Martha, Misunderstood

Cara Strickland


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I can’t imagine a world in which it would be culturally acceptable for a hostess to walk up to her guest of honor and ask him to have a word with her sister, who was not anticipating the needs of her guests with the same alacrity as the hostess (especially loudly enough for at least one eyewitness to hear and write about it). That is not the world that I live in, and it was certainly not the world that Martha of Bethany inhabited.

I’ve heard quite a number of sermons about “Mary and Martha” over the years, and they have all had the same tenor: Strive to be more like Mary and less like Martha.

Martha has come to represent the influence of the world (with her distraction and busyness) and Mary seems to represent the ideal Christian woman, sitting at Jesus’ feet, at least, in the eyes of many Christians I’ve heard speak.

Just over a year ago, I was captured by the story of Martha. It was a season of recovery for me. I was having trouble finding the strength to “do” my faith the way I’d been taught through my formative years. Have you ever had a Biblical person reach out and grab you, asking to be noticed? That is what happened with Martha. I haven’t been able to stop reading her story since, over and over.

Martha is a strong character, complex and layered and rich.

She welcomes Jesus into her home, she addresses Him directly, without fear of reproach (and He answers her with respect and love, not with rebuke). When her brother has died and she hears that Jesus is coming, she leaves her home and those who have come to mourn and goes out to meet Him, to confront Him with these words: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” (John 11:21b-22 NASB). Those words sound remarkably like something I would say to God. Indeed, they sound like words I have said.

Martha goes on, in that passage in John, to give one of the most complete confessions of faith spoken by anyone in the gospels, right in the midst of her grief at losing her brother. Of course, Mary is there too. She also has a conversation with Jesus, and He weeps with her. But unlike the all too common modern interpretation of these sisters, no judgement is placed on Martha for walking out to meet Jesus, or on Mary for choosing to stay behind.

While there are many who might identify with the role that Mary played in this miraculous story in John – on the sidelines, quiet and crying, undone by grief – I see myself in Martha’s responses: a bit of anger at Jesus’ delay, an intellectual struggle with resurrection and what she has believed Jesus to be, and a practical caution against opening a tomb because of the smell.

Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

But while I identify with Martha, as she takes charge and refuses to beat around the bush, I do not want to demonize Mary.

Both sisters welcomed Jesus into their home (together with their brother, Lazarus). Both sisters sent word to Jesus to tell Him that Lazarus was sick. John 11:5 tells us that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus (although I will admit that my Jesus Feminist heart loves the fact that Martha is mentioned first in this verse). Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to Him and, perhaps unexpectedly, anoints His feet with her hair, garnering all sorts of critical attention.

Both Mary and Martha are human and nuanced, they are not opposite sides of a dichotomy.

In the process of sitting with Martha, I have learned to listen to Mary’s story as well. It is likely that I won’t be the one who stays behind when I hear that Jesus is coming (especially if I have something to say to Him), but I want to honor the people (women and men) in my life who do.

Martha Slaying Drago

Recently, I had a party to celebrate St. Martha’s Day (which is July 29th, for the interested). I invited a small group of like-minded friends and cooked with abandon (Martha is the patron saint of cooks). During this process, I discovered that the original Joy of Cooking was illustrated with an image of St. Martha fighting a dragon (mythology suggests that she slayed a dragon at some point after the gospel of John). While everyone was eating the main course, I read both stories aloud (from Luke 10 and John 11). I looked around my table at the faces of complex, thoughtful people, gathered to celebrate a woman so often cast aside, and just as Jesus told Martha she would, I saw the glory of God.

Cara Strickland

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    • Thank you, Elizabeth.
      I’m so thankful for the opportunity to share the insights I’ve gleaned. I think that there is almost always more to the story than the sermons I’ve heard in the past.
      Thank you for being here.

  • I love how Jesus responds to Martha’s boldness–it makes me feel like I can be just as bold in how I approach Jesus, knowing he listens when I’m frustrated and angry, and will correct me when I need it. I don’t need to be afraid that I’m too much.
    I really love your perspective on Martha and Mary: both sisters are important, not just one over the other.

    • I love that, too.
      I’m a rather bold woman myself, and it makes me happy to think that Jesus wouldn’t think that I’m too much.
      I think that a careful reading of these stories shows us that Jesus thought both of these women were important, as well.

      Thanks so much for reading.

  • This is really beautiful and such a necessary point. I love the idea of reading of the sisters at Lazarus’ resurrection in tandem with their story in Luke 10, and using both to get full and balanced portraits of both women. It’s not a healthy or helpful to present them as two sides of a dichotomy … we need more thoughtful commentary on women of the Bible not as stereotypes or flat caricatures, but real, dynamic, and strong. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Heidi.
      I think we would all do well to pursue the shapely, nuanced people beneath the stories, stereotypes and caricatures.

      Thanks so much for being here.

  • Fab post! It’s so good to remind ourselves that Jesus was a real person, talking with real people and saying what they needed to hear at that moment. I love the way you bring out the nuances. I think Martha and Thomas have a lot in common, as being remembered for only one incident in the Bible where their interactions with Jesus are actually far more nuanced. Thomas wasn’t always doubting. Mary wasn’t always by Jesus’ side.

