Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, are somewhat well-known characters from the Gospels. However, many focus mainly on Mary and Lazarus and push Martha aside as the frazzled housekeeper who was not wise enough to sit and listen to Jesus like her sister. No one wants to admit, but most people only wish to be like Mary, sitting quietly and listening attentively to Jesus’ every word, but actually they act as Martha did. More often than not Christians are worrying just like Martha and not trusting in the words of Christ. Jesus understood this about Martha and loved her so much that He made a personal effort to persuade Martha to put her trust in Him and have faith. Jesus understands this about us as well and is just as eager to see all men put their faith in Him.
It is somewhat unclear when these three siblings met Christ for the first time. Their house was located in Bethany, a city about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. Many believe that Jesus stopped there frequently on His journeys to and from feast days. However, only three scenarios are recorded in the Bible; the first being when Jesus taught in Martha’s house (Luke 10:38-42), the second when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44), and the third was His visit and meal just six days before He was crucified (John 12:2).
In the first encounter, Jesus entered the town of Bethany and Martha welcomed Him into her home. As she hurried around the house organizing the preparations, she became more and more frustrated seeing Mary sitting and “doing nothing.” Her exasperation is revealed with her question, “Lord do You not care…?” (Luke 10:49). Jesus did care, just not about what Martha thought He should care about. Jesus was far more concerned about Martha’s heart and spiritual condition than the meal she was preparing. He responded lovingly and patiently by saying, “thou art careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part…” (Luke 10:41-42). The word Jesus used for “careful” is the one He used in Matthew chapter six when He commanded us not to worry, and also in Philippians 4:6 when we are told to “be anxious for nothing.” Martha’s priorities were out of order and worry began to overtake her faith. Mary had chosen the “good part”, which was listening to the Word. The “one thing that [was] needful” that Jesus was talking about, I believe, was faith. Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” Martha needed to hear the words of Jesus in order to increase her faith.
Martha’s second appearance came with the death of her brother, Lazarus. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, four days after his death, Martha did not hesitate to approach Jesus. Although Martha was frustrated at the Lord’s late arrival, Jesus orchestrated it to be that way in order that their faith might increase (John 11:14). Jesus was using the previous situation as well as her brother’s death in order to grow her faith. Later she stated, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He that comes into the world” (John 11:27). St. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”1 Through Martha’s faith, and God’s goodwill, Lazarus was miraculously raised from the dead and reunited with his sisters.
The third and final appearance of Martha comes in John chapter twelve. As Lazarus reclined at the table with Jesus, Martha can be seen once again serving them supper. However, this time there was no complaint. The end of Jesus’ ministry was approaching and this pair of sisters seemed to be more aware of that fact than even the apostles were. Martha served with a content heart, having known personally the power of Christ. There could be no doubt in her mind now that Jesus should come first above all else and that He was the Messiah she had been waiting for.
Fortunately, the story of Martha ends with great success and subsequent encouragement for the body of Christ. She learned from her mistake of mistrust and distraction of worldly cares and learned to lean on her Savior. The most “needful” thing in her life was Jesus Christ. One important thing to note was that her priorities were simply switched and not eliminated. The problem was not her service to the Lord by preparing food; it was that it came before her need to hear the words of God. Once she put God first, she was able to serve whole heartedly and without spiritual hindrance. As Christians, our spiritual gifts must be partnered with faith. Just as faith without works is dead, so works without faith are meaningless and futile. Martha’s life was an example of true repentance and faith and this opportunity of victory can be achieved by anyone if they would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and live to honor Him with their actions.