It may be admitted at once that it is not easy to consider the account of Martha in separation from that of Mary. There are three pictures in the New Testament of these women, and in each case they are seen together. The contrast between them constitutes part of the revelation concerning them. Nevertheless they are so distinct, and our Lord's methods with them were so different, that we are taking them in separation. Necessarily in looking at Martha, we shall have to glance at Mary, and when we come to consider Mary, we shall have to glance at Martha.
These women are named by neither Matthew nor Mark. Of the three pictures one comes from the pen of Luke, and two from the pen of John.
Let us first glance at the three pictures. The first of them is found in the final paragraph of the tenth chapter in the Gospel according to Luke; the second in the eleventh chapter of John; and the third in his twelfth chapter. As we look at the three we see that they present three days, and it may be best first of all to describe the days in themselves. The first was a day of prosperity and gladness and sunshine, over which certain shadows are seen creeping. The next is a day of gloom and of anguish, and of calamity, but a day upon which wonderful light breaks forth. The third day was a strange day indeed, in which we are conscious of a mingling of light and of darkness. Terrible darkness is there, but the most wonderful light is shining also. We may roughly describe the three days as, first a day of sunshine, then a day of gloom, and finally a day of mystery.
As we look at Martha on the day of prosperity and of gladness and of sunshine, we see her busily occupied as the hostess. Luke tells us with artless simplicity that: "A certain woman named Martha, received Him into her house."
No reference whatever is made to Lazarus, and it is quite evident that Martha was the householder. If we had been passing through Bethany at the time, and called, it was not Lazarus who would have received us. It was not Mary who would have interviewed us first, but Martha. Trespassing a little on our article on Mary, it is interesting to notice that whereas Luke makes it clear that the house belonged to Martha, John, referring to the two women, puts Mary first, as he says, "the village of Mary and her sister Martha." So that while the house belonged to Martha, there is a sense in which Mary had first place in the possession of a village. Perhaps that cannot be carried too far, but it is at least suggestive.
Let that be as it may, what we do see as we look on the first picture is that of Martha as a loving hostess, determined to do everything that lay in her power to make the visit of Jesus bright and beautiful. Most of us have been familiar with this woman or her type. We watch her moving swiftly round, attending to many matters. Each succeeding moment becomes more filled than the preceding one with activity, and all this in order to make her Guest welcome. Luke described this activity by declaring that she was "cumbered about much serving." Quite literally the Greek word there employed means she was dragged round. If perhaps no mere man understands that, I venture to affirm that every woman does.
Now watching closely, we find that as the result of this very activity as a hostess she becomes disappointed. She cannot overtake the promptings of her heart. She cannot get done all that she desires to see done. Suddenly she became aware of Mary, who, but a little while ago was by her side, helping, but now has left her. It is important that we observe carefully how she herself stated the case. She "Did leave me to serve alone."
Martha now saw Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, and she became angry first with Mary and then-mark it well-angry with the very One Whom she was trying to welcome.
That is the picture of Martha presented to us on this first day, the disappointed hostess, whose love has been thwarted, because it has been attempting to express itself in activity, and is unable to do so satisfactorily. So we see her coming into the presence of Jesus, and saying: "Dost Thou not care that my sister did leave me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me."
We turn now to the second in this triptych of pictures. It is a day of agony, and a day of that agony which follows, when the possibility of service is at an end. Martha is seen bereft of her brother. One can imagine that in the days of the sickness that ended in his death how ceaselessly active she had been in service. Now the hour had come when such service was useless. Nothing more could be done. Her brother was dead.
Then she had added to that awful pain of bereavement the deeper anguish of feeling that she had been neglected by her Friend. She and Mary had sent a message to Jesus Who was away on the other side of Jordan, telling Him: "He whom Thou lovest, is sick."
When they sent that message their feeling undoubtedly was that Jesus would come immediately. He did not come. The message that they received in answer to their appeal was that He had said: "This sickness is not unto death."
But now he is dead, and Martha learns that Jesus is coming, as it must have appeared to her, too late. Then we see her violating all the conventionalities of her religion and her nation, in that, when she heard of His approach, she did not wait in the house as was the custom of mourning women; she crossed the threshold, and meeting Him, said: "Lord, if Thou hadst been here my brother had not died."
There can be no doubt that in her case it was the language of protest, because He had not come.
