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Waiting: A Story of Martha and Mary

Biblical short story
(2725 words)

Author's Note:

I got the inspiration for this three-part short story after doing a Bible study on John chapters 11-12, and noticing Mary and Martha's actions when their brother Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from the dead. What especially caught my eye was Mary's reluctance to see Jesus when He arrived too late to heal Lazarus, then her dramatic anointing a few weeks later. It made me wonder what she was feeling that would make her act this way, and I prayed for wisdom and insight into this puzzle.

God revealed an emotional, more human side of both Mary and Martha that I hadn't realized before. I wanted to share these insights, and wrote this piece.

It was originally just Mary and Martha's stories, but I received so much feedback wanting Lazarus' view that I added a short section for him, too. Writing a story about a resurrected man was terribly difficult--I hope I've done him justice. The switch to first person POV is deliberate and hopefully emphasizes the dramatic emotional impact of what happened to him.

Martha was waiting.

She wasn't certain why she waited. After all, Lazarus had died four days ago. She didn't know what she expected the Rabbi to do once he got here. But she somehow knew she had to wait for him. It was important that she look out for him. He would come.

She glanced at Mary, still sitting by Lazarus' empty bed, rocking back and forth. Lost in her tears and pain. Martha knew it was not just losing her brother, but also the betrayal that the Rabbi had not arrived in time to save him. It was as angry as her gentle sister ever became. And Mary's anger poured from her eyes in endless tears, as if to wash the bitterness from her heart.

Those last days, Mary had kept her eyes steadily on the roads, certain Jesus would arrive soon. And then Lazarus' breathing became more and more labored, his skin drier and hotter, his cheeks paler and more translucent. And still Mary hovered near the window, her face as still as marble, her gaze unwavering, her back straight and confident, unshaken in her faith in the Rabbi.

And then Lazarus stopped breathing. And as his last breath passed through his cracked lips, Mary's shoulders slumped, her head bowed, and the weeping began. It had been unending for four days.

Martha made all the preparations, did all the work. Friends and relatives came, and she endured the sympathetic looks and the concern for her distraught sister. And all the while she kept her ear open to the sound of a certain footstep at the door, her eyes trained to the sight of a distinctive loping gait in the distance.

She told no one. They would laugh at her, at best. If she mentioned it, Mary would turn a sad, pained look at her, as if chiding Martha for bringing up a subject so agonizing to her sister. And then Mary would pour more of her grief and anguish out in those rivers of tears.

But Martha knew--Rabbi was coming, although she didn't know for what purpose. She waited with outward calm, while her heart beat hard and steady in her chest, her hands trembled as they worked, her eyes flitted back and forth to the window.

And then a neighbor's young boy interrupted her in the kitchen. "Teacher is coming!" He announced it in a loud whisper, as if unsure if he should trumpet the news or discreetly inform them.

Martha returned to the common room where Mary sat, surrounded by women, the tears pouring slowly and silently down her pale cheeks. Martha touched a gentle finger to Mary's shoulder, bending low to murmur, "Teacher is coming."

For a moment, Mary's rocking back and forth stilled. For a moment, her breath caught, her eyes blinked, her mouth quivered. She swallowed slowly.

Then her rocking continued. Her eyes closed and the slow tears became a flood. She shook her head to Martha's unanswered question, reaching out to take her sister's hand and squeeze it once, tightly, before returning to her lap.

Martha straightened. Her heart fluttered in unease at Mary's response, but not with surprise. So be it. Mary's waiting had ended four days ago. Martha's had not yet finished.

She left the house and walked out of the village. There in the distance she saw that endearing loping gait, flanked by Peter's solid bulk and Andrew's sparse frame. Her heart raced, her breathing quickened, her cold hands shook.

Martha knelt at his feet. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

Jesus' eyes gleamed, and they locked with hers calmly, steadily. Waiting for her.

Her heart in her throat, she continued, "But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask." After saying the words, her breath came in heaving gasps, her heart pounding the blood into her ears. She shivered once, and then was still. A servant, requesting her master.

His sudden smile startled her, and then it was gone. "Your brother will rise again." A neutral tone. As if testing her. Waiting for her.

She picked her words cautiously. "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."

"I am the resurrection and the life." His voice was soft, but Martha felt a violent shudder through her frame at his words. The sound evoked a power too immense for her to conceive of, too awesome for her tiny body. Her heart slammed fiercely within her.

