Mary and Martha
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on Women of the Bible continues this morning with another pair of women. If you’ll recall, two weeks ago, we heard about Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. Last week, we heard about Naomi and Ruth, a mother and her daughter-in-law. This morning, we shift to the New Testament to hear about two sisters – Mary and Martha – who, very likely, were among Jesus’ closest friends.
According to scripture, Mary and Martha lived with their brother, Lazarus, in the village of Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives. You may remember, it was Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead. In telling the story of the raising of Lazarus, John says that Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, saying, ” Lord, behold, he for whom you have great affection is sick.” (John 11:3) Obviously, Jesus had a special place in his heart for Lazarus. John goes on to say, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” (John 11:5)
Looking more closely at the gospels, we find that Jesus and his disciples often stayed in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus when they came to Jerusalem. My friend, Rob Craig, describes their home as Jesus’ spiritual hangout, a place where he could kick back and relax and be among friends.
Mary and Martha played a special role in the life of Jesus. What’s interesting about them is that they were so different from each other; yet, from every indication, Jesus loved them both the same.
And this is my thesis in the sermon today, that God’s love is more inclusive than we can ever imagine, that no matter how strange and different and out of synch you think you are – or you think your neighbor is – there’s a place in God’s family for you. As Jesus told his disciples,
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet,
that was cast into the sea,
and gathered some fish of every kind…” (Matthew 13:47)
Or, as Charles Wesley wrote,
“Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
immense and unconfined,
From age to age it never ends,
it reaches all mankind.”
(The Book of Hymns, UMC, p. 130)
As we listen to the way Mary and Martha are described in the Bible, I’d like for you to think about all the Marys and Marthas you’ve known over the years, and all those who, perhaps like you, fall somewhere in between, and rejoice in the fact that each is precious in the sight of God.
So, what do we know about Mary and Martha? They first appear in this passage from Luke’s gospel I just read. It begins, “It happened as they went on their way, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.” (Luke 10:38)
As I said, Jesus and his disciples often stayed in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus when they came to Jerusalem. Yet, Luke is clear to say that, “Martha received him into her house.” (Luke 10:38) What does that tell you about Martha? I take it to mean, first of all, that she was the oldest of the three. I also take it to mean that she was the one who was in charge. You’ll be interested to know that the name, Martha, means, “lady of the house.” As for Mary, Luke simply tells us that Martha, “…had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (39)
From the outset, the picture we get of these two women is that of an older sister who was quick to assume responsibility and do what needed to be done, and a younger sister who was comfortable deferring to authority and letting others carry the load. Martha was pragmatic and concerned about the details. Mary was idealistic and had her head in the clouds. Martha was a doer. She liked to stay busy. She expressed herself by doing things for others. Mary, on the other hand, was content simply to be. She was thoughtful and contemplative. She expressed herself by her willingness to sit and listen and give another person her full and undivided attention.
Well, as you might imagine, this proved to be a source of contention between the two women.
According to Luke,
“But Martha was distracted with much serving,
and she came up to him,
and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care
that my sister left me to serve alone?
Ask her therefore to help me.'” (40)
Have you ever taken a Myers-Briggs test? It’s an instrument counselors use to get a handle on identifying personality traits. For example, some of us are extroverted. We draw our strength from outside of ourselves. At the same time, some of us are introverted. We draw our strength from within. Here’s a little test: When there’s a crisis, do you pick up the phone and call your friends and family, or do you go off somewhere to be by yourself? When things go awry, an extrovert tends to get into high gear; an introvert tends to hunker down.
The story is told of two guys talking about conflict in marriage. One said to the other, “When my wife and I have a fight, she always comes crawling to me on her knees.” His buddy gave him a doubtful look. “It’s true,” he said, “Whenever we have a big argument, I’ll go hide under the bed, and she’ll get down on her knees and say, “Come out from under there and fight like a man!”
Another personality trait is this: Some of us rely on sensations – i.e., facts and figures – while others are more intuitive, innovative and feel comfortable writing their own script. They’re the type who’re apt to say, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind’s made up.”
Some of us are predominantly thinking types, systematic and analytical, while some of us are predominantly feeling types, empathetic and emotional, and, lastly, some of us prefer to get things resolved and brought to a close, while some of us prefer to keep things open-ended, fluid and subject to change.
The point is, God created us individually and uniquely and gave us a variety of ways to live out our lives. The challenge is to celebrate our differences and recognize the fact that we don’t all think and act alike. Mary and Martha were as different as night and day, yet, they loved Jesus with all their heart, and he loved them in return.
