Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha

of Bethany


see caption
Mary and Martha of Bethany
(pictured with Jesus)

Picture courtesy of

Martha and Mary were sisters living at Bethany near Jerusalem, according to John (11:1). In the episode following the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel (10:38-42), they appear perhaps as representatives of another oppressed group in society - women. Jesus’ ac-ceptance of their hospitality is taken for granted; but whereas Martha is the totally committed hostess, it is more important to be, like Mary, a committed disciple. The rabbis tended to think the Torah was for men (like the lawyer who in Luke has just affirmed the law of love for God and neighbour). Jesus overturns that, the way Mary is described as sitting at his feet and learning is the description of the disciple or student of a Rabbi and Jesus himself says: “Mary has chosen the better part” by sitting at the Lord’s feet. Women are more than ancillary helpers (Luke 8:3); their discipleship shall not be taken away.

It is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus in Luke 7:36-50, this happens in Bethany, at the end of his ministry in preparation for his coming death (John 12:1-8; cf Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). But she is not the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears, this occurred in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry, and is often wrongfully depicted as being done by Mary Magdalene. Also in Luke’s Gospel, the sisters feature in the extended narrative of the death and raising to life of their brother Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Again Martha is the more impulsive, rushing out to meet Jesus on his arrival, while Mary sits at home. When Mary does go out to Jesus, she falls at his feet. Martha expresses a conventional belief. On hearing Jesus’ definitive promise that he is the resurrection and the life, she professes her belief in this, and her actual statement of faith shows that she thinks of Jesus as the expected messiah, the com-ing prophet. She believes that he will raise them all on the last day, but does not realize or want to hope that he can do so in the present time. When Jesus reaches the tomb, Martha protests that there will be a stench. We are not told the reaction of Mary or Martha to the raising of Lazarus. After the account of the supper at Bethany, at which Mary anoints Jesus in preparation for his burial (John 12:1-8), there is no further reference to the two women in the gospel story.

Medieval tradition not only identified Mary with Mary Magdalene, (when they are two separate women), but developed a legend of the evangelisation of Provence by Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Are you a Martha - always worried, busy and stressed, trying to do too much for everyone, or are you a Mary willing to sit at the feet of the master and learn? Most of us I think are a mixture of both. If you schedule the time to pray daily (like we do with this website) then hopefully you become more of a Mary - while still getting done what is necessary but without the stress.