I love St. Martha. I am in good company; John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus also loved Martha. She (along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus) was one of Jesus’s dearest friends. The New Testament mentions Martha three times, and each story about the relationship between Martha and Jesus is a treasure. In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus and his buddies stopping in at Lazarus’s place in Bethany for dinner; when Lazarus’s sister Mary plops herself down next to Jesus, Martha puts up with it for a while but then marches up to Christ (I like to think of her in an apron, fist on hip, hair askew and face smudged with flour) and gives him what-for, pointing out that Mary is doing absolutely nothing while she, Martha, is taking care of everyone. She is not afraid to point out to her guest that hospitality is hard work, and she could use a hand.
In speaking her mind, Martha reveals to us that Jesus will not smite us if we get frustrated with him once in a while; in fact, the Lord respects a woman who has a voice and is not afraid to use it. Not only does Jesus let Martha read him the riot act, he respects her so much that he doesn’t mince words when he responds to her. When Martha complains about her “lazy” sister, Jesus says something beautiful: “Martha, Martha. You are anxious and troubled about many things.” Those words resonate with us, perhaps because Jesus has had reason to say them to us on occasion.
When Martha complains about Mary, Jesus tells her that Mary has “chosen the better part” by sitting at his feet and listening to every word he says. A part of me has always wanted to point out to Jesus that the lovely meal he had no doubt just consumed didn’t get created by woodland creatures, that if Martha had, in fact, made the same choice as Mary, Jesus and his pals would be pretty darned hungry and thirsty. But perhaps not. Perhaps if both sisters had sat at his feet, everyone would still have eaten, but the meal might have been less elaborate, more like Bethany’s version of a deli lunch. And that would have been fine. Maybe everyone would have had to get themselves a drink, but they were adults. They could handle it.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It may well be, though, that Martha didn’t want to serve Jesus the Bethany version of a deli lunch. Maybe she wanted the pleasure of serving a nice meal to her dear friend. If so, Jesus might have been saying, then do it and stop complaining. This moment might resonate with many of us; it certainly feels familiar to me. I have more than a few memories of times in my own life when I insisted on making a delicious meal or performing some “above and beyond” task for my family. I usually start out feeling quite virtuous about my selflessness, build to a slow simmer of resentment about my family’s lack of appreciation for my wonderfulness; eventually I explode at everyone for not fully appreciating the meal or service that they had not even asked for, that I had insisted on preparing for or doing for them. One of my son’s favorite stories revolves around one such event; I had made the seamless transition from “I love serving my family” to “why do I have to do all the work” to “why don’t they appreciate me” to “I resent their lack of appreciation” to full-bore explosion and tears; on this particular occasion, I hollered at my confused family that I “had been a SAINT for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.” Even I heard the absurdity of that plaint, and the tension disappeared as I dissolved into laughter at my own nutty self. I surely have more than a little bit of Martha in me. I don’t think I am alone in that regard.
Still. Are we letting Mary off the hook too easily? While Martha slaves away in the kitchen, Mary is doing nothing, just hanging out with her friend Jesus. And yet. No doubt many of us can think of times when we would much rather have bustled about, doing chores, running errands, when what was really needed was simply our presence. When my children were small, I sometimes found it much easier to make their beds and cook their dinner than to actually pay attention to them—to listen to the story one of them was trying to tell me, or to play Candyland, or to just be with them. When friends and family members have been in pain or in grief, how many of us would rather send flowers, or try to fix them, when all they really need is someone to sit with them in the pain? It is really not at all clear, once I think about it, that Mary is doing the easier thing. To be still, to listen, to sit with our loved ones is very often not easy at all. I have a friend who, now and then, will say to me (when I need it, which is all too often) “Anne. Don’t just do something. Sit there.”
