Page images
PDF
EPUB

ART. VIII.-MARTHA AND MARY-LOVE GREATER

THAN ACHIEVEMENT-A CHARACTER STUDY.

In all literature there is nowhere presented a character study more beautiful or more instructive than that given in the three pictures of the Bethany home by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first two pictures are given by Luke and John respectively, neither one being mentioned by any other writer. But the third and last scene—the supper—is the united work of these four old masters.

It should be noted at the beginning that our attention is directed and limited to the character of the two sisters. Their ages or states in life are not given. As to Lazarus, their brother, we shall find only his name and that Jesus loved him, that he was sick and died when the Lord was absent, and that he was raised from the dead by Jesus upon his return to Bethany. It is remarkable that abont all which is current in literature concerning Martha and Mary has been drawn from Luke's brief account of a conversation in their home. Commentators and preachers, seemingly without due consideration of the fuller description of these sisters in the other three gospels, have commonly exhibited Martha as a type of those persons who bestow too much attention upon temporal affairs, permitting the cares of the world to choke the growth of the implanted word of God, so that their lives become unfruitful. This error seems to us to be unjust to Martha, whom Jesus loved, and unfortunate for those who embrace it; for it causes them to lose a very practical lesson taught in Luke's story. We see very clearly, from the study of the real Martha and Mary, that a very high attainment in grace may be acquired by eminently practical persons, of whom Martha was surely a type. But we see, also, that the highest state of grace may be reached by those persons also who, through some physical or mental infirmity, are so emotional as to be eminently unpractical. It is also made pretty clear that the Marthas and Marys who are to that “manner born” are not changed in their distinctive characteristics by conversion.

[ocr errors]

Take two instances of the common interpretation of the character of the two sisters. One comment says:

Martha was doubtless a believer, but a worrying, restless believer, giving quite as much thought to the things she could not do as to those she could, and never limiting her thought or work for the time to one thing above all others. Mary, on the contrary, could center her whole being on one thing that for the time demanded her chief attention. Martha's method of work and her worrying spirit were such as our Lord could not approve. Mary's spirit and method were approved by him. ... Martha could not be so good a housekeeper as Mary. Martha must be always worrying. Mary would never worry.* The foregoing follows in the current drift of depreciation of Martha. Whedon also says, “We venture to believe that Mary, who limited one duty by another, and gave each its just proportion, could, in her calmness and clearness, accomplish more even of secular duty than her older sister with all her fluster.” This appears to be a pretty large and free

venture,” inasmuch as there is nothing related of Mary in the Scriptures to show that she had any ability whatever as a housekeeper, or that she ever did anything in “calmness and clearness." We see the very opposite of this in Mary's be havior wherever she is presented to us.

Martha in every scene is shown to be the one capable and responsible house keeper in that home, and not the foolish woman who "plucketh it [her house] down with her hands."

The picture is one of real life. It happens in many homes that one or more members of the family by reason of some physical or mental infirmity find themselves unable to do an equal share of labor. Such persons add somewhat to the ordinary burdens resting upon some other member of the famiily. Mary appears to have been one of this kind, and Lazarus may have been another. In such a home a woman of capacity for affairs finds that exercise which gives superb development to such abilities. In Proverbs, chapter xxxi, we have the description of a model woman at the head of & model home. She is a good buyer of real estate; “she perceiveth that her merchandise is good;” she has æsthetic taste, wears fine clothing, and has tapestries in her dwelling; she dispenses charity near and far; is an early riser and a

* The Sunday School Times, August 15, 1891.

a

[ocr errors]

pattern of industry. The last statement is a summary of all"she looketh well to the ways of her household”—that is to say, she is " careful and troubled about many things.” We prefer to believe that the last chapter of Proverbs comes much nearer a true description of Martha of Bethany than anything given us by those who hold the views before quoted. That there are many and perplexing details in housekeeping is recognized in the Lord's reply to Martha; but these are strikingly ignored by the interpreters who tell us she was “a worrying” and “restless” woman—as if, forsooth, such a woman could have rendered her house so attractive, “ with all her fluster," that Jesus would make it his favorite resort for recuperation after his day's encounters with the multitude. When therefore we consider that Jesus made Martha's house his stopping place so often, and established such tender relations with its inmates, we see that our Lord paid the highest possible compliment to Martha's achievement as a housekeeper. It appears more reasonable to suppose her appreciative guest would put infinite tenderness, rather than what Whedon calls a “solemn reproof,” in his words, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things." Adam Clarke finds no reproof in those words. The text does not present any grounds for believing that Martha had no method, that she made confusion in performing a few necessary duties, and by attempting impossible things overloaded herself with needless burdens. There is no word in the Scripture that charges her, even by implication, with the habit of worrying. Do we not need a new interpretation to displace that which finds, as the chief lesson of the Bethany story, that Christ's rebuke to Martha is a warning to overcareful housekeepers ? It is safe to say that the explanations of this Scripture, together with the conjectures made by different writers as to the character of the sisters, are more unsatisfactory, contradictory, and confusing than those which have been written on almost any other portion of Scripture. We prefer to believe that Jesus comforted his much-burdened hostess by his gentle words.

