In this article we want to take a look inside a home that Jesus often visited. It is our purpose to meet some people who loved Jesus, and people whom He loved—the family of Martha and Mary and Lazarus.
The home of Martha and Mary was one of the homes in Bible times that was given to hospitality. Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from Jerusalem. Bethany was the starting point for the Palm Sunday procession.
There were two sisters and a brother who lived in the home which is the focus of our lesson. This was a home where love prevailed, but it was not without some quarrels and tensions. Luke tells us about a meal that was being prepared for Jesus. In the lesson Martha and Mary are the principal characters.
Martha wanted everything just right—the living room must be dusted, the drapes must be just so, and the flowers on the table must not clash with the colors of the table setting.
Mary seemed to care very little about such details. She didn’t mind disarranged cushions and things not always in their exact place. She preferred to sit and interact with the company than go to a lot of work to make a dainty meal.
Both women were kind and faithful disciples of Jesus, but their characters and temperaments differed.
The lesson has two primary centers:
- 1) The Supper: The visit of Jesus and His disciples (Luke 10:38-42)
- 2) The Funeral: The sickness and death of Lazarus (John 11:20-32)
1. The Supper: the Visit of Jesus and His Disciples (Luke 10:38-42)
Jesus felt a close bond with the family living at Bethany. A beautiful friendship existed between Jesus and the two sisters, and their brother Lazarus. Jesus not only visited the family, but He felt free to drop in at any time. The fact that He loved the family is stated three times in just one chapter of the New Testament—John 11, verses 3, 5, and 36.
On the occasion described in Luke 10, Jesus was traveling through the country with His disciples, most likely coming up from Jericho. He had just related the story of the Good Samaritan (the man who was robbed and left for dead along the Jericho Road). Jesus no doubt sent a messenger on ahead to inform His friends at Bethany that they could expect Him for supper that night. His disciples may have gone on to Jerusalem, or perhaps they too were included among the visitors who would drop in at Bethany. That is not clearly stated.
We can almost see Martha, when she received word that Jesus was planning to stop by; she was concerned about hospitality and generosity. She immediately went to work, beginning to prepare the meal. She sent one of her helpers to the market to get some extra food; she began to build a fire for cooking—and in the midst of the bustle of preparation, Jesus arrived.
Luke 10:38 says, “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village; and a . . . woman named Martha received him into her house.”
Martha was the older of the two sisters, and the words “her house” indicate that she was the proprietor of the property. Martha welcomed Jesus into the home, and after the initial greeting, she hurried off to the kitchen to continue the preparation of the meal.
Verse 39 says, “And she had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.”
When Jesus arrived, Mary soon found a place sitting at the feet of Jesus, drinking in His words of wisdom. Mary took advantage of this time with Jesus to hear what He had to say—and what He was teaching about the real issues of life here and hereafter. There is something tranquil in what Mary chose to do. Mary chose to hear about matters of eternal consequence.
In verse 40, we read, “But Martha (who) was cumbered about much serving, came to (Jesus), and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.”
Martha was disturbed by the fact that Mary seemed to have no concern about helping her to prepare and serve the meal—and in a mood of desperation, she came to Jesus and lamented the fact that Mary had left her with the work of food preparation. Martha said in essence, “Doesn’t it seem unfair to you that Mary just sits here while I do all the work?” Martha said to Jesus, “Bid her therefore to help me” (verse 40).
Martha wanted to give her guests the royal treatment, but she allowed her concern about getting the meal ready turn to irritation and complaint. She was motivated by hospitality and wanted to be a good hostess—but she became involved beyond her strength! And so she went to Jesus and said, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me do all the work? Tell her to help me!” The Greek construction of the words makes it clear that Martha anticipated a positive answer to her question. She expected Jesus to come to her aid. She was sure He would send Mary to help in the kitchen.
But in verses 41-42 Jesus responded: “(He) answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful. And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
The repeated use of Martha’s name indicates a sense of urgency. Jesus repeated the name of Simon (in Luke 22:31), and of Saul (in Acts 9:4). The phrase, “You are careful (anxious) and troubled about many things,” was saying in essence that Martha was disturbed about too many things which were not really important.