We see this played out in the story of the raising of Lazarus. According to John, Lazarus became seriously ill, and so, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus. He’d healed others; perhaps he could save their brother. As it happened, Jesus and his disciples were camping on the Jordan River, north of Jericho, near the spot where he’d been baptized. So, Mary and Martha sent word for him to come at once. But it was a two-day journey to Bethany, and they didn’t leave until the next day. By the time they got there, Lazarus was dead. John says, “Then when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary stayed in the house.” (John 11:20)
Again, we see the differences in their personalities. Martha was impulsive and quick to act. Mary was pensive and content to wait her turn. As John tells the story, “Therefore Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.'” (John 11:21)
Can’t you just hear the anger in Martha’s tone of voice? “If only you’d been here …” as if to say, “What took you so long? It’s all your fault!” If the tables had been turned, and it had been Jesus who’d sent for Martha, you’d better believe she would’ve gotten there quicker. She would’ve left right away. She wouldn’t have stopped to rest. And when she got there, she’d take charge, do something, make it right.
After Martha spoke to Jesus, she sent for Mary. When Mary got there, she fell at his feet and said essentially the same thing: “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:32). Yet, coming from Mary, we hear a different tone – not so much anger, as sadness and resignation. This is seen in the fact that she began to cry.
And when Jesus saw her crying, he was so touched by her grief that he began to cry with her. This is where we get the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) He wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus, but, as importantly, he wept in sympathy with his friend, Mary. When he regained his composure, he ordered the stone sealing the tomb to be rolled back. He prayed to God and called with a loud voice,“Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) And, to the amazement of all, Lazarus came out of the tomb, bandaged from head to toe, and Jesus said, “Free him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
It was to be Jesus’ last miracle. If you’ll remember, his first miracle was when he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. (John 2:1ff) That was prompted by his mother, Mary. How fitting, and, perhaps, ironic, that his last miracle was also prompted by a woman named Mary, and by her tears, that so moved Jesus as to unleash his divine power and bring her brother back to life. Mary had a special gift of quiet love and devotion that brought out the best in others.
As for Martha, Martha had the gift of hospitality that set others at ease. In the text this morning, Luke says, ” Martha received him into her house.” On another occasion, we’re told that ” Jesus came to Bethany… they made him a supper there. Martha served…” (John 12:1-2)
Hospitality is one of the oldest and most time-honored of all gifts. Did you know that, in the early days, hospitals were actually wayside inns in which weary travelers could find food and lodging and refreshment from their journey? They were called hospitals because their primary purpose was to provide hospitality. This whole business of treating wounds arose out of necessity as guests came into the hospital bruised and scarred by the rigors of their travels.
The hospice movement inspired by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in Great Britain started off – and continues to this day – as an effort to recapture the spirit of hospitality by giving the terminally ill a comfortable and caring home in which to live out their final days.
Martha had the gift of hospitality. She opened her home to Jesus. She nurtured him with food from her kitchen. She gave him a place to get away from the pressing crowds and to escape the hostility of religious leaders.
I had hoped to include in this series a sermon on Lydia. She’s the woman we read about in the Book of Acts, who Paul met in Philippi. She was with a group of women Paul found down by the river praying and worshiping God. He preached to them, and Lydia accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and was baptized and, in response, she said to Paul and the men traveling with him, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and stay.” And they did. (Acts 16:11-15) As it turns out, Lydia goes on to play a vital part in the success of Paul’s ministry in Asia Minor.
Hospitality is a wonderful gift, and, when offered in the name of Jesus Christ, it’s every bit as important as the ability to sing or play an instrument or teach a Sunday school class or preach a sermon. Hospitality is the staple of Christian discipleship.
You’ve heard this before. Three women were killed in an accident on their way to a prayer meeting. They reached the Pearly Gates together and, one by one, they stood before St. Peter. St. Peter asked the first woman, “Were you a Christian on earth?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I was a Roman Catholic – here are my rosary beads.” St. Peter looked at her beads, how worn they were, and said, “Oh, my. Welcome to God’s heavenly kingdom.” Then he turned to the second woman and asked, “Were you a Christian on earth?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I was a Southern Baptist – here’s my Bible.” St. Peter looked at her Bible, how worn it was, and said, “Oh, my. Welcome to God’s heavenly kingdom.” Then he turned to the third woman and asked, “Were you a Christian on earth?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I was a Presbyterian – see, here’s my casserole!”
All kidding aside, the meals you share with those who are sick and in grief; the visits you make to the homebound and elderly; the extra effort you put into welcoming visitors and helping them become part of our family of faith is as pleasing to God and important to the mission of Christ’s kingdom on earth as anything anyone could possible say or do. Hospitality is a precious commodity. It’s the staple of Christian discipleship.
Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. She served him from her kitchen. By contrast, Mary sat at his feet and held on to his every word. According to John’s gospel, she was the woman who anointed Jesus with costly ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. (John 12:3)
And this is where I’d like to close the sermon today, to recognize that, while Mary and Martha were as different as night and day, Jesus made a place for each of them in his heart. I like to think that, as different as we are, God makes a special place for each of us in his kingdom and calls us to share the Good News of his love with others.
I like the way John Ernest Bode put this in a prayer. He said,
“O Jesus, thou hast promised
to all who follow thee,
that where thou art in glory
there shall thy servant be.
And, Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end,
O give me grace to follow,
my master and my friend.”
(Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 388)
Copyright 2003, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.