A young woman sits at the feet of Jesus. She is transfixed by his presence, hanging on his every word. Can you glimpse the delicate smile that hovers about her lips as she contemplates him? Her eyes are bright, captivated. She is Mary. See the somewhat older woman walking across the room deliberately towards Jesus? Her eyes are warm and straightforward, but her brow is furrowed and her expression troubled. Here is Martha.
This is something like what I imagine when I read the tale of these two sisters told in Luke. Mary is still, attentive, passive. Martha is active, moving, purposeful. Mary hardly notices her sister’s approach, so fixated is she on Jesus. Martha strides resolutely toward them. She speaks respectfully, but bluntly, to Jesus. She gestures towards Mary (is that frustration we see in the abrupt raising of her arm and the swift flick of her wrist?). At the interruption, Jesus answers quietly, holding Martha’s gaze. Is Martha taken aback? Does her expression falter? Does it soften, apologetically? Do Martha’s eyes widen in surprise?
We don’t know, for the story in Luke culminates with Jesus’ words in response. But that’s alright, for we’ve been shown what’s most important. We’ve witnessed that Mary has chosen the “good part,” and has the “one thing needful” that Jesus tells us will not be taken from her.
But what exactly is that “one thing”?
In the first part of this discussion, we considered some of the “likely stories” that might reveal the “one thing.” Any—perhaps all—of those could be the “the good part” that Mary grasped but which eluded Martha. However, my musings ended with a sense of incompletion. Like so many sticky sayings, it wasn’t easy to sort out, even though that’s what our human logic and our penchant for closure desire. The tale beckoned us “further up and further in” to another point in Scripture where both Mary and Martha prominently appear. This second instance occurs in John 11 during one of the most significant events of the New Testament: the resurrection of Lazarus. It is in this context that we discover “Martha’s moment.”
In John, we once more meet both sisters as they grieve the death of their beloved brother. We see a Mary we know. She is still, mostly quiet, and for much of this portion of the story she remains at home, overcome by sorrow. When we see Martha we also recognize her as the active, tenacious woman she has shown herself to be. When Martha hears that Jesus is coming, she again takes the initiative and goes right out to meet him. When she encounters him, she is genuinely forthright. Her words verge on confrontation. I can almost hear her voice — still strong, but tinged with a plea and perhaps a trace of breaking under the weight of grief: “If you had only been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!”
But she goes further. Martha affirms precisely why she knows this would have been the case and—just as she did in the previous portion of the story—I think she makes a demand of Jesus here. “Even now, Jesus,” she says, “I know that whatever you ask of God, he will give you!” Her statement seems tantamount to petitioning Jesus to ask God to raise Lazarus then and there.
When Jesus answers her, telling her that Lazarus will indeed rise from the dead, Martha strikes me as unsatisfied. “I know he will rise in the resurrection at the last day,” she retorts, somewhat abruptly, as if to suggest to Jesus, “Please don’t tell me what I already know; what I want is for him to rise again now.” Martha knows what Jesus has taught her and she believes him. But she also believes that Jesus can do it now and that is what she is, perhaps, tacitly entreating him to do.
It is here that Jesus, prompted by Martha’s point, says something stunning and utterly breathtaking. He immediately addresses what hovers between the lines: the desire for the “now” implicit in her words. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He proclaims himself to be the resurrection itself, standing right before Martha in her “here and now,” in her present — not in a future “last day,” but in that very moment. Then Jesus asks Martha to affirm her belief in him. It is a moment akin to the one in which Jesus asks his disciples to identify him and Peter answers with striking similarity to Martha’s response: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Here is a vision through the waterfall of possible meanings. See that Martha both physically and spiritually actively seeks Jesus? Martha knows unequivocally that Jesus is the only answer, and she is determined to pursue him. Martha immediately goes to find him, confronts and entreats him, affirms who he is, and then confesses her faith in him using words reminiscent of Peter’s. This is indeed “Martha’s moment,” for here we witness her remarkably bold faith. Contrast that with what we see from Mary, who remains sequestered, grieving; who comes to Jesus only when she is summoned; who, when she meets him, echoes Martha’s words (“Lord, if you had been here Lazarus would not have died”) but, significantly, does not add that she realizes whatever Jesus asks of God, she knows it will be given. Then Mary, unlike Martha, weeps.
When Mary weeps, Jesus “groans in the spirit.” Of course, it is because Jesus has compassion. After all, we are explicitly told he loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But, there is more. Perhaps he groans because Mary has not, at this point, chosen “the good part.” She is devastated by her loss, she is not looking towards the hope that is Jesus, she does not perceive the full revelation of who he is. Like Martha in the earlier segment of the narrative, Mary is distracted. She cannot see past her loss. Jesus may be troubled because he sees that Mary no longer has her eyes focused on him, the Resurrection and the Life. As Peter, in his walk across the water, lost sight of his Lord and sank into his fear (thus literally sinking into the water), so too does Mary lose sight of her Lord as she sinks into grief.