The “one thing needful” was something spiritual and eternal in nature, instead of those things that are merely material, physical, and social. Jesus said to Martha, “There is one thing in life worth being seriously concerned about—and that is the relationship of the human soul with God.”
Jesus is saying something like this: “Now Martha, stop and think about life; there are not really many necessary things. You are concerned about a lot of details, but you could live without them if you had to. On the other hand, there is one thing that you just can’t do without—and Mary has found it!”
The “one thing needful” is to take time to worship, and to hear about those things related to “the grace of God that brings salvation” (Titus 2:11).
The longer we live in this life, and the closer we come to the grave—the more we realize the importance of that truth. We can have health and money and lands and prosperity, but those things cannot really be called “needful.” The “many things” which most people are constantly striving for are not really necessities. For when we come to the end of life’s journey—the one thing that will count is whether or not we have accepted God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Martha was feverishly going about many things that day, in order to please and properly entertain the guests who had arrived. Jesus was not especially interested in being fed a sumptuous meal, but was rather interested in reaching open hearts to hear His message of good news!
Martha was active and anxious to serve others. Mary was quiet and contemplative. Jesus did not condemn Martha for attempting to provide a good meal for her company—and neither did He praise Mary for her indifference toward the work of helping to prepare the meal. Jesus will not criticize a woman for keeping a neat house, nor will He especially bless a woman who sits around all day at His feet and does nothing else!
Martha could have prepared a less lavish feast, and Mary could have offered to help Martha—but the point is this: There must be a balance between a place for the busyness of life, and the need for meditation at Jesus’ feet. We must guard against focusing most of our activity on providing physical comfort, and neglecting the provision of food for the inner person.
Unfortunately, when things get busy, usually the first thing to go is time with the Lord. The programs of the church, and the unending needs of people around us, are so pressing—that reading and hearing the Word of God is sometimes neglected. It is a sin to get caught up with our busy schedules, and fail to take time daily to be alone with God and His Word. Most of us can use a little more Mary and a little less Martha in our lives.
2. The Funeral: the Sickness and Death of Lazarus (John 11:20-32)
Sometime after the event described in Luke 10, Lazarus (the brother in the family) became seriously ill, and his sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “He whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:3). And when Jesus had heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was.
Jesus had a special love for the family, and because of His love for this household (John 11:5-6), He delayed going to their home. Jesus knew that Lazarus would be dead when He arrived in Bethany, but He also knew that He was going to do a great miracle. Jesus wanted all who would witness the miracle to know for sure that Lazarus was truly dead, and to be convinced that Jesus (the Son of God) had power over death.
In the warm climate of Palestine, a dead body would decompose rapidly, so the bodies of those who died were often buried the same day as the day of death. Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrived. Jesus and His disciples were on the other side of the Jordan River when they received the news about Lazarus. The journey to Bethany meant traveling more than 20 miles (all by walking). The road to Bethany involved climbing from more than 1,000 feet below sea level, to an altitude of 2,700 feet above sea level. It took a long, long day of difficult up-grade walking to get from Jericho to Bethany.
When Jesus arrived, Martha was there to meet Him (verse 20), and she said, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (verse 21). Jesus said to Martha, “Thy brother shall rise again” (verse 23). Martha responded that she believed in a general resurrection on the last day. But Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (verse 25). Those who live and believe in Jesus will never die spiritually and eternally. Those who serve the Lord will not experience a loss of communion with God, even though the physical body dies.
In John 11, verse 27, Martha said to Jesus, “Yea, Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” Remember that in Luke 10, which we examined earlier in this article, Martha was best known for being too busy to sit down and talk with Jesus—but here we see Martha as a woman of deep faith. It is likely that Martha (though busy with food preparation) took time to memorize Scripture while she stirred puddings and prepared soups!