In the second story in Scripture about Martha, her beloved brother Lazarus dies. The sisters are, of course, beside themselves with grief. Jesus was out of town when Lazarus died; they had made sure to notify him that Lazarus was in a very bad way, yet Jesus didn’t come to them immediately as they no doubt thought he would. When Martha finally sees Jesus approaching their home, she marches out to the road, so eager is she to give him her two cents’ worth for not showing up sooner. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Because Martha has such faith in her friend she then says, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus will rise again, which Martha takes to be the usual reference to the Last Days. Assuming that is what Jesus is referring to, she responds in an almost weary “been there/heard that” way that, yes, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Many of us might remember a moment of great grief or loss in our own lives when someone tried to comfort us with words similar to those spoken by Jesus here, and responded as Martha does, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I am in pain now.” Jesus does not let Martha (or us) get away with that, and we can imagine him looking directly into his friend’s eyes as he reminds her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” There he stands, on that road just outside Bethany, asking Martha to open her eyes and see who is standing right in front of her. He tells her, “I am the Resurrection.” He is saying yet again, “Martha, Martha. You are anxious and troubled by many things. There is only one thing.” On this day he adds, “…and I am it.” When Jesus then asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha says: “Yes, Lord.” Martha knows who he is. Now she has to act like it.
Martha and Jesus head to the house to find Mary, who is still at home surrounded by mourners. Together, they go to Lazarus’s tomb. Here again Martha reminds us that, in order to be saints, we do not have to cease from being ourselves. A sainted Martha is no Mother Teresa. God doesn’t need her to be; he already has one of those. He needs a perfected Martha, and like Jesus, we can’t help but love her when, upon hearing Jesus’s order to roll away the stone from his friend’s tomb, Martha worries out loud, “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Ever the housekeeper, the practical one, Martha—who has just affirmed her faith in the Lord, who has just heard Jesus say specifically to her that he is the Resurrection—Martha worries that her dead brother is going to smell. A lot.
And then, as he so often must do with us, Jesus reminds her of what she actually believes: “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” As we know, Jesus took Lazarus back from death that day in Bethany, and it was the working of that miracle, reported by all who witnessed it, which led the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to have him arrested, tried, and put to death.
But back to Bethany, and Lazarus’s (now empty) tomb. Haven’t we all said, at some point in our lives, some version of Martha’s cri d’coeur: “Where have you BEEN?” His response to us is the same one he made to Martha: “Do you know who I am?” Even without knowing specifically what was just about to happen—the Passion, death and resurrection of the Redeemer himself—Martha knew. She said “You are the Messiah.” Unlike Martha, we do know about Good Friday and about Easter, yet we still can find ourselves saying, “Where WERE you?” When my daughter is suffering, or my niece’s little daughter is dying, or a child is born to our family with severe handicaps, Jesus reminds me, “Anne. Anne. Do you know who I am? Yes? Then you know it’s going to be ok. Even if you don’t know how, or when, you know that. Act like you know that.” If I am anywhere near the woman that Martha was, I will remember what I know, get out of my own way, and trust Jesus.
The final story in Scripture involving Martha comes immediately before Jesus’s fateful week of suffering and death on the cross. En route to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples stop to attend a dinner hosted by Martha, Mary, and the newly recovered Lazarus. On this occasion, the Gospel of John tells us, rather abruptly, that everyone sat down to the meal and “Martha served.” I assume that this means that Martha yet again prepared a meal for Jesus, made sure he and his friends had food and drink and a place to rest. Had Jesus’s words to her on that earlier visit fallen on deaf ears? Was Martha once more out in the kitchen doing chores rather than spending time in the presence of the Lord? I like to think that yes, Martha did spend some time preparing a meal and cleaning up afterward. She surely wanted to offer her friend the gift of her hospitality. She did not know exactly what was about to happen to Jesus, but now she surely knew who he was, and even more important, she knew how to act like it. Martha trusted him. Like the good friend he was, Jesus had patiently taught her to trust him; he always told Martha the truth and he trusted her, too—trusted her to pay attention. I think that Martha heard what Jesus was trying to tell her in those earlier encounters. That after the dinner was prepared and eaten, the wine drunk and the dishes put away, Martha took time to sit at his feet and be present to him. Among the many things Jesus taught Martha, the most important was no doubt his constant and gentle reminder that to listen, to sit with, to be with, is also a way of serving. No wonder I love St. Martha. I only hope I can do as well.
Editor’s note: The image above, depicting Jesus, Mary and Martha, was painted by Alessandro Allori in 1605.