Mary & Martha: Sisters in the Flesh and in the Faith

Sibling relationships are a big part of our lives. You grow up with your siblings. You spend holidays and take vacations together. You attend each other’s games, concerts, and events. You might share a bedroom! 

You can’t escape your siblings. This is true even as an adult! They eventually become aunts and uncles to your children, and will someday help you divide your parents’ estate. For better or worse, their presence in your life is permanent.

Siblings are a big part of our discipleship too. The New Testament calls fellow believers our siblings. Jesus redefines family: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Paul says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1).

So God gives us two sets of siblings. He gives us physical siblings when we are born into our earthly family, and spiritual siblings when we are born again into His heavenly family. Sometimes our physical siblings are also our spiritual siblings! In fact, some of Jesus’ disciples were brothers (Matthew 4:18-22).  

I wonder how that affected the dynamic among the disciples. Did their family ties affect their ability to follow Jesus? Or their willingness to do ministry together? We don’t see much sibling interaction between Jesus’ male disciples. But we do see it between two of His female followers.

First Visit

Jesus once “came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.” While she prepares to serve Him a meal, her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” She gets frustrated and asks Him to make Mary help. But He replies, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Typically, we’re told the moral of this story is to be more like Mary and less like Martha. We’re reminded to step away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and “sit at Jesus’ feet.” We look up to Mary as spiritual, but look down on Martha as worldly or too busy.     

Second Visit

Jesus visits them again during a family tragedy. Mary and Martha’s brother (Lazarus) has died, and He travels from out of town when He hears the news. 

John recounts: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask’… Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life…Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world’” (John 11:20-27). 

In the midst of her grief, Martha goes out to meet Jesus. And she makes profound statements of faith in Him. However, Mary stays behind until He asks for her. And although she believes He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, she makes no similar statement that He can raise him back to life (11:32).

Third Visit

A week before His death, Jesus visits them a final time. Their village hosts a dinner in His honor. Martha serves the meal, during which Mary pours expensive perfume on His feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-3).

Neither sister falls short in this story. Martha is rebuked during Jesus’ first visit, and Mary’s faith falters during His second. But in this instance, neither is lacking. They both express their faith to Jesus in meaningful ways. And He receives these respective acts of worship from both of them.

It’s Both/And, Not Either/Or

Neither sister is better or more spiritual than the other. They just relate to Jesus differently. Sometimes Mary gets it right, sometimes Martha. And when they both get it right, He receives their worship equally.

We shouldn’t try to be more like Mary and less like Martha. Rather, we should strive to imitate both. Taken together, they show us a complete picture of the Christian woman. Like Mary, we ought to dwell on Jesus’ teachings and worship Him in costly ways. Like Martha, we ought to serve Him and stay busy until He returns.

We should also appreciate how good it is to have believing siblings! Christians in many countries are disowned by their families for following Jesus. Are your siblings perfect? No. Will they always get on your nerves? Probably. But is it a blessing when members of your earthly family are also part of your heavenly family? Definitely!

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