The faith of Martha

In my opinion, it’s one of the most significant conversations in all of the New Testament.

Jesus is speaking to his distraught friend Martha, who is grieving the death of her brother Lazarus. He has told her flat-out that Lazarus will rise again. But she misunderstands; she takes him to be referring to some future resurrection, when all of God’s people would be raised from the dust.

So Jesus tries again, responding with one the most well-remembered of his “I Am” statements:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26, CEB)

Right from the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus has been associated with life. Life came into being through him (1:3-4), and those who believe will have life springing up like water from within (4:14).

This should not be news to Martha, though it’s understandable that in her grief, she has lost sight of its implications. Martha thinks resurrection is only a distant, future promise; Jesus points to the reality of eternal life today. He doesn’t say, “One day, I will give the gift of life”; he says, “I am the resurrection and the life, right now, standing right in front of you.” He promises not only life after death for those who believe, but hints at the power of eternal life in the present.

And then comes the million-dollar question: “Do you believe this?”

What most of us remember about Martha is the story in Luke 10:38-42. Martha bustles about in anxious busyness, while Mary sits quietly at the feet of Jesus. When Martha complains, Jesus seems to scold her for being such a worry-wart.

Such a reading fits well with our own self-scolding approaches to spirituality. But Martha, I think, gets a bad rap. Jesus is not so much scolding her as lovingly inviting her into a different kind and quality of life. And we should remember her not just for the story in Luke, but the one in John.

Asked if she believes, she gives a startling confession of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). All in one go, she declares Jesus to be Lord, Messiah, the Son of God, and the one coming into the world from God the Father. All of these declarations have been contested in John’s gospel; all of them have been points of contention between Jesus and his opponents. 

Imagine John giving someone a quiz on his gospel, and asking, “On the basis of all these things, who do you say Jesus is?” Martha’s confession would get an A++.

Does Martha understand what Jesus is about to do? Not likely. But she knows who Jesus is.

That’s what makes this conversation weighty. Throughout the gospel, the deeds Jesus does point like signposts to who he is. That’s what Jesus calls on people to believe. We cannot know all the things he will do, but we can put faith and trust in who he is. He is resurrection. He is eternal life, the future intersecting the present.

Do we believe this?

Then watch, and wait.