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The Most Irritating Woman in the Gospels

by Lori Stanley Roeleveld


I find Martha’s sister, Mary irritating.


There. I’ve said it. Three times we read about her in the gospels and she’s always irritating someone. First, it’s Martha (and me, honestly) in Luke 10:38-42. Then, it’s John 11 (I may be the only one irritated). The third time we read about Mary in John 12:1-7, she irritates Judas. And right away, that inspires me to reflect on my own annoyance.


I know that in the “Bible game” of good sister/bad sister, I’m supposed to pick the correct answer and in this pairing, choose Mary. I’m just not very good at giving church school answers. Neither sister is “bad,” they’re just two women making choices.


In Luke’s story, Jesus and His disciples gather at Lazarus’ home. Martha serves everyone but Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching. Irritating, right? (Mostly the sitting, not the listening.) I mean, we know the end of the story NOW but not a single one of us would have imagined then that Martha was making the wrong choice—not until Jesus told us.


Perhaps, like me, you’ve learned the tough lesson that when you’re annoyed or irritated by someone, it often says more about you than it does about that someone. I have learned to ask God why that person irritates me and boy, isn’t He always quick, eager even, to let me know!


For me, Mary reveals my self-righteousness. She is doing nothing. She’s not contributing anything except her attention, her focus, probably her heart. But she’s doing nothing to earn Jesus’ favor. And that irritates the Pharisee that lurks within me.

Even after decades of walking with Jesus, I still struggle with grace. Mary leaned into grace like it was a gown designed just for her. Jesus whispers to me to make the same choice.


Still, Martha isn’t the “bad sister.” We owe her a big apology because Martha grows from this exchange with Jesus and is a role model for taking correction. In John 11, when their brother dies and Jesus arrives “too late” to save him, Martha is the one who leaves everything to meet him on the road.


Here, again, Mary irritates me. John 11:10 ESV says, “So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.” I don’t get it. She seems like a fair-weather follower to me.


But, again, I take my irritation to Jesus (or if I don’t, He taps me on the shoulder, ahem) and He reveals that it annoys me because I’m looking in a mirror. I have often acted just like Mary. Many times, when Jesus has delayed coming when I called or answering when I’ve prayed, I have “stayed sitting” instead of rushing to meet Him in prayer or worship. 


Often, it’s because not hearing from Him or getting the answer I needed feels like a rejection. I take it personally. I forget about grace and I imagine I’ve blown our whole relationship with something I’ve done. I don’t have a flying drone’s perspective on my life. I’m here in the tall grass of situations and it gets hard to see. But that’s an excuse because we live by faith.


In this story, Martha’s the one who remembers it’s all about Jesus, not her own righteousness. Mary stays sitting. Maybe she was wondering if there was something she had done or not done that resulted in Lazarus death. We just don’t know.


But when He calls, she runs. “When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him” (John 11:28-29 ESV).


Isn’t it beautiful that Jesus calls? He called Mary. He calls me. He calls you. That’s grace. The relief of knowing Jesus’ delay wasn’t rejection. The joy of knowing there’s more to the story. That, I understand.


God’s Word reminds me that Jesus has given me His righteousness. Nothing can alter this armor, this breastplate, this eternal gift. If I rely on my self-righteousness, I am lost. If I rely on His gift of righteousness by faith, I live forever found. My irritation reveals my heart but Jesus has that covered. My heart, that is, covered with His grace.


Finally, in John 12, Mary doesn’t annoy me at all. Six days before the Passover, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive nard and wipes them with her own hair. I love Jesus and I understand and aspire to this devotion. Here, Mary is my role model—she forgets about herself completely by focusing on Jesus.


This irritates Judas and reveals his traitorous heart. Judas had followed Jesus and believed Him to be the Messiah, but He wasn’t turning out to be the exact Messiah Judas anticipated. Judas was double-minded and Mary’s single-minded devotion irritated him enough to show his hand. She wasn’t preaching to him or even confronting his sin. She simply kept her attention on Jesus and the light she shone revealed his traitorous darkness.


Who irritates you? Is it a biblical figure? Someone from your church? Maybe someone closer to home. What does this irritation tell you about you? What does it reveal about your heart and one way you may need to grow?


Irritation can be a way of the Holy Spirit nudging us to look into the mirror of God’s Word and repent. I’m forever grateful to Mary for irritating me so that I took my eyes off me and put them back on Jesus, so that I stopped all that I was busy doing long enough to sit and listen, so I forgot about myself long enough to worship Him.


What about you? What might God teach you through what (or who) you find annoying? 

Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a traditionally published, award-winning author, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits. Though she has degrees in Psychology and Biblical Studies, Lori learned the most from studying her Bible in life’s trenches. She speaks her mind at and manages her coaching/freelance business at


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