I Want to Be a Martha

Why would I want to be a Martha? Isn’t Martha’s example is usually one that women are encouraged not to follow, rather than to follow?  So, why would I place single Martha as an example with women like Deborah, Huldah, and Mary in the #BookofWomanhood? 

And perhaps the thought that Martha was single has never stood out in the story. Deborah, Huldah, and Mary were married, but their identity as wife is just background to their identity as an individual. Those biblical examples whose identity as a wife is central are not the best examples in that role (think Sarah, Rebekah, or Leah). Though there are passages that address the relationship of a wife to her husband, and the wife of noble character (Prov 31), biblical women do not seem to receive attention for being outstanding wives, but rather for other personal characteristics.

Far be it from me to disparage the vital role a wife plays in the family and in society. One wonders what would have happened should Pilate have listened to his wife’s concern for Jesus. And it is probable that many exemplary biblical men had exemplary wives whose stories were (unfortunately) unwritten.

I do, however, find it interesting that being a wife does not seem central to the biblical portrayal of many women. Though some may assume they were married, Martha and her sister Mary, Miriam Moses’s sister, and Phoebe (Romans 16) were single, and Lydia (Acts 16) was either single or a widow. In the same way that their identity as a wife is not central to the story of Deborah and Huldah, singleness is also not central to the stories of Martha and Miriam. Though marriage was even more common in biblical times than it is today, biblical women are not praised for being wives or stigmatized for being single.[1]

Being a wife does not seem central to the biblical portrayal of many women Click To Tweet

Martha is no exception, and her story is in Luke 10:38–42 and John 11:1–12:8. Martha’s problem in the familiar Luke 10 story is that she is focused on the details of hospitality, a woman’s job. In first-century Palestine and the Middle East today, hospitality is what one does in order to honor one’s guests. Martha is accomplishing what is prescribed by her society, and Jesus breaks social norms when he praises her sister for sitting at his feet as any man (but no woman) would. Martha is distracted by all the details of honoring Jesus and misses being with Jesus. “Her activity was not out of place but out of proportion.”[2] Later in the narrative, at Simon’s house, Martha receives no rebuke for her serving, apparently because her service was more balanced (John 12:2).

Martha was distracted and appears frustrated. Perhaps she wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet with Mary, but someone needed to get the food ready. If I were she, I might have been annoyed that my sister was where I wanted to be and that I was doing all the work. Perhaps that’s why she says (I might have whined), “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40). Jesus says that she’s so concerned about other things that she’s missing whom she is with and whom she is serving.

In the same way, many women are distracted by details and miss what is in front of them. Some single women are working on the details of finding “Mr. Right” and miss both the beauty of being single and the great men and women around them.

So Martha is a negative example in that she does not sit and enjoy, but perhaps she learned from Jesus’ words. And showing hospitality for Jesus meant also showing hospitality to his companions who were many, as we have seen. What we miss is that single Martha seems to have her own home and takes care of her sister and brother. We also miss that she had close friends of the opposite sex—including Jesus. The Gospel of John states, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).

Martha was also more of a go-getter than her single sister Mary. They sent for Jesus when their brother Lazarus was sick and they waited for him as Lazarus died. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him while Mary stayed home. As illustrated in her haste to meet him, it seems that Martha had learned the “one thing necessary”: to focus on Christ. Though she does not understand everything about Jesus, her faith was clearly very strong for she said, “Lord, 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” (John 11:21–22).

When Jesus reveals to her a truth that is revealed to no one else, that he is the resurrection and the life, she confesses her faith that Jesus is the Messiah. This confession is significant—the only other person who confesses the same is the apostle Peter. Martha is a woman of great faith and intimacy with Jesus.

After she converses with Jesus, she tells Mary that Jesus would like to speak to her. This time, the roles are reversed—Martha spends intimate time with Jesus before Mary does, and then she leads Mary to Jesus. Martha was discreet but Mary runs out to him, making the same statement Martha already did, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died” (11:32). While Martha’s statement had added words of faith, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him,” Mary’s did not. Jesus does not converse with Mary then, but is rather moved by everyone’s grief and weeps.

When Jesus asks to have the stone rolled away from Lazarus’s tomb, Martha is concerned about the stench, revealing that her faith is still growing. After Lazarus’s resurrection, Martha provides for everyone by serving at Simon’s house (John 12:2).

Martha is a close friend of Jesus to whom he reveals special secrets. Click To Tweet

Martha is a go-getter who cultivated great faith, independently led her own home, but acts interdependently with her siblings. She is a close friend of Jesus to whom he reveals special secrets. Her faith is strong and growing and she learns from Jesus’ words to her about not worrying about material things but focusing on him. She is a great example of a woman, and she was single.

I want to be a Martha.

*Excerpted from The Book of Womanhood, chapter 3, “Biblical Herstory: Women In Scripture

[1] Even in Proverbs 31, the wife of noble character does good to her husband and takes care of her children, the list of all her other work both inside and outside her home receives greater emphasis.

[2] Silva, and Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, 112.

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