Perhaps the most well-known story associated with Jesus’ beloved disciples Mary, Martha and Lazarus was the Savior’s magnificent display of priesthood power when he raised Lazarus from the dead.
But earlier in scripture we read of Jesus being invited into their home. In this story, I freely admit I am in full fellowship with my “kindred spirit” Martha. Wanting everything to be perfect for her revered guest, she is frantically preparing the meal and performing myriad other tasks associated with household management.
Therefore, it has to grate that while Martha is “cumbered about much serving,” her sister, Mary, is slacking off — or so it seems to Martha — as she “sits at Jesus feet, and hears his word” (see Luke 10:38-42). So miffed is Martha at her sister, and recognizing Jesus’ authority in all matters, she complains to him, confident he will fully back up her appeal, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.”
Although she’s anticipating Jesus’ taking Mary to task — in a kind and loving way — Jesus does just the opposite. He is, after all, in his brief, three-year ministry, commissioned to publicly re-educate individuals in eternal gospel truths. With so little time, he must be deliberate and intentional in all he does and this is a perfect teaching moment, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (see Luke 10:38-42).
Martha had to be confused by the Savior’s response. Yet Jesus is not saying “tsk, tsk, tsk, poor, foolish Martha.” And therein lies the rub as I heard this incident discussed recently in a televised roundtable by men who described Jesus as chastising Martha.
I strongly disagree. Indeed, a closer look at gendered conditions in Jesus’ day teaches otherwise. First, the Savior would never chastise — meaning rebuke or reprimand severely — anyone diligently trying to obey God’s law. Even when Jesus addressed the “woman at the well” (see John 4:6-29), who had engaged in multiple liaisons with men outside marriage and was then living with a man not her husband, he gently taught her eternal truths while encouraging personal reformation.
On this occasion, however, Martha is in step with Jewish law. A “wife’s first duties were household duties. … A Jewish woman’s education was limited to learning the domestic arts and helping care for younger children. (Jewish women were) exempt from the study of the Torah. … Educating women in the … first five books of the Old Testament, tirelessly studied by Jewish men, was hotly debated and most women were not so educated” (see "Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation Into the Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period" by Joachim Jeremias, Fortress Press, 1969). Because of this, “the majority of women with whom Christ interacted were illiterate and separated from men in public, private and religious life” (see “Jesus and the Role of Women,” by Zhava Glaser, Fortress Press, 1969).
Under such conditions, Jesus clearly was not chastising Martha. Rather, he was seeking to correct ubiquitous, false practices that marginalized women by denying them the privilege of hearing and studying God’s word. He was advocating and commending Martha — and all women — to do as Mary and feast on the words of eternal life spoken by the Savior. In our day, we too are consistently admonished to daily scripture study because, as it was then, it is critical to eternal salvation to know, then do, the will of God.
The wonderful follow-up to this story infers Martha has clearly taken the Savior’s counsel to heart. After her brother has been four days in the grave, Jesus arrives in Bethany. Martha hurries to meet him, acknowledging his power to heal the sick, saying, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.”
Jesus assures her, “Thy brother shall rise again.” While Jesus is indicating he will raise Lazarus from the dead, she believes he speaks of his eventual resurrection, and acknowledges as much.
The Savior clarifies, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”3 comments on this story
Then comes Martha’s ringing affirmation, one that can only come from dedicated prayer, from hearing and embracing Christ’s teachings, and from faithful discipleship, “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (see John 11:18-30).
Martha’s ardent, unqualified affirmation of Jesus Christ’s divinity is breathtaking!
Martha was an amazing woman, one whom the Lord did not chastise, but rather one who, after being taught eternal truths, listened, learned, and acted upon the Savior’s timeless teachings. She stands as a worthy example for women — and for all individuals — to follow today.