Scripture Characters


"Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." JOHN xi. 20, 21, 32.

THE simple and pathetic exclamation that bursts from the lips of the two bereaved sisters, as they separately meet with Jesus, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died" cannot but find an echo in every breast that has ever mourned over a, loss like theirs. The feeling which it expresses is so natural, that we may almost call it the very instinct of grief to reflect on what has happened, with a vague idea of its having been possible somehow to avert it. Nor is the expression of the feeling always sinful, if it be to God himself that we express it. He would have us, indeed, to open our minds and hearts, without reserve, to him; for it is better that our complaint should be poured into his ear, than that it should be pent up in our own bosoms; and the relief which the utterance of it affords may lead to calmer and holier thoughts. Thus, in the present instance, the mourners, amid their very upbraiding of Jesus, as some might count it, were warm and cordial in the welcome which they gave him. They spoke the language common to all deep and recent grief when they bewailed the untoward accident but for which, as they imagined, the event might have been ordered otherwise. But at the same time they gave evidence of their being under the influence of genuine faith in Jesus, and tender love to him, when they hailed his visit so affectionately as they did, and accepted with meek resignation his seasonable fellowship and sympathy.

Thus far we trace in their conduct the working of a common grief. But the sisters differed in their sorrow, as they did generally in the leading features of their characters, and their manner of thinking and acting in the ordinary affairs of life. They were persons of very different tempers and dispositions; and this difference is uniformly and strikingly brought out in their treatment of the Lord Jesus. Both looked up to him with reverence; both regarded him with full confidence and tender affection; and both were equally earnest and eager in testifying their esteem and love: but each in doing so followed the bent of her own peculiar turn of mind.

Martha was distinguished by a busy, if not bustling activity in the despatch of affairs. She seems to have possessed great quickness, alertness, and energy, together with a certain practical ability and good sense, qualifying her both for taking a lead herself and for giving an impulse to others. She was on this account well fitted for going through with any work to be done, and she was always awake to the common calls and the common cares of the ordinary domestic routine of life. Mary, again, was evidently characterized by more depth of thought, more devotedness and sensibility of feeling. She was more easily engrossed in any affecting scene, or any spiritual subject; more alive at any time to one single profound impression, and apt to be abstracted from other concerns.

Hence, as we find it stated on a former occasion when our Lord was received in their house, while "Mary sat at his feet and heard his word, Martha was cumbered with much serving." She was assiduous, and even officious, in her hospitable anxiety to provide for the accommodation of her guest; and if Jesus had come "to be ministered unto," he would have been best pleased with Martha’s attention to all his wants. But as he came, "not to be ministered unto, but to minister," he found greater delight in her sister Mary, who, with the meekness of a disciple, and the earnestness of a spiritually awakened soul, listened to the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. Accordingly, when Martha said, "Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me," "Jesus answered and said unto her, 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 away from her" (Luke x. 40-42). Thus the sisters showed their respective characters as they waited upon the Divine Visitor whom it was their privilege to entertain in their house as a highly honoured guest and a much valued friend. And as their ways of testifying regard to the Lord Jesus in prosperity differed, so also did their respective modes of demeanour towards him in adversity.

Martha was evidently the first to receive information of his approach (John xi. 20), either because to her, as the mistress of the house, the message was brought, or because, going about the house in her usual manner, she was in the way of hearing intelligence. She went out in haste, impatient to meet the Lord, and to render to him the offices of courtesy and respect. She is ready to be up and doing; she can turn at once from the conversation in which her friends from Jerusalem have been seeking to interest her, and disengage her mind for active exertion. Mary, again, is more absorbed in her grief; her sorrow is of a deeper and more desponding character; for while "Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him, Mary sat still in the house" (ver. 20). This more absorbing intensity of Mary’s grief, "the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforted her" seem to have remarked, when they said of her, as they saw her at last rise hastily and go out, "She goeth unto the grave to weep there" (ver. 31). They had not said this of Martha when she went forth. She might be bent on other errands. Mary could go only to weep. And at first her feelings so overpower her as to prevent her from going at all. The sudden arrival of her brother’s friend is a shock too great for her; it tears the wound open afresh, and recalls bitter thoughts. She is plunged by the tidings into a fresh burst of sorrow, and can only "sit still in the house."

Thus, in different circumstances, the same natural temper may be either an advantage or a snare. Martha was never so much occupied in the emotion of one scene or subject as not to be on the alert and ready for the call to another. This was a disadvantage to her, when she was so hurried that she could not withdraw herself from household cares to wait upon the word of life. It is an advantage to her now that she can, with comparative ease, shake off her depression, and hasten of her own accord to meet her Lord. The same profound feeling, again, which made Mary the more attentive listener before, makes her the more helpless sufferer now; and disposes her almost to nurse her grief, until Jesus, her best comforter, sends specially and emphatically to rouse her. Nor is it an insignificant circumstance, that it is the ever-active Martha who carries to her more downcast sister the awakening message; so ought sisters in Christ to minister to one another, and so may the very difference of their characters make them mutually the more helpful to one another: "She went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee" (ver. 28).

