A woman whom Jesus depended on for ministering, nurturing, hospitality, friendship, companionship, rest and respite. Understand what Jesus is saying, and not saying to his friend, since He is speaking to all women of the past, present and future, including you.
Martha has received quite a lot of criticism over the years, for every woman is told NOT to be like Martha, and consequently they heave upon themselves the burden of guilt and condemnation when they are. Do you look down on yourself because God gave you an action-oriented personality? Do you look at yourself with downcast eyes, murmuring with shame that you are just like “that Martha”? Many women do, and this is unfortunate.
For although Martha is the type-A personality that Jesus takes aside, gently chiding her to abide in Him first, before “doing” for His Kingdom, she is also highly prized for her gifts. Jesus does not condemn her actions. He merely corrects her selfish attitude. Jesus does not tell her to stop being hospitable, for He is at her house for EXACTLY this reason. Keep in mind that He has turned to her for a much-needed comfort and respite before the brutal week ahead of Him.
Martha’s service to Jesus is a pure blessing and act of obedience to Him. Jesus himself honors and esteems Martha by placing himself in Martha’s home, one that was the gold standard of Jewish hospitality. This shows just how much Jesus holds her in high regard, and Jesus’ opinion is not to be taken lightly.
Jesus also gently reminds Martha and us that while we may be the head of the household, we must never forget that He is Lord. Martha is a reminder that no matter how much we are in charge, we must also submit to God’s authority with a humble, serving heart.
So Jesus rearranges Martha’s priorities in a loving, straightforward way. Don’t overlook how much Jesus loves her, respects her, admires her, and depends on her. Jesus instructs her to put Him first. Does that mean Martha needed to stop being hospitable? Absolutely not. Does that mean she needed to stop cooking food for Jesus’ entourage of 70 disciples that accompanied him? That she was not appreciated? Quite the contrary. And if you regard Martha as a complaining, nagging, disrespectful host, you have missed Jesus’ whole point.
Don’t sell yourself short if you share Martha’s personality. There is nothing wrong with that. You are that “Martha” only in the sense if you are so busy doing things FOR God, you aren’t setting aside time WITH God. Jesus sees your gifts better than you do, and He has given you those gifts for a reason. Don’t look at your personality as a detriment; look at it as an asset, because that’s how Jesus sees Martha. And that’s how Jesus sees YOU.
And this is where Jesus seeks to prioritize your life: Start out your day by soaking in God’s Word. Pray with your Heavenly Father before you dig into God’s work. Abide in Him. Let your heart be touched by His gentle hand as He strokes your soul with His Spirit. Listen to Him, believe in Him, have faith in Him, trust Him, spend time with Him, worship Him, and love Him with your whole heart, soul and mind. Sit as a child at your Father’s feet, basking in His presence.
Once your priorities are aligned in Jesus, you should never feel guilty about being the “doer”. For you are expected to use the gifts that God has given you to further His Kingdom. To demean these gifts is an insult to God. If God has given you the type-A, “doer” mentality, then be who God has asked you to be. Display your gifts for all the world to see, for they are given to you by God for His glory.
Don’t bemoan the fact that you are that capable, efficient hostess at a moment’s notice. It’s perfectly ok to have a clean house, busy hands, and a dinner table that is always prepared for unexpected guests. Jesus certainly appreciated it; in fact, He depended on it. Be that commanding domestic servant, equally balanced with a loving, giving, generous spirit. Strive to be that Proverbs 31 woman. There is nothing wrong with this.
Martha is just as precious to Jesus as Mary was. Jesus knows Martha is a strong, albeit imperfect, woman of God. Jesus loves her unconditionally – faults and all – because He made her that way. Look closely at who Martha truly is through God’s eyes, and understand why God chose this interaction and relationship to be specifically recorded in the Bible.
In fact, there is a reason why Jesus shows up on Martha’s doorstep six days before the fated Passover, and the night before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus always has a plan and purpose for where He goes, when He goes, and what He does when He gets there. Martha is part of His master plan, and it’s because of who she is that endears her to the Lord and Savior. She is the head of a family that Jesus visits again and again and again. She is Jesus’ soft place to land.
So why Martha?
Martha is well-to-do and highly respected within her community. She lives in a big house in the heart of the city, where she entertains and ministers to dozens of people at a time. She has mounds of food at her fingertips, obtained in advance, which she prepares swiftly and easily for unannounced visitors. She runs her household like a queen, directing, ordering, organizing, cooking, cleaning, and serving. Martha selflessly blesses her community with her abundant gifts from God.
