The faith of domestic Martha stands on a par with the apostle Peters’.
Bible text: John 11:1-44
[Martha] said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” John 11:27
Near the mid-point of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) stands the story of the apostle Peter’s confession of Jesus as the expected Messiah. It takes place near the city of Caesarea Philippi.
In Matthew’s version Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They offer him several answers that seem to be circulating among the Galilean populace. Then Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds on behalf of the 12 disciples: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds to this confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!…I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.”
We soon learn that Peter does not understand what he is saying, but Jesus does commend him for his statement of faith. It is a highpoint in all three gospels.
The Gospel of John does not record this incident. Yet John has an identical confession of faith in Jesus. It is spoken by Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus. It comes in John, Chapter 11. This chapter tells of the death of Lazarus and how Jesus raises him from his grave.
When Lazarus falls sick, his sisters notify Jesus. Jesus, however, does not arrive in Bethany until after Lazarus has been dead four days. When Jesus arrives, Martha runs to meet him and upbraids Jesus for not coming sooner.
Jesus reassures her that her brother will rise again. She says she knows that will happen in the final resurrection. Jesus then says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Martha responds: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Her words are almost verbatim the same words that Peter has spoken at Caesarea Philippi.
What I find interesting in this story is the amazing confidence of Martha’s confession of faith. It is strong, certainly the equal of Peter’s. John records this fundamental Christian confession of faith coming from a woman, not a man.
We don’t expect that of Martha. The only other story in the New Testament where Martha appears is a story in Luke 10:38-42. There Jesus visits the two sisters Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is the very model of a domestic housewife. She busies herself in the kitchen preparing a meal while her sister sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him.
When Martha complains about Mary’s negligence, Jesus tells Martha that her sister has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.
It is easy to interpret this story as saying that Martha has chosen the inferior way of busying herself with domestic duties while Mary has chosen the way of higher discipleship. Such an interpretations makes domestic Martha a model of a lesser faith.
But that is not the picture John’s gospel sets before us. In John, Martha is the confident proclaimer of faith. Mary is second fiddle. This involves a dramatic reversal of the more common assessment of Martha and Mary.
In the long patriarchal tradition of Christianity, the realm of women has often been described as the realm of the home and family. Men exercise leadership in the life of faith. But I want to suggest that that is not the viewpoint of the evangelist John. Domestic Martha can hold her own with the apostle Peter as a model of faith.
I belong to a church denomination that believes that God calls both men and women to leadership in the church. Welcome, Martha … and Mary!
This insight into Martha is not original to me. I encountered it in a lecture by Professor Phillip Cary of Eastern University. He discusses the confession of Martha in one of his lectures in his series, The History of Christian Theology. The lecture series is offered by the Great Courses Company. I recommend the series to anyone who might want to explore the unfolding of Christian theology over the centuries.