When we hear the story about busy Martha and contemplative Mary, a question that we might not think to ask but one that we should ask is, which Mary? Which Mary is this? You might think you know. Indeed for many years, I thought I knew. I have preached any number of sermons at churches all across North America about how this Mary and Martha story is related to another story.
A story in John 11, a story about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus who live in a place called Bethany. Indeed, if you go to many commentaries on the Luke 10 passage, on the Mary and Martha story, those commentaries begin by saying, “This is a story of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha of Bethany.”
But if you actually look at the Bible — which would be a good idea, especially for someone who is writing a commentary — you will see that the words “in Bethany” are never mentioned in Luke’s text. Indeed, if you look at a map, Bethany is actually a town, a village in the opposite direction of which Jesus was traveling in this section of the Gospel of Luke. All Luke says is that Mary and Martha were of a “certain village.” Then there’s an interesting identification of Martha where it says, “Martha welcomed Jesus to her home.” And what’s fascinating about just that little phrase, just that small phrase, Mary and Martha are sisters in a patriarchal society. If they had a brother, that line would say, “And Martha welcomed Jesus to her brother’s home,” because Martha doesn’t own a house. It’s not Martha’s home unless it is Martha’s home. The only way it’s Martha’s home is if Martha has no husband, no father, and no brother.
Many readers conflate Luke 10 with John 11, where there are two sisters named Mary and Martha, and they have a brother named Lazarus, and they do indeed live in a place called Bethany. If it was the same family, Luke 10 is very confused. The village is in the wrong place and it’s not called by the right name. What we actually have here is two stories that our imaginations have run together, which our tradition has run together, which even commentators have run together. These are actually two different stories about two different families.
It becomes a problem when you get the cast of characters wrong. So the question is: who is this Mary? Instead of spending a lot of time talking about Mary of the four short verses in Luke, I want to run over to the confused text of John 11. John 11 opens with a very simple sentence. “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany.” Okay, now there we have it clearly defined, Bethany, not a certain village. “The village of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” That’s the opening sentence of John 11. You might think to yourself, oh my gosh what is the big deal, what’s important about that?
The words of Diana Butler Bass.