    So good to see you in this space!

    • Thank you so much, Tanya!
      I love that reminder. Jesus is a real person. He had friends and conversations just like we do. How easy it is to forget that, at least for me, sometimes.
      I think that Thomas is another person unduly shamed for something Jesus never condemns. I’ve come to admire Thomas’ boldness (rather like I have with Martha) thanks for pointing that similarity out!

      Thanks so much for being here!
      It’s such an honor to be posting here.

  • I just remembered to apply ‘God is no respecter of persons’ to this…how often do preachers lift one person up and put the other down when God doesn’t see either this way…He is not prejudiced and He does not discriminate…perhaps this forces us to step back when we see a person being vilified in a sermon to consider that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.

    Just an additional thought

    • Such an important check (when listening to anything, really).
      Thank you for the reminder of the filter we get to look through, thanks to Jesus.

  • I love what I think of as the ‘ straight’ talking between Jesus and Martha! She wants help, and perhaps recognition, and Jesus gives her that. She can’t have taken it amiss, or she couldn’t have spoken so confidently and intimately to Jesus about His power and stating the facts as she saw themwhen Lazarus was dead, but He could also weep with Mary. Each woman is given attention that suits their needs and personalities….not ‘one size fits all’ responses. Gives me more confidence to know Jesus meets me where I am, and who I am……love this take on Martha.

    • Hi Ruth!
      I love that, too. There is such a wonderful little peek into the friendship that Martha and Jesus had.
      Jesus is wonderful like that, isn’t He? There is nothing one-size-fits-all about Him.
      I feel that way, too. Seeing this story in this new light has encouraged me to come to Him the way I am, not trying to be Mary (or Martha), but Cara.

  • Cara, thank you for bravely sharing ‘the other side of the story’…..I guess is one way to put it. You so made me smile by the mention of the old ‘Joy of Cooking’ illustration–I had no idea.

    Your work is a joy to read.

    • Hi Jody,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I find that if I sit with something long enough, other thoughts besides what might at first seem obvious seem to bubble to the surface.

      I actually bought a reproduction of the original Joy of Cooking and now I look at Martha all the time.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement, and for being here.

  • It’s interesting that so much is made of Peter’s declaration “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But in the book of John, it isn’t Peter that makes this declaration, it’s Martha (thank you, John!). Can you imagine if the only sermon we heard on Peter was where Jesus rebukes him with ‘get behind me, Satan!’?? Thankful, as you are, for the rich discipleship of Martha, and that the Scriptures show it to us…for those who look. Loved the blog!

    • Hi Pam,
      This is such a wonderful point, and food for thought.
      I think that it is so dangerous to use one story about a biblical person (or otherwise) to form an opinion about them.
      I’m so happy that Martha is getting just a bit less misunderstood.
      Thanks so much for your comment.

    • Yeah, I’ve always thought “what’s up with that?” Why doesn’t Martha get to be Pope?

      • There is so much that we don’t see when we’re looking through a certain lens, isn’t there?
        Thank you for reading.

  • What a great piece! Invokes so many thoughts in my mind.

    I think that there is a place for both: Martha and Mary personas in all of our lives. We need to know when to be busy entertaining and when to get quiet and sit at Jesus’ feet.

    It is interesting, however, that you mentioned that many in the church are judging Martha while approving Mary’s behavior (sitting at the feet of Jesus), as we can see that in the complementarian and the patriarchal movement of the church, the opposite is expected of women–they are expected to busy themselves with rearing kids, taking care of the house and submitting to their husband’s as opposed to being in the active service to the Lord.

    And, we all know, while being Mary is great at times, someone has got to feed the people :), so someone needs to be a Martha after all.

    I do love how you pointed out Martha’s approach to Jesus at the time of her brother’s death. You just added another facet to my scriptural diamond. Thank you!

    • Hi Elena,

      I think you make such a great point. There is no either/or about Mary and Martha. They certainly had distinct personalities, but they also likely had things in common. I’m searching for a balance to my life, and not too much identification with one or two traits.

      I agree. I always found the reverence of Mary a little strange in a church tradition which places so much weight on the Proverbs 31 woman, for example. I am tempted to think that the appealing thing about Mary is that she is pronounced good by Jesus. This feels a little related, to me, to the idea that it is important to be worthy of praise as a woman. Still, it doesn’t make sense in practice.

      I’m so glad that this piece has added to your thoughts on this wonderful woman, and this complex story.

      Thanks for being here.

  • Wow, Cara, beautiful piece. Such profound insights on complexity of humanity instead of caricature. I will not see Martha in the same way. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Cindy.
      I’m glad to hear that your view of Martha has shifted. It’s been such a life-altering thing to happen for me.
      I think it’s safe to always side with complexity of humanity over caricature (however tempting caricature might be).

      Thanks so much for being here.

  • Well done, Cara. Martha’s words and actions in John 11 have made much more of an impression on me about her character than the account in Luke 10. They are both instructive passages, of course, but not equally revealing of who Martha and Mary are. Taken together they show us women of faith, and women that Jesus cared about deeply.

