Collect: Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ honored the service and discipleship of Martha and Mary of Bethany: Guide our hands likewise to serve thee in serving others, and open our hearts likewise to know thee and Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Music: “Agnus Dei,” John Rutter
Martha and Mary of Bethany were two sisters who loved Jesus and, together with their brother Lazarus, had a relationship of deep love and confidence with him, even as they revered him as their Lord and the promised Messiah. They are portrayed in the New Testament as apparently single young women of some means who spoke their minds forthrightly to Jesus and had the respect of their community. Three events in particular form a triptych that establishes their relationship with Jesus and set them apart as especial examples of loving service and discipleship.
In the first scene, narrated in Luke 10:38-42, Jesus comes to Bethany (just two miles east of Jerusalem) and stays at the home of Martha, who feeds him and perhaps others in his party as he teaches in the house. As the host, Martha is conscientious and absorbed with the details of caring for her guests. The Greek word for her service is diakonían (in other contexts sometimes translated as “ministry”), which establishes that she serves freely (not as a slave) if perhaps out of a sense of duty. Her younger sister, Mary, on the other hand, “sat at the Lord’s feet” and listened to him teach. This phrase is rich with meaning, too, indicating a relation of student to teacher and disciple to master (Rabbi) that was unusual for a woman to occupy in Jewish society. But Jesus validates her choice when Martha asks if Mary shouldn’t rather be serving—that is, fulfilling her customary role.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus here acknowledges the contributions of both women—freely rendered service, and loving discipleship—but lays greatest value on discipleship, and seemly on a kind of simplicity of approach to mundane tasks that has eluded Martha. This single-mindedness, admirable in Mary, is easier said than done, of course. How would this episode have been different had Martha declined to play her appointed role as hostess in favor of simply sitting to listen to Jesus teach? Some tasks cannot rightly be deferred; and so it seems that each of us must strive to bring the practical care of Martha and the spiritual hunger of Mary to our daily walk with Christ.
Martha’s own spiritual stature is revealed in the second scene of our triptych, one of the most moving in all of scripture. As narrated in John 11, Martha goes out to meet Jesus as he comes belatedly toward Bethany some four days after Lazarus, her brother, has died. She stands with her Lord at the crosspoint of earthly grief and transcendent hope and cries, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What she hopes for is evident, though she does not give full utterance to it. Then Jesus speaks:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Her words in this moment are apostolic, echoing Peter’s, and stand among the most clarion declarations of faith in Jesus as Christ in all of the gospels.
Next, she sends for Mary, who has remained behind at the house, still in mourning. At the sight of her sorrow, Jesus is shaken at last to tears and onlookers marvel at the depth of his feeling, surely a measure of the affection he had for his friends at Bethany.
The third scene, again in Bethany, follows at some point after the ensuing miracle, this time in the home of the living Lazarus. Here, Martha and Mary reprise their roles as willing servant and loving disciple. Martha serves the meal (again, the Greek adumbrates diaconate service that in Christian tradition is rendered for the eucharist), and Mary comes forward and in a gesture of profound intimacy and discipleship, bathes Jesus’s feet with costly ointment, using her own hair as a towel. By one the meal is served, and by the other, it is made a sacrament, an occasion that anticipates the coming passover supper in which Jesus will wash the feet of his own disciples, and the anointing and burial of his body when the last of his life is spent.
It is not an exaggeration nor is it inappropriate to see in Martha and Mary types of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods as understood in our dispensation. It is no more incongruous that women should typify the priesthood in this way than that Christ himself should suffer the pains of women as well as men according to the flesh (2 Ne. 9:21, Alma 7:11–12) or be typified by traditionally female symbols such as hens gathering their chicks, the bowels of mercy (Heb: rechem = womb), or a nursing mother and her babe. The service of Martha points us to the preparatory, outward ordinances associated with the supper of the Lord, while the discipleship of Mary teaches all to press forward toward the inward place, and to the garden of the empty tomb, where we gain a view of the Christ that is to be and find redemption and rest to our souls in the loving arms of Jesus.