Martha is the poster for the oldest child syndrome. Of the three siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Martha is the oldest. And being the firstborn, she is a perfectionist; she enjoys making other people happy; she is highly motivated to achieve success; she takes on a leadership role; she is responsible; she feels jealous or neglected when younger siblings received attention; she is bossy; she is a rule-keeper; she is detail-oriented; she is highly organized; and, she is determined. And this firstborn status serves her well.
Martha is practical and logical, erstwhile being full of unyielding faith. When her brother Lazarus is dead, she outright tells Jesus that
“Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21)
Straight and to the point. Many scholars feel Martha says this with an accusatory tone, but really she is matter-of-fact, frustrated that her timetable was not met. She is a woman of action, and in her opinion, this action was delayed to her brother’s detriment. Martha is not exactly the most patient or tactful woman here, as most doers aren’t when it comes to their expectations of others. But Jesus doesn’t hold this against her, especially when you see what happens next.
How great is Martha’s faith in her Lord, knowing already that He can conquer death! And her subsequent statement is beautiful:
“Yes Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:27)
Rising above her impatience, and overwhelming grief for her brother, she boldy proclaims Christ as the Son of God. At this moment, Martha definitely has her priorities straight, for even in grief she has faith, trust and love in Jesus. And she demonstrates how we are to lean on our Lord in times of trouble.
Did you know that Martha is the daughter of a leper? In Matthew 6:6-13, Jesus is anointed by expensive, fragrant oil by Mary, in the house of Simon the Leper during the feast. Jesus had specifically arrived at Simon’s house for several reasons, and this is one of them: to be anointed by Mary before His week of sorrows was to begin. (Matthew 6:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8) There are many scholars who debate whether the woman who anointed Jesus was Mary- Martha’s sister- or Mary Magdalene. In either case, the feast was held at Martha’s house, which belonged to Simon the Leper.
How shameful to be the daughter of an outcast, with accusing eyes of shame pointed directly at her family. Yet Martha did not let this stop her. She courageously rose above her circumstances, taking over when her father was physically and morally unable: giving herself the title of nursemaid and figurative head-of-household. In time, the shame of her father’s disgraceful disease was washed away by Jesus’ miraculous healing. And Martha had a front row seat to the power of the Great Physician.
Martha’s house is in Bethany, a flourishing, bustling community approximately two miles outside of Jerusalem: a place where Martha used her gift of service and hospitality to minister to the sick, leprous, and dying. A little known fact is that Bethany was a mini-quarantine hospital area for the Essenes – a strict, monastic Jewish sect that lived directly outside of the city. Martha of Bethany would accordingly house the lepers, the unclean, and be the “outside” area of Jerusalem where they could purify themselves before entering the gates of the ‘City of David’.
Mary of Bethany also provided lodging for Jewish travelers during their yearly Passover pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem. Bethany was a veritable tourist town where Jews could eat, sleep, rest, cleanse, and prepare their hearts for the yearly holiday feast. And Martha’s Big House would be the virtual centerpiece of godly Jewish hospitality, a magnet for boarders and guests alike. Martha’s house quite likely also provided rooms for Jesus’ mother Mary and family during their yearly visits to Jerusalem. It’s no wonder that Jesus would return here the night before His betrayal, trial, and crucifixion was about to begin.
Bethany, too, was where Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was brought up by the Essenes. When Zechariah brought his son John to be dedicated, named and circumcised in the Temple in Jerusalem when John was eight days old, he is never heard from again. Zechariah is either taken captive or executed by the Romans under the edict of King Herod, who was killing all boys 2 years of age and younger, hoping one of the dead will be next King of the Jews. Widowed, Zechariah’s 60-year-old wife Elizabeth flees with their son to the outside gates, and ultimately has him raised by the Essenes.
According to Josephus, there were three distinct groups of Essenes. The group sympathetic to Jewish orphan boys brought up John, raising him under strict Jewish law. Elizabeth was old, she was poor, and she was widowed. The Essenes shelter John, enforce John’s Nazarene vow, and instruct him in the Tanakh, the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It is here that John blossoms into becoming the mouthpiece of prophecy, proclaiming baptism and repentance before the coming of the Savior.
Accordingly, Martha develops a close friendship with Jesus, his family, and John the Baptist long before Jesus’ historic last night in Bethany. Martha constantly saw Jesus and John together as young boys, especially when Mary, Jesus’ mother, would travel 120 miles from Nazareth on foot to arrive in Jerusalem every year for Passover.
And Lazarus, Martha’s younger brother, lived in Martha’s Big House in Bethany. He frequented the Jerusalem Temple, and was most assuredly in Jesus’ tight circle of friends. Jesus and Martha’s close, familial friendship was therefore cemented long before His ministry even began.
