“And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.” (John 11:19–20 ESV)
In Judaism, when a person dies there is a seven day mourning for the person by family and friends. This process is called “sitting shiva” [“shiva” means “seven” in Hebrew]. When Jesus approaches Bethany, Martha and Mary and their supportive community are sitting shiva for Lazarus who had died four days previously. None of this is unexpected or remarkable. Jesus is approaching an unremarkable moment of grief in an unremarkable little village where two unremarkable women are grief-stricken at the loss of their brother. The picture is one that would have been very familiar to first century Jews in Palestine. Deaths happened every day, sickness was the norm, and people often died before their time. We see here nothing new…yet.
The first sign that this particular period of mourning might not be normal is when Martha gets up and leaves the house. When you were sitting shiva for a relative who had died, the mourners came to you, you did not go to the mourners. The Jewish New Testament Commentary points out:
The Orthodox Jewish mourner sits unshod on the floor or on a low stool in the home of the deceased or his near relative and abstains from all ordinary work and diversions and even from required synagogue prayers, while friends visit him to comfort and pray with him. Both sisters observed the practice, which was not significantly different then from now.
Martha leaves when Jesus approaches. This is a “new” Martha, and a remarkable Martha at that, for she will give the clearest most direct and complete statement of what it means to “believe in” Jesus of any character in the New Testament. Sitting Shiva did not stop her from going to see Jesus when she hears that he is approaching Bethany.
What results is amazing.