When the two sisters meet Jesus, the difference between them is equally characteristic. Martha’s grief is not so overwhelming as to prevent her utterance. She is calm, and cool, and collected enough to enter into argument. She can give expression to her convictions and her hopes. She can tell that her faith is not shaken even by so severe a disappointment Having hinted what might seem to imply a doubt, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died" (ver. 21), she is in haste to explain her meaning, and to give assurance of her undiminished confidence: "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (ver. 22). And then, as the conversation goes on, she is sufficiently self-possessed to listen to a short argument on the resurrection, and to reason with the Lord upon the subject. She invites and welcomes religious discourse, and makes a formal declaration of her faith in Jesus as the author of eternal life: "Yea, Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world" (ver. 23-27).
Not so her sister Mary. She indeed, when at last she is emboldened by her Master’s kind message, goes forth to meet him; and her reverence, her devotion, her faith, are not less than those of Martha. But her heart is too full for many words. Her emotions, when she sees the Lord, she cannot utter; the passion of her soul she cannot command, she can but cast herself down, weeping, before him, and cry, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." She adds not a word more! She lies prostrate and silent at his feet (ver. 32).

Shall we notice one other distinctive mark of character, exquisitely delicate and true to nature? Jesus, having asked where Lazarus had been laid, is conducted to the tomb, which was "a cave, with a stone upon it." He gives orders to take away the stone: "Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days" (ver. 39). It is not Mary to whom it occurs to offer this objection; she is silent still, in the unutterable agony of her grief, and the deep reverence of her soul before the Lord. But Martha’s wonted officiousness makes her forward, when it might have been more becoming to be "dumb," and to "stand in awe." And the answer of Jesus might well be felt by her partly as a mild reproof: "Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?" (ver. 40.)

Such are the different aspects which sorrow wears in minds of different stamps, and of different degrees of strength and of sensibility. But if it be the sorrow of a godly heart, it finds in Jesus one who can with the most perfect tenderness and truth adapt his sympathy and consolation to its peculiar character, whatever that may be. It is very instructive accordingly, in this view, to observe the Lord’s demeanour towards the two sisters, in his first meeting with them on this occasion, and to see how it was exactly suited to their respective tempers, and their different kinds of grief.

Martha’s distress was of such a nature that it admitted of discussion and discourse. She was disposed to converse, and to find relief in conversation. Jesus accordingly adapted his treatment to her case. He spoke to her, and led her to speak to him. He talked with her on the subject most interesting and most seasonable on the resurrection of the body and the life of the soul. Martha had declared her unshaken trust in him as still having power to obtain from God all that he might ask (ver. 22). And a wild idea, perhaps, crossed her mind, that it might not even yet be too late that the evil might, even now, be repaired. If so, it was but the fancy of a moment the dreamy notion that sometimes haunts the desolate breast, when it strives in vain to realize the loss which it has sustained. A single sad thought brings the recollection, to which, as we have seen, in her characteristic spirit of attention to such details, she afterwards adverts, that her brother has been now four days in the tomb, and corruption must be doing its horrid work upon his body. When, therefore, she hears her Lord’s promise, "Thy brother shall rise again," she applies it to his share in the general resurrection: "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (ver. 23, 24). Jesus is anxious to explain himself more fully. He speaks not of a resurrection merely, but of a resurrection in Himself; not of life only, but of life in Himself: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?" (ver. 25, 26).

For this is the only true comfort in reference to the future state. He is the only true comforter who can speak, not merely of the immortality of the soul, and of the resurrection of the body, but of Himself as the life of the immortal soul and the Quickener of the risen body, the first-begotten from the dead the first-fruits of them that sleep. ‘Ah, what consolation is it that thy brother lives and shall rise again, that he lives now in the spirit, and that he shall rise again in the body? The consolation which I give is more effectual and complete by far. He lives in ME. He shall rise with ME. And what is the life which I continue, even after death, to sustain? It is the very life which I impart now, life before God, life in God, the life of a soul pardoned, justified, reconciled to God, renewed after the image of God, sanctified and made meet for the fellowship of God for ever. And what is the resurrection which I give? Is it not a resurrection to glory when these vile bodies shall be changed and fashioned like unto my glorious body? It is my own life that I impart to the believer now, and continue to him without interruption beyond the grave: it is of my own resurrection that I am to make him a partaker when I come again.’

