In this next-to-the-last chapter in our series of women of purpose in the Bible, I want to look at two sisters who broke all the stereotypes of how women in Israel were expected to act and relate to the Lord. Their names were Mary and Martha and their brother was Lazarus. Neither appears to have been married or a mother of children, but they kept a home with their brother a few miles from Jerusalem. There are three stories that involve the sisters, so let's look at those stories to see what we can learn.
Here is the first account and it is the best known of the three:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).
Most interpretations of this story depict Martha as a busy worrywart who didn't spend time with Jesus because she was concerned with worldly or everyday, practical things. That is true in part, but that's not the most important lesson from the story. If you ever go to Israel and visit the Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, you will find that it is a segregated wall. There is a fence and to the right of it stand the women, while the men go to the left side, which includes not only the wall, but a synagogue prayer area out of view that is even closer to where the Holy of Holies was located.
Mary crossed the fence, so to speak, and had the audacity to sit at Jesus' feet, in effect saying, "I have as much right to sit and listen to Jesus as any man does." Martha was not only offended that Mary wasn't helping her with dinner preparations, she was also upset that Mary was stepping outside of cultural norms to do what had never been done, which was a woman establishing a teaching relationship with a Jewish rabbi. Jesus endorsed Mary''s decision and invited Martha, and all women for that matter, to do the same.
Martha is always portrayed negatively in the first story, but let's look at the second account where Martha is the one who is sitting at the feet of Jesus, so to speak:
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “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 said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:17-32).
Mary stayed at home when she heard Jesus was in town. Perhaps she was angry with Jesus that He had not come to save her brother, or maybe she was too distraught to get up. Either way, it was Martha who talked with Jesus, and what a discussion it was. Martha revealed that she may have been busy in the kitchen, but she was listening. She knew Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. She knew that her brother would rise again at the resurrection of the dead. She knew that she had faith but didn't understand why Jesus had delayed coming. She was honest but she still had faith.
When her sister Mary came, she once again took her position at Jesus' feet, but this time to lament the fact that Jesus had been absent and her brother died. Even in their grief, both women ran and cried out to Jesus just as the psalmists had done centuries before them. They were the new female psalmists of the New Testament, confused and in pain but turning to the Lord even in their disappointment.
Here is the third story:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 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 (John 12:1-3).
We see that all was back to normal with Martha serving and Mary once again at the feet of Jesus, both women being true to who they were, steadfast in their love and service to the Lord. Mary had a sense that Jesus was heading to His death, so she took what was probably her dowry, the expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped them dry with her hair. What a lovely picture of devotion and giving to the Lord what she had that was precious. Martha was doing that as well in her own way, according to her own personality.
These two ladies left women everywhere in every generation a model of how a woman can and should relate to the Lord - and showed the Jesus welcomes the presence and touch of women as well as men (something the Jewish leaders never desired or modeled). The sisters were passionate, forthright, fearless, extravagant, intelligent, spiritual, practical, and dedicated. Jesus was drawn to them as close friends and was not ashamed of their intimacy or offended by their honesty.
If Jesus did not act like He made a distinction between a man and a women follower, then we should not either. If you are a woman, are you coming to Jesus as you are, or as culture (church or societal) dictates you should come? If you are a man, are you open to God's gifts and purpose in the women around you, whether at work, church, or in your home? The lessons of Mary and Martha are many, but the main lesson is this: God welcomes His female servants and isn't afraid to call them friends as well. Have a blessed week!