Lenten Devotional Series: The Women Who First Followed Jesus

Read and pray through Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44, 12:1-8.

Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.

Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But several women also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.

Each week, we will look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. On Thursday, a female member of our staff will offer their thoughts. Each Saturday, I will provide a Lectio Divina prayer exercise so that we can reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.

Reflection | On the day after International Women’s Day, we turn our attention to a pair of well-known sisters in the Bible: Martha and Mary. Today we shall consider the person and the character of the elder sister, Martha. Next week we will come back and reflect on the demeanor and witness of Mary, the younger sister.

A strong case can be made that the prominence and significance of these two women in Jesus’ life are rivaled only by his mother, Mary of Nazareth. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). This brief aside by John is a unique comment in terms of the description of Jesus’ associations with other people in the Gospels. It underscores the special relationship Jesus had with these siblings.

While it is unclear whether Martha and Mary ever traveled with Jesus, he clearly was a frequent guest in their home. Each of the biblical passages in which they are mentioned highlights a different visit by Jesus to their house in Bethany. A small village about two miles from Jerusalem, Bethany was a central location in the ministry of Christ — especially near the end of his earthly life. It was from this town resting on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives that Jesus began his ride into the royal city, the capital of Israel on Palm Sunday (see Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29). During the following week, before he met with his disciples in the Upper Room and then later willingly offered himself up to die on a Roman Cross, a period of seven days we refer to as Holy Week, Jesus stayed in Bethany at Martha and Mary’s home (see Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11-12). Finally, it is Luke who mentions that Jesus, after his death and resurrection, ascended into heaven near Bethany (see Luke 24:50-51).

Beyond the mention of their brother, Lazarus, there are no references to fathers or husbands in any of the biblical accounts involving Martha and Mary. This stands out because it was atypical for Jewish women to be unmarried in the Ancient Near East. Traditionally, Jewish women were married by sixteen years of age. Despite how odd this may sound to our modern sensibilities, many Jewish girls were legally betrothed (promised for marriage) before their twelfth birthday.

With no mention being made as to their marital status or the presence of any children, it is difficult for us to determine how old Martha and Mary were in their encounters with Jesus. On the one hand, Martha and Mary might have been orphaned at a young age and had not yet married. Or these two sisters could have been older widows who, since having lost their husbands, had not remarried.

Despite there not being any mention of fathers or husbands, Martha and Mary appear to have been wealthy as they possessed a home large enough to house Jesus and his twelve disciples. Martha, in particular, seems to have been the head of the household given how Luke introduces us to this family as Jesus and his entourage “came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him” (Luke 10:38). Martha seemingly stood in the biblical tradition of several wealthy women like Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:14), Nympha from Colossae (Colossians 4:15), Chloe of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11), and John Mark’s mother (2 John),  who owned property and were the mistresses of their own homes without any mention of a father or a spouse.

Given this and since Martha is often, but not always, mentioned first among her siblings, we can probably safely deduce that she was the oldest of her three siblings. This leads us into our first encounter with Martha in Luke’s gospel, chapter 10. Jesus and his disciples arrive into Bethany and are welcomed into Martha’s home. Martha as the older sister and mistress of the house takes the lead in making the necessary preparations for her guests and in providing hospitality.

We’ve all probably heard the rest of this story told as follows. While Martha is doing all the work, her sister, Mary is engaging with Jesus as he is teaching. Eventually, Martha confronts Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help her instead of leaving her to handle all the needed work around the house by herself. But instead Jesus upbraids Martha for busying herself in the kitchen and affirms Mary for choosing what is more important — being with Jesus. The moral of this version of the biblical story – especially in countless women’s bible studies and devotionals – is “Be like Mary. Don’t be a Martha.” 

Because of a simplistic and generalized interpretation of this encounter, Martha continues to suffer from a pretty bad reputation in the Christian community. Framed as the sister who gets it all wrong, we — not Jesus — create a sibling rivalry that does not exist. We may rightly perceive different temperaments (assertive and active versus quiet and contemplative) between these two sisters in the three scriptural encounters we have with them. Even so, they ought not to be opposed to each other, as one being good and the other, bad. This is not the way Jesus embraced either of the  sisters. Both were perceived by Jesus to be women of deep and abiding faith in him.

Particularly in our first engagement with Martha, the truth is she deserves more credit and far less blame than we give to her. Our long-standing caricature of Martha is that of a Martha Stewart rather than the actual Martha of Bethany. The stereotypical picture we maintain of Martha busy working in the kitchen distracted while trying to cook a meal doesn’t do justice to the role she was fulfilling.

Martha, as the older sister and mistress of the house, takes charge of preparing for her guests. Having taken the initiative of inviting Jesus and his followers into her home, Martha now considers it her responsibility to provide for all their material needs — including but not limited to feeding them. The offering of such hospitality was almost a sacred duty in the culture of Martha’s day. To offer anything less than one’s full attention and devotion was to dishonor one’s guests and to bring shame upon one’s home.