Jesus continued, "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." His eyes burned as they fastened upon her, as if willing her to understand. As if telling her the words ran deeper, that it was not only Lazarus he referred to, but herself…

"Do you believe this?" His head inclined closer to her, as if her answer were of greatest importance to him.

The words rushed from her lips--she couldn't have stopped them if she tried: "Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." It was as if he had come just to ask her this question, just to hear her answer. And her heart beat hard enough to burst from her, but she felt suddenly free, like a bird rising from the rocks for the open sky.

He didn't exactly smile, but his eyes softened, his jaw unclenched. He reached down a hand and raised her from the dust she knelt in. His touch, gentle and caressing, warmed not just her cold hands but also her heart, like a drop of honey in the sun.

His eyes spoke to her without words, and she remembered Mary as she had left her, rocking and crying and defeated. He had come for her too.

Martha turned to run back home. Her waiting was finally over.


It stinks.

I can't ignore it. Martha must have dropped some chicken blood on the floor again; the last time, the house smelled for weeks before it finally went away, even after she cleaned the spot numerous times.

If I weren't so tired, I'd probably be retching.

So strange…I feel even more tired than I've been lately. And I've been so sick, I haven't even been able to get out of bed.

I'm exhausted. Maybe if I sleep longer, I'll feel stronger…

No, I can't sleep--the smell is sickening. Poor Martha--taking care of me for so long, and trying to manage the farm for me, as well. She probably hasn't had time to clean the kitchen to her exacting standards for weeks and weeks.

I hear weeping, soft and feminine. It sounds like Mary. Gentle Mary--trying so hard to be strong while I am so weak, putting on a cheerful face that can't quite hide the fear I see in her eyes, and the misty sheen whenever she looks at me.

Almighty God, perhaps it is my time to go.

But not today--the smell is keeping me awake. I couldn't fade away even if I'd been so inclined.

It must be morning--there is a rosy glow invading the darkness of my closed eyes. Must I open them? I'm so tired. I feel a very faint breeze draw gentle fingers over my brow. Ah, so soft. The smell retreats, but regroups and marches back in, full force.

I am awake; I should make more of an effort to care for myself, rather than rely on Martha to sit me up in bed, Mary to feed me. I reluctantly open my eyes.

They are crusted in something, and difficult to open. The room is mostly in darkness, but a streaming ray of light blinds me--is it morning? I blink, and strain to open my eyes against whatever it is that glued them shut. Even my eyelids feel weak. It is a struggle to breathe, as if something covers my nose. I gather strength, and push against the bed.

Something is wrong.

I can't move my arms. It is not weakness--it is something binding them. I push again, harder. It is easier to move this time, but I am still trapped.


What has happened to me?

I feel panic start to palpate in my chest. My breathing rasps, echoing against the walls, and I realize I am not in my room, in my home. I start to pant and feel resistance against my ribs as well. Something is on my face, covering my nose and mouth, making me toil to suck in each breath.

Where am I? Who has done this?

I start to wriggle. The weakness seems to be leaving me, the more that I move. Finally I feel a loosening, and I thrust my hand out of the cocoon around me.

Linen strips. God Almighty, what has happened to me?!

My struggles become desperate; I can no longer fight the panic rising from my stomach to my throat. I lick my lips, which are dry and parched. I swallow and feel as if I am drinking knife blades.

The smell is receeding.

My legs kick off the linen. My hands rip it away. I toss my head to loosen the cloth covering my eyes, my nose, my mouth.

I am sitting. On stone and dirt. The walls are close to me and the ceiling is low. I reach out trembling hands to ease myself forward, onto my knees. I crawl toward the light.


Mary was waiting.

She peeked through the doorway to the common room, where the men gathered. The Rabbi had not yet arrived, but some guests crowded around her brother Lazarus, their dinner host. Some gaped at the man rumored to have been dead and raised from the grave. Others had witnessed Lazarus' resurrection, and asked questions about the Rabbi.

The crowd of men suddenly turned and shifted their focus toward the door, while Lazarus cut a path through them to greet his visitors. Mary caught a fleeting glimpse of Jesus before ducking back into the kitchen. This was the first time she had seen him in weeks.

When Lazarus had been ill, she waited for the Rabbi, unwavering. So prideful of her devotion and faith in her Lord. When he failed to arrive and her brother died, feelings of betrayal slashed her heart, bleeding drops of bitterness and anger. She remembered the hostile words she greeted him with:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

And then Mary collapsed into tears, angry and frustrated and overwhelmed by grief, by tension, by the pain filling her head, beating with her heart.

