Rebekah of Bethany
I have always admired Martha. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father died when she was fifteen. She had been left to care for her younger brother and sister. It was hard for her. Of course, many people in the village helped her but overnight Martha’s life changed. She had had great hopes for her future. Her father fell ill just as he started negotiations for Martha’s marriage with a wealthy man in the next village. When her father died the man was not willing to accept responsibility for the whole of Martha’s family.
So Martha made the best of it. Shouldering the load herself, she took over the household and raised her young siblings. Lazarus was two years younger than she was, and Mary four years younger than him. An uncle took Lazarus into his care. He was a wool merchant with no sons of his own, and he taught Lazarus, over the years, everything he needed to know about the trade.
But Mary – ah, Mary was a dreamer. To say that Martha used to be frustrated by her younger sister is probably an understatement. She was patient as she taught Mary the things all women should know so that she could, one day, run her own household; and Mary did learn. But I have seen her sitting as if there was no life in her when she was supposed to be combing wool or weaving. Oh, there was nothing wrong with her. She could have a conversation, and cook a meal and laugh with the best of us. But sometimes it seemed as if she was having a conversation in her head – alone in another world.
Mary was beautiful and the villagers had taken her to their hearts when her father died. She had access to every home in the village. She was well loved.
Lazarus was too. He grew into a tall, handsome young man, much admired by all the girls in the surrounding villages. I am sure he was also admired in Jerusalem when he went there with his uncle to trade their wool. He had sparkling, laughing eyes and dark curling hair. I will always remember that about him. Perhaps for a while, I fancied myself a little in love with him – but that was before my father arranged for me to marry Nahum.
The family did well. Lazarus was successful and Mary, in spite of her day-dreaming, wove very beautiful cloth. You could always rely on Martha’s hospitality and she often had visitors, many of whom Lazarus brought home after his visits to Jerusalem. You never knew who you would meet in their house.
Jesus and his friends had met Lazarus in the city and had accepted Lazarus’ invitation to stay in his home in Bethany. Some of the group had friends or family themselves in the village, so there was quite a crowd that first night in Martha’s home. We had all heard about Jesus – his stories, the miracles, his compassion. It was not surprising that almost the whole village turned out to see him and hear him speak, in the hope that we may have a miracle or two of our own to describe to our friends and family who lived in the city.
Jesus held us enrapt as he spoke to us about the kingdom of heaven and explained his teaching by using simple, everyday stories we could all understand. This was our life he was talking about, and some of the divine mysteries of God became clear to us.
He healed some people too; young Malchus, who had had a twisted leg since he was born, left the house dancing – we could hear him singing God’s praise way up the street, his legs strong and straight. Gentle Rachel brought her baby son, who was blind. Jesus touched the child who opened his eyes wide in wonder and clapped his hands and smiled at his mother, then burst into such peals of laughter at the world he could see for the first time that we all ended up laughing with delight and with a new appreciation of our world. There were others too. No-one came to Jesus and left untouched by him.
After that evening, Jesus would often stay with Lazarus and his family. Lazarus, with the carefree naiveté of youth, often invited them all, which, in my opinion, gave Martha a great deal of work. But she never seemed to mind. I only heard her complain once about Mary not helping her when she had so much work to do. Mary, instead of helping her sister, was sitting at Jesus’ feet, captivated by what he was saying.
In a gentle response to Martha’s comment, Jesus smiled at her and said,
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
The words were spoken in love, but Martha heard them as a rebuke and turned away with her cheeks flaming and her head down. She did not see Jesus watching her, his eyes full of love as she left the room. But we did, so I and two or three of the other women got up and went out to help her. No-one said anything, but each of us in turn, during the next hour or so as we prepared the meal, touched her arm and smiled. We understood how she felt, and did what we could to help.
Later that evening, Jesus spoke to each one of us and thanked us for being there for Martha. I will never forget how he said my name:
His kind eyes, gentle voice and warm smile melted my heart. It was a brief encounter but a very precious one to me. He spent a long time chatting with Martha alone. So intense was his concentration on her that no-one interrupted them. I never knew what he said to her, but she was never quite the same after that time with him. Oh, she still worked hard, perhaps even harder, helping others in the village where help was needed, but she was gentler in her approach to people and her eyes shone with life and with love. It was as if it was now a joy for her to serve others in this way. She stopped expecting Mary to help so much. Mary, she told us, had her own assignments to carry out for Jesus, as did Lazarus.
And so life went on, with the three of them drawing closer to Jesus and serving those around them day by day with a love that was special.
Until the day Lazarus fell ill.
They sent messages to Jesus, of course they did, but he must have been busy for he came too late. Lazarus died four days before Jesus arrived. There was great mourning in the village for the whole family was well loved.
I was among those who gathered at the house every day to comfort the sisters and to mourn for our friend. When Martha heard that Jesus was arriving at last, she left the house to go and meet him. When she returned she went to Mary and, bending over her sister, she whispered something to her. At once Mary got up and they rushed out together. We thought they were going to the tomb to mourn there so we followed them. We met Jesus on the way. I was not close enough to him myself, but others told me later that he was weeping.
Nahum saw me walk past and joined me as did several other friends, so there was quite a crowd walking with us.
I do not have words to describe either what I saw or what I felt at that time as we stood outside the tomb with Jesus. He walked up to the entrance, prayed a few words and then, in a loud voice he called,
We looked at each other in astonishment! The man had been dead for four days! We were even more shocked as we saw Lazarus walk out of the tomb, still wrapped in his grave-clothes but alive and well! No, I cannot describe what I saw or how I felt – all I know is that Lazarus was dead and then he was alive!
Jesus performed one of his greatest miracles in Bethany that day and I believe people will speak of it for many years.
It changed the whole family. Lazarus and Mary left home and went with Jesus and, a few days later, stood at the foot of a cross on Calvary where he was crucified …
Then later, when the Spirit of God was poured out on the believers, they left Jerusalem and travelled far and wide with various disciples spreading the word of the kingdom of heaven and the glory of God.
But Martha stayed. She opened her home to every person who passed by; no-one was ever turned away, and no-one left without hearing of the love of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Few people left that house unconvinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel; such was her enthusiasm as she spoke.
In a way, Martha helped to change my life too, for Nahum and I became believers after Lazarus was raised from the dead. Well, I suppose anyone would who saw what happened, even though one or two tried to explain it away. But we knew what we had seen; and it was Martha who taught us, guided us and encouraged us in our faith. She is still an ambassador for Christ and she has inspired many in our village, our family included, to be the same. Now my children have gone spreading the good news of Jesus, the Christ, throughout the empire, and Nahum and I do the same here.
Martha is a lady who is passionate about Jesus Christ, her Lord and Saviour and she is touching and changing lives. Through her and her family we met the man who was to become our Lord and Saviour too, and I will always be grateful that her hospitality made that possible.
I still admire Martha. She is an example to us all, and she works every day for Christ. I wonder if she ever knew just how much he loved her that evening when she turned and walked away, ashamed at her behaviour. Those who were there felt that his love for her was tangible in the room. I think she was the only one who was not aware of it at the time.
Martha, beloved by Christ, servant of her Lord – what a privilege it is to know her and call her my friend.