MARTHA is first mentioned (Lu 10:38-42) as living in 'a certain village' with her sister Mary, and as receiving our Lord as He passed on His way. We know from Joh 11:1; 12:1 that they afterwards lived with Lazarus, their brother, in Bethany; the village, then, may be either Bethany or where they lived before moving there. The characters of the two sisters are strongly marked and rendered vivid by their contrast; we shall therefore deal with the characteristics of both in this article.
Martha is over-anxious, and distracted with household duties; while Mary, as a disciple, sits 'at the feet' (cf. Ac 22:8) of Jesus. Martha complained to our Lord of Mary's inactivity, and showed some temper, perhaps jealousy, by speaking of the matter to Him rather than to her. Jesus commenced His reply with 'Martha, Martha,' repeating the name as He did on another occasion of loving correction ('Simon, Simon,' Lu 22:31), and blamed her for her outward agitation ('troubled') and inward anxiety. ('careful,' RV 'anxious'), telling her that she lacked 'the one thing needful.' (For various reading see Revised Version margin.) He then praised Mary for having 'chosen that good part' which from its nature was everlasting, and so would 'not be taken from her.' He blamed Martha, not for her attentive service of love, but for allowing that service to irritate, agitate, and absorb her. Martha's character here is loving, active, self-reliant, practical, hasty; Mary's also loving, but thoughtful, humble, receptive, dependent, devoted. We find the same distinguishing marks in Joh 11, where the two sisters again appear in the narrative of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus, after delaying for four days (Joh 11:17) to come in response to their joint request (Joh 11:3), arrived, Martha was the first to hear of His arrival, and at once went to meet Him. Mary, on the other hand, removed by her grief from the activities of life engaged in by her sister, was unaware of His coming. The moment, however, that she was sent for by Him (Joh 11:28) she hurried to His presence, and fell down at His feet. The contrast of character seen in Lu 10 is here markedly present.
'Martha holds a conversation, argues with Him, remonstrates with Him, and in the very crisis of their grief shows her practical common sense in deprecating the removal of the stone. It is Mary who goes forth silently to meet Him, silently and tearfully, so that the bystanders suppose her to be going to weep at her brother's tomb; who, when she sees Jesus, falls down at His feet; who, uttering the same words of faith in His power as Martha (Lu 10:21,32), does not qualify them with the same reservation; who infects all the bystanders with the intensity of her sorrow, and crushes the human spirit of our Lord Himself with sympathetic grief (Lightfoot, Biblical Essays, p. 37).
The sisters appear again, and finally, in Joh 12, at the Supper given to our Lord at Bethany (see art. Mary, No. 2); and again their contrast of disposition is seen. Martha, as presumably the elder sister, 'served,' while Mary poured the precious ointment on the Saviour's head and feet. A comparison between this passage and Lu 10:38-42 shows, indeed, the same Martha, but now there is no record of her over-anxiety or distraction, or of any complaint of her sister's absorption in devotion to the Saviour; for doubtless she had herself now chosen that good part which would not be taken from her.
Charles T. P. Grierson.