On Feast of Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jesus Shows Us the Value of Human Relationships

‘In the household of Bethany,’ said Cardinal Robert Sarah in the decree for today’s feast, ‘the Lord Jesus experienced the family spirit and friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.’

Léon Bonnat, “The Raising of Lazarus,” 1857
Léon Bonnat, “The Raising of Lazarus,” 1857 (photo: Public Domain)

One of the most interesting relationships in the Bible is that of Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany with our Lord. Clearly their relationship was special because it is mentioned in all four of the Gospels. They were disciples of Jesus, certainly — but even more than that, they were friends. Jesus had visited their home more than once, sharing meals, conversations and each other’s company. It was Mary who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed his feet with precious oil using her hair. Clearly it was an honor for them to have Jesus in their home, because Martha went into a tizzy when she was left to prepare a dinner while Mary sat at Jesus feet listening to him speak.

It seems to me that the threesome was a “family away from family” so to speak for our Lord. At least this is the way I imagine it to have been. When I read the Scripture passages, I get the sense that Jesus felt at home with them and that their house was somewhat of a refuge for him from the crowds to whom he ministered. The scenes remind me of the many times I’ve gathered with friends over a meal and conversation either in our home or theirs. We look forward to getting together and the time passes so quickly that it seems we had only just arrived, and it was time to leave. We have genuine interest in each other’s lives and are bolstered by the mutual joy and support. I would like to think that it was the same for Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Jesus.

But when I think more rationally about the situation, I’m a bit stymied. Jesus was God — far above all created beings in his divine nature. How could it be that he had any “need” for friendship? Was he not capable of being completely self-sufficient? Of course he was! God did not create human beings because he needed them but because God is love and his overflowing love prompted our creation. So then, why would Jesus need a relationship like the one he had with the Bethany family? These are the questions I would ask myself repeatedly. The answer I received one day was twofold: Jesus was not simply God, but he was the God-Man. He was both fully human and fully divine, experiencing emotions just like the rest of us.

It was the passage about the death of Lazarus that solidified this for me, being summed up in just four words: “Jesus began to weep.” At the time, Jesus was with his disciples across the Jordan teaching and healing, so Martha and Mary sent word of Lazarus’s death through messenger:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:1-6)

Jesus faced great risk by heading toward Jerusalem because the officials there were waiting to kill him and his entry into Jerusalem would mark the beginning of his Passion and Crucifixion. Out of love, friendship and example, he went anyway:

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ (John 11:32-36)

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and he had already proven his willingness when he went back to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. With his example, Jesus shows us the value of human relationships and the beauty of loyalty. By taking time to “hang out” with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, he teaches us the necessity of taking time out of our busy lives to foster friendships. He allowed himself to have a special relationship with the Bethany family so that we would understand that to be wholly human, we need others. Jesus valued human relationships and so should we.