St. Martha, from Gospel Figure to Medieval Legend to La Dominadora: Sources, Resources, and FAQs

St. Martha in Scripture

st martha woodcut
Woodcut by Jacobus de Man, haven’t tracked down the specific publication yet, but it’s late 1600s, early 1700s and public domain. [1]

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
– John 11:5

The Gospel of Luke tells us how Martha invited Jesus to her home in Bethany. She cooked and cleaned and catered while her sister Mary sat at Christ’s feet and listened to him speak. Martha pointed out that Mary wasn’t pitching in.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “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.” (Luke 10:41, NIV)

Christ’s point is that in the grand scheme of things, your eternal soul is more important than social conventions and what people think about your housekeeping. But we need to understand this in context. It’s not that Martha had no imagination or faith or respect or that she was too small-minded to want to sit at Christ’s feet, too.

In Martha’s mind and in her culture, these were her duties, and her performance of them comprised her reputation, value, and trustworthiness as a member of her culture — in a society that valued hospitality quite highly, that in fact didn’t even work as a society without hospitality as a huge part of the glue that held it together.

She wasn’t saying nobody should value hearing him teach. She also wanted to hear him speak; she was also his disciple and believed in him. She was just pointing out that people needed to eat and wash and sit, and somebody’s efforts had to make that happen. (You can imagine that Jesus was accompanied by an entourage, too, all of whom also needed to eat and wash and sit.) She was determined to do her duties well for such an esteemed guest as Jesus, but she wasn’t a doormat. She was pointing out that she was not the only one who could be doing these things, that she *could* be sitting at Christ’s feet right now, too, if she just gave off doing the less glamorous stuff. But somebody has to do it. Dramatic events are unfolding, but somebody has to make the setting they’re unfolding in happen.

In John 12, Christ is in Bethany again before Passover at a dinner in his honor. Lazarus is reclined at the table with him. Word of his resurrection has spread like wildfire; Jesus’ followers are increasing and so are the machinations against his life. Mary makes a spectacle of herself pouring half of liter of precious perfume on Christ’s feet – worth a year’s wages – and wiping them with her hair. Christ is constantly, increasingly aware of the massive cosmic drama he’s part of and what’s right around the corner, his every action and word heavily symbolic. Every step he takes is under the weight of prophecy and its fulfillment, is part of a massive dramatic ritual. In this play, Christ has simultaneously the perspective of the main character and the omniscience of the author. The drama in John’s portrayal is thick indeed.

Martha during all of this? John writes only, “Martha served” (John 12:2).

Continue reading “St. Martha, from Gospel Figure to Medieval Legend to La Dominadora: Sources, Resources, and FAQs”