Siblings often bear distinguishing similarities—physical and emotional evidence of their shared gene pool and upbringing. But they can also sharply diverge in their personality quirks and other character qualities.
In the gospels we meet two sisters who became close friends with Jesus during His public ministry. While they shared in common their love for the Lord, Scripture repeatedly emphasizes their differences. And there is much we can glean from the contrast between these two godly women.
Last time, we identified the three instances in Scripture that they intersected with Christ. It’s that third interaction—recorded in John 12:1-8, Matthew 26:6-13, and Mark 14:3-9—that gives us the clearest illustration of Mary’s devotion to Christ.
Mary, the True Worshiper
According to Matthew and Mark, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet took place at the home of “Simon the leper.” Of course, a person with an active case of leprosy would not have been able to attend a gathering like this, much less host it in his own home. Lepers were considered ceremonially unclean, therefore banished from populated areas (Leviticus 13:45–46), so Simon’s nickname must signify that he was a former leper. Since Scripture says Jesus healed all who came to Him (Luke 6:19), Simon was probably someone whom Jesus had healed from leprosy. (Just such an incident is described in Luke 5:12–15.)
Simon also must have been a well-to-do man. With all the disciples present, this was a sizable dinner party. He may also have been an unmarried man, because Martha seems to have been acting as hostess at this gathering. Some have suggested that she might have made her living as a professional caterer. More likely, Simon was a close friend of the family, and she volunteered to serve. Lazarus was present too (John 12:2). It appears that the gathering was a close group of Jesus’ friends and disciples. Perhaps it was a formal celebration of Lazarus’s return from the dead. If so, this group of friends had come together mainly to express their gratitude to Jesus for what He had done.
Mary knew exactly how best to show gratitude. Her action of anointing Jesus was strikingly similar to another account from earlier in Jesus’ ministry (Luke 7:36–50). At a different gathering, in the home of a different man, a Pharisee (who was coincidentally also named Simon), a woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37)—apparently a repentant prostitute (v. 39)—had once anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, exactly like Mary in the John 12 account. In all likelihood, the earlier incident was well known to Martha and Mary. They knew the lesson Jesus taught on that occasion: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). Mary’s reenactment would therefore have been a deliberate echo of the earlier incident, signifying how much she also loved Jesus and how supremely grateful to Him she was.
Both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus’ willingness to accept such a lavish expression of worship is what finally sealed Judas’s decision to betray Christ. According to John, Judas resented what he pretended to perceive as a waste, but his resentment was really nothing more than greed. He was actually pilfering money from the disciples’ treasury (John 12:4–6).
So the lives of these two women inadvertently intersected twice with the sinister plot to kill Jesus. The raising of their brother first ignited the plot among the Jewish leaders that finally ended with Jesus’ death. Mary’s expression of gratitude to Jesus then finally pushed Judas over the edge.
Martha, the Devoted Servant
However, our primary focus in this series is the contrast between these two women. And nowhere is that more clearly on display than in the famous incident described at the end of Luke 10, when Jesus gave Martha a mild rebuke and a strong lesson about where her real priorities ought to lie. The passage is short but rich. Luke writes:
Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Martha seemed to be the elder of the two sisters. Luke’s description of her behavior is one of the things that supports the idea that these three siblings were still young adults. Martha’s complaint sounds callow and girlish. Jesus’ reply, though containing a mild rebuke, has an almost grandfatherly tone to it.
Jesus had apparently come at Martha’s invitation. She was the one who welcomed Him in, signifying that she was the actual master of ceremonies in this house. On this occasion, at least, she wasn’t merely filling in as a surrogate hostess for a friend; she was plainly the one in charge of the household.
In Luke 7:36–50, when Jesus visited the home of Simon the Pharisee (where the first anointing of His feet took place), He was clearly under the scrutiny of His critics. The hospitality was notoriously poor on that occasion; Simon did not offer Jesus water to wash His feet or even give Him a proper greeting (Luke 7:44–46)—two major social snubs in that culture. The washing of a guest’s feet was the first-century Middle Eastern equivalent of offering to take a guest’s coat (John 13:1–7). Not to do it was tantamount to implying that you wished the guest would leave quickly. And to omit the formal greeting was tantamount to declaring him an enemy (2 John 10–11).
Martha, to her great credit, was at the opposite end of the hospitality spectrum from Simon the Pharisee. She fussed over her hostessing duties. She wanted everything to be just right. She was a conscientious and considerate hostess, and these were admirable traits. Much in her behavior was commendable.
I love the way Jesus came across in this scene. He was the perfect houseguest. He instantly made Himself at home. He enjoyed the fellowship and conversation, and as always, His contribution to the discussion was instructive and enlightening. No doubt His disciples were asking Him questions, and He was giving answers that were thought provoking, authoritative, and utterly edifying. Mary’s instinct was to sit at His feet and listen. Martha, ever the fastidious one, went right to work with her preparations.
The Conflict Between Them
Soon, however, Martha grew irritable with Mary. It’s easy to imagine how her exasperation might have elevated. At first, she probably tried to hint in a “subtle” way that she needed help, by making extra noise—maybe moving some pots and pans around with a little more vigor than the situation really required, and then by letting some utensils or cookware clatter together loudly in a washbasin. Martha might have cleared her throat or exhaled a few times loudly enough to be heard in the next room. Anything to remind Mary that her sister was expecting a little help. When all of that failed, she probably tried to peek around the corner or walk briskly through to the dining room, hoping to catch Mary’s eye. In the end, however, she just gave up all pretense of subtlety or civility and aired her grievance against Mary right in front of Jesus. In fact, she complained to Him and asked Him to intervene and set Mary straight.
Jesus’ reply must have utterly startled Martha. It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might be the one in the wrong, but the little scene earned her the gentlest of admonitions from Jesus. Luke’s account ends there, so we’re probably safe to conclude that the message penetrated straight to Martha’s heart and had exactly the sanctifying effect Christ’s words always have on those who love Him.
Indeed, in the later incident recorded in John 12, where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, Martha once again is seen in the role of server. But this time Judas was the one who complained (John 12:4–5). He apparently tried his best to drum up a general outcry against Mary’s extravagance and managed to stir some expressions of indignation from some of the other disciples (Matthew 26:8). But Martha wisely seems to have held her peace this time. She no longer seemed resentful of Mary’s devotion to Christ. Martha herself loved Christ no less than Mary did, I believe. He clearly loved them both with deepest affection (John 11:5).
Some important lessons emerge from Jesus’ reprimand of Martha—admonitions we would all do well to heed carefully. And we’ll consider the first of them next time.
(Adapted from Twelve Extraordinary Women.)