Martha and Mary, along with their brother Lazarus, lived somewhere along the road to Jericho. The scriptures tell us that they lived in the town of Bethany. They feature in a number of Gospel accounts with which most Christians are familiar: Martha’s exasperation at Mary’s decision to sit and listen to Jesus rather than help with “hostess” duties, the anointing of Jesus’ feet with oil (much to Judas’ chagrin), and that small matter of Lazarus being resurrected from the dead. These are all well-known stories to anyone who has a smattering of knowledge of the Gospels. It would be all too easy to make this piece an exegesis on any or all of these accounts, but it is perhaps more interesting to look at some of the subtle nuances that the early church concentrated on regarding these three important figures. Let’s start with who they were.
Clearly they knew Jesus well. It isn’t just any casual acquaintance who can get snappy at a revered rabbi, whom they believed to be the Messiah, simply because her sister won’t give her a hand:
“‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!’” (Luke 10.38-40)
This familiarity suggests that both sisters were very close to Jesus – this meeting didn’t come (as some have supposed) because Jesus simply picked out a house to drop in on. He clearly spent a lot of time in their company. Additionally, we are told that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus – he wasn’t recorded as doing so at any of his other miraculous resurrections (such as Jairus’ daughter).
However, there is something else that is exceptional for these three people: they are the only named people in the Gospels recorded as being loved by Jesus. Others (such as the rich young man and the anonymous disciple) are recorded as being loved by him, but these are the only three loved by him who are mentioned explicitly by name (John 11.5).
They were clearly people of substance. We are given no hint that either sister was married (as would normally be the case by age 20), yet we are told by Luke that it was Martha’s house that Jesus visited. (It is true that John records it as being Lazarus’ house, but in the absence of spouses for any of them, or parental influence, we can surmise that they were all reasonably well off).
The Lucan account of Mary of Bethany listening at Jesus’ feet, rather than working to make the house ready for a guest, suggests that Jesus was, even here, subverting society’s strong norms, because it was a “man’s place” to listen to and be taught by a rabbi – it was not a place for a woman!
In the early church, the Lucan story was used to depict different vocations, both active (Marthan) and contemplative (Marian). However, there is also an essential element here that needs to be addressed; that is the Mary we have not yet mentioned – the Magdalene. There are many who see Mary of Bethany as Mary Magdalene. However, this is a confusion of name only (Mary was a common name). It is worth noting that part of the confusion may also arise from the fact that the third century title “the apostle of the apostles” was originally given to Martha and Mary rather than Mary Magdalene, who took over this mantle in subsequent centuries.
Additionally, every time Mary of Bethany is referred to, she is always in the same place: at Jesus’ feet, whether it be listening to him teach, pleading for the life of her brother, or anointing him with perfume. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory the Great announced in the sixth century that the “sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet was Mary Magdalene, rather than Mary of Bethany.
We don’t know what happened to Martha and Mary after the resurrection. True, there were three Mary’s at the crucifixion (Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas), but nobody named Martha. (It’s interesting to note that Mary of Clopas is often taken to mean Mary, wife of Clopas, whose relics are said to be in France, the same area that Martha, Mary and Lazarus are traditionally said to have been missionaries in after Christ ascended into heaven).
Far from being minor characters in the gospel narratives, Martha and Mary (and Lazarus) were so important to Jesus of Nazareth that he spent a lot of time with them immediately prior to his final week before the crucifixion. They are commemorated in our Lectionary on 29 July.