    • Thank you, Tim!
      It was such a revelation for me when I starting reading those two passages to inform each other instead of on their own. A good lesson about scripture (and life) I suppose.

      And I love what you touched on with your comment: such a beautiful picture of Jesus’ friendship with two women, such a great example of how relationships between the sexes can flourish.

  • I tend to be Martha-ish – I like to be hospitable and I also like things orderly and in their place, but as soon as they are, I love to sit at Jesus’ feet and study His word and pray. Or sing my head off in praise while I work. These women are not either-or. One can be much more than others assume from the limited parts of their life that are seen. Good reminder here.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Carol.

      It’s so easy to take this one small portion of a day from the lives of these women and say that we know them, but they (and we) are so much more complex than that, aren’t we?

      Thanks so much for being here.

  • Amen! I have spent a lot of time in prayer with Martha, and I appreciate reading your thoughts on this dear friend of mine!

    • Oh Margaret,
      I love knowing that you and Martha are friends as well. She is my constant companion, as well.
      Thanks for reading.

  • Great thoughts here, Cara! Thank you for articulating them so beautifully. I have always felt Martha gets trounced for not being like Mary, and not appreciation for her intellect and hard-work ethic qualities. Every woman has her own unique abilities and gifts, be it in the home or out or both. So glad our Savior sees us as individuals.

    • Thank you so much!

      I am also glad that we aren’t measured against each other. I like to think that I am a good idea that God had, and that all of the things that I (and Martha) are often shamed for are really part of what God is doing through us in the world.

      Thank you for being here.

    • Thank you so much, Sarah.
      You are such an encouragement in my life. Thank you for these kind words, and for reading.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      I actually own that book (but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet). I’m excited to dig into it!

  • Well, this is truly glorious! Thank you for bringing the nuanced truth out of the realm of caricature. One more reason for us to read scriptures with culturally tinted lenses.

    • Thank you so much, Peggy!
      I think that this is part of why I’m learning to be gentle with myself when I sit with one piece of scripture for a long time, without “making progress.” I see so much more.

      Thank you for reading!

  • Wonderful insights, Cara. I’ve always had sympathy for Martha. I’m not a domestic goddess by any means, but I sympathize with her thought that Mary ought to be helping her. She’s welcomed at least 13 men (Jesus plus the twelve disciples) into her home, and someone’s got to get dinner ready! (Lazarus isn’t going to help; it’s a “woman’s job.”) That’s a lot of food preparation, without any modern conveniences, and even if she had servants, it would be a huge undertaking.

    It’s unfair for Christians to say that she’s doing something wrong when she approaches Jesus with her request, and her confidence in approaching him is beautiful. Both she and Mary have beautiful relationships with Christ. As you say, they aren’t opposites; they’re human.

    • Hi Laura,
      I’ve identified with Martha in the same ways I’ve identified with the older brother in the prodigal son story. There is something in these characters that wrestles with and speaks out against injustice. It does seem unjust, to me, that Mary would not be helping Martha.

      I agree, though, that she handled her frustration in a beautiful way. I note that we don’t hear the rest of the story. We don’t know that the food got on the table, or how long it took. But Jesus took Martha seriously, listening to her with care, and I think that is at least part of what we see in this story.

      And yes, not two sides of the same coin, but people.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  • I have heard Mary’s confronting Jesus after Lazarus’ death of being proof that she wasn’t really at that interested in what He taught. She would have rather done those dishes that night, and she ran to Jesus to accuse Him because she didn’t have any faith in Him. I had never thought of it differently, but I much prefer your idea of being there first.
    I am usually counted as a Mary in a negative way by other women. I want to hang out with groups meals and talk about faith. I do not like hanging out in the kitchen and talking about so called “woman things.” I am so grateful for those who are happy there, and wish they could be happy for me.

    • Hi Ann!
      The conversation about Martha in so many of the churches I’ve been to is so unwilling to see her in a good light, but I hadn’t heard this argument. What a sad way to think about this story (especially since her confession of faith is so complete and beautiful).

      I think that the community of faith is made up of so many wonderful and unique personalities, and we need them all (God certainly seemed to think so, anyway). I’m so sorry that you’ve been made to feel less-than. I take comfort in knowing that both Mary and Martha were people and had good days, bad days, and sick days, just like I (and you) do.

      Thanks so much for being here.

      • I am a Mary person too. For years I felt guilty for it until I heard a Martha person speak at a Women’s Retreat. She talked about being annoyed at people who won’t help like Martha was, and her need to get things done, and then she remembered that Jesus had just before this story happens fed a multitude with a few loaves and fish. She then felt guilty for not putting the first things first. But in that moment Jesus took away my guilt at not being the best at hospitality type things. I told her how she healed me with her story. She’d never thought about the guilt of a Mary type. I pray Jesus finds you as well.

        • I think that each of us (perhaps women especially) are beset with guilt. I know it sneaks up on me (on both Mary and Martha days).
          I’m so glad that you found some healing. I love how our vulnerable stories can gift us perspective, even on ourselves.

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