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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: P. C. Headley :: Women of the Bible

P. C. Headley :: The Sisters Martha and Mary

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Turning from the scenes and biography of the Old Dispensation to those of the New, is like going from a planet where moonlight only brightened on the landscape, forest and flood; where mysterious shadows swept along the rustling woods of the mountainside, and strange voices haunted the air, and where even the noblest characters were invested with a romantic interest; to a sphere where the glad light of morning floods the plains, and the clear accents of truth and hope greet the ear, while rejoicing woman leaning on the beating heart of man, her brow calm and beautiful in the dignity of a faith which looks steadily into the portal of a better life, breathes a sympathy warm and gushing for the sorrows of a common humanity.

Christ poured this new effulgence on the paths of men, and taught a philanthropy expansive as his own infinite benevolence. The Divinity of the Redeemer was veiled in a nature that could sympathize with all that was lovely, tender, joyous, or mournful, in the fallen ones he came to save. Though sinless, he was a man of sorrows, and found those in the circle of his followers, with whom he enjoyed that near attachment, and familiar interchange of thought and feeling peculiar to the intimacies and fellowship of kindred spirits.

The family of Bethany-Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, an only brother, were among those cherished friends of the Saviour.-They were evidently orphans, and all deeply devout. He often sat at their table, and communed with them in the unchecked gushings of his great and oft over‐burdened heart. While pursuing his ministry in the region about Jerusalem, not unfrequently after the toil and travel of the day, the scorn of enemies, and misunderstanding of doubting disciples, he sought this peaceful home, to refresh his drooping spirit with the cheering cordialities of friendship, pure as it was changeless. There, looking upon Olivet, in whose solemn shades he was wont to pray, and with doomed Salem, whose far-off murmur was heard by him, pressing upon his soul, he sat at the twilight hour, while they washed his weary feet, and bathed his throbbing temples. And then with an eye radiant as a star, and a smile of unearthly sweetness, he discoursed to them of his works of mercy, and his glorious kingdom, destined to restore to earth her primal blessedness and peace.

It was well they had not a full disclosure of his ineffable majesty, for they could not in their awful reverence, have admitted him into all the secrecies of personal regard, and leaned on his breast in unshrinking trust. Oh! what a guest was Immanuel! The Wonderful, the Counsellor-the Almighty, bestowing the fulness of his love on the creatures of his power, and opening to them the depths of his heart.

The first domestic scene narrated, illustrates the contrast of character in the two sisters. (Luk 10:38-42.) The Saviour had accepted the invitation of the elder sister, Martha, to become an inmate of their humble dwelling. She was active and impulsive, making haste to spread a repast worthy of her Lord. Mary, thoughtful and inquiring, sat at the feet of Christ to hear his "gracious words," forgetful of the domestic duties which absorbed Martha's attention. She was of calmer temperament, and would have made a recluse of elevated, devotional spirit-one of that saintly few, whose souls are "as when the waters of a lake are suffered to deposit their feculence, and to become as pure as the ether itself; so that they not only reflect from their surface the splendor of Heaven, but allow the curious eye to gaze delighted upon the decorated grottos and sparkling caverns of the depth beneath."

She was riveted to her seat by the accent of Him who "spake as never man spake." (Jhn 7:46.) Martha was touched by this neglect, and in her sudden irritation, reproached Jesus for permitting her to cast the entire burden of household cares upon another. Oh! there is the mildness and majesty of a God in the kind reproof:-"Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken from her." (Luk 10:41-42.)

But that domestic group soon after passed under the cloud of affliction. The brother, their dependence and constant companion, was smitten down by disease, and wasting before its ravages, while Jesus was far away preaching to the multitudes of Bethabara. Therefore the sisters sent unto him saying: "Lord, behold he whom thou lovest is sick." (Jhn 11:3.)

Though he knew it all before the messenger came, and was a deeply interested spectator of that distant chamber of suffering, he did not hasten hither, but tarried two days longer. In this way he always answers prayer-he takes his own time, and though he may seem to disappoint, he sends the blessing just when it will accomplish the highest good for the petitioner, and advance his own glory. (Jhn 11:4-6.) Accompanied by his disciples, who marvelled at his strange language concerning the now departed Lazarus, for whose sake he was about to expose himself to the rage of his foes, the Saviour journeyed toward Bethany. (Jhn 11:7-16.) Soon as Martha heard of his approach, she went forth in her tears to meet him, while Mary in her excessive grief, sat in the desolate dwelling, unconscious of passing scenes, and unheeding the footsteps of those who came to fling a ray of comfort athwart the gloom of bereavement. (Jhn 11:17-27.)