Apparently Martha had also taken time to learn from Jesus and to know the basics of the Hebrew faith. Her statement of belief in verse 27 is exactly the response that Jesus wants to hear from all of us! “Yea, Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” Martha, like Mary, was also a woman with a valid faith and a clear love for God.
Martha went quickly to call Mary, and Mary hurried to meet Jesus, and fell down at His feet, saying just what Martha had said before her, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (verse 32). When Jesus saw Mary weeping, He was deeply moved and He also wept (verse 35).
That was followed by the scene at the tomb, when Lazarus came forth at the mere word of Jesus. He was bound hand and foot with grave clothes. Jesus said, “Loose him and let him go”—that is, unwrap the grave clothes and let him go free. Surely there was a happy reunion that evening in the home of Mary and Martha at Bethany.
There are several practical applications gleaned from the lesson:
Lesson 1) We must not let the cares of this world take up too much of our attention, yet Jesus did not rebuke Martha for her zeal and her hard work.
Somebody had to prepare the supper. If Martha would have spent most of her time sitting at the feet of Jesus (like Mary did), Jesus and His disciples would have gone hungry that night. On the other hand, there is always the danger of putting too much emphasis on the busy side of life—which can lead to the neglect of the devotional and contemplative side. Jesus did not condemn Martha, but neither did He condone her activity. The serving was not bad, but she allowed the serving to get her all tensed up.
One writer says, “The Lord wants all of us to imitate Mary in our worship, and to imitate Martha in our work—blessed are those who achieve the balance!”
Lesson 2) Martha’s gift of hospitality is a gift which the Bible says is important. One of the qualifications for spiritual leaders is that they are to be “lovers of hospitality” (Titus 1:8). May God bless all thoughtful, busy, efficient housekeepers like Martha.
Lesson 3) Jesus saw Mary and the other mourners weeping, and He too wept. The words translated “weep” in John 11:33 and 11:35 are two different words.
Mary’s weeping (verse 33) was “a loud crying.” The weeping of Jesus (verse 35) simply means “to shed tears.” The heart of Jesus goes out in deep sympathy to those who know the ache of parting with loved ones at death. Jesus may have wept, however, not so much because Lazarus had died, but because He was going to call Lazarus back from the glories of the eternal world, into this life again—that is, to a life of grief and troubles.
Lesson 4) We notice how different the temperaments of true Christians may be. The two sisters in this lesson were faithful disciples.
- both had believed that Jesus was the Messiah
- both loved Jesus
- both welcomed Jesus into their home
But Martha was active, stirring, and impulsive—speaking out all she felt. Mary, by way of contrast, was quiet, still, contemplative, and had deep inner feelings. Just so, in our congregations today—we must not expect all believers in Christ to be exactly like each other. We must not think that others have not experienced God’s grace, just because their ways of doing things do not tally exactly with ours.
Lesson 5) It seems proper to provide for our families and to attend to the normal duties of life—but we must guard against letting our businesses, our daily callings, our household duties, and our interaction with society around us—become so demanding that our time for Bible reading is abridged, and the time for regular daily periods of family worship is skipped.
Lesson 6) Mary chose the good part, the one thing needful—which is salvation through repentance of sin, faith in Christ—and a commitment to follow Him in obedience.
That is the only thing which is absolutely needful, in order to be prepared for the life to come. Other things may be convenient, and helpful, and desirable, and useful, but there is one thing without which you cannot do—and that is saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
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The home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus was a home which Jesus graced a number of times with His presence. It was also a home He blessed with His greatest miracle. The little home in Bethany did not escape from the trials and tragedies of life. Martha and Mary and Lazarus dealt with normal anxieties. There was sickness, and death, and grief. The presence of Jesus in the home did not exempt them from these things. But there was also a deep faith: “Yea Lord, you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
How much is your home like the home described in our lesson? The presence of Jesus in your home will not remove the realities of life—but His presence will help you to live nobly through the crises that come—and to triumph over them! May God send special blessings upon your home in the days (and perhaps years) that may lie ahead.