Margaret Guenther, associate rector at St. Columba Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and a former seminary professor, says that Martha's profession of faith is an underappreciated moment in the Bible. "It's a bold proclamation, and she made it before many of the men did," says Guenther. "We have a special day in January where we celebrate Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, but Martha doesn't quite make it into the book."
Far from their apparent rivalry in the Gospel of Luke, the Mary and Martha of the Gospel of John work in concert. After Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jesus again comes to their house for dinner. Here, Mary commits an act of great devotion and significance—she washes Jesus's feet with "a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume" that Judas says is worth a year of wages. With this poetic act wherein "the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume," Mary powerfully presages Jesus's death—the oil was saved for the day of his burial. She also provides a model of Christian service and devotion. Christ later echoes her act when he washes the feet of his disciples.
The appearance of Lazarus only in the Gospel of John might raise doubt that the Mary and Martha of Luke are the same as the pair in John. Scholars point out that there seemed to be relatively few personal names in biblical times, and the authors of the Gospels may have recycled the same names for different stories. If so, did these women exist at all? "That there were a significant pair of leaders called Mary and Martha who were well known, I don't see any reason to doubt," says Carter. And to a lay reader, Mary and Martha have always been the same sisters.
What becomes of these women? Popular folklore traces Martha's path from her house in Bethany to the South of France where she supposedly traveled as an evangelist. Some even say that she tamed a dragon along the way. And to this day, several churches in France claim to be the site of Martha's tomb. "It's folk piety," says Guenther. "People want to know more about these women, so somebody makes up these terrific stories, and they grow and grow."
Mary and Martha need not tame dragons to engage the modern reader. Whether one imagines the sisters in a dusty biblical town, in Vermeer's 17th-century Holland, or even as contemporary women, they have much to offer beyond their imagined rivalry. In Vermeer's painting, Jesus points toward Mary, not as a rebuke to Martha but as a gentle reminder that leadership demands both the ability to listen and the ability to act. Finally, Mary and Martha are not at odds but form two parts of a whole.