Taking this a step further, in a Jewish context, women were not allowed to serve and wait on their guests if men were in attendance. The only exception to this custom was if there were no servants to perform these tasks. Apparently not having servants of their own, Martha’s actions then reflect her willingness to assume the role of a servant in hosting Jesus and his disciples. Luke’s description of Martha’s activity purposes to honor the wider scope of what she is doing as he uses the Greek word “diakonein” to encapsulate the “all the preparations (or tasks)” that preoccupy Martha’s attention. This Greek word is the root of our word “deacon”– which refers to both domestic service and Christian ministry.

As the head of the house, Martha believes her sister, Mary, has an obligation to assist her in properly serving their guests. Jesus, when questioned by Martha, does not rebuke her work on his behalf. He doesn’t attempt to drive a wedge between these two sisters – or between a posture of action versus contemplation. Whereas the Christian tradition frequently has reduced following Jesus into the two choices of either being with or doing for Christ, no such dichotomy is presented by Luke. And contrary to how we often frame this story, Mary’s choice does not make her more worthy, acceptable, faithful, lovable, or better than Martha.

Jesus isn’t making a judgment against Martha but rather providing an observation. He seeks to redirect Martha in the midst of her frustration and distractedness, not in negation of the work she has been doing. To put this another way, Martha is getting so caught up in her work of hosting Jesus that she is running the risk of missing the fruit, the benefit, of having Jesus in her home. She was doing a very good thing, the expected thing. However, Martha had become so engrossed in doing something good that she was missing something better which Mary had recognized but she, Martha, had not yet. It’s the reason why Jesus was a guest in her home – not to be served as much as to serve her through teaching and revealing the Kingdom of God.

Martha’s done enough. She’s going beyond what is necessary – being “worried and upset about many things” and thus missing “the one thing” that is needed. It is the one thing that is so important that everything else pales into insignificance. It is the Kingdom of God which we are exhorted to seek first, and then everything will be added to it. It is the “pearl of great price” – spending time with, listening to, and learning from Jesus above all else – as the key to, the point of everything else.

Our next encounter with Martha, found in the Gospel of John, is dramatically different from our first introduction to her by Luke. Word comes to Jesus that Martha’s brother, Lazarus, is gravely ill. Contrary to expectations, Jesus delays in heading back to Bethany for about two days. When he, at last, is making his way to Martha’s home, Jesus alerts his disciples that Lazarus has died. However, he then cryptically speaks of the end of Lazarus’ life as an opportunity for the birth of something new in terms of their faith.

We must imagine the scene in Bethany prior to Jesus’ arrival because John does not give us these details. We can envision Martha and Mary watching their dear brother decline in health, gradually growing weaker and less responsive to their ministrations. Given the passive role Lazarus plays in the gospels, it is likely that he was considerably younger than his sisters. His young age would have made the severity of his illness and likelihood of dying all the more lamentable. They know that Jesus has incredible power to heal, and in their desperation, they send word to him that Lazarus is sick. Imagine them hoping and praying their brother would simply hang on until Jesus, the healer arrived. Imagine the anxious glances out the doorway to see if Jesus was coming up the road.

We don’t have to imagine the crushing disappointment when Mary and Martha lost their brother, Lazarus. Jesus was a close friend, who had stayed many times in their house, who could have made their brother well again. But Jesus hadn’t come in time. We recognize the pain of loss, the hurt of watching someone we love die, as Martha puts these emotions into words when she comes out to meet Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

Her first words to Jesus express a mixture of frustration, anguish, and regret we all can identify with – if not now, at some point later in our lives. Every one of us will experience, more than once in our lives, a similar grief.  Had he arrived before Lazarus died, Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death. But from Martha’s perspective, Jesus withheld his healing power from Lazarus by coming four days late. And now, what’s done is done. Dead is dead. What else can Martha do besides grieve the loss, the absence of her younger brother?

Martha, however, even in her hurt and pain, declares that she still believes in Jesus’ power despite this disappointing incident. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). In the midst of her grief, she holds onto her faith. It is a faith rooted in Christ that looks to the future. Martha has no expectations here and now in the present. She is not anticipating or expecting anything from Jesus beyond the hope of consolation—the encouragement of what she believes will happen later—not now.

Martha’s faith in Jesus at this moment is something we’ve witnessed before in this devotional series, that of a “mustard seed” (see Matthew 17:10-21). “mustard seed” faith is our willingness to yield to God’s grace, and trusting this initial move will be the beginning of an understanding that will mature as one follows Jesus. This is what Martha demonstrates even before the finality of her brother’s passing four days earlier.

Martha’s faith in the future–of consolation–is what Jesus appears to be appealing to when he responds, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). This is undoubtedly what Martha hears—the faith of a future promise and not the expectation of something here and now. This is why she replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Martha is orthodox in her theology—meaning that she believes what other pious Jews accepted in her day—that on the last day, at the end of the world, will be the resurrection of the dead. This doctrine is what she thinks Jesus is referring to—a belief that she has held onto ever since being taught it by the rabbis.

