Her name means: “Lady” (the feminine form of “Lord”)
Her character: Active and pragmatic, she seemed never at a loss for words. Though Jesus chastened her for allowing herself to become worried and upset by small things, she remained his close friend and follower.
Her sorrow: To have waited, seemingly in vain, for Jesus to return in time to heal her brother, Lazarus.
Her joy: To watch as Jesus restored her brother to life.
Key Scriptures: Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-12:3
Martha, Mary, and their brother, Lazarus, lived together in Bethany, a village just two miles from Jerusalem, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. All three were intimate friends of Jesus.
During one of his frequent stays in their home, Martha became annoyed with Mary, her indignation spilling over like water from a boiling pot. Instead of helping with the considerable chore of feeding and housing Jesus and his retinue of disciples, Mary had been spending her time sitting happily at his feet. Feeling ignored and unappreciated, Martha marched over to Jesus and demanded: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
But Jesus wouldn’t oblige. Instead, he chided her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”
Jesus’ tender rebuke must have embarrassed and startled her, calculated as it was to break the grip of her self-pity and reveal what was really taking place under her own roof and in her own heart. Perhaps this competent woman realized for the first time just how much she had been missing. Distracted by the need to serve Jesus, she had not taken time to enjoy him, to listen and learn from him. Her anger at Mary may have stemmed more from envy than from any concern about being overworked, for her sister had made her way into the circle of men to sit at the feet of the Teacher and learn from him.
Martha’s story, of course, points to what is really important in life. She seemed confused and distracted, conned into believing her ceaseless activity would produce something of lasting importance. But Martha does more than simply instruct through her mistakes. She shows what it is like to have a relationship with Jesus so solid and close that no posturing or hiding is necessary. Martha seemed free to be herself in his presence. Where else should she have taken her frustration and anger, after all, but to Jesus?
Martha seems to have worked out her faith directly and actively, questioning, challenging, asking Jesus to rectify whatever had gone wrong. Her spirituality was like that of Jacob, who wrestled all night with an angel, or Job, who questioned God in the midst of his suffering, or Peter, who stumbled brashly forward into faith despite his mistakes.
In a later scene, after her brother died, we see Martha running to meet Jesus as soon as she heard he was near. Her greeting to Jesus was tinged with complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But faith, too, was present: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus assured her.
“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, ” Martha replied.
“I am the resurrection and the life, ” Jesus said. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, ” she told him. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
But right after her tremendous expression of faith, Martha’s practical side reasserted itself. When Jesus asked for the stone to be removed from Lazarus’s tomb, she objected, raising the concern on everyone’s mind: “But, Lord, there will be a terrible stink. Lazarus has been there four days!” How amazed she must have been when instead of the stench of death, Lazarus himself emerged from the tomb.
The more we delve into Martha’s story, the more familiar it seems—as familiar as the face gazing at us in the bathroom mirror. A woman who placed too much importance on her own activity and not enough on sitting quietly before Jesus, she pleaded for fairness without realizing that her version of fairness was itself unfair. Her commonsensical approach to life made faith difficult. But she also loved Jesus and was confident of his love for her. How else could she have found the courage to keep pressing him for answers to her many questions? Martha offers a warmly human portrait of what it means to have Jesus as a friend, allowing him to stretch her faith, rebuke her small vision of the world, and show her what the power of God can do.
Martha meets Jesus again in John 11 after the death of her brother, Lazarus. With characteristic forthrightness, she tells Jesus that if he had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died. Her statements open the way for Jesus to declare for all to hear—including us today—that he alone is the resurrection and the life. If we believe in him, even if we die, we live. What a promise! What a comfort! Through Jesus, death no longer has any power over us.
This devotional is drawn from Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture by Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda. Used with permission.