Women of Hope: Martha

Surely my eyes deceive me. Lazarus lives! Jesus spoke the word, and Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Even with the wrappings still hanging from his limbs, I could tell he was healthy. Whole. Alive!

Jesus told me Lazarus would rise, and I thought He spoke of the Last Day. But Jesus meant TODAY! Oh, there is nothing He cannot do. His power defeats even death!

I try to talk, but I can only laugh. And weep. Father God, You have stepped in when Mary and I needed You most. My grief was great but my fear was growing bigger. You’ve made a way for us to continue living fruitfully in this world. And we’ll do so everyday glorifying You!

Martha. Sister to Lazarus and Mary. Beloved follower of Jesus – and friend. Servant of many, sharing freely her gift of hospitality. Devoted. Dutiful. And full of faith.

Like her sister, Martha makes appearances in three Gospel scenes. Like Thomas, who is forever dubbed the “doubter,” Martha has gone down in history as the one who missed the main point. But, as we’ll discover, Martha knew Jesus and His ways well. In fact, Martha’s confidence may startle us into the realization that we, too, can step into our true selves without regret or remorse. And, in one key conversation, Martha reveals to us not only her faith in Messiah but the kind of hope we can trust even when grief and fear overwhelm us.

Distraction’s Deception

Can you picture in your mind a particular person who constantly flits like a frantic fly from one task to another with rarely a pause? I imagine their pulse rate flutters like a hummingbird’s wings and their thoughts open and close like files on my phone at 5G speed. Until they crash.

Um, that used to be (still can be) me. I’m a natural do-er. Achiever, helper, worker bee. A Martha. True confessions – for the better part of my adult life, I’ve wrestled with feeling bad for being a Martha, thinking I should be more like her sister, whose devotion to Jesus was deemed the one thing that mattered most.

I used to read Martha’s story in Luke as a slap on the wrist for being wired the way I am. But as I’ve spent more time with the Lord and with these sisters of Bethany, I have learned that is not the lesson Jesus is trying to teach. Let’s get our context: 

The first time we get a glimpse of Martha she’s in the kitchen cooking up a storm as she prepares a meal for Jesus and the followers who are gathered in her home (Luke 10:38). Luke tells us the preparations distract Martha – to the point of aggravation, so she steps before Jesus and asks for Mary’s help (v.40). 

Charles de La Fosse Paris 1636 – 1716 CHRIST AT THE HOME OF MARTHA AND MARY as on FineArtAmerica.com

We know Jesus’ reply: nope, not gonna do that because Mary is doing what she’s supposed to (vv.41-42). Jesus’ “no” is a rebuke, but it’s not for who Martha is or for what she’s doing. Rather, it’s about what keeps her from choosing the better part. 

We don’t know Martha’s response to Jesus’ reprimand. Did she make excuses? Roll her eyes? Leave in a huff? Drop the food and take her place at His feet? We don’t know.1 

One of the beautiful aspects of Scripture is that when we read the whole of it, not just pulling out pieces to fit our moment or mindset, we get the fuller picture. Such is the case with Martha.  John continues her story for us – another dinner with the disciples, this time at Lazarus’ house after his resurrection (John 12:1). Go ahead, peer into the kitchen. See Martha serving, again (v.2). And Mary in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet, again (v.3). 

On the surface, it would seem nothing has changed. Except everything has. Between these two dinner-events, an inner work has been transpiring within Martha. Luke and John hand us before-and-after snapshots of Martha. Agitated, distracted Martha has been replaced by peaceful and joy-filled Martha. We see a woman who received the rebuke and allowed a deeper truth to be worked out within her so that she could grow closer to Christ.

“Christ could see a fault line that ran deep down the woman’s psyche, down to where her identity lay. Martha thought she had value because she was productive. Jesus wanted her to learn she had value simply because she was His” (p.138).2 

Jesus names the better part – time in His presence – because He knows the one thing keeping Martha from being wholehearted in her devotion to Him is busyness. 

In our culture, we wear busyness like a badge of honor. How many times do we respond to the ubiquitous “How are you doing?” with “Busy!”? We have many responsibilities and lengthy to do lists. Our calendars have no margin and our days are so full that we, like Martha, sacrifice the one thing that Jesus desires – time with Him. 

When Jesus admonished Martha, He was not saying she should be like her sister and quit being herself. Jesus created Martha. He gifted her. He placed within her a heart to serve and an ability to get much done. But, just as with the rich, young ruler (Luke 18:18-27), Jesus could peer into Martha and see what kept her from being completely released into a fuller walk with Him: busyness.

