Martha and her siblings, Mary and Lazarus, enjoyed a special relationship with Jesus, who frequently enjoyed the hospitality of their home in Bethany. During one of these visits, as Martha busied herself in the kitchen, her sister Mary sat at the Master’s feet and “listened to his teaching.” Martha grew resentful and urged Jesus to instruct her sister to lend a hand, whereupon he answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
This passage has often been taken to favor the contemplative life of cloistered nuns over the ordinary life of women bustling in the world. At the same time, however, the story shows Jesus challenging the type of gender stereotypes that would restrict women to domestic work. Was Jesus rebuking Martha or sending a message to the other male disciples?
In a later story, following the death of Lazarus, Martha seems to rebuke Jesus, suggesting that if he had come earlier her brother would have lived. He replies: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This inspires Martha to deliver one of the great Christological confessions of Scripture: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
Thus, both Martha and Mary, in their different ways, found the “one thing necessary”—to respond with love to the Christ in their midst.
“I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
—St. Martha (John 11:22