Jesus, Mary and Martha in John’s Gospel

March 5, 2016

flowerI’m spending a little more time in the Jesus-Mary-Martha stories on the blog this month, because I recently ran across an interesting article that interprets John 11 through a more literary lens.*

Considered from this perspective, we can see that John used both Martha and Mary in their own way to reveal something about the identity of Jesus. Rather than being set against each other, as in the Luke 10 story, John shows both of these women exemplifying faithful, albeit different, responses to Jesus that the gospel presents as models of discipleship.

This story fits well within the context of John’s gospel, whose major purpose is explicitly stated at the end:

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

As the narrative begins in John 11, Mary is immediately highlighted:

“This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” (John 11:2)

This foreshadowing is unusual for John and may indicate that his readers were already familiar with the anointing story. They may have known her from Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:1-9, where the woman went unnamed, yet Jesus stated, “Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  (Remember that John’s gospel was the written last.) Clearly, John wanted readers to know beforehand that they were reading about a familiar figure.

Next in John 11, we learn that a purposeful four days had passed before Jesus left for Bethany in response to the sisters’ call. As he finally entered the village, Martha went out to meet Jesus. The two have a theological discussion. Jesus revealed himself as the resurrection and the life. Like many other characters in John, Mary expressed faith and conviction that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah, a confession similar to the one Peter made (Matthew 16:16) – albeit before she had actually seen resurrection.

John seems to be using Martha’s faith to exemplify the kind of disciple to whom Jesus referred in a later conversation with Thomas:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

After the Ascension, all believers—including John’s readers—would need to follow Martha’s lead in coming to faith.

Next, John queued up Mary, who had stayed back at the house accompanied by the “many Jews” from Jerusalem who had come to console the sisters. Note that this family seems already to have had a large social network.

Mary then went out to Jesus, which is significant. She was trailed by her entourage of mourners, who mistook her destination.

Mary worshiped and wept.

The Jews kept wailing.

Then Jesus wept.

(Why? Was it merely empathy? Some versions translate Jesus’ mood here as “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” while others say “a deep anger welled up.” I’m not sure what this is about. His dear friend Mary was deeply grieved, yes, but the people with her were openly skeptical of him, and some would later report him to the Jewish authorities.)

These mourners were certainly as confused about Jesus’s choices as were Mary and Martha.

“Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” (John 11:36-37)

From outside the tomb, Jesus then prayed aloud – on behalf of his audience, note – then called Lazarus forth from his tomb.

“Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (John 11:45)

Thus, Mary brought the Jews to Jesus, exemplifying another type of model disciple. Her evangelism was not at all overt. In her grief she went to Jesus, possibly not even aware of how her actions might influence her company. The mourners followed their friend to support her and were confronted with an unexpected miracle.

Could this story also serve as one model for our own evangelism in 21st-century American culture? Could it be that our turning to Jesus in our grief and suffering—instead of to anger and aggressiveness—is an ideal way to bring others along into God’s presence? Are there times when our own resolute dependence on God might provide the most meaningful opportunity for our friends to see him at work?

This narrative in John 11 is often read primarily as a resurrection story. Certainly, this miracle ended up being a turning point in Jesus’ ministry as it prompted the decision to have him killed.

Yet, the additional details about the sisters are there for a purpose too. John was interested in bringing people to faith in Jesus. These two women, who very likely continued to be beloved and spiritually influential figures on into the early years of the church, set valuable examples for the first-century Christians and for us today.

Only a short time later, Mary’s devotion was again in the spotlight as she anointed Jesus with perfume worth a year’s wages (John 12). In purely economic terms her sacrifice was possibly second only to that of the tax collector Zaccheus. Once again, her understanding and actions were held up as exemplary.

The faithful words and actions of these women were clearly valued by both Jesus and his apostle John—maybe another message in itself.


*These ideas were introduced to me by Mary Stromer Hanson in a Priscilla Papers article titled “Mary and Martha: Models of Leadership in John 11.”

One response to “Jesus, Mary and Martha in John’s Gospel”

  1. Brian Pinkston says:

    Enjoyed this very much!

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