And “busyness, by itself, breeds distraction” (p.9).2 

Martha had gotten sucked into the spiral of self-striving, falling for the deception of such distraction – believing she had to do all the things. As if only she could do them. Maybe as a way to prove her love for Jesus. Or to prove to herself that she was worthy of Him. Whatever the motive, Martha had been so busy working for Jesus that she nearly missed her chance to know Jesus.2  

It’s a trap we can all fall into. And, when we do, Jesus calls us on it. He reminds us to make room for Him and get still before Him. There will always be kingdom work to do, but if we aren’t first the Lord’s daughters, we’ll get swept up in the same work-filled whirlwind that Martha did. Jesus knows this about the Marthas of the world, so He consistently beckons us to the better way.

Stained glass of Martha and Mary in St. Nicholas Church, Orebro, Sweden. Public domain photo by David Castor.

Distraction’s Defeat

We’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Martha’s before-and-after photos. It’s time, now, to turn to that pivotal middle scene, which reveals Martha’s heart and mind as aligning with Christ’s. 

It’s the day Jesus arrives in Bethany – four days after Lazarus’ death. The sisters are doubled over in grief and fear. Without Lazarus, they’re heartbroken and their futures are at risk. Despite this, the minute Martha hears of Jesus’ approach, she runs out to meet Him, crying out, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:21-22). 

Matha’s words exhibit her confidence in Christ: 

  • In the midst of her grief and consternation, she goes to her Savior. She doesn’t pull away; she draws near. 
  • She has no fear of honesty with Jesus because she trusts Him to love her no matter what. 
  • Her belief that Jesus has the capacity to heal the sick and dying uncovers her deep understanding of who Jesus is. 
  • Her heart remains open to whatever Jesus has next.

Jesus’ reply, “your brother will rise again,” is packed with a truth Martha can’t yet comprehend, so she responds, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v.23-24).

We know what Jesus plans to do that day, but Martha does not. So, Jesus’ reference to resurrection only has meaning to Martha in context to what He’s taught about end times – that on Judgment Day bodies of all believers will be resurrected and glorified (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Full stop. Martha knows about the resurrection of the saints!  She’s been paying attention. Learning. Growing.

Yet, that’s not the end of this dialogue. Jesus leans-in to this woman and reveals a profound truth, 

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replies, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (vv.25-27). 

And, there it is. Martha’s full faith statement, with which she uncovers a firm grasp on Jesus’ identity! 

The Resurrection and The Life is a painting by Wayne Pascall which was uploaded to FineArtAmerica.com

In the worship song, “New Wine,” the line, “When I trust You, I don’t need to understand,” speaks to everything underlying Martha’s declaration. Martha’s statement of faith, spoken in the midst of the chaos, demonstrates a heart that’s been aligned with the Lord’s. So even though she doesn’t understand His ways, she chooses to trust Him. 

We’re given a glimpse behind the curtain, between the before-and-after, to see how Martha responded to Jesus’ rebuke. She received it and gave it space to do a work in her – but not at the cost of giving up her identity. She’s still servant-hearted Martha, but now her busyness doesn’t define her or dictate her days. Distraction no longer keeps her from choosing the better part. Instead, all her doing derives its purpose and power from the overflow of her love, devotion, and hope in Christ. 

Friend, what distractions keep you from getting alone with Jesus? Where are you right now – are you trying to keep all the plates spinning or blaming yourself for not being who you’re “supposed” to be or feeling defeated because you aren’t like the women who seem to have it all together? It’s pivotal to identify where you are in your story with Jesus so that you can pause, reflect, and receive whatever He has for you.

No matter our personalities and tendencies, we can learn from Martha. She shows us how to have hope in the most dire of circumstances and what it looks like to come to Jesus with all our feelings and frustrations – even those directed toward Him. Martha models for us how to trust Jesus no matter our mistakes by displaying a hope in Christ that’s anchored so firmly that it can remain in Him no matter the distractions, demands, or even the deaths. 

So, instead of judging Martha for the rest of our days, let’s give grace – to her and ourselves. Instead of comparing ourselves with the “Marys” of the world – whose hearts seem much more inclined to devotion over duty – let’s look to Jesus to better know what He’s called us to be and do. 

This fully devoted, deeper-walk-with-Jesus-kind-of-life that we desire doesn’t just happen because we want it to. Transformation requires attention and intention. Giving Jesus our time, presence, and teachable spirit doesn’t mean changing how we’re wired so much as giving Him room to shift our motives and focus. As we draw closer to the Lord, He draws near to us (James 4:8), and that is where relationships grow, trust builds, and hearts change. And it’s through this sanctifying process that our hope of Christ expands.

