In John 11 sisters Martha and Mary “sent word to Jesus. ‘Lord, the one you love is sick,’” referring to their brother Lazarus. And it was true, Jesus did love the man, and loved his two sisters as well (verse 5).
But instead of roaring off to visit them in their time of worry Jesus “stayed were he was for two more days” (verse 6), which was 50 miles away “across the Jordan” (John 10:40). So by the time the message got through to Jesus about Lazarus, and then finishing what he was doing across the Jordan, and then travelling the 50 miles back to the little village of Bethany two miles from Jerusalem, Lazarus had been four days dead already (John 11:17-18).
But how does this connect with what this virus is revealing about me? It’s in the contrast between Martha’s and Mary’s reactions to Jesus when he arrives, and which of their two reactions I recognize most in me.
The contrast begins when Martha hears Jesus is nearing Bethany and she “went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” It’s the first hint of two very different reactions to Jesus in a time of personal crisis. Martha immediately sets out to confront Jesus and on meeting him she gets right to the point when she says in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To her, the loving Jesus she’d come to know surely wouldn’t have let a sorry thing like this happen.
And isn’t that what a lot of people wonder about God, as to why he does things the way he does when he’s supposed to be so loving? And they don’t question lightly either. They really want to know why God works in such strange ways, and they hang on like bulldogs until they get a decent answer too.
But that’s Martha, and she gets right to the point again when she says, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” in verse 22. So she readily accepts there may be some greater purpose that God is fulfilling through Jesus here. She’s logical and trusting, but what possible benefit could there be in Jesus letting it go this far and not getting to Lazarus before he died?
And when Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again,” she readily accepts his answer, because she says: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And even when Jesus asks if she believes that people who die aren’t really dead because of him, she accepts that too.
This is one remarkable lady, because this is a major theological discussion going on here, and Jesus is more than willing to go along with it, because that’s Martha and how she thinks and reacts in a crisis. She trusts Jesus, oh yes, but she questions too, and I’m glad of that because I can’t help questioning God either. What possible benefit can there be, for instance, in letting this virus get so bad that even Christians are at risk and can’t get together? But I realize that’s me; I’m a Martha. But Martha being Martha didn’t bother Jesus, so I assume me being me doesn’t bother him either.
To Mary next, because when she meets Jesus she says exactly the same thing to him that Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” but she says it weeping (verses 32-33). And she was so distraught at her brother dying that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” to the point of weeping too (verses 33 and 35).
Mary is a totally different personality. It would break her heart seeing the suffering this virus crisis is creating in people’s lives. She’s not looking for an explanation to it, she simply weeps, and so wrenching was her grief over Lazarus that Jesus just sobbed along with her.
In a way I wish I could be more like Mary, more heart than head, but I’m not. And I’ve learnt that about myself in this crisis, because my mind seeks explanation. It needs scriptures to lean on. It’s why I could write six blogs in a week on Covid 19, each one a question, because I want answers, and answers for people like me.
And good old Martha, she’s still questioning Jesus in verse 39, as to why on earth he’d want the stone to Lazarus’ tomb taken away, when a body four days dead is really beginning to smell already. But Jesus meets the need of her questioning mind with another theological explanation in verse 40.
What I see in this “Tale of Two Sisters,” then, is how different we may be in how we react to a crisis, but how Jesus knows it and loves us so much he meets our need and feels what we feel.
He really does become one of us, but oh so personally as well.