Summary: Jesus has many interactions with the sisters, Mary and Martha, throughout his ministry. What we learn in looking at each of these encounters is that together, the sisters model complete discipleship, learning and living fully with Jesus.
The sisters Mary and Martha make multiple appearances in the gospels, particularly John’s gospel. And in each passage, as they interact with Jesus, we learn something new about them. The dinner recounted in this passage immediately followed the raising of Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. Mary and Martha had anxiously waited for Jesus to come and heal their ailing brother, only to see the time pass away, along with his life. When Jesus finally appeared after Lazarus’ death, the sisters were incensed. Martha tells Jesus that if he had come, her brother would not be dead. And in the midst of their conversation, Jesus made what is one of the most beautiful declarations in all of scripture. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus looks at Martha and asks, “Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s son.” It wasn’t not too long after that that Jesus made his way to Lazarus’ tomb and called out into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” Then, Lazarus stepped from the tomb, just as if he had been asleep.
Mary and Martha must have been beside themselves. Indeed, Jesus did not get to Lazarus in time to heal him, but with that option now gone, he did something even better. He brought Lazarus back from death. It’s only logical that with their brother now among them again, Mary and Martha want to show Jesus their gratitude through a celebratory dinner. So Martha, the consummate hostess, goes to work; just as she does in that all-familiar passage in Luke’s gospel, the one we are perhaps most familiar with when it comes to these sisters. While Mary and Martha are not connected with Lazarus in Luke’s gospel, the scene depicted there is very similar to this one. Martha is busy preparing a meal for the guest of honor, and Mary is idly sitting by in Jesus’ presence. In Luke’s gospel, Martha rebukes Mary for not helping with the prep work. But in our scripture reading for this morning, it is Judas who rebukes Mary for the costliness of the perfume which she “wastes” on Jesus’ feet. In both cases, Jesus defends Mary’s act of devotion, but we need to know that Jesus’ defense of Mary does not diminish the significance of Martha’s work, which is why we are looking at these two sisters together.
Mary and Martha are noteworthy not because of their multiple appearances alongside Jesus in the gospels, but because, together, they are the model of complete devotion. I chose this passage from John this morning as the reading to launch our look at Mary and Martha because we see Martha, hard at work in the background, and Mary making an extravagant, costly offering to the man who has just saved her brother. Often, these two sisters are pitted one against the other. I think this happens because in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way. We are told that we must be more like Mary and less like Martha. But what we need to know is that, in reality, we are enriched most by holding their actions together, and by learning lessons of discipleship from both of them.
So let’s start with Martha. Throughout the gospels, Martha is depicted as something of a busybody. Can you identify? Just days ago, we can imagine that Martha must have been pacing nervously, alternately wiping the feverish sweat from her brother’s brow and running to the doorway, craning her neck for a glance down the road, hoping to see Jesus coming toward her as her brother’s life wilted away. After Lazarus has been raised, and the celebratory dinner is planned, John tells us simply that “Martha served.” You can see it in your imagination, I’m sure; this woman, sweating over a fire in the kitchen, meticulously attending to every detail, then running back and forth between table and kitchen to make sure everyone is satisfied and has their fill. It’s a similar scene to that depicted in Luke’s gospel, where Martha finally gets fed up. She goes to Jesus and tells him to make her sister do what she’s supposed to be doing and come help her out in the kitchen.
In Martha’s mind, this is a perfectly legitimate request. Jesus has taught through his ministry the importance of diakonia, service; this is the word used to describe the work that Martha is doing as she labors diligently in the kitchen. Combine this with the very clearly defined roles of women in this time, and it’s only logical that she should feel she is the one doing “right.” And Jesus’ rebuke of her as recorded in Luke’s account of this meal is not because she is not doing the right thing, but because she is doing it for the wrong reasons. She’s looking for recognition, justification, and affirmation. And here’s the thing, Jesus does want us to serve him, just as Martha was so busy taking care of her honored guest when Jesus came to dinner, but we Jesus doesn’t want us to serve him only for recognition or praise. We serve Jesus because that is what Jesus has commanded of us. We do works of service, diakonia, because Jesus has called us to be his body at work in the world, to serve our neighbors and the “least of these.” If we serve only for the recognition it brings, then we are serving only for ourselves. Martha reminds us that we need to be about the working of serving Jesus in the world everyday; in fact, we should be so busy serving Christ that it consumes us. But what Jesus tells Martha and all of us, is that it should be service alone that consumes us, not service that seeks recognition.