Gospel of John: Martha’s Faith


They were outside, on the path to her home. Jesus held Martha’s hands in his own, John close to Jesus and Peter at his elbow. The others were also standing close by, listening intently to Jesus’ quiet, yet intense voice, and watching Martha’s tear-streaked face.

They recognized many of the figures in the distance, perhaps a hundred yards from them, standing near Lazarus’ and his sisters’ spacious manse. In their fine robes and expensive prayer shawls, they were unmistakable. Tyrian purple, in a periwinkle hue, marked their tassels and stripes, and some even had gold thread woven into their robes, which now glinted in the sunlight.

The high priest was not there, but several of his advisors were, and many of the temple dignitaries had come. The disciples watched, warily. This was not good. But Jesus seemed either unconcerned or unaware, as he continued to look intently at Martha.

Their gardens were especially lovely, in this season, with desert roses perfuming the air, and waving their delicate pink blossoms in the breeze. Tall Rose of Sharon trees flanked the pristine marble walls of their house, and in front of them, pure white Lilies of the Field. John noticed how the wind seemed to breathe tenderly around them, almost caressing, a soft and gentle current that held within it inchoate promise of life.

Even the sun’s heat in the cool spring air was pleasant, songbirds’ trilling wove in eerie harmony with the ululations of mourning rising up from the Lazarus’ household, and though the heavy atmosphere of embalming spices and sorrow clung to Martha’s robe, even yet . . . John could not quite put it into words the joy that was stirring deep within him, an ache of sweet excitement that caused his breath to come short, that made every color more vibrant and every smell more pungent.

She had come running out, somewhat breathless, to meet them. To meet Jesus, he corrected himself. Not us. She had hastily thrown on her long head scarf, and it was wrapped loosely enough that some curling black tresses of her hair had come free and were now waving about her face. The hollows under her lustrous eyes were accentuated. Her cheeks shone with tears, and her fingers trembled, as she held the ends of her scarf under her chin.

Both she and John—and all the twelve—were standing silent, hardly knowing how to process what Jesus had just said. Did they dare believe the implications? The one standing here with them, beloved to them all, whom they quietly acknowledged as God’s Messiah and even God’s own son, was he also life itself? Was he the source of life, the giver of life?

How could that be? What did that truly mean?

Naturally, of course, they all believed in the resurrection on the Day of Almighty God’s Judgement. Did not the rabbis all teach this, and did not the Pharisees insist upon this. For though the Sadducees did not teach such things, it was well known the Sadducees also rejected the prophets and wisdom scrolls as scripture. Pah! They did not even accept the existence of angels, though they were recorded even in Torah!

Again, John looked toward the growing group of religious authorities assembling just outside the gate to Martha’s home. Pharisees and Sadducees, for Lazarus had been an honored and godly man. They had all loved him, and his sisters. Jesus had loved him deeply. John looked down, troubled. If Jesus was life itself, why had he let this good and well-loved man die, when he had healed so many undeserving.

His thoughts went back to the man who had been lying on his mat for forty years. Sin had sent him there, and yet he was the only one Jesus had healed. He had even sought him out! For John remembered, as they were walking through the plaza that day, Jesus had turned for the pool, studying the faces of each person lying there, searching, and they had all had to follow him, picking their way among the rustling and moaning mendicant sick.

Why him? and not Lazarus.

“Do you believe this?”

John was startled from his reverie, and looked up at Jesus, who was still looking intently at Martha. Then he also looked at Martha, and his mouth fell open.

It was as though her face glowed with a light that came from within. Her caramel complexion now had an alabaster radiance, milk and honey. Her liquid sloe eyes shimmered with hope and growing confidence.

“Absolutely, sir. I—” and she seemed to stand straighter and her voice grow firmer “—I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who comes into the world (Cosmos).”

She had now gotten all of their full attention. Had her voice carried back to the temple authorities watching them so carefully? And how could she make such a strong avowal? What did she mean? None dared think she meant her brother would, or could, literally come back to life before that great and glorious day of God’s Restoration.

Martha turned swiftly, taking her hands from Jesus’. They watched her sturdy form as she strode back to the gate of her house, nod to those standing there, and move with such purpose through them.

Were they to stay here? Or follow? They looked to Jesus, waiting for his move.


Martha Knew Her Sister.

Mary’s heart had been broken over their brother’s illness and death, and scalded by Jesus’ seeming insensitivity and tardiness.  So Martha asked to speak with Mary privately. With reluctance, those mourning with Mary arose and went out, looking at Mary questioningly and at Martha with a measure of misgiving. A few who stayed back overheard some of what Martha said,

The Teacher is nearby, and he is calling you.

Martha to her sister Mary, John 11:28

Perhaps there were a few more words, spoken in a low voice. Perhaps it was the striking change in Martha’s face and demeanor. Or perhaps it was in the way Martha said it, for she had aroused her weeping and disconsolate sister, as Mary got up quickly to go out to the Lord. 

You and I hear those words and we think of the teaching John has just given us in the chapter preceding this one, the Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name, “Mary . . .” Jesus knows his own and his own know Jesus. They know Jesus lays his life down for them. They know Jesus’ voice, and the sound of their own name in his voice. He is calling you, Mary. He is nearby.

When the mourners and those who had gathered at their home saw Mary moving, they also went out with her, thinking she was going back to the tomb. It was the custom to go to the tomb as often as possible during the first days of mourning.

Mary Meets With Jesus

If Martha had felt somewhat outnumbered, having such a deeply personal and spiritually powerful talk with Jesus, his disciples all around him, imagine the disciples when they saw official mourners, temple dignitaries, and the household servants all trailing behind Mary as she hastened to Jesus!

Overcome with grief, she fell at Jesus feet, saying nearly the same thing Martha had said,

“Sir, if you were here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary to Jesus, John 11:32

[In the Greek] Though Martha’s voice had leaned more heavily on the final catastrophe of death itself, Mary spoke from the devastation of personal betrayal, her voice leaning on the connection of her brother, the unspoken meaning clear: you said you loved me, and he was my brother.

Both emotions are so often there when death comes.

The Apostle Paul wrote of the cataclysmic conquest The Resurrection and the Life has made available to humankind, combining the texts of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 Corinthians 15:55 (NRSV)

Jesus was about to turn dike (death) into nike (victory)!


[Jesus with Martha and Mary | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot / Public Domain]

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