You’ll occasionally come across posts asking you whether you’re a Mary or a Martha. Or sometimes they’ll even say “Don’t be a Martha”. These usually compare the two sisters found in Luke 10:38-42 and the way they interacted with Jesus.
Mary is typically seen as a model of quiet contemplation and humility. She is always presented as the one who chose what was better, because she sat at the Lord’s feet while Martha rushed around trying to get things prepared. This is a typical Sunday school approach.
While it’s true that we do need to rest in God’s presence and be still, sometimes we can get the wrong impression that Martha is without merit. It can seem as if she is completely task orientated and spends no time with the Lord herself. She has almost become an example of what not to do.
We can begin to ask each other questions like “Do you know a Martha in your life? Someone who is a busy body and gets distracted serving the Lord instead of being in his presence?”
It’s easy to begin to look at everything Martha did in a negative light. We allow our perception of her from that one story in Luke’s gospel to colour our overall impression of her and begin putting our own interpretation on the text.
I’d like us to look at Martha in a new light.
3 reasons why it’s good to be a Martha as well as a Mary
Whether you’re a man or a woman, here are 3 qualities we find in Martha. There are actually more, but I want to focus on these ones. These demonstrate her love and devotion and make her just as much of an example for us to imitate as Mary.
1. Martha has a servant heart
Author Gary Chapman explains in his book The 5 Love Languages how each person has a different love language. By this he means that we have 5 different ways that we all express and experience love. These are quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service and giving gifts. None are necessarily inferior or superior to each other. They are all equally valid and needed.
Martha had a servant heart, and her love language was acts of service. It’s not that Martha loved Jesus any less than Mary. She just had a different way of expressing that love. Mary’s love language, on the other hand, was spending quality time with others. She simply chose to enjoy Jesus’ company and sit with Him.
It’s likely Martha would’ve been the first one to get involved and make others feel welcomed. She had the gift of hospitality and was a great host, but sometimes she could become overly concerned with the finer details. Perhaps she felt she had to make sure everything was just right.
There’s a time and a place for doing things for Jesus. However, it’s easy to allow those to take you away from simply being with him and enjoying his company. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly identify with Martha. I’m sure many others can too.
Notice that in Luke 10:40 it isn’t Jesus who first chides Martha for being distracted. He doesn’t say “Martha. Stop running around serving and come and sit here with me like your sister.”
It is only when Martha raises the issue with Jesus that she is busy serving and expresses her frustration that Mary isn’t helping her that Jesus responds. Martha says to Jesus “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me”.
However, we encounter Martha in a separate story in John 12:1-8. This is when Jesus is having a meal at Lazarus’s house, after having recently raised him from the dead. John tells us in verse 2:
Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
If you notice, Martha is serving again, and seems to be the only one doing so. Lazarus is reclining with Jesus, while Mary anoints Jesus with perfume.
Martha’s attitude is different here to in Luke 10:38-42. She doesn’t seem bothered that she is doing all the work. Martha doesn’t say to Jesus “Don’t you care that my brother and sister have left me to do all the work by myself? Tell them to help me.”
Instead, she is quite content to let Mary to anoint Jesus or allow Lazarus to sit in His presence. Similarly, Jesus is content to allow her to serve and doesn’t tell her not to be distracted.
Serving isn’t a bad thing in itself. In John 13:1-17, Jesus calls his disciples and each one of us to serve. He washes his disciples’ feet and sets this as an example of servant leadership for each one of us to follow.
In fact, Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet seems to almost be the combination of both love languages of Martha and Mary. It involves humble service like Martha, but also taking that position of being at someone’s feet like Mary.
We do need to find that balance between serving and spending time in God’s presence. When we serve, we don’t want to become so occupied with it that we make it our identity. Equally, we don’t want to become so heavenly minded that we fail to be of any earthly good to others, Jesus had the right balance during His earthly ministry, and that is the example we must follow.