Jesus, Martha thinks, is affirming the faith of their people. She has no idea that Jesus is about to do more than just affirm her faith in resurrection. He is about to challenge their understanding of and their orientation towards resurrection. And so Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Notice how Martha responds. She doesn’t answer the question. She doesn’t say, “Yes, I believe we will never die.” She simply affirms that she believes in Jesus. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). It’s ironic that the label we tend to put on Martha is that of a person who’s too busy and preoccupied to spend time getting to know Jesus. It’s ironic because she clearly recognizes that Jesus is more than a rabbi.

Martha, in this moment, expresses one of the strongest confessions about who Jesus is that can be found in all the gospels. Her profession of faith is on par with Peter’s confession recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16 (verses 15-17). In fact, both statements are nearly identical. Peter’s moment of clarity is explicitly declared by Jesus to be a work of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Martha’s insight in the shadow of her brother’s passing as probably based on divine revelation.

Nonetheless, why is it that we tend to remember and celebrate Peter’s confession but not so much Martha’s? How is it we keep regulating Martha to being stuck in the kitchen while either ignoring or overlooking her simple but strong profession of faith in Christ? Our limited memory and lack of vision towards Martha result in our missing the significance of this moment. Here, Martha reinforces both the ability and the equality of women in recognizing and following Jesus.

This is not to suggest Martha’s faith was perfect or complete. Like Peter, Martha’s faith needed to mature by the grace of God. While Martha never denies Christ three times, she did have her doubts as Jesus sought to roll away the stone of her brother’s tomb. Martha cannot grasp the significance of what Jesus is about to reveal. While she appreciates and confesses Jesus is the Messiah and that one day there will be a resurrection, Martha cannot comprehend how much all these things come together in the person standing before her. In this moment, her belief in Jesus grows–enlarges and deepens–as she focuses less on her objection to what she fears and cannot understand and submits to and obeys what Christ prescribes. The ongoing progression of Martha’s faith is an encouragement in the evolution of our own belief in Christ. Like her, our faith matures as we yield to Christ’s instruction and abide less in our concerns and more in Jesus’ promises.

Martha is only mentioned by name only on one other occasion. It is in John’s description of the events immediately following the resurrection of Lazarus. What happens next is more of an encounter between Martha’s sister, Mary and Jesus. Therefore, we will get more into this story next week. However, there is a tiny, fascinating detail about Martha in this moment worth noting. It’s something that brings this devotional full circle.

In setting the table for this scene, John records, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table” (John 12:1-2). Here again, we have Martha serving as her brother, Lazarus is sitting by Jesus’ side. In just a few moments, her sister, Mary will enter and once again put herself at Jesus’ feet – albeit in a much more dramatic and emotional way.

Martha is not described as being distracted or annoyed with either of her siblings. It’s also worth noting there is no mention of Jesus correcting Martha for the work she is doing. This is, for me, further support that Jesus’ earlier encounter with Martha was not some sort of blanket statement or rebuke against doing versus being.

From parallel passages in the other gospels, we know this meal was given at the house of Simon the Leper (see Mark 7 and Matthew 26). So here is Martha not just serving Jesus but serving as a good neighbor -helping the host in providing hospitality to Jesus and those who are with him. Having listened to Jesus, having experienced the grace and love of Christ through the revival of her brother, and having the mustard seed of her faith in the Kingdom of God nurtured and enlarged, Martha gives out of what she has received. She is quietly but purposefully fulfilling the greatest commandment.

Instead of perceiving Martha as someone to avoid emulating, we ought to pray for our journey with Jesus to be similar to hers. Despite being unfairly maligned because of one incident that has not been rightly represented, Martha’s witness as a follower of Jesus remains powerful and poignant.  She reflects the balance and not the tension to be discovered in both carefully listening to and devotedly serving Christ. Following Jesus is never a choice between being with Christ or doing for Christ. Following Jesus is learning to become who we are in Christ by not only contemplating the reality of who Jesus is as the promised Messiah but also reflecting the truth about Jesus as our Lord and Savior through our service to others.

Consider & Discuss | With the best of intentions and the right motives, Martha does something good for Jesus but ends up losing her focus on Christ and instead fixates on her sister, Mary. What causes you to lose your focus on Jesus? What good things are you doing or what other persons have you become so fixated on that you are missing the fruit of being with Jesus? 

The promise Jesus extends to Martha is not just for her but for all who believe and follow him by faith. Like Martha, our faith can be small and not fully formed–but a seed–provided that it is in Christ. Are you exercising the faith that Jesus seeks to give you through the Word and the Spirit? Sometimes exercising faith begins by confessing the faith. How might your prayer life–your regular conversations with Jesus–change if like Martha (and Peter), you began by declaring what we believe about Christ and his Kingdom? (Suggestion: Use the words of the Apostles’ Creed). Where are the places in your life right now where Christ purposes to deepen, enlarge, or maybe even resurrect your belief in him and his promises? 

Prayer Focus |   O God, Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany. While we seek always to serve You, help us to recognize when our service for You comes as the expense of listening and being with You. Teach us whenever we interact with You to confess the faith You have given us. Let that faith be enough for us even when we don’t fully understand what You are doing. Enable us to submit to whatever is You are doing in and through us so that both our faith in and our witness for You can grow and mature – so that we can become our fullest and best selves in you. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Pastor Chris