Mary of Bethany vs. Martha of Bethany

After a full year of holy anticipation, Lent Madness returns for another season of saintly thrills and spills! Whether this is your tenth year engaging in the annual saintly smackdown or your first, we're delighted you'll be spending a portion of your Lenten journey among us. Along the way there will be debates, ire, angst, rejoicing, laughter, and holy trash talking. Just remember, it’s all in the spirit of this holy season specifically set aside to grow closer to God through our relationship with Jesus Christ.

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But mostly, we encourage you to read about the 32 saintly souls participating in this year's edition of Lent Madness, faithfully cast your (single!) vote on the weekdays of Lent, and add your comments to the great cloud of participating witnesses that gathers as the online Lent Madness community each year.

Lent Madness 2019, or Lent Madness X as we've been calling it, kicks off with a battle between two Biblical heavyweights as we settle, once and for all, the age old question: Mary vs. Martha. And before you say it, of course it's not fair! It's not called Lent Madness for nothing.

So, hang onto your halos, friends, and prepare yourselves for another wild ride of saintly action. Away we go!

Mary of Bethany

Mary at the feet of JesusMary of Bethany lived in first-century Bethany with her sister, Martha, and her brother, Lazarus, as we are told in the Gospel of Luke. Along with her siblings, she was among the very first to believe in Jesus.

Luke recounts the famous story of Jesus having supper at the sisters’ house, where Martha, concerned with getting the food on the table, asks Jesus to scold Mary for her apparent lack of concern. It’s notable that Mary is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha serves; usually only the male students of rabbis sat at the feet of their teachers. For Mary to do so is highly unusual for an unmarried woman—possibly why Martha gets antsy about it. But Jesus declines to chide Mary for what she has done, declaring that in her discipleship, she has “chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Gospel of John also gives us a few more glimpses of Mary of Bethany. John explicitly links Mary with the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. At Lazarus’s death, both Mary and Martha race out into the street to greet Jesus when he finally comes, and Mary chastises him, echoing her sister’s words, saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” At her declaration, Jesus is moved to tears.

It is clear that Jesus is quite close with this family. Through contextual clues, we can tell that the family must have been fairly well-to-do, given the sisters’ independent status and ability to support Jesus’ ministry. They seem to own their house and are able to provide a separate burial site for their brother (somewhat rare—and not cheap.). We also have John’s story of Mary spending more than 300 denarii (equivalent to 300 days of wage for a laborer) on pure spikenard to anoint Jesus.

Later church tradition treated Mary as it treated many of the other women of the gospel; it elided her story into that of an Everywoman who is remarkable mostly in her blandness. The few stories that survive in the West often conflate her with Mary Magdalene. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, her uniqueness survives, and with her sister and Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany is remembered on the third Sunday of Easter as one of the Myrrh-Bearing Women—the first to recognize the risen Christ.

Collect for Mary of Bethany
O God, heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love you, open our hearts to hear you, and strengthen our hands to serve you in others for his sake; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-Megan Castellan

Martha of Bethany

MarthaThe iconic Martha of Bethany is the hero of faithful pragmatics and doers, though she gets a bad rap for being less contemplative than her sister. When Jesus visits her house, Mary sits at his feet, but Martha feels the burdens of her role as hostess and works in the kitchen, resentful that Mary isn’t helping. When she complains, the Lord answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Because of this anecdote, Martha is seen to symbolize worldly concerns while her sister Mary focuses on the spiritual. When Jesus asks someone to open the tomb of her days-dead brother Lazarus, the heartbroken Martha stays true to her practical nature, responding, “Lord, already there is a stench.”

Although not expressly mentioned in the gospels, the Orthodox tradition honors both Martha and Mary as among the followers of Jesus who stood at Golgotha to witness the crucifixion, and later carried myrrh to his tomb to anoint the body. Thus they are counted among the first witnesses of the resurrection. This tradition also holds that Martha fled persecution in Judea with Lazarus, joining him as a missionary abroad until he became a bishop in Cyprus, where all three siblings eventually died.

According to the Golden Legend, a medieval hagiography (writing about the lives of the saints), the siblings were of noble birth. Martha put her aristocratic hostess skills to use for Jesus because, “She thought that all the world was not sufficient to serve such a guest.” The same legend holds that the family arrived in France miraculously via a ship without oars or sails to preach the gospel. The eminently practical Martha tamed a Galician dragon, “half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent.” Afterward Martha lived a life of daily devotion in France until she died. A tomb in the Collegiate Church of Tarascon purportedly contains her relics.

Martha’s feast day is July 29, and she is patron saint of cooks, dietitians, domestic help, housekeepers, servants, and waitpersons. And of course, she is admired by pragmatics, doers, and practitioners of common sense.

Collect for Martha of Bethany
O God, heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love you, open our hearts to hear you, and strengthen our hands to serve you in others for his sake; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-Amber Belldene

Mary of Bethany vs. Martha of Bethany

  • Martha of Bethany (58%, 6,044 Votes)
  • Mary of Bethany (42%, 4,442 Votes)

Total Voters: 10,486

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Mary of Bethany: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Martha of Bethany: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons


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537 comments on “Mary of Bethany vs. Martha of Bethany”

  1. So grateful for another Lent Madness round of saints.

    Thanks so much to Megan and Amber for starting us off well. I am Team Mary of Bethany today.

  2. Sister vs. Sister - what a great way to begin the Madness! I voted for Mary because she did not behave as expected. Plus, I hate to cook.

