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Martha of Bethany, a model of service

· ​In the New Testament ·

Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany: it seems that this brother and these sisters were known to the early Christians, given that the Gospel according to St John says: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). The three of them appear in John (11:1-46), at the moment of Lazarus’ resurrection; the two sisters receive Jesus’ visit in Luke (Lk 10:38-42) Mary, by herself, anoints Jesus’ feet in John (12:1-8), an anointing which both Matthew and Mark attribute to a nameless woman and place not at Bethany but in the house of “Simon the leper”.

Jan Vermeer “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (1654-1655)

This article focuses on Martha, little loved by many women, since she was held up to them as an example of a model housewife! Why is this so, given that at the death of Lazarus, according to John (11:1-45), she is Jesus’ true interlocutor, the person who recalls his responsibility as a friend and Saviour and who recognizes him as the Christ, the Son of God (11:27), before calling Mary? How could it be that the subsequent tradition in Luke (10:38-42) confined her to serving meals, frequently underrating her contribution?

Together with my colleague Pierrette Daviau from Quebec I examined several commentaries in order to check on how this text was received over the course of the centuries of Christianity. What happened between Jesus and the two sisters according to this Gospel passage (Lk 10:38-42)?

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me”. But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her’”.

Luke is the only Evangelist who recounts this visit of Jesus to the home of the sisters with whom he seems to be well acquainted. His answer may be seen as inappropriate because it sets Martha aside instead of encouraging her and presents Mary, who does not help her sister, as a model! What about Martha’s devotion?

In the commentaries of the Fathers, from the dawn of the Christian Church until Illuminism, this episode was used to illustrate Christian life, affirming the superiority of contemplation over action. It was Origen, in his exegesis focused on allegory, who provided an interpretation destined to have lasting success: the two women represent the distinction between action and contemplation, recognizing the value of the latter. In a second interpretation, Origen declared that Martha corresponds to inexperienced Christians who welcome the word of God in a more “corporeal” (somatikoteron) manner, whereas Mary welcomed it spiritually (pneumatikos). In a third interpretation, he associated Martha with the “Synagogue” and Mary with “the Church of all nations, which chose the better portion of the spiritual law, the one which will not be taken from her”. St Augustine, the most influential Father of the Christian Church, sees in these two women the “life of this world” and the “life of the world to come”, the better portion consecrated to the eternal values. This good or better portion must have nourished the monastic ideal of contemplative life – except for Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hochheim, 1260-1337), a mystic of the Rhineland, who took an original path. For him it is Martha who lives the most highly evolved spirituality, free, closest to God and to her neighbours and fertile. She is already anchored in faith and knows by experience that it is necessary to overcome sentiments in the union with God, while Mary has yet to learn this, she who is immersed in God and aspires to these sensations. This preacher pursues a practical end: in his sermon destined for some women religious he argues against forgetting concrete daily work!

Martin Luther (1483-1546) refused to identify Mary with the monastic ideal; he emphasized that the only thing necessary is to listen to the Word, for it is not a question of imitating Christ but of binding oneself to him alone. The originality of his interpretation is that Martha is not considered to be in second place since she represents Jesus Christ in his humanity, in his temporal and earthly kingdom. While she might have preferred to be on the (divine) side of Mary, Martha reminds us that the way to God cannot do without Jesus’ humanity.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was concerned with rehabilitating life in the world and hence Martha’s domestic work. Like Luther, he was opposed to monastic life which risks giving rise to a theology of spiritual merits. Even while underlining the value of work, he criticized Martha’s excesses and the fact that her “bustling about” prevented her from benefiting from Jesus’ presence.

These few examples cannot be examined in depth in this restricted context, but they have in common the fact that they view the sisters as typologies. Although no one condemned Martha, all (with the exception of Eckhart) exalted contemplation and listening to the Word.

The interpretations of the feminist theologians who, after the 1970s, availed themselves of historical and critical exegesis in order to examine the Greek text and the possible betrayals or omissions of tradition, were more innovative. Allegorical interpretation was replaced by research into the roles of the real women, Martha and Mary, and through them, of the women of early Christianity. From 1983 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian, worked on a historical reconstruction, showing conflicts within the early communities. In her opinion the two “types” are not the active and the contemplative but rather two tasks: “diaconal ministry” and “listening to the Word”. The Greek word diakonein, “to serve”, is translated well but it is not a meal that Martha is serving! Martha assures ecclesial service, “diaconia”. According to the author Martha is responsible for service to the community and in fact complains because Mary leaves her alone with these responsibilities (and not because she does not help her in the kitchen!).