The Greek term used to connote Jesus’ “groaning” has its roots in the word brimaomai, which means “to snort with anger.” What Jesus does might possibly be rendered as “sighing with chagrin.” While we may prefer to reject this meaning in order to view Jesus as empathetic, it would also be unwise to neglect this as an expression of Jesus’ dismay. Martha missed the “one thing needful” earlier, but it is Mary who misses it here. Martha has heard, learned, and inwardly digested what Jesus was teaching her in Luke 10. She perceives the “one thing needful,” and then chooses “the good part” as she seeks, confronts, implicitly petitions, affirms, and confesses Christ.
What we see unfolding between Jesus and Martha is a teaching conversation, the fruits of which allow us to perceive the “one thing needful” that Mary had in Luke and that Martha now more fully grasps in John. It is through this teaching conversation that not only does Jesus unequivocally articulate who he is, but that all those present at Lazarus’ resurrection — including us, as witnesses reading the story — are led into Christ’s sunlight. Jesus, through his engagement with Martha, draws away the veil. Ultimately, he turns his words into action, demonstrating without question Who He Is when he raises Lazarus from the dead.
Note here that even Martha, though she grasps who Jesus is and what he can do in an abstract sense, doesn’t clearly understand what is about to happen. For although she confesses Christ, she balks at removing the stone covering the tomb. Martha sees the revealed Christ, but has failed to see the full revelation: the profound depth and extent of what Jesus will do in resurrecting Lazarus’ dead, decaying flesh. I get the sense she might have imagined that, at Jesus’ command, Lazarus would simply suddenly appear, healed and whole. The idea that he would literally be called out from the tomb in which he had lain for days had not occurred to her. Be that as it may, it is still through Jesus’ interaction with Martha that the truth — one which Jesus fully intended to demonstrate from the beginning of the narrative — is shown.
Thus, while Mary is the example in the first portion of the tale, we can now see that Martha, too, is an example. That is, while Mary is a model of “restfulness,” we see in Martha the model of “quest-fulness.” Both are attributes we would do well to cultivate.
One other important thing to notice before we move on is that this Martha we see in John, though recognizably dynamic and decisive, is not troubled or distracted. She seeks one thing, and does so doggedly: she seeks the Christ, Jesus fully present and able to bring about what seems impossible. This Martha is not “restless”; she is fully focused and in possession of “the one thing needful” — she knows that Christ is all, and it is from this stance that she fervently pursues him.
Returning to our initial foray into the world of these two sisters, remember that I was convinced that this parable-like story had many things to reveal, that its sunlight would illuminate various truths and surely refract outward to cast light on universal realities. What now, at the end of our stroll through the story, might we conclude?
In terms of what we’ve learned about being a woman who would follow Christ, we’ve gained the insights from the “likely stories,” but have also seen that Christ wants to teach all of us — women and men — through our active pursuit of him and engagement with him. We participate in his instruction through both contemplation and action. Mary receives much from Jesus, but Martha also gains all that she can imagine and more (magnificently incarnated by her risen brother) when she seeks the Lord. Our task is to learn to discern the appropriate moments for each course; there are times to choose Mary’s contemplation as a basking in the presence of Truth as well as times to select the “quest-fulness” of Martha in a pilgrimage towards Truth.
We have also been given insight into what it means to be a student: a pilgrimage through proactive questioning, tenaciously seeking answers, and boldly confronting and thereby allowing and inviting correction and guidance out of error and into truth. As Martha did, we ought to seek the truth while it is near. We may then proclaim truth, and from thence we may make any petition with the confidence that further truth will be discovered.
What then does it mean to be a teacher? We have learned to honor such pilgrimage in our students; we need to allow space for confronting and querying in learning, to wrestling with Reality. Furthermore, Jesus models gentleness in correction. He allows students to engage and challenge as they seek answers. He has shown us how to participate in a teaching conversation.
Now we come to what the story teaches universally: we see more clearly than ever that Jesus himself is the “one thing needful,” because he came to do all that is necessary. He is the one who provides — as he provided the wine at the wedding, as he provided food to the 5,000, as he provided Mary, Martha, and Lazarus with everything they could possibly need including a miraculous resurrection. The ultimate “good part” is perceiving that Jesus is the only “one thing needful” in every single moment, no matter the distractions that will always be there, threatening to overwhelm us.
This tale is a rich waterfall of meaning indeed. It is not solely about roles, contemplation versus action, restfulness and “quest-fulness.” It is about all of those things, and as with all gifts ensuing from that which is true, good, and beautiful, there is a golden nugget: Jesus himself.
True to form with parables of sunlight, our excursion does not necessarily end there. As Thomas Traherne writes in Centuries of Meditations:
I will open my mouth in Parables, I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Things strange yet common, incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. (1st Century, No. 3)