Sisters in Scripture

A Closer Look at the Text - Martha

Luke devotes four verses to Martha and her sister Mary. John, on the other hand, uses most of chapter eleven to tell the story of Martha, Mary and the raising of their brother, Lazarus, and gives over another ten verses of chapter twelve to another story set in their home. Yet, typically, it is the story from Luke that people most often associate with the name of Martha.

That association is not a particularly positive one. The plot of the story pits the two sisters, one against the other and Jesus says of Mary, "she has chosen the better portion”—thus, relegating Martha to second place. Jesus chides Martha gently but does not heed her request, leaving her silenced. She is, hence, the loser, not the model with which the reader is supposed to identify—but the one with whom some of us do.

Commentators have argued the case for centuries. In Medieval times, the story was used as proof that religious life was superior to secular life—vestiges of that remain to this day. Even then, however, Teresa of Avila took exception to that understanding. She wrote to her sisters, who were a contemplative order, "Believe me, Martha and Mary must work together when they offer the Lord lodging, and must have him ever with them, and they must not entertain him badly and give him nothing to eat. And how can Mary give him anything, seated as she is at his feet, unless her sister helps her?” (The Interior Castle, VII,iv.)

As we look at the four evangelists, one of the helpful biblical tools to use is to look at the audience to whom each was writing and to consider what purpose each gospel was meant to serve. Both Luke and John write about Martha but make different choices about what to say. Some biblical scholars find clues to Luke’s choices by looking at the community to whom he was writing. Writing in the eighth decade, Luke is especially concerned that fledging Christianity be "politically correct.” He takes pains to show that Christian men and women fit the standards of behavior for Roman society. In the first few decades of Christianity, the churches Paul founded and/or wrote to had many women in untraditional roles as prophets, deacons, teachers, apostles, and leaders of house churches. By the time Luke is writing, however two things have happened: 1) they are into the second generation of Christians, no longer expecting the imminent return of Christ and thus looking to a more distant future and, 2) Christianity has become a suspect religion and has begun to be persecuted. Additionally, there was debate at this time over the roles of women and over emerging offices in house-churches, some of which had been founded and led by women. So some scholars interpret Luke’s story as addressing these issues to say that the "better portion” for women is to sit in silence and listen.

John, on the other hand, is writing significantly later than Luke for considerably different reasons. Luke is seeking to "trace the whole sequence of events from the beginning” (Lk. 1:3). He is a storyteller deciding what to include and how to tell the story of Jesus as he determines what his readers, his community, want and need to know about Jesus. John’s gospel is less of a story and more of a theological reflection about the significance of Jesus’ life. His themes drive the narrative. Every story is there to make a point about Jesus and to underscore the central truths of his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection.

At any rate, it is ironic that Luke’s Martha and Mary story often takes precedence of John’s much larger story—a story with much more to say theologically. Luke’s story offers an interesting portrait of human nature and addresses the importance of prayer but is not particularly profound theologically. Some have even challenged the construction that would pit prayer against actions. The two are so much of a tandem team in our Catholic tradition. The motto of the Benedictines sums it up in "Labore et Ore”—work and pray. Aside from a point about prayer, Luke’s story seems to deal with sibling rivalry between the two sisters. In so doing, he creates an either/or mentality that survives to our own time. For some women, it is frustrating that the smaller, less theologically significant vignette of Martha in Luke has become the popular image for her rather than the image presented in John’s longer narrative.

In John’s gospel, a much different Martha emerges. There is no hint of tension between the sisters in John. Together they send word to Jesus and together they wait for him to come. They both speak the same words to him in greeting, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died (John. 11:21 and 32). In John, everything that happens is significant for its foreshadowing of the passion. The resurrection of Lazarus prefigures his own resurrection. It was because of raising Lazarus that the Pharisees determined to kill Jesus. It is in preparation for his burial that Mary anoints Jesus and Martha’s profession of faith is a capstone to the story.

The words of Martha in her profession of faith are remarkable. A close read reveals that she progresses through stages of faith in her dialogue with Jesus. First she calls him "Lord” and complains that if he had come sooner her brother would not have died. She still believes, however, that "even now, I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask of him”—a stance reminiscent of Mary’s at Cana in John 2:1-12. Jesus then states the belief held by many rabbis of his time, "Your brother will rise again.” To this she agrees with the partial expression of faith, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But then, Jesus goes beyond conventional religious thought with the startling revelation, "I am the resurrection and the life: whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die.” Here Martha gives an extraordinarily mature Christological profession of faith saying, "I have come to believe [past perfect tense] that you are the Messiah [i.e. the Christ], the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Her words incorporate lines right out of John’s prologue—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who comes into the world from God. She expresses the same faith, in similar words, as Peter’s in Mt. 16:16 for which he receives Jesus blessing and the "keys to the kingdom.” And she does all this before the miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead. She then runs, as a true witness, to tell her sister that Jesus is with them. Martha, the non-contemplative, busy, woman-of-action in Luke, becomes, in John, a prophet of the resurrection and witness to Jesus on a par with Peter’s testimony of faith.



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