Summary: Martha and Mary were sisters. They were both close friends of Jesus but they interacted with him, served him and worship him in different ways.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Tonight we want to look at two women who were prominent in the life of Jesus: Two sisters named Martha and Mary. They are mentioned in three separate incidents during Jesus’ ministry.
1. When he visited their home in Bethany (Luke 10:38-41),
2. After the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11; 12:1-3),
3. When May anointed Jesus feet (Matt. 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9).
They were probably wealthy because they were able to provide hospitality to Jesus as he traveled through Bethany and prepare an elaborate meal for Jesus. Also the ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet was very expensive.
They were probably very good and long time friends with Jesus. This is evidenced by the ease at which they interacted with him.
The first time Martha and Mary are mentioned was when they offered the hospitality of their home to Jesus. It was the custom in the Middle East then as now to offer hospitality to visitors. It was believed that visitors were sent from God and that to entertain and protect them was a sacred duty. Wealthy people sometimes kept a special upper room prepared at all times for visitors. Jesus’ visit to their home is recorded in Luke 10:38-41.
In vs. 38 we are told that Martha welcomed Jesus into “her” home. In doing so, Martha was conforming to the custom of the day. We are also told that Martha had a sister named Mary. It is presumed that Mary lived with Martha. However, it is very clear that Martha was the mistress of the house.
Mary is described as one who “sat at Jesus’ feet.” One who sat at another’s feet placed themselves in a position of humility before the teacher. So Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching. This was definitely not according to tradition. Women were excluded from the teaching of the law and many Rabbis actively discouraged women from learning. In the Rabbinical writings we find this cynical statement, “May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women.” However, Jesus and Mary were not conforming to custom. Jesus was teaching a woman and Mary was listening eagerly. Furthermore, this was probably not a private audience. No doubt, there were a number of men also at Jesus’ feet, listening to the great Teacher. And there was Mary, right in the middle. Scandalous!!!
While Mary was at Jesus’ feet, Martha was preparing the meal. It was probably a large meal designed to feed many people for we are told that Martha was distracted with “much serving.” Although Martha probably had servants, she was in charge and there were details and details and details.
Then Martha looks around for Mary, expecting to see her helping but instead sees her sitting and listening to Jesus. She then approaches Jesus. Martha shows no disrespect to Jesus but she walks up to him face. You can’t ever accuse Martha of being shy. Standing before Jesus, Martha says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” There is no way to know how Martha said those words. She could have been angry . . . frustrated . . . concerned. I believe that frustration is probably the right feeling that Martha had. She had so many details to take care of to prepare the meal that she was perhaps overwhelmed by it all. She needed Mary’s help but Mary was “sitting down on the job” listening to Jesus.
Martha first asks Jesus a question which also contains a complaint, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Do you not care that Mary is breaking every custom in the book to sit here at your feet among all these men instead of helping serve like she is suppose to? “Tell her then to help me.” Tell her to get back in the kitchen where she belongs. She won’t listen to me but she will listen to you. I find it interesting that Martha was so bold in her approach to Jesus. This might indicate that they were good friends and she was comfortable with Jesus, not disrespectful, when she spoke to him in this way.
Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha” . . . “Chill out girl.” “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha, what you are doing is a good thing but Mary has chosen the better. You have allowed your preparations for the meal to overwhelm and frustrate you. Follow Mary’s example, sit at my feet and listen to me.
We are not told how the rest of the evening went. Apparently the next interaction between Jesus, Martha and Mary is found in John 11. Their brother, Lazarus, is sick. Martha and Mary send a message to Jesus to come to Lazarus’ aid. There seemed to be a close relationship between Jesus, Martha, Mary and Lazarus for the message sent was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” However, Jesus did not come but delayed for several days. When he finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. While he was still outside the village, Martha meets him and the first words she says are, “Jesus, Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” As when Jesus was a guest in her house, Martha comes boldly to Jesus. Again, we see only the words of Martha, we do not hear the tone of her voice or see the expression of her eyes. Perhaps she was angry. After all, if Jesus had come when she and Mary had sent for him, Lazarus would not have died. So she could rightly point her finger at Jesus and say, “You did this!” Or perhaps she was sad, confused and distraught. This would change dramatically the way she said the words.