Father God, You are King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and we are so humbled and honored to be called your children, your beloved daughters. Thank You for knitting each of us together in the womb, for so wonderfully making us just as we are. We long to live out the life You’ve given us with the kind of confidence that Martha exhibits, and we’re beginning to understand just how much surrender that kind of life and assurance requires – yet we want to step into it. So, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to You. Lord Jesus, how remarkable for us to observe you interacting with Martha, challenging her to step into the faith she has professed. With our minds we know You are the Resurrection and the Life, but help us in our unbelief to better grasp its truths and their impact on our lives because we can see by Martha’s example how much we need to live through your power and not our own. Holy Spirit, we need your help to surrender, to trust, to align our hearts and minds with those of Christ. We know that in our own strength there is no real hope of living fully devoted lives for Jesus, so we put our hope in Him. And with Christ’s strength, we can embrace who we are and where we are in order to give of ourselves in ways that only we can. We also ask that You would redirect us each time we’re tempted to compare ourselves to others. Instead, we choose to live out of our true selves for the Living Word of God. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(inspired by John 1:12-13; Psalm 139:13-16; Romans 12:1; John 11:25-26; Psalm 28:7-8, 73:26; Isaiah 40:31; Philippians 4:13; Romans 8:26; Galatians 6:4-5; Ephesians 2:10)

Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.

  • 1 – Author Joanna Weaver (see #2) suggests Luke left us with an open-ended scene so that we might determine our own response. In other words, how do we respond to a Jesus-reprimand?
  • 2 – Joanna Weaver’s book has one of the best titles EVER — Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. ^I read the book more than a decade ago, and its truths still come to mind on a regular basis. (This is the book that names the Deadly D’s that our enemy uses to trip us up. We need to add Distraction to that list).
    • Well, hey! It looks as if they’ve done some sort of reprint on this dandy book. New cover on the book AND a 12-week Bible study — so, a two-fer. All for $10.
    • I re-skimmed this whole book in preparation for this week’s post because I’m so much like Martha that I struggled with Jesus’ “no.” I wanted so desperately not to call it a rebuke — but, rather, to make it a softer word that brushed off Martha’s aggravation and her missing-the-mark motives (which by the way, is the definition of “sin”). In the writing of this post, I both found conviction and compassion. Conviction in that when I strive in my own strength, I miss the better part. Compassion for my mistakes– and a freedom to be who God has made me to be. I think I’ll just sit in that a moment…
  • The two songs that represent Martha on our “Women of Hope” playlist capture her essence and the hope she carried within her. “There Is Hope” by City Alight describes the hope of Martha — and of us! “Confidence” by Ri-An is Martha’s essence — the very inner being I long to possess.
  • One more resource — on Wednesdays I’ve begun posting 5-7 minute teaching videos on my Facebook Author Page and Instagram (@shelleylinnjohnson). This week’s video on Martha made me laugh — somehow I managed to get a little Brady Bunch humor thrown in. LOL. (It’ll post this Wednesday). It’s my hope that the videos help bring home the lessons we explore here — and that they tap the curiosity of those who might not otherwise seek out a blog like this one.
  • Rhythms we can incorporate into our daily lives to aid us in our dwelling with God, living for Him, and putting our hope in Him:
    • This summer we’re continuing the rhythm of meditation. We’re filling our minds with our anchoring passage, Hebrews 11:1. Martha’s confidence in Christ was backed by conviction. Her faith remained anchored in the hope of Him — even when she thought the world as she knew had come to an end, even when she didn’t understand. So, let’s ruminate on the NRSV version again:

      “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” NRSV
  • Finally, as a community, let us not neglect sharing God’s hope with others! Share your God-stories with people around you. Share this site. Share God’s Word. Shine His light of His hope into the world!

Featured portrait: St Martha of Bethany is a painting by William Hart McNichols which was uploaded to FineArtAmerica.com on April 20th, 2018. Bits and Pieces photo by Photo by Zrng N Gharib on Unsplash.

^an affiliate link with which I may earn a bit 

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

8 thoughts on “Women of Hope: Martha

  1. Wow! I needed to see Martha’s story in two parts to get the WHOLE picture of her faith. Thank you Shelley!! Like Martha, I may not want to hear a rebuke, yet, I can appreciate those semi-colons of life, the pauses that guide us to never-ending opportunities to have a better story told. And , Shelley, you are masterful at telling them to encourage us.

    1. Yes! It’s crazy how often I run with half a story as truth… 😫 So glad this encouraged you. Martha’s whole story is encouraging me too. Thanks for being on the journey with me here! 💜

  2. I loved this sentence from your post:
    “Transformation requires attention and intention. Giving Jesus our time, presence, and teachable spirit doesn’t mean changing how we’re wired so much as giving Him room to shift our motives and focus.”
    Your writing has given me deeper insight into the familiar story of Mary and Martha. 💜
    I identify with Martha as well.

  3. I love the perspective that Martha is exactly who God created her to be, He just needed space to shift her motives! Thank you Shelley you always get straight to the heart of women. ❤️❤️❤️

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