serving supper for Jesus, Lazarus, and others at Simon the leper’s house (Mt. 26:6-13). So, getting food for people when they are gathered, Martha does this well. Preparing food for visitors and friends is not in any way wrong. Abraham told Sarah to prepare food when the three men came to visit them (Gen. 18:6). Tamar, the king’s daughter, prepared food with her own hand for her supposedly ill brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13:8). Abigail saw to it that David and his men were fed (1 Sam. 25:18). The woman in Proverbs 31 sees to the feeding of her household, her servants, and cares for the needy (Prov. 31:15, 20). So, the preparations were not Martha’s problem.
The trouble was that she was so wrapped up in her work that she forgot about the important ONE thing that was necessary (Lk. 18:22; Eccl. 12:13). Mary was wrapped up in what Jesus was bringing to the people gathered in the house listening to Him. Martha was “worried and bothered”. She had the Lord sitting in her house. She had the Messiah teaching His word right there. Here was an opportunity to receive the “living water” (Jn. 4:9-14) from Christ Himself. He would not be here long, for He had other places to go to spread His teaching. Martha was missing it – and in that moment she was willing for Mary to miss it as well (Lk. 10:40). THIS was what Jesus pointed out was wrong. Martha was too focused on the worldly things in a moment when the spiritual things took precedence. Jesus did not even tell her to stop what she was doing. He told not to be worried and bothered, and to let Mary alone because she had her focus on something else. Sometimes, we need to remember that.
We learn more about Martha in John 11. Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, becomes ill. His illness is concerning enough that the women send a message to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness (Jn. 11:3). Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus – but He told His disciples that He was not going right away to see them. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been buried for four days. The family has been through Lazarus’ illness, his death, and his funeral. They are now mourning the loss of their brother with friends and family.
Martha learns that Jesus is on His way, and she does not wait for Him to get to the house. She runs out to meet Him without getting Mary. When Martha sees Jesus she expresses her certainty that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been there. And more than that she says, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (Jn. 11:22). Her faith in Jesus has not wavered despite His coming so long after they had sent for Him. Jesus reassured her that Lazarus will rise again. Martha agrees, thinking He means on the resurrection day. Jesus corrects her saying, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha then makes the same confession that Peter made – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Jn. 11:27; Mt. 16:16). Martha is not lacking in her knowledge or her faith!
Martha goes home and tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her too. Mary’s emotional state and the support of her friends moves Him to tears (Jn. 11:33, 35). He asks to see the tomb. Arriving at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus tells them to remove the stone. Martha speaks up saying that Lazarus has been dead for four days, so it is not going to be pleasant in the tomb (Jn. 11:39). Jesus reminds her of what He just told her that she would see. Jesus prays to God and Lazarus comes out of the tomb in all of his burial wrappings (Jn. 12:44). This made many of those who were there supporting Mary to believe in Jesus.
I mentioned yesterday that Mary and Martha were different. Mary was more spiritual and Martha more physical. Not in a negative or positive way. Just in the way they approach their day. I find it interesting that even though both women are mourning the loss of their brother – Martha is much more practical. She is not in tears when she speaks with Jesus. She is aware enough of her surroundings to pick up on the fact that people are saying He is in town and coming their way. Mary on the other hand, is emotional and in need of the support of many friends. Neither woman is wrong – they just process things differently. Mary’s deep emotional response moves Jesus to tears, while He had a deep conversation with Martha. The same is seen in John 12 when Mary anoints Jesus’ head and feet while Martha is again serving those gathered to see Jesus (Jn. 12:1-3).
I believe this difference in response is part of what Jesus was referencing when He corrected Martha at their first meeting (Lk. 10:38-42). He told her to stop worrying about those tasks. He also told her to let Mary alone about her not helping Martha. Not everyone is going to have the same needs we have at the same moment. We may all need to hear God’s word every day, no doubt (Prov 8:33-34; Ac. 17:11). But we do not all need to hear it the same way necessarily. Martha may have only needed to have Him there and to know He is teaching. But Mary needed more (1 Pet. 2:2).
The apostles were called to be with Jesus all of the time (Ac. 1:21-23) but not all who followed Jesus’ teachings felt it necessary to be with Him constantly. Jesus recognized them as still being His because they would not be able to perform the miracle without His allowing it (Mk. 9:38-41). They were teaching His will – they were just going about it differently than those who were with Jesus. Romans 14 teaches us how to deal with one another in regards to the things that God is not worried about because they are not doctrine. So long as what you do “to the Lord” is not then held over someone else as a requirement, in these things each is free to do as His conscience directs Him. Observe a day, don’t observe a day. It is when those things are made into doctrine by men that the problem arises (Mk. 7:6-8). We have to give one another room to do the right things, but each in His own way. Martha needed to let Mary get what she needed from Jesus’ teaching in that moment instead of worrying about the dishes.
In Revelation 2:1-7, Jesus tells the church in Ephesus that they have a problem – they have “left their first love”. They were doing plenty of righteous things (Rev. 2:2-3). But they had forgotten the WHY of doing those things. Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 that all of the spiritual activity in the world will do you no good if it is done without love. Wives are called to concern themselves with physical things (1 Cor. 7). An intense focus on spiritual things for a short period of time is permitted, but not to the detriment of the physical relationship in the marriage (1 Cor. 7:4-5). We are given work to do (Titus 2:4-5), but that work is to be done “so that the word of God will not be dishonored”. There are physical things we must worry about. We are supposed to work WHILE we wait for Jesus’ return (2 Thess. 3:6-13). We are to live a disciplined life that is always pointed towards His coming (Mt. 25:1-13). But we cannot allow the day-to-day of this life to interfere with our preparation and readiness for the NEXT life (Heb. 11). For just a moment, Martha allowed the trees to distract her from the forest beyond her. Her need in that moment was small compared to the bigger picture – Jesus’ bringing the gospel message (Rom. 16:25).
My encouragement to you is to be like Martha. She had a strong faith, was a kind woman, and showed a servant’s heart. I feel sure that these are the traits that drew Jesus to her and her siblings. We would do well to be like her. But we need to remember – in the moments when we are intense in our spiritual zeal, to remember that not all may be where we are or they may have something else that needs doing. Today while I focus on feeding on the Bread of Life another woman may need to be making the priority caring for her children and house. The day when my family life is struggling, the house has been neglected, and things need to be set right again – that may not be the moment to burden myself with an additional study or project that would take me away from home. We all have to make choices. Jesus understands. We need to give ourselves, and others, a little grace to make those decisions. The apostles made provision for both spiritual and physical needs to be met (Acts 6:1-6). Their job was to focus on the spiritual and not be distracted by caring for the physical things – but those physical things needed caring for. Different people were assigned to see to them. Each day may mean a different focus for you – but keep your OVERALL focus on HIM.