Authored by Olivia Bauer (a guest contribution)
Have you ever felt unfairly characterized by others? Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where someone interacts with you on the basis of what they think they “know” about you (meaning, what they’ve heard about you here and there), without knowing or understanding the real you—maybe without having ever met or spoken with you before.
I sometimes feel that people tend to jump to negative conclusions about Martha, the sister of Mary, based on the account of the sisters’ interactions with Jesus in Luke 10.
You probably know the Luke 10 story well. It’s the one where Martha is “distracted in serving … anxious and troubled,” and Mary chooses the good part: sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him.
There’s a vital lesson to be learned from Mary’s actions in this story. It is extremely difficult to differentiate between the “best things” and the “good things”—and then to make the decision to let go of something good while you reach for what is best. So learning to “be like Mary” is a worthy goal.
However, it’s not uncommon to hear people say “… but you shouldn’t be like Martha.” Basically, Martha has a bad rap. Her name has even become a characterization, as in, “Don’t be a Martha.” It’s easy to fall into characterizing Martha as this “bad” person—or at least a person we assume we don’t want to be like—based on this one story.
You might wonder whether there’s anything else we know about Martha. The answer is, yes. There’s another story about Martha in John 11. This story shows us some of Martha’s strengths, just as Luke 10 shows us some of Mary’s good points.
John 11 is the chapter about Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus was close to Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, and loved them dearly. When Lazarus became ill, his sisters sent word about his situation to Jesus, probably hoping that Jesus would visit and heal Lazarus before his health got any worse.
Instead, the opposite happens. Jesus stays where He is. Lazarus dies. And then Jesus goes to Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown.
When Jesus told the disciples that Lazarus was dead, He said: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”1 He also says, “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”2
As Jesus approached Bethany, Martha went out to meet Him. When she reaches Jesus, she says to Him:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”3
The statements that Martha makes in this passage show that she is a woman of strong faith.
She must have been in awful anguish about the death of her brother, not to mention probably bewildered as to why Jesus didn’t just come to Bethany when they first asked. Also, consider that Jesus doesn’t straight-out tell her, “I’m going to raise your brother from the dead today!” He doesn’t exactly explain to her what it means in this situation when He said, “… everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” She might have thought, But my brother is already dead.
In spite of not knowing all the details or what Jesus is going to ask His Father for, she chooses to trust that Jesus will act in a way that’s for their good. She says, “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. … I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Pretty powerful stuff!
Jesus later reminds Martha of this exchange, when she tells Him that Lazarus has been in his tomb for a while and “there will be an odor” if they “take away the stone.” Jesus gently chides her: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”4
Sure enough, that is exactly what they see: the glory of God in dazzling action, as Lazarus (who had been dead for four days) gets up and walks out of his tomb!5 It’s an incredible miracle, and results in many more people believing in Jesus.
There’s a lot in these two chapters to ponder and reflect on. But in relation to the comparisons between Mary and Martha specifically, I find myself thinking along the following lines:
Everyone has strengths and everyone has flaws. We all have things we’re proud of and like about ourselves; things we feel are “just the way we are”; and things that frustrate us, or that we’re trying to change. But nobody wants to be characterized by one of their blunders, or to be permanently labeled based on some “flaw” or “that time” they messed up. It’s unfair.
Imagine what it would feel like, if your name is, say, Belinda and you pulled some screw-up move one day, and from then on, any time someone goofs up, everyone says, “Oh, yeah, they’re a Belinda.” It’s even worse if some label or characterization like that is perpetuated based on hearsay only.
Even if you don’t know someone personally, or not very well, you can still be sure that there’s lot more to that person than their flubs. Perhaps you’ve never heard a “good story” about that person, but you can be certain that there is one, or a few, or a hundred. Even if you’re aware of someone’s mistakes or flaws, if you’re looking and listening for the good, you’ll find something. If you stick around with an open heart and an open perspective, you’ll usually see something that you can appreciate or even respect.
The same is true about you. Just as it would be unfair to others to only zero in on their blunders, it’s unfair to yourself to only consider your “flaws,” or to think of yourself in terms of personal mistakes or embarrassing moments. Self-awareness involves being conscious of your good points too, and building confidence in your strengths and the things you’re learning to do well.
It’s healthy to broaden our perspectives and to look for more of the good, whether in others or in ourselves. Instead of just remembering Martha as the sister who “didn’t choose the best part” and “was busy with serving,” why not give our frame of reference a makeover and also remember Martha as the woman who believed and trusted in Jesus in the face of funky bad odds.
It’s great to be like Mary, and it’s just fine to be like Martha. We can appreciate and learn from the strengths and good points that they both demonstrate in their own way, without pitting them against each other, or labeling one all “good” and the other all “bad.”
I think it would be kind of great to be a bit of a mix of Mary and Martha: hardworking; industrious; trusting; building my faith; sticking to my convictions; and doing my best to choose the “one thing that is needful” and to make decisions that will truly count in the long term.
1-5 Verses taken from John chapter 11 (ESV).
Read by Amber Larriva. Music by Simon W. Copyright © 2012 by The Family International