2. Martha has hope in the face of despair
John 11:1-3 reads as follows:
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord the one you love is sick.'” (NIV)
By verse 17, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.
In John 11:23, Martha says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. At first she simply assumes He is referring to a distant, eventual hope. However, He replies in verses 25-26:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
Jesus is indicating that the resurrection isn’t some far-off event in the future. As far as He is concerned, it’s happening here and now the moment a person believes. He then asks Martha if she believes this.
If you compare verse 32, you’ll see that Mary also says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. But here, Jesus doesn’t state again that He’s the resurrection and the life or ask if Mary believes this like He did with Martha.
Now we must be careful not to put Mary on a pedestal while making Martha out to be always getting everything wrong.
In John 11:20, Martha goes out to meet Jesus while Mary stays at home. We don’t know why Mary remained behind. Was she simply choosing what was better here and resting quietly in faith in the Lord’s presence? It would be easy to put that spin on it if you were to interpret everything Mary does positively while everything Martha does negatively.
I’ve discussed here in this post on using Bloom’s Taxonomy questioning skills for our Bible studies how we mustn’t read our own biases or assumptions into the text when we do proper exegesis.
It could also be that Mary was overcome with grief at the time while Martha went out to wrestle with Jesus and come boldly with her concerns.
Similarly, we could simply assume that that Jesus doesn’t need to ask Mary if she believes he is the resurrection and the life because Mary knows this already while Martha isn’t quite there yet. Perhaps Jesus needs to hold Martha’s hand through it a bit more, whereas Mary simply accepts it on faith, which is why he doesn’t ask her the same question.
But that’s not what is happening here.
Jesus not asking Mary the same question is not automatically evidence of her belief or ability to accept things on faith without question.
When Mary says in verse 32 “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she stops there. It is possible that she’s saying this with more finality and resignation. Admittedly, she does fall at his feet, which could sometimes be considered an act of worship. However, we’re not sure if that is what she’s doing here, or whether she’s falling to his feet in grief.
On the other hand, Martha’s statement contains more hope. She adds “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Did she expect that Jesus might perform a miracle, while Mary remained in despair?
Sometimes we’re facing impossible circumstances where there seems to be no hope. Like Martha, we must also go out to meet Jesus like she did in John 11:20. And in doing so, we must have that hope that He can still work in the situation.
3. Martha recognises Jesus’ divine status
Perhaps the reason Jesus goes further with Martha than with Mary is because Jesus senses that hope within her. Building on that, He uses it as an opportunity to draw Martha into a deeper place and come to a recognition of something special.
When Jesus asks if her believes He is the resurrection and the life, she replies in verse 27:
“Yes Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is come into the world.”
At first glance, this could seem as if she’s deflecting and making an impersonal statement about Jesus instead of replying simply that she does believe. However, Martha isn’t simply responding in a non-committal way.
Her words are in fact a bold declaration of faith which echoes Peter’s declaration in Matthew 16:13-18. In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples who they say He is. In verse 16, Peter replies:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In John’s Gospel, the evangelist often uses the phrase “the world” to distinguish it from Jesus’ divine origin. For example, in John 3:16, he writes:
“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
When Martha uses the phrase “who is come into the world”, this indicates that she recognises His heavenly status. She has seen that He is the Son of God himself.
As biblical scholar, theologian and professor John Marsh says in his commentary on John,
“Martha’s reply seems at first sight to be off the mark; but a closer examination shows that it is not. Martha has perceived that what Jesus has said is not a series of two propositions about living and dead men, but rather a statement about himself as the real life of all who love and believe in him. So her answer when it comes is not in the form of assent to the propositions stated, but a confession of her belief in the Lord’s special relationship to the Father… Martha had been prepared for a right understanding of the last and greatest sign.”
Martha’s reply then, is not a sign of her unbelief. On the contrary, it is a sign of her belief and recognition. Like Simon Peter, she recognises that Jesus is the Messiah.