Is it any wonder, then, that Lazarus is the reason why Jesus wept? And why Martha felt completely comfortable in boldly confronting Jesus when He arrived too late to save Lazarus from death? Why Martha is comfortable in telling Jesus to make Mary help her? Martha is thrust into the big-sister, head-of-household, caretaker, and grieving mode all at the same time.
And yet Martha knew that Jesus loved her. In John’s Gospel, he writes very specifically that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:5) Martha enjoyed the freedom to boldly approach Jesus just as you can boldly approach God when you need His comfort, His shoulder, and His wisdom.
Notice that Jesus does not take offense at Martha’s direct words or actions, for they shared that kind of relationship. Their interaction symbolizes the close, intimate relationship that God wants to have with you. You may laugh at Martha’s boldness, shake your head at her audacity, and cringe at her seeming lack of respect to God Almighty. But Jesus doesn’t get upset like you think He ought. In fact, He responds with loving kindness and empathy in return. Understand that God wants you to approach Him, and desires for you to have that kind of close, intimate relationship with Him.
Hebrews 4:16 make this abundantly clear when it says:
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (NKJV)
And while at that throne of grace, Martha makes an outstanding, clear declaration of faith, proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ.
“Yes Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:27)
Martha does not deny Jesus as His family does in Nazareth, And in return, Jesus gives Martha the miraculous gift of witnessing her brother’s resurrection. We see Jesus’ miracle through her eyes, through her tears, and through her rejoicing. We see how much this family means to Jesus personally, and how much Martha’s family serves the purpose of His ministry.
Martha was even the sister of the first woman disciple of Jesus. Mary, her younger sister, was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil. Martha’s sister broke new ground and opened the door for all women to be counted as followers of Christ. Martha’s sister exhibited the foundational relationship to God, by abiding in Him, soaking in His word and presence, and throwing off worldly business to focus on God and God alone.
Yet poor Martha misreads the situation, and is mortified that her sister is sitting at the feet of the Rabbi, a right reserved only for male students. Martha, quite understandably, is afraid that her guests will be offended by this outrageous breach of protocol. She is the host, and is tremendously embarrassed by her sister’s lack of social etiquette, which would explain her unseemly outburst.
Jesus, though, enjoyed turning Jewish customs on their head. He chose this specific family to begin a ministry for women. He chose Mary to demonstrate that it was acceptable for women to be students, followers, and disciples of Christ.
And think about this: if it wasn’t for Martha’s taking care of all the household duties, Mary would not have been free to do just that. Being a doer, and taking care of business effectively freed up others to focus on Jesus without distraction. Understand where Martha is coming from: Martha isn’t the kind of woman who would take a backseat to anyone, least of all her little sister. Martha is used to being the one in charge, and getting things done. Frankly, Martha is frustrated when she is saddled with the extra work her sister has left her with, and we empathize with Martha’s impatience and resentment bursting forth in a jealous temper tantrum in front of Jesus:
“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
And Jesus replies:
“You are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Jesus gently chides Martha, as He gently chides you when you have tunnel-vision in your service to God. This is not a bad thing as Jesus reminds us to prioritize what’s important. If it weren’t for Martha, we wouldn’t have been given Jesus’ direction to focus on Him, above and beyond our daily business. Martha is instrumental in delivering Jesus’ message to us through her gifts of hospitality and “doer” personality.
Peter also was the doer; John was the disciple who laid at Jesus’ feet. Both were instrumental to His ministry. Yet Peter was the rock upon whom Jesus built His church. So if you think you are “that Martha,” remember that Jesus holds you in the highest esteem. Use the gifts He has given you for the glory of His Kingdom, and know that Jesus loves you just as you are.
Don’t be afraid to be that Martha. Be the kind of person that Jesus has a close relationship with. Be that woman who is highly regarded in her community. Be that rock on whom people can depend. Be that woman who ministers to the needs of others. Be that busy woman who works for the glory of God’s Kingdom. Be that woman who serves her family. Be that woman whom Jesus would want to visit. Be that woman who has unflinching faith in His Majesty. Be that woman for whom Jesus will perform miraculous healing. Be that woman who boldy approaches Christ’s throne of grace. Be that woman who knows that Jesus is God.
Just don’t forget to lay at His feet, and understand that He is your first priority. He is the One you are doing all of this for. Love Jesus with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbors as yourself.
Josephus, Jewish War 5.145
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.20. Philo, Quod omnis homo probus liber sit 75. Philo, Apologia pro Judaeis 1.