For the Marys and Marthas: Jesus In Our Grief

By Kate Seat

On September 19, 2015, a dear colleague of mine passed away in a hiking accident. He was 23, newlywed, talented, and big-hearted. He’d just begun his second year of teaching high school English at the school where we both worked. Last year I wrote some thoughts to share with our students. Here they are, emended.

Everyone hurts at different speeds. In John’s Gospel, Mary and Martha had a brother, Lazarus, who died. Famously, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but a subtler part of the story astounds me even more than the resurrection. It’s the intimate way Jesus meets the two sisters in their grief. He doesn’t come to them with one-size-fits-all platitudes: he tailors his compassion to each woman.

When Martha hears Jesus is coming, she immediately goes out of the house to meet him and basically says, Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. BUT I know you are in control, and I know everything will be okay on the day of the resurrection. Martha needs hope and a game plan and assurance of good things to come.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” – John 11:25-27

Martha responds to death with hope, and Jesus gives her an even bigger, more attainable hope than the one she first had.

Mary, though, sits in the house when she hears Jesus is near. She doesn’t come out until Martha tells her that Jesus is asking for her. So already, we can see a difference. Martha runs to Jesus, but Mary has to be drawn out. When she does go to Jesus, she just falls at Jesus’ feet, crying, saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s not singing hymns or quoting Jeremiah 29:11 – she’s not ready for that. She’s just grieving. And I get that. I’m totally a Mary. There’s no way I’d spend my energy cleaning when I could be listening to Jesus, and I would not be ready for positive thinking four days after my brother’s death. Last week, I had to leave any conversation where the “Marthas” were talking, where anyone said anything along the lines of “everything happens for reason” or “God has a plan, His ways are not our ways”. When I was alone, I didn’t listen to praise songs – I listened to Aretha Franklin’s blues recordings, because I needed to feel sad. And it’s okay that I felt like that.

It’s tempting for the Martha types to tell the Marys to pull it together, and then it’s tempting for the Mary types to lash out against the Marthas. But Jesus greets Mary as perfectly as he greeted Martha. When she falls at his feet crying, Jesus doesn’t say anything to Mary. The Scripture says when he saw her weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. Another translation says he was indignant in his spirit, instead of deeply moved. The verb in the Latin text means he growled. And then Jesus wept.

I am so grateful for this Jesus. The Jesus who’s mad about death. The Jesus who understands that everything is not okay. The Jesus who enters my pain before he redeems it.