In effect, she is not simply replying “Yes, I believe this will happen” (in response to Jesus saying He is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in him will not die). Instead, she is going beyond that and saying “I believe in who you are, not what just what you can do.”
She recognises him as not just a miracle worker, but the Son of God Himself.
Are we able to be like Martha, who not only believes in what Jesus can do but in who He is?
Martha is actually a lovely character in the Gospels, and someone we often overlook.
Most of us are more like Martha than Mary, whether you’re female or male. And that’s part of what makes her relatable. She’s not simply this proverbial busybody caricature who always has her priorities wrong and with whom everyone gets annoyed. Martha is most of us as we engage with our busy lifestyles. She’s just as much the everywoman or everyman as us who experiences life’s frustrations and wrestles with God.
Yes, in Luke 10:38-42, Mary did ultimately choose what was better. But does that mean she always did the right thing? Or was it in that particular instance? Let’s not put Mary on a pedestal. And let’s not dismiss Martha as someone who can’t teach us anything by her example as well. Sometimes it’s good to be a Martha as well as a Mary.
You can be both, just as Jesus Himself embodied both qualities. He was a servant who washed his disciples feet, and one who chose to be in His Father’s presence.
Are you more of a Martha or a Mary? Or a combination of both? Did you know you can be both?
Have you tended to view Martha negatively because of that one story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s gospel where she’s rushing around? If so, are you surprised to learn of her positive qualities?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.
This Post Has 8 Comments
Andrew @ TheRoadToEmmaus.ca10 Oct 2018
Hi Robert! I love this. Recently I brought this up at a Bible Study. In Luke 10:34 we learn that Martha was the one that invited Jesus into her home in the first place! Without her He wouldn’t have been there. That made me think “Martha can’t be all that bad, can she?” I love the points you’ve brought up above which further expand on the positive aspects of Martha’s life and character. God bless you!
Robert Sang10 Oct 2018
Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed this. That’s a good point. Martha seemed to be someone who did a lot of the organising, and we need those kinds of people in church just as much. I even wonder sometimes whether she was actually responsible for sending word to Jesus that her brother Lazarus was sick, even though in John 11:3 it says that both sisters sent word. You know how sometimes people say “this is from both of us” when in fact it was mostly one person who did all the organising? That’s what I have wondered about that passage. It would not seem implausible at all that it could’ve happened that way.
Diane@worthbeyondrubies11 Oct 2018
I love this! We so often hear about Mary but there is just as much to be gained from Martha’s example of hospitality and service!! What a great post!!
Robert Sang11 Oct 2018
Thanks very much for commenting. Martha is a great character when we take the time to explore her and don’t let our biases affect our view of her.
Karen Rhodes12 Oct 2018
For years I felt that because I was more like Martha, I was not a very good Christian. But every time I take the spiritual gifts survey, service is my greatest gift. Who am I to argue with the Holy Spirit? I will say, however, that I struggle with spending quality time with the Lord, but I’m working on it. I was challenged recently by a book I read, “Nourishing the Soul” by Deborah Haddix. We all make sure our bodies are nourished, but what of our souls? That was very convicting, and now I’m working through the book, which gives practical help to those of us who need to focus more on our relationship with God. We need the best qualities of both Mary & Martha! Thanks for sharing this!
Robert Sang13 Oct 2018
Thanks for stopping by to comment and sharing your own struggles. It’s great to hear how God has challenged you in different areas. That book sounds interesting too. I’ll have to check it out.
Shaneen7 Nov 2018
I love this “defense of Martha”! I just recently did a study on that John 11 story. It was basically about how, to God, letting Lazarus live wasn’t as important as Martha’s belief. I love Jesus’ relationship with all of the Bethany family, and they’re all important to learn from.
Robert Sang11 Nov 2018
Thanks for commenting. That’s great to hear that you’ve been studying that chapter. There are some great teaching instances from Jesus’ friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Sometimes I wish they showed up more in the gospels.