Martha wanted to be a disciple of Jesus. She wanted to follow him and learn from him. But she was held back by her social conditioning that said women have their roles and their place. Theological studies were what men did. Women were to care for men’s physical needs so that men could devote their time to study. Preparing meals was important work. But Martha longed to discuss deeper spiritual matters and the things of God.
Jesus understood her heart longings and her desire for intellectual stimulation and he affirmed her. “Martha, Martha,” gently chiding her for being so distracted but at the same time recognizing her unspoken need, “I know you want to be here with the rest of us. It’s ok. Come on in and join us. A meal is not as important as our fellowship. It’s ok to use your mind. It’s ok to think. It’s ok to engage in conversation with men about the coming kingdom.”
Usually when this story is told, Jesus affirmation of Martha’s true need is glossed over. What we hear instead is, yes, it’s ok for women to sit at Jesus’ feet for women too need their personal devotional time. What we are told is women like Martha are much valued. We are thankful for the practical Martha’s among us who faithfully serve in our kitchens and in our churches. And we seldom hear anything more about Martha after that. Dorothy L. Sayers kind of summed it up when she wrote:
I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part – the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, he approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed… we greatly prefer her, for Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple. 
Early on, the copyists of Luke’s manuscript also had difficulty with this passage. There are many variant readings of this passage, particularly the phrase having to do with what is needed. Was Jesus telling Martha that her plans were too elaborate and that “only a few” dishes were necessary or was he saying that “only one” dish would do? Was his counsel to the effect that she needed to limit her menu expectations to make her job less stressful? The current consensus among most Biblical scholars and the one that takes into account the nuance of Mary’s choice, is that Jesus said “only one thing” is needed.
Even here most Bible commentators will explain away that “one thing.” They will say Martha’s responsibility was to be a good hostess. She is being counseled, so they write, to concentrate on the needs of her guest. Martha wanted to honor Jesus with an elaborate meal, but Jesus reminds her that true hospitality focuses on the expectations and needs of the guest. Jesus desired fellowship and recognition more than food. But this too still misses the point.
Martha’s request to Jesus was to the effect that he should insist Mary conform to the rules and the traditions of the day. “Make her help me; make her follow the rules.” Jesus’ response however was that she, like Mary, was free to choose. He pointed out to Martha that she was not bound by society’s rules that confined her to a specific place; her sphere was not predetermined by her gender. Jesus commended Mary for exercising her power of choice and he encouraged Martha to do the same.
The purpose of this passage is not to instruct women about the proper hospitality for itinerant preachers. Neither is it to remind women that they need to spend time in prayer and devotions. In this story Jesus is encouraging Martha to become a disciple and learn from him. His attitude was in direct contrast to the attitude of rabbis who denied religious studies to women.
And there the story ends. What did Martha choose to do? Luke never says.
Now you are going to hear the rest of the story.
It is found in the gospel of John, chapter 11. This is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. When we read this passage we find out that Jesus’ deliberately delayed returning to Judea when he heard his friend was sick. And we read Jesus’ explanation of death as only a sleep. Then we see Jesus weeping at the mouth of the tomb before he calls forth his friend.
However embedded in this story is an encounter between Jesus and Martha. Martha hears of Jesus approach and runs outside to meet him. Now it is her turn to gently chide him. “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!! Why did you take so long coming?”
Then Martha and Jesus begin to talk as they walk along together. Privately – one on one – they discuss the nature of the coming kingdom and the identity of the Messiah. Very heady theological stuff. Jesus speaks freely of resurrection from the dead and eternal life. It is to Martha that he speaks words that have comforted the saints at funerals for centuries. “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me will never die.” And it is because of Martha’s witness that we have those words recorded.
Martha then makes a statement of faith about Jesus that is identical to the one made earlier by Peter in the gospel of Matthew. There Simon Peter answered Jesus by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16) In John ‘s gospel it is Martha who says to Jesus, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27)
Thus it is we learn that Martha accepted Jesus’ invitation to join the disciples and become a student of Jesus. Her insights and profession of faith give evidence of her study and her guidance by the Holy Spirit.
Following their conversation, John records that Martha returned home and invited her sister Mary to leave the house and join them. (John 11:28) It is instructive to note that Martha does not refer to Jesus as the Master or as Lord but as Rabboni. Her words to Mary are an invitation that extends to all women everywhere.
“The Teacher is here and he is calling for you.”
1 Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2005. Page 67.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2398