Martha, Martha!

Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary by Velazquez
(Click on image for larger, detailed version)

The church calendar names July 29 as the feast of Saint Martha. The family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany was certainly dear to Jesus which explains the prominence of its members in the scriptures. Below are the three texts of the gospel which recount the close relationship Jesus had with this family.

The painting above is my favorite image of the well-known, "Martha, Martha..." story in which Mary sits at Jesus' feet while Martha is busy in the kitchen. For a variety of other images of Jesus and this family, take a look at this collection edited by Elizabeth Fletcher, who comments:
Martha's face is clearly unhappy. She has been left with the preparation of a meal, while her sister Mary sits entranced at the feet of their honored guest, Jesus. There is a second figure in the foreground, not mentioned in the gospel story.

This painting is given an air of ambiguity by the figure standing behind Martha. Who is she, and what is she meant to represent? Is she pointing towards Mary in the next room, and feeding Martha's resentment at the unfair load of work she has to carry? Or is she pointing to Jesus, telling Mary that she too should be listening, instead of wasting these precious moments in the kitchen? Velázquez was a court painter who was paid to make his courtly subjects appear impassive - a detached demeanor was de rigueur for royalty. On the other hand, he could show emotion in a biblical subject's face. But what emotion is this girl showing? And what is the old woman saying?

Martha, Mary and Lazarus in the gospels

Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”
(Luke 10:38-42)

Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary
to comfort them about their brother [Lazarus, who had died].
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”
(John 11:19-27)

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served,
while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus
and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Then Judas the Iscariot, one (of) his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
"Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days' wages
and given to the poor?"
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
So Jesus said, "Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you,
but you do not always have me."
(John 12:1-8)



  1. I think the painting is powerful no matter how we chose to "read"it.
    I'm amazed at how beautiful the artwork is that you find. Sometimes it is easy to read, other times like this, we are given the opportunity to see it through our own eyes and interpret it as we see it. Not right or wrong. Just as it is.

  2. Maybe the woman behind Martha, is an angel. An angel unseen by Martha, but trying to get into her thoughts by pointing in the direction of Jesus; and trying hard for her to see how much happier she'd be if she was doing what Mary was doing. Mary was with Jesus. Martha was working to please Jesus, but away from Him. Like so many of us.

  3. I went to the link of the other images of Jesus and this family and the comments made by Elizabeth Fletcher. What a wonderful art lesson. Thank you for broadening my mind.



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