The Sisters from Bethany and Their Approaches to the Spiritual Life

One of Jesus’ strangest actions in the Gospels happens one day when he was leaving Bethany—which means both “house of figs” and “house of affliction”—on his way to Jerusalem. He cursed a fig tree for not having figs when it was not the season for figs. Immediately afterward, he went to the temple and drove out the moneychangers. We are told that in response the chief priests and scribes begin to plot Jesus’ death (Mark 11:12–18).

Bethany is best known as the home of Jesus’ friends, the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We first met Martha and Mary when Jesus visited them in Bethany after telling his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-42). In this chapter of Luke, Jesus commissioned his disciples to prepare the way for him by going ahead of him to towns he intended to visit. If the disciples were welcomed, they were to eat and drink there and to wish peace upon the inhabitants. If they were not welcomed, the disciples were to shake the dust from their feet in rebuke of the inhabitants. Jesus told the disciples, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

With this as background, we can reasonably presume that the disciples found welcome in the town of Bethany, resulting in Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

This home in Bethany might have had more than its fair share of affliction. The family may have been poor, and Lazarus may have been ill, because later in Luke Jesus told a parable of a poor, sickly man named Lazarus who hoped for scraps from a rich man’s table (Luke 16:19-21). Nonetheless, this family from Bethany opened its home to Jesus and offered him what they had.

Rebuke, or reconcile?

Tensions rose when Martha shouldered the responsibility for serving while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus responded, “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 10:38-42).

Martha tends to get a lot of grief from Christians who assume Jesus is telling Martha that her work is of secondary importance, at best, to Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and contemplate him. Spiritual writers have spilled a lot of ink on the differences between the active life and the contemplative life as exemplified by Martha and Mary.

If we look closely at the passage, though, we might see that Jesus wasn’t rebuking Martha because she wanted Mary to help her. Had Martha actually asked Mary to help her, Jesus might not have objected. Martha, however, asked Jesus to rebuke Mary for her. Two chapters later in Luke, when a man asked Jesus to tell the man’s brother to divide an inheritance with him, Jesus said, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” (Luke 12:13-14).

Perhaps one lesson we can learn from Martha and Mary is that God does not want us to use him as a hammer on other people. If we need assistance from someone or are in the middle of a dispute, we need to do the hard work of reconciliation for ourselves. God will give us graces along the way to help us in our task, such as when he counseled Martha to let go of her worries or when he counseled the brother deprived of an inheritance to let go of his desire for possessions (Luke 12:15). But he expects us to do our own work to the best of our ability.

Martha acts, Mary contemplates

John had his own story to tell about the sisters from Bethany. Jesus and his disciples received word from Martha and Mary that Lazarus was on the verge of death. Rather than set off immediately for Bethany, Jesus delayed going for two days. John said that Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead before going to Bethany so that Jesus could raise him from the dead as a sign for the disciples (John 11:1-15).

When the sisters heard that Jesus was on his way, Martha went out to meet him. Mary, on the other hand, stayed at their house (John 11:20). Why? In the Jewish tradition, after the death of a relative, the family stays in their home to receive support and condolences (John 11:19). Martha, the active sister, ran out to meet Jesus, while Mary, the contemplative sister, stayed put. She did not go out to see Jesus until Martha returned and told her that Jesus was asking for her (John 11:28).

Both Martha and Mary told Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 11:32). The difference was that Mary broke down weeping, indulging her grief even though Jesus was present (John 11:33). Martha, on the other hand, told Jesus, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22), a not-so-subtle way of saying, “Give me back my brother, Lord! I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Perhaps we can also learn from Martha and Mary that both the active and the contemplative approaches to the spiritual life have their virtues and their temptations. Those drawn to the active life tend to be bold in their approach to God, willing to trust freely that he knows their needs and will respond to their desires. They also can be prone to anxiety, to taking on too much, to neglecting to stay still long enough to listen to what God wants to tell them.

The contemplatives, on the other hand, find it easy to “come away and rest awhile” with the Lord (Mark 6:31). But sometimes they find it so easy to stay put that they might become stationary, unable to move when they need to do so. They might also fall more easily into despair in the face of catastrophe.

Luke’s final mention of Bethany in his Gospel is in his last chapter when the resurrected Jesus was preparing to ascend into heaven. Jesus led the disciples out of Jerusalem to Bethany. Then, in the town called “the house of affliction,” Jesus blessed his disciples and was “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-53). The house of affliction was transformed into a site of great joy (Luke 24:52), and the disciples left Bethany strengthened and prepared for the task ahead.

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