She learned later they were the exact same words Martha had spoken to the Rabbi when she met him earlier. But their hearts as they approached the Teacher had been so vastly different.

Then Jesus called to the open grave and Lazarus walked out. And after her initial burst of incredulous joy, Mary's breath choked her, and she was suddenly devastated by feelings of shame.

She had wanted the Rabbi to act according to her own expectations. When he failed her, she had not believed in him. At that moment, watching her brother walk--walk!--away from the open tomb, Mary felt hollowed in shock to realize how small her faith was. She turned her head, and the Rabbi granted her a look of infinite tenderness, which only seemed to make her heart heavier.

While genuinely glad to have her brother back to life, she had not been able to speak to Jesus the entire time he stayed with them. The pall of her guilt dampened everything around her.

But one day, peeking around the corner of the house, she overheard him speak to his disciples with an earnest expression on his homely face and a fire in his emotional eyes. He would be betrayed and captured. He would be abused and insulted. He would be killed. And on the third day he would rise again.

Her breath caught, and her heart contracted. It took her a moment to remember to breathe again, and she gulped in heaving lungfuls of air, while her heart pounded fiercely in her chest.

Everything suddenly fell into place. Everything only foreshadowed events to come. Everything was converging on that moment the Rabbi spoke of. She didn't understand why it had to happen, but she sensed something momentous in his words, in his intentions.

So when Lazarus declared his plan to give a dinner for Jesus, Mary knew what she had to do. Her heart burned until she lay awake long into the night, her thoughts focused, her spirit straining deep within her. When she saw him again, she needed to reaffirm her faith in him. She needed to show her devotion. She needed to prove her belief in his words, even though they had not been spoken directly to her.

She was going to prepare him for burial.

The men reclined at table in the common room, and Martha bustled about, serving dinner. Mary helped in the kitchen, waiting for the appropriate time.

After the uneaten food had been cleared away, Mary entered the common room. No one noticed her at first, but the masculine conversations faltered and died as they realized she bore no serving tray. Instead, she held aloft an alabaster jar of perfume. She had dressed in her finest, but wore no veil over her face or head.

She stopped before the Rabbi, then deliberately snapped the thin neck of the jar. The crack! cut through the remaining voices until silence blanketed the room, thick with surprise and curiosity.

The smell of the perfume reached out to her, a spicy, exotic scent that brought forth images of gleaming gold, beaten silver, sparkling rubies and milky-white pearls, adorning beautiful glamorous women, clothed in rich, sumptuous fabrics of vibrant scarlet, glorious purple, mysterious blue.

Mary poured a lavish stream over the Rabbi's head, which he bowed to accept her tribute. She then dropped to her knees before him, and the act of kneeling suddenly made her heart beat faster, and her eyes pool with hot tears. They fell to mingle with the perfume she poured onto his feet.

When the last of it dripped from the jar, she reached up to take down her hair--long and lustrous, her crowning glory--and wiped his feet with long strokes, an affectionate touch . The tears blinded her; she could only smell the strong fragrance that seemed to seep into her pores, and feel her locks catching on his calloused soles. She almost feared to look up at him; perhaps she had misunderstood, perhaps she would see horror in his face that she would do this burial ritual for a man still very much alive.

But his eyes met hers with a fierce intensity, a whole-hearted longing, that she saw through her tears, that made her breath stick in her throat and her chest clench. She bowed her head, the tears coming faster, the sobs shuddering through her body. Her hair wrapped lovingly round his feet, and her hands rested atop them in humble submission.

Her Lord was going to die! She didn’t understand why he had to die! But he was asking her to trust him and wait.

And in doing this, she told him, I am trusting in you, that someday everything will make sense.

She felt him lay a tender hand atop her head, then withdraw.

She heard a dissentious muttering, but her crying consumed her and she only felt the gentle vibration in her hair as the Rabbi responded in deep, authoritative tones.

She was done. She teetered to her feet, the perfume clinging to her tangled strands as they cascaded over her shoulder. She clutched the empty jar and its broken neck and left the room, which now started to fill with muted murmurs.

Martha enveloped her in a fierce embrace as she entered the kitchen, her tears melding with her sister's. Mary's heartbeat gradually slowed, her anxieties replaced by a strange, calm anticipation. She didn't know when the Rabbi's words would come to pass. She still didn't understand why, or how, but she knew that it would happen, with unshakable certainty.

Her waiting had begun.