When we think about the life of our Lord, we generally focus on His preaching, His confrontations with religious hypocrites, and His relationships with His disciples. But we can easily overlook the friendships He enjoyed with everyday people—those with whom He found hospitality, fellowship, and refreshment.
Throughout the course of the four gospels, we repeatedly encounter two friends of Christ—Martha and Mary. Scripture consistently presents these extraordinary women together, and displays a distinct and instructive contrast in the character of these two sisters.
Scripture doesn’t give us many personal details about Martha and Mary. They lived with their brother, Lazarus, in the small village of Bethany. That was within easy walking distance of Jerusalem, about two miles southeast of the Temple’s eastern gate (John 11:18)—just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem’s city center. Both Luke and John recorded that Jesus enjoyed hospitality in the home of this family. He went there on at least three crucial occasions in the gospels. Bethany was apparently a regular stop for Him in His travels, and this family’s home seems to have become a welcome hub for Jesus during His visits to Judea.
One Key Similarity
Martha and Mary make a fascinating pair—very different in many ways, but alike in one vital respect: both of them loved Christ. They became cherished personal friends of Jesus during His earthly ministry. Moreover, He had a profound love for their family. The apostle John, who was a keen observer of whom and what Jesus loved, made it a point to record that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
We’re not told how this particular household became so intimate with Jesus. Since no family ties are ever mentioned between Jesus’ relatives and the Bethany clan, it seems likely that Martha and Mary were simply two of the many people who heard Jesus teach early in His ministry, extended Him hospitality, and built a relationship with Him that way. In whatever way this relationship began, it obviously developed into a warm and deeply personal fellowship. It is clear from Luke’s description that Jesus made Himself at home in their house.
The fact that Jesus actively cultivated such friendships sheds light on the kind of man He was. It also helps explain how He managed to have an itinerant ministry in Judea without ever becoming a homeless indigent, even though He maintained no permanent dwelling of His own (Matthew 8:20). Apparently, people like Martha and Mary regularly welcomed Him into their homes and families, and He was clearly at home among His many friends.
Certainly hospitality was a special hallmark of this family. Martha in particular is portrayed everywhere as a meticulous hostess. Even her name is the feminine form of the Aramaic word for “Lord.” It was a perfect name for her because she was clearly the one who presided over her house. Luke 10:38 speaks of the family home as Martha’s house. That, together with the fact that her name was usually listed first whenever she was named with her siblings, implies strongly that she was the elder sister. Lazarus appears to be the youngest of the three, because he was named last in John’s list of family members (John 11:5), and Lazarus rarely comes to the foreground of any narrative—including John’s description of how Lazarus was raised from the dead.
Some believe Martha’s position as owner of the house and dominant one in the household indicates that she must have been a widow. That’s possible, of course, but all we know from Scripture is that these three siblings lived together, and there is no mention that any of them had ever been married. Nor is any hint given about how old they were. But since Mary was literally at Jesus’ feet each time she appeared, it would be hard to imagine them as very old. Furthermore, the starkly contrasting temperaments of Martha and Mary seem unmellowed by much age. I’m inclined to think they were all three still very young and inexperienced. Indeed, in their interaction with Christ, He always treated them much the same way an elder brother would, and many of the principles He taught them were profoundly practical lessons for young people coming of age. A few of those lessons rise to particular prominence as we consider their recorded encounters with Christ.
Snapshots of the Sisters
Scripture gives three significant accounts of Jesus’ interaction with this family. First, Luke 10:38–42 describes a minor conflict between Martha and Mary over how best to show their devotion to Christ. That is where we initially meet Martha and Mary in the New Testament. The way Luke described their clashing temperaments was perfectly consistent with everything we see in two later incidents recorded by John. (We’ll return to focus mostly on the end of Luke 10 next time, because that’s where the contrasting personalities of these two are seen most clearly.)
A second close-up glimpse at the lives of these two women comes in John 11. Virtually the entire chapter is devoted to a description of how their brother Lazarus died and was brought back to life by Christ. Jesus’ personal dealings with Martha and Mary in this scene highlighted their individual characteristics. The death and subsequent raising of Lazarus affected both Martha and Mary profoundly, but differently, according to their contrasting personalities. John gave very detailed and poignant descriptions of how deeply the sisters were distressed over their loss, how Jesus ministered to them in their grief, how He mourned with them in a profound and personal way, and how He gloriously raised Lazarus from the dead at the very climax of the funeral.
More than any other act of Jesus, that one dramatic and very public miracle was what finally sealed the Jewish leaders’ determination to put Him to death because they knew that if He could raise the dead, people would follow Him, and the leaders would lose their power base (John 11:45–57). They obstinately refused to consider that His power to give life was proof that He was exactly who He claimed to be: God the Son.
Martha and Mary seemed to understand that Jesus had put Himself in jeopardy in order to give them back the life of their brother. In fact, the full depth of Mary’s gratitude and understanding was revealed in a third and final account where both of these women appeared together one more time. John 12 (with parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:3–9) records how Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wiped His feet with her hair. Although both Matthew and Mark described the event, neither of them mentioned Mary’s name in this context. It was nonetheless clear that they were describing the same incident we read about in John 12.
Both Matthew 26:12 and John 12:7 indicated that Mary, in some sense, understood that she was anointing Jesus for burial. She must have strongly suspected that her brother’s resurrection would drive Jesus’ enemies to a white-hot hatred, and they would be determined to put Him to death (John 11:53–54). Jesus Himself had gone to the relative safety of Ephraim right after the raising of Lazarus, but Passover brought Him back to Jerusalem (vv. 55–56). Mary (and probably Martha as well) seemed to grasp more clearly than anyone how imminent the threat to Jesus was. That surely intensified their sense of debt and gratitude toward Him, as reflected in Mary’s act of worship.
That’s where we’ll pick it up next time, as we consider the godly—but contrasting—character of these two women.