April 18, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Martha and Mary of Bethany

John F. Fink(Thirty-sixth in a series of columns)

Martha and Mary were sisters who lived in Bethany, about two miles from the top of the Mount of Olives, where a road led down to Jerusalem.

They had a brother named Lazarus. Jesus was a good friend who, apparently, frequently stayed with them when he was in Jerusalem, although the Gospels don’t specifically say that.

Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus left Jerusalem after his procession into the city and spent the night in Bethany, and we have come to assume that he went to their home.

We first meet Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, the end of Chapter 10.

In this episode, Martha was busy getting the meal ready while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him speak. This tells us something about Jesus’ attitude toward women since, in first-century Palestine, it would have been remarkable for a woman to assume the position of a disciple. It also tells us that Jesus felt relaxed in their home.

In this episode, Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her serve dinner, but Jesus replied that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Lk 10:42).

We get the idea that Mary was more contemplative, while Martha was more active. Perhaps, though, Jesus wanted to make the point that a hostess shouldn’t get so involved with preparing the meal that she neglects her guests.

Strangely, Luke doesn’t mention the sisters’ brother Lazarus. We learn about him in John’s Gospel, which also is the one that tells us that they lived in Bethany.

This was the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. When Lazarus became ill, the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love is ill” (Jn 11:3), telling us that Jesus had developed a close relationship with him.

In his book Jesus: A Meditation On His Stories and His Relationships With Women, Father Andrew Greeley expresses his opinion that Martha and Mary were teenagers and that Lazarus was even younger, 12 or 13.

I cannot agree.

First of all, John’s Gospel says, “A man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany” (Jn 11:1). It hardly seems probable that Jesus would have developed such a close relationship with a boy.

I have always imagined Lazarus as about Jesus’ age, with Martha and Mary in their 20s. If they were only teenagers or younger, who was the head of the household?

In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Martha first ran to meet Jesus and expressed her belief in the resurrection of the body and in Jesus as the Messiah. Mary, too, hurried to meet him when she learned that he had arrived.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus were also present at another meal in Bethany before Jesus’ crucifixion. This time, John says, Mary took a liter of perfumed oil and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. (Matthew and Mark say that she poured it on his head.)

This is the last time they appear in the Scriptures. Accounts of their later lives are only speculation.†

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