These, or such as these, are the only words which, spoken by one who has authority, can shed light on the dark tomb of a lost and buried brother or on the darker sorrow of a surviving sister’s heart. So the apostle felt when he said, "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him" (1 Thess. iv. 13, 14). And what though Martha may not as yet understand fully all that is involved in the assurance, "I am the resurrection, and the life," she is relieved by having laid on her Divine Friend the burden of her soul, and imparted her sorrows and her hopes to one who can so graciously commune with her concerning the glorious end and issue of them all. It is therefore with somewhat of a lightened heart that she declares her entire acquiescence in his power, and her perfect trust in his goodness adopting the usual form of confession by which the disciples were wont to own their Master as the Messiah, "the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world" (John xi. 27).

When Mary, on the other hand, draws near in the anguish of silent woe, Jesus is differently affected, and his sympathy is shown in a different way. He is much more profoundly moved. He does not reply to her in words, for her own words were few. Sorrow has choked her utterance, and overmastered her soul. But the sight of one so dear to him, lying in such helpless anguish at his feet, is an appeal to him far stronger than any supplication. And his own responsive sigh is an answer more comforting than any promise. "When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her" for it was a melting scene, "he groaned in spirit, and was troubled." And when he had asked of the bystanders, "Where have ye laid him?" and received the reply, "Come and see," like Joseph, he could not refrain himself "Jesus wept" (ver. 33-35).

Most blessed mourner, with whose tears thy Saviour mingles his own! Sympathy most unparalleled! To each of the two stricken and afflicted ones the Lord addressed the very consolation that was most congenial. To Martha he gave exceeding great and precious assurances, in words such as never man spake. To Mary he communicated the groanings of his spirit, in more expressive to the heart than any spoken could be. With Martha, Jesus discoursed and reasoned. With Mary, "Jesus wept." What a friend is this! What a brother! Yea, and far more than a brother! How confidently may you come to him, ye Christian mourners, in every season of trial! For surely he will give you the very cordial, the very refreshment, of which you stand in need. He is a patient hearer if you have anything to say to him; and he will speak to you as you are able to bear it. Your complaints, your regrets, your expostulations, your very remonstrances and upbraidings, may all be expressed to him. He will pity He will comfort. His Holy Spirit will bring to your remembrance what Christ has said suitable to your case. He will recall to you the Saviour’s gracious words of eternal life, and suggest to you considerations fitted to dissipate your gloom, and put a new song in your mouth. And even if you cannot collect your thoughts, and order your words aright, if you are "dumb with silence when your sorrow is stirred," and as you muse your heart is hot within you, oh remember, that with these very "groanings which cannot be uttered the Spirit maketh intercession for you!" And they are not hid from Him who, when he saw Mary weeping, groaned, and was troubled, and wept. There is indeed enough of all varied consolation in that blessed book, which all throughout testifies of Jesus! For the sorrow that seeks vent in words, and desires also to be soothed by words, there is the Saviour’s open ear there are the Saviour’s lips into which grace was poured. For the grief that is dumb and silent, there are the Saviour’s tears.

We have endeavoured to trace the lineaments of two very different characters. We have seen how they appeared in the ordinary scenes of life, and how they manifested themselves in the chamber of sickness in the house of mourning. On their comparative excellences and defects respectively we pronounce no judgment, further than what may be gathered incidentally from the narrative as the judgment of the Lord himself. But we may be allowed to say, in conclusion, of Mary’s fervency of spirit as compared with Martha’s diligence in business. This ye ought to cherish, but not to leave the other undone. There is a tendency to regard religion as consisting chiefly in services rendered to the Lord Jesus, and attention and observance paid to him, in ministering busily, if not to his person, yet to his cause and the affairs of his kingdom. And there is a danger, in days especially when much is to be done, of substituting a certain bustling activity, and liberality, and zeal in the work of the Lord, for deep and devoted piety in waiting upon his word. Never forget, then, that Mary chose the better part. What Jesus chiefly desires is to see you rather sitting at his feet, than cumbered about much serving, rather that you should ask and receive much grace from him, than that you should make a merit of rendering much service to him. But beware of supposing that there is any inconsistency or incompatibility between these two habits of mind. The tempers of the two sisters may be united and blended. Be it your study and prayer that they may be so in you. Be as fervent in spirit as Mary was, as diligent in business as Martha was. Choose the privilege of waiting upon the word of the Lord; yet, neglect not the work of the Lord. Seize every opportunity, answer every call, of usefulness, while, at the same time, you cultivate the holy taste for meditative retirement, divine fellowship, and heavenly rest; even as He did who "went about doing good," and of whom also it is written, that he "spent the whole night in prayer to God." Then may you entertain the confident hope, that in seasons of affliction yours will be the blessedness of uniting both the portions of consolation which the sisters separately received. Jesus will speak to you as he did to Martha, Jesus will weep with you as he did with Mary.

Go To Scripture Characters No.14


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