Then we turn to the third picture. The atmosphere was hushed and tense. Calamity was at hand, and the disciples knew it, though they were perplexed beyond measure. Their outlook was baffled and beaten. They knew that the enemies of their Lord were closing in upon Him. As we look we see a supper in a house, with at least sixteen people present. When our eye falls upon Martha, we see her revealed in a sentence of two words, "Martha served." Here, however, there is no reference to her being burdened. With a quiet and fine dignity John tells us she served. Probably that day her feet went faster and her fingers moved more swiftly than ever before, but there is not a word about distraction. So we see Martha in the sunshine, Martha in calamity, Martha in the presence of mystery.
As we look at her we are first of all impressed with the fact that she was a woman of great affection. Love was the inspiration of her service on the first occasion. Love was the reason of her tumultuous grief at the death of her brother. Love was the inspiration of her quiet service on the day of mystery.
Moreover, in her we see a woman of unquestioned honesty. She dared to utter the criticism of Jesus and Mary, of which she was conscious on that first day. She was equally honest when in the day of calamity, when our Lord had made her the stupendous declaration, He challenged her, "Believest thou this?" she replied, "Yea, Lord"; and then immediately qualified her answer as she said: "I have believed that Thou art the Son of God." She had already said to Him: "Even now I know that, whatsoever Thou shalt ask of God, God will give Thee."
In saying that she was honest, although she did not quite understand her own attitude; for when next Jesus commanded that the stone be removed, she protested that it was too late. This whole conversation reveals her, as we have said, as a woman of transparent honesty, refusing to affect a faith which she does not possess.
Moreover she is seen as a woman characterized by reasonableness. In the day of sunshine it seemed to her unreasonable that Mary should leave her to serve alone. Her reasonableness is manifested in every point in her conversation with her Lord on the day of calamity. It was also evident in the day of mystery, when she was content to serve in quietness and stillness. Thus is she seen, a woman of great affection, perfectly honest, reasonable and constantly active.
We turn now, then, to observe our Lord's dealing with this woman. We remind ourselves at this point that we have no account of His method of winning her to Himself. It is rather an account of how He dealt with one who was His disciple. We have no account of the beginnings. It is impossible, however, to read the account which Luke tells us without realizing that the home at Bethany was a place of refuge for Jesus. I have no hesitation in saying that that home was the one place in the public ministry of our Lord where He, to use our familiar phrase, could be perfectly "at home." The phrase suggests the casting off of all restraint, and the perfect restfulness of the realization that there can be complete relaxation. We realize that the life of Jesus was in very many ways an unutterably lonely one. As I have said in other connections, so I would repeat, we could almost write the account in brief sentences. Chapter one, "There was no room for them in the inn." Chapter two, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of man bath not where to lay His head." Chapter three, Burial in a charity grave. Into this house at Bethany He came as into a harbor of refuge.
There He found Martha busily occupied in a loving attempt to give Him a worthy welcome. He found her baffled and cumbered by that very attempt, and at last she appeared before Him making her complaint. The first thing we notice is that He had no word of rebuke for her. Yes, there was a word of reproof, but there is a great difference between reproof and rebuke. He was not angry with her. There was no resentment on His part. He listened to what she had to say, and then in the most tender way addressed her, "Martha, Martha." We notice on several occasions how when Jesus had some reproof, and His heart was full of tenderness, He introduced it by twice using the name.
"Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you"; "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not."
So here He said, "Martha, Martha." In the very repetition of the name there was something of reproof.
The proceeded to show wherein her mistake lay. He saw her condition, and explained it to herself. She was divided, disturbed, and distracted. Life for the moment had become broken up for her and this because she had been so occupied with "many things" as to become forgetful of "one thing."
Here we need care as we listen to Him saying, "One thing is needful." We may be tempted at first to put into contrast "many things" with "one thing." As a matter of fact our Lord was not objecting to the "many things," but He was showing her the effect produced upon her by "many things" was that "one thing" was lacking. He was revealing to her the fact that she needed concentration at a center, and where this was soft activities could still be carried on in peace and poise and quietness. Mary was conscious of this, and was observing it. She was taking time to sit in devotion at His feet. She was seeking at the fountain head, and finding the secret of peace. Martha was cumbered and distracted not by the "many things," but because they were not held in right relationship with the "one." Our Lord was not declaring that the "many things" were unimportant. Let love do its "many things," but let its activity be under the mastery of the "one thing," that of discipleship, and taking time for the practice of it. Necessarily if this "one thing" be done, there are "many things" that may be omitted. Martha needed this "one thing" in order to quietness and freedom from distraction.