Schüssler Fiorenza’s hypothesis is that at the time in which this Gospel was written the word “diaconia” was already a technical term for ministers of the Church; the commentaries do not consider the diaconal ministry of women as being merely practical services to the male missionaries. Her hypothesis is based on the link with the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6), written by the same author. Martha complains because her sister “has left me to serve alone” in order to listen to Jesus, while in the passage from the Acts the Twelve do not want to “give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”. In both these cases the author subordinates the “diaconia” of tables to listening to or proclaiming the Word. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles seven “Hellenists” are chosen “to serve tables” while the Twelve devote themselves to “the ministry of the word”.

The reasoning continues in John (11:5-45), who shows Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha as disciples who call Jesus “Teacher” and consider him their “friend”. After her profession of faith Martha goes to call Mary (11:28), just as Andrew and Philip called Peter and Nathanael. According to the author the crucial moment is not Lazarus’ resurrection but rather the revelation that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection, and Martha’s profession is parallel to Peter’s (Jn 6:66-71 and Mt 16:15-16). The author bases her interpretation on another episode too (Jn 12:1-8), the anointing of Jesus with the costly ointment, where Mary not only prepares Jesus for glory but also anticipates his request to wash feet, an action that would be demonstrated later as a sign of being a true disciple (Jn 13:1-16). All these elements show that these women were disciples and that the real subject that the text underlines is the question of what constitutes a disciple.

Turid Seim, a Lutheran exegete, responds in a more nuanced way. On the basis of the social history of the early Christians she sees Martha (a name which means “lady” or “mistress”) as one of those bustling women who make their property available to the communities, given that she welcomes Jesus to her house. The author maintains that the terms linked to the root “diaconia” do not follow a solely normative use. The “service of tables” and the “service of the word” are linguistic creations by Luke, while the interest lies in the evolution of these terms: “diaconia” was originally used only for the subordinate role of women (and in this case refers to serving meals). Later the word was transferred to apply to men, to denote the role of disciples. In chapter 17 of Luke the true relationship of the Teacher with his disciples is presented with the overturning of roles: the Teacher is a servant (a concept developed in chapter 22 as a norm for community heads, with Jesus as model). The service of women acquires new dignity since it becomes exemplary for the function of direction taken by men!

Joachim Beuckelaer “Kitchen Scene with Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background” (1569)

Another important term is “portion” (“good” or “better” depending on the manuscript). In the author’s opinion, when Jesus explains that the good portion will not be taken from Mary he establishes a priority, but not an opposition. Turid Seim gives importance to the echo between the meaning itself and the metaphorical meaning, giving to the thing that is “needful” (Lk 10:42a) the proper sense of “dish” (only one dish or one portion of food is necessary) and immediately afterwards (10:42b) the metaphorical sense of a “portion” of the Kingdom, which was to lead Jesus to say: it is enough to eat only one dish since Mary has tasted the good portion which is the word of God. In this way, for women “the good portion which will not be taken away from them” – from any one of them! – would constitute an important alternative already accessible in this period: reciprocal belonging between the Lord and his own.

The interpretation is faithful to the context, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with his disciples. In the same Gospel a little earlier (Lk 9:51) there is his departure for the Passion. Jesus explains in various stages the prerequisites for following him (9:57-61), designates the Seventy-two and their mission (10:1-20), and affirms that the Father reveals himself to the lowly (10:21-24). He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) to the doctor of law, a teaching on action, and then visits the sisters, a teaching on listening, to conclude with the prayer of the Our Father. The account gradually builds up the profile of true disciples.

In Luke protecting the right of women to listen to the word of God is the good portion even if it is to the detriment of their usual functions. Women are presented as disciples, but also as receivers of the Word, and they are housebound. Yet – and here the interpretation must also be historical – Turid Seim and Schüssler Fiorenza explain that this does not mean that women should be housewife-disciples. For the “house” is the place of the early Church! The specific statement too, that Jesus enters houses is not neutral but is rather an indication of the author concerning the birth of the Christian Church. The potential of equality thereby created for women could not but give rise to a difficulty in the connection with the cultural situation.

Even though Martha and Mary have remained in the Christian memory as mistresses of the house in a domestic community, the fact emerges from the texts that only men were considered for the diaconal ministry of the Word, as well as for that of tables. On the contrary, those who “serve” are chosen as models for the men’s tasks of direction in a reversal of the term “diaconia”, based on the model of the Teacher who is the One who serves.

Elisabeth Parmentier



The author

Born 55 years ago in France, for 19 years Elisabeth Parmentier taught at the Faculty of Protestant Theology of the University of Strasbourg. Since 2015 she has taught at the same faculty of the University of Geneva. Since 1988 she has been Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Alsace. From 2001 to 2006 she was President of the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe. 




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