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Martha, Mary, and Lazarus


Martha, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, lived in the same house in Bethany, a small town near Jerusalem. Since the Bible does not mention the name of any other member in the family, scholars assume Martha was the eldest and was a widow. Mary and Lazarus must be single and below 20 years of age because the Jews used to marry before that age. Both were living with their elder sister, Martha. All the three had high reverence for Jesus. Martha welcomed him to her house whenever he passed through Bethany en route to Jerusalem. The gospels document three of Jesus’ visits to her house that were significant.

1. While teaching at Martha’s house, Jesus justified Mary’s act of sitting by him to learn from him when Martha complained against Mary for not helping her to prepare meals for Jesus and the other guests (Lk 10:38-42).

2. Jesus visiting Martha’s family after the death of Lazarus followed by raising him from the tomb (Jn 11:1-44).

3. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet when he came to their house six days prior to his final Passover observance (Jn 12:1-8).

Martha’s family must be above average in financial status because they had a house large enough to accommodate guests for stays and discussions. Mary could buy “costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard” (Jn 12:3) worth “three hundred days’ wages” to anoint the feet of Jesus (Jn 12:5). Their source of income is unknown.

The names of the three siblings suggest their role in the events presented in the gospels. Martha is the feminine form of Mar (Lord). So, her name means mistress or head of the household. The name Mary originates from the Hebrew word Miriam that means “bitter, beloved, or drop of the sea.” When Miriam, the sister of Moses, was born, the Israelites had the bitter destiny to throw their male children into the River Nile because of Pharaoh’s order. However, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Mariam was also known as Mara Yam, meaning “Mistress of the Sea.” The Greek name Lazarus derived from the Hebrew word Eleazar, meaning “God has helped.” Thus, Martha was the head of the household, Mary was a beloved disciple of Jesus, and the Son of God helped Lazarus by raising him on the fourth day after his death.

Though Martha and Mary were sisters, they were of distinct personalities and represented two essential components of Christian life. Martha was the head of the family and was hospitable to Jesus and his disciples whenever Jesus came to their house at her invitation. While Jesus was preaching at her house, she skipped listening to Jesus and kept busy preparing meals for everyone. Mary, the younger sister of Martha, expressed her devotion to Jesus by sitting at his feet to learn from him. She disagreed with Martha’s approach of neglecting to learn from Jesus for household work. Martha considered, according to the Jewish custom, it was men’s role to discuss with the guest while the ladies should prepare the meal and make it ready by the time the master ends his preaching. Lazarus was the youngest in the family and he became famous because Jesus raised him from the tomb on the fourth day after his death.

Because of Martha’s hospitality, she is the patron saint of cooks, homemakers, and restaurant servers. And as a family, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are patron saints of siblings. The Catholic Church used to celebrate Martha’s annual feast on 29 July. Pope Francis combined this feast to be observed with that of Mary and Lazarus on the same date from 29 July 2021. Formerly, there was a wrong identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala, whose annual feast falls on 22 July. The present understanding is that they are different, and so in 2021, Pope Francis liturgically affirmed the separation of the two. Hence, the Catholic Church celebrates Mary of Bethany’s feast on 29 July along with that of her siblings, Martha, and Lazarus.


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