Turning to the day of calamity, we first observe that there can be no escape from the conviction that when Martha came to Him, she came protesting. It is perfectly true that she and Mary said exactly the same thing, and yet the difference was marked. It was a difference of tone, of temper, and consequently of accent. Martha was perfectly honest, but she was angry. Once again, as in the day of sunshine, she uttered a word of complaint.
Here again we observe that there was no rebuke on the lips of Jesus. He looked upon that hot, troubled, tempest-tossed soul, and He uttered in her hearing words of the most inspiring majesty in which He made a high claim for Himself. He first declared to her: "Thy brother shall rise again."
Her answer is very revealing. Before quoting her actual words, we may express the thought of them by saying that her answer meant, do not try and comfort me with theology just now. That is seen as we ponder her actual words: "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Quite evidently Martha was no Sadducee. She believed in resurrection, but an ultimate resurrection did not heal the wound of an immediate bereavement. The protest again was characterized by spontaneous honesty. Have you ever had someone who has lost someone dear and close to them say something like this: "People are sending me books about the Second Advent and the resurrection. All may be true, but I don't want them. I want my wife!" There is no doubt that that is exactly what Martha meant when she said: "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Then there fell from the lips of bur Lord those wondrous words, which surely she could not fully understand at the moment. Yet He uttered them to her, and so flooded her with light, the light that has been shining down the ages ever since, the light that transfigures every graveyard. He said: "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth on Me, though he die, yet shall he live."
Here let us very carefully observe that He did not say, yet shall he live again. We may with reverence put the great statement in another form. It simply meant that if a man believes on Him, though he dies, he is still alive. The death is very real on the earth level, but the man is not dead. Necessarily the emphasis is on the condition. "Whosoever liveth and believeth on Me."
Thus the method of Jesus with Martha on the day of darkness was that He gave her light such as had never shone in human history before, light which might have been challenged by the men who heard Him speak, but which has been vindicated through the passing centuries as the only definite word that proves immortality. The measure of His victory is demonstrated by the fact that when He challenged her, "Believest thou this?" she fell back upon the conviction she had as she said: "Yea, Lord; I have believed that Thou art the Christ;" and that confession then made, implicated her approach to conviction concerning the strange things He had now said. He knew that what Martha needed that day was not sympathy so much as light, illumination in the midst of the darkness.
Thus we come to the last picture of her revealed in the simple statement, "Martha served." Somehow or other as the result of previous experiences, she had certainly found her Lord in a new way. She was still doing "many things," but in the power of "one thing"; and by that "one thing" she was held in peace and balance and poise for the "many things." We are not told of a word that He spoke to her on that day, but we see Him receiving her hospitality, and His very silence was that of His accomplished purpose in the case of this strong and wonderful woman. He had brought her to the place where she served in quietness and in Peace.
When we ask what this account has for us, we realize how many things there are in it. Perhaps, however, the simplest of all is the realization that Christ is seen seeking hospitality in the day of sunshine, and finally receiving it in the day of mystery, even when His own Passion was approaching. May we not declare that He is still seeking for homes into which He can pass and be perfectly at home. He is still seeking for active service which makes Him welcome.
But as we examine the account, with Mary in the background, inevitably we learn the truth that hospitality can only be rendered to Jesus by those who are also His guests. If I would be His host, I must be His guest.
What a mystical and wonderful word that is, found in the letters to the Churches in Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear My voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him."
That is to say, I will accept his hospitality, I will be his Guest; and he shall accept My hospitality, I will be his Host, he shall sup with Me. That is perfect idea of fellowship with Him. First, we must be His guests. Then we can be His hosts.
The other simple and yet searching and comforting lesson we draw from the account is that He is never angry with honesty. "I tell Him all my doubts, and grief, and fears."
And that may be perfectly true. We can say to Him things that we cannot to any other. When we are with Him, accepting His hospitality, and offering Him our hospitality, we may say whatever is in our heart. The one thing that always stirred His anger in the days of His flesh, and still does, is hypocrisy. We may pass into His presence as Martha did, and by absolute honesty give Him the opportunity to talk to us, and reveal to us the secrets of life.