    1. Yes, yes. Bold Mary boldly affirms Jesus in believing that women can be disciples, too!

  3. I myself am a Martha but strive to be more like Mary, to try to reflect more and do less. I take on many organizations and tasks, mostly for my kids, but is that always the right way? Service to God can have many different forms!

  4. I liked Martha's story, and in a way, wanted to vote for her as I am so much more a Martha than a Mary, attentive to worldly needs, as so many of us are. So, I voted for Mary because I like to believe that she struggled with this - that it was a difficult choice for her to give up her usual concerns and sit at Jesus' feet - knowing she would earn her sister's, and probably many others', disapproval.

    1. I don't think Mary gave it a thought. She just did what she was called to do at the moment and likewise so did Martha although she did complain a bit. I'm afraid if I did what Mary did, however, I would feel terribly guilty at letting Martha do all the work.

  5. If Martha of Bethany makes it to the next round, don't forget to reference Rudyard Kipling's poem "Sons of Martha."

    1. My father used to read Kipling to us often at bedtime. I was unfamiliar with this poem, though. Thank you.

  6. I've always liked Mary more but Martha gets my vote because -
    1. Dragon!!
    2. Jan Brady Vibes (It's always Mary Mary Mary) and I'm the Jan of my family too
    3. Patron saint of restaurant workers - and I married a chef and worked my way through college as a waitress and Lord knows in that work one needs a saint on one's shoulder.

  7. Sibling rivalry!! I vote for Martha, the pragmatic one. The gang would have been hungry and thirsty without her. She shows true hospitality to her guests.

    1. As the second daughter in a family of 10 I was always tasked to get extra chairs or set another place at the table when guests dropped in. My little sister would be goofing off in the living room. I totally identify with Martha.

    2. I've always been surprised that Martha didn't look Jesus in the eye and say "If I sit with Mary and listen to you, everyone's going to be hungry very soon. That bread isn't going to bake itself." Jesus and his apostles were guests in her home, so she knew she was expected to feed them.

      And yes she could have complained about her brother Lazarus not doing his share of the host work either, but in that culture his job was probably to keep the guests' cups filled. And 13 thirsty men who'd been journeying all day likely required frequent refills.

  8. Voted for Martha. Her busy-ness (if that's a word) helps the hospitality and environment for Mary's Jesus experience. There is holiness in everyday gifts of time and talent, as Martha shows us.

  9. Martha is the poster gal for the Benedictine tradition of hospitality. Sure, Mary does her part by keeping Jesus company while her sister toils in the kitchen, but after an hour or so of chit-chat what brings people to the table (literally) is food and drink. So my vote is for Martha, the hostess with the most-est!

  10. As a member of the comfort and support guild here at St. Andrews I am behind my girl Martha!

  11. Close one! Not to put down Martha at all (and our celebrity blogger told a great legend about her!) but I voted for Mary-I admire her first century feminism in sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn along with the men. Although not included here she has an important theological discussion with Jesus at the assumed death of her brother Lazarus. Finally, she reminds us of the importance of having a contemplative side—it does not mean that an industrious side that cares for the physical needs of others is not important, but for women especially we need that reminder to participate in the entire sphere of life.

  12. I have always loved Martha, huffing around the kitchen when she should have been choosing the better part. What a happy surprise to see her ahead of the wiser Mary in the early voting!

  13. One of the finest and most helpful members of St. Peter's in the Mountains in Callaway, Virginia, is Martha in name and spirit. She also leads adult Sunday school. In a sense, she's both a Mary and a Martha. My vote is for her.

  14. In this overbusy world, we need more Marys who show us the value of settling down and attending fully to the gifts of the day. Especially when Jesus is in your living room!

    1. Amen. As a pastor, I've often heard Martha's voice in the complaint about those only come to worship and "leave all the work to us." And I've usually sympathized with the Marthas. But Jesus takes Mary's side here. And there is a reason for it.

  15. Horrible first choice. The closer Jesus comes to Jerusalem and Golgotha the more he needs human love and support. Before he entered Jerusalem for the last time, he went to the sisters home in Bethany, just outside the city. I cannot even begin to imagine how much Martha's ordinary compassion and food and comfort thoughtfulness would have meant to him. Yet, I voted for Mary because her declaration at the time of Lazarus' "death" puts her right up there with Peter's " you are the Promised One". Not a fun choice for this first day!

  16. While both Mary and Martha were devoted followers of Jesus, I voted for Mary because I think I would have liked to have sat and listened to Jesus speak - food for the soul. I was reminded of The Kitchen prayer.

  17. And you know Jesus and his male friends expected to be fed (and cleaned up after!) once the teaching was done!

  18. Unfair to have us choose between these sisters so early in the race! Like choosing a favorite child! They are both loved for their individuality. It would have been a great final. I voted for Mary in the end despite living them equally, because I’m more like her at my core and not at my best when my Martha comes out... though many others are the opposite and thank God for them!

  19. Please vote for Martha! As the mum of two chefs, pastry and savories, I must implore you to vote for our favorite patron saint. Martha of Bethany!

  20. As I find feeding and serving my parish a calling and ministry there was not doubt in my mind who to vote for!

  21. It’s a hard choice because they’re both awesome, but I went with Mary. This is my first lent madness I get to celebrate as an Episcopalian!

  22. Mary seems already to get major saintly recognition for her choice, so for my
    choice , I say Martha this time around!

  23. This is a tough one!
    But I see Martha as the example of what most humans do in thinking “doing and providing” should be done to show love. I believe Mary is the epitome of intentionality. Being intentional in one’s life has become so important in this world of busy, busy, hurry, scurry!

  24. I'm glad for the return of Lenten Madness. I had to vote for Martha because I'm such a Martha myself!