A bad rap

The other week in church we had a sermon on John 11 – the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. One thing I’ve always liked about this story is what it says about Martha. Usually, the only thing anyone knows about Martha is that she rushed around the house doing stuff and whining about her ‘lazy’ sister Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him. She is the classic cautionary tale about getting too busy to listen to God. In many Victorian girls’ books, the characters who bustle around doing things are called “little Marthas”. Yet in John 11, this is not the Martha we see. In this story, Martha, who is grieving her brother’s death, has this interaction with Jesus:

When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
(John 11:20-27, NLT)

This doesn’t sound like someone who is too busy to listen to God. This sounds like someone who, even in the middle of her grief, knows the truth and has always known the truth. Her faith in Jesus is absolute… even though he didn’t come to save her brother.

I love this view of Martha. I love that the busy Martha is not the only one we get to see in the Bible. I love the reality of it – sometimes she gets it right, and sometimes she doesn’t. But there was another thing in the story that I had previously missed. It’s about Thomas.

Thomas is another person in the Bible who has a negative reputation. We know him as the disciple who doubted, who needed to see and touch before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. Like Martha, he is a cautionary tale – even today, a skeptic is called a “Doubting Thomas”. But in John 11, we see a different Thomas. Here’s what happens:

So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” But his disciples objected. “Rabbi,” they said, “only a few days ago the people in Judea were trying to stone you. Are you going there again?”

Jesus replied, “There are twelve hours of daylight every day. During the day people can walk safely. They can see because they have the light of this world. But at night there is danger of stumbling because they have no light.” Then he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up.”

The disciples said, “Lord, if he is sleeping, he will soon get better!” They thought Jesus meant Lazarus was simply sleeping, but Jesus meant Lazarus had died. So he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe. Come, let’s go see him.”

Thomas, nicknamed the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go, too—and die with Jesus.”
(John 11:5-16, NLT)

Thomas – doubting Thomas – is the first (and possibly only) disciple to jump in there and say ‘Yeah, it’s really dangerous … but you know what? Following Jesus is more important, even if it means we die.’ He didn’t say ‘show me that you are the Messiah’. He said ‘I will follow, no matter what it costs me’.

We all doubt. We all get distracted and forget about Jesus. But wouldn’t it be sad if that’s all anyone ever remembered about us? If that’s all we ever remembered about other people? Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we hurt people, and do things that make people think our faith is shaky. We get hurt and annoyed by other people and their stupid and thoughtless actions. Maybe, when those things happen, it would help to remember Martha and Thomas, who made mistakes, but who were willing to stake their lives on following Jesus… and who are so much more than their bad raps.

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One thought on “A bad rap

  1. And now I need to officially apologise to Martha because I’ve always read this passage as her being a bossy ‘fixer’ again, telling Jesus what to do. Anyone would think that I’ve been scarred for life by a ‘fixer’. But I’ve always loved this part of Thomas’ story.

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