In this touching incident, is again developed the differing shades of character in these lovely maidens. The quiet earnestness of Mary, makes her a mourner of inapproachable and sublime sorrow-like a monument, solemn and voiceless, bearing only the inscription of the dead on its breast. She was one who felt that

"With silence only as their benediction,
God's angels come
Where in the shadow of a great affliction
The soul sits dumb!"

But Martha, with hurried step, sought the highway Jesus was travelling, and looking into his placid face, with the commingling emotions of sorrow over blasted hope and unabated affection, she said, "If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." He replied with a tone of authority, "Thy brother shall rise again." Doubtful of the import of this calm assurance, yet confiding in his power, she hastened to call the disconsolate Mary. (Jhn 11:28.) At the mention of his name, she also ran to embrace him, and in the tones of bleeding love, used the same language of disappointment which just before stirred the soul of her returning Lord. (Jhn 11:29-32.)

The crowd who had gathered to extend their condolence, thought the mourners had gone to the tomb to weep in solitude, and they followed in the distance; for their sympathies had become excited, and tears fell like rain. When Jesus beheld the scene of lamentation, "He groaned in spirit and was troubled." (Jhn 11:33.) Oh! what internal agitation was there-how that bosom in which the faintest shadow of sin had never dimmed the unsullied light of moral excellence, was tossed with emotion, and what a "mastery of love" found utterance; when he said, "Where have ye laid him?" "Lord, come and see," was the hopeful reply, as they turned in their grief to the sepulchre, which enshrined the decaying form of Lazarus. Bending over it, "Jesus wept." (Jhn 11:34-35.) The Jews marvelled at his strong love for the sleeper, while he lifted his fervent prayer. (Jhn 11:36.) Then, with a voice so loud it rang through the hopeless chamber of death, and over the bright tops of the celestial hills, he cried, "Lazarus, come forth!" (Jhn 11:43) and the motionless heart grew warm and stirred, the color mantled the bandaged cheek, and the light of a living soul was rekindled beneath the parted lids! The buried friend of Christ again beheld Him, and loosed from the habiliments of the grave, greeted with wonted tenderness, the astonished yet joyful sisters.

The gratitude, the raptures, and frequent interviews with the Son of God which followed, are lost with the countless words of wisdom, and acts of mercy in the unwritten history of Him who wasted no moments, and neglected no sufferer that crossed his path.

A few days before the last passover, the Saviour went again to Bethany, with a company of disciples. The family on which he seemed to lavish his love and confidence, gave him a supper. Lazarus sat by his side, while Martha, with characteristic vivacity, and generous hospitality, prepared the feast; but Mary in her own beautiful sensibility, and depth of feeling, noiseless as the tide that lies tranquilly in its unsounded caves, was reclining by the feet of Jesus. She poured upon them precious ointment, till the perfume filled the apartment, and wiped those sacred limbs with the flowing ringlets of her raven hair. (Jhn 12:1-3.)

It was the occasion of bringing out the sordid and selfish spirit of Judas, who complained of Mary's extravagance. (Jhn 12:4-6.) The unrelenting malignity of his open enemies was also awakened by the presence of the brother, He had recalled from the realm of the dead. Oh! who can doubt the truthfulness of this simple story, when at no point can we pause and say, nature is not here; or who can question the strength and madness of that depravity which could invade the sweet solemnities of such a scene?

It was the last visit of the Redeemer to Bethany-that anointing was for his burial-and he went to the "City of his tears," to be the martyr of a world-and a spectacle of wonder to the universe he made, and which a breath of his power could sweep away like the gossamer web woven in the dew of morning.

Among the many lessons of this biography, no one is more impressive than the law of kindness and charity, seen in all the narrative and enforced by the rebuke of Christ to Martha. She was a Christian, ever active, and prompt to do the external duties of religion. Because Mary was of a different temperament, and more retiring, she judged her harshly, and the Redeemer who would not send her away from his feet.

And so it often happens that a Godly person, uniform and serious in character, will condemn another whose animal spirits as naturally run high, and whose impulses are like the rushing wave. There is no apology for a sacrifice of principle-but let none sit self‐complacently in judgment upon a fellow‐worm, when God by his forming hand, has emphatically "made them to differ"-but learn of Him who was meek and lowly of heart, by a frown of displeasure or a cruel word, never to "break the bruised reed, ox quench the smoking flax;" for life is formed of trifles, and their imperishable influence and value, will appear in the grand summing up of the final Judgment.

The Virgin Mary ← Prior Section

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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