But, it may be asked, was not Mary justified in sitting at Jesus's feet and listening to his words, while her sister was left to "serve alone?” We answer, yes. It is not however, necessary to condemn Martha, in order to justify Mary; for, whatever merit there is in exalted service, either in housekeeping or in statecraft, there is one thing still more exalted, namely, love to God. This is the “one thing ... needful.” Competent Marthas may exhibit their love by eminent works ; emotional Marys may show their love without doing, or hav. ing ability to do, any works that the world appreciates or applauds. Great service is the privilege of the few; great love is the privilege of all men. Why has it not occurred to some one to suppose that Martha, in coming to the Master with her burden of service, was comforted by the Lord's announcement that her sister, who “also sat at Jesus's feet, and heard his word,” had “ chosen ” Christ that very day and hour? It seems to us that such supposition is warranted by the words in Luke's gospel, and that it furnishes ample justification for Mary's leaving her sister to serve alone. It would also account for her appearance and actions after Lazarus died and when she afterward anointed the Saviour's feet at the supper. It would be a good lesson for some of the foremost doers in the Church to note how the Lord accepts those who appear to have little faculty for accomplishing practical things, but who, nevertheless, love the ordinances of God's house and delight in the songs of Zion, whose attitude is well expressed by the words “sitting” and “hearing."

From childhood we have doubtless been misled, here, as elsewhere, by pictures. Artists show Jesus only with Mary and Martha. By such pictures, and also by what expounders have written or have omitted to write, we have been led to think Jesus was the only guest in Martha's house. But it would seem, unless stated otherwise, that many, perhaps all, of

, his disciples were entertained in Martha's house, for it was their custom to question him at night about his addresses to the people during the day. In Matthew, chapter xxi, and in Mark xi we read of his going out of Jerusalem to Bethany in the evening, and of his return the following morning. This he did on three successive days during the week of the crucifixion, and in every instance it is stated that his disciples accompanied him. That some of them, or all of them, were entertained at

[ocr errors]

Martha's house with Jesus must be concluded in the absence of any statement of his being separated from them. The number of her guests, therefore, would be sufficient to account for Martha’s care and trouble, without attributing them to restlessness, worry, or “fluster."

« In the second picture, given by John in the eleventh chapter, the brother, Lazarus, is introduced, together with several circumstances that show the prominent social standing of the family. The raising of Lazarus is not given in any other gospel. But all the four writers show that a remarkable turning of the Jews to Jesus made a great excitement in Jerusalem about this time. When Lazarus was sick the language of the message sent from the Bethany home to Jesus in Bethabara discloses the intimate relations subsisting between Jesus and the members of Martha's home, “Lord, bebold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” Very tender are Christ's words to his disciples, two days after that message was received, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth ; but I go, that I

, may awake him out of sleep.” Correcting their misapprehension of his meaning by telling them plainly that Lazarus was dead, he also tells them the purpose of the miracle, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe." While the Lord is journeying with his disciples toward Bethany John gives us a view of the house of mourning. Many Jews are there from Jerusalem, which proves the home of the sisters to have been of some distinction. Some messenger tells the sisters privately that Jesus is coming, and is not far away. We see no reason to believe that Mary did not get the word when Martha“ heard,” for the language clearly points out a contrast in the behavior of the sisters. As Mary sits “still in the house,” Martha quietly withdraws from the coinpany of guests, and goes to meet the Lord on his way to her home. Though her heart is broken by the greatest sorrow of her life, she is able to go about her accustomed duties with an exterior calmness, while her sister Mary, overwhelmed

sorrow, is in a state of physical collapse. The meeting with Jesus that day was a most trying ordeal for Martha. Feeling would be at flood tide when she looked into the eyes of him whose loving presence had so often blessed her home,

28-FIFTH SERIES, VOL. XV.

with

« PreviousContinue »