St. Martha

Last Sunday (July 21) we heard the famous “Martha and Mary” story (Lk 10:38-42) at Mass. This coming Monday (July 29) is the feast day of St. Martha, at which the Mass celebrant can choose from that Gospel or the other “Martha and Mary” story, John 11:19-27, when Martha and Mary appeal to Jesus to bring their brother Lazarus back to life.

Martha is sometimes depicted as if she were the villain of St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany. She’s the complainer, she’s not imitating her sister, taking in all that Jesus could offer them. However, notice that Luke doesn’t record Martha responding to Jesus with something like, “How dare you come into my home and criticize me.” Instead the next time we hear about Martha in the Scriptures is in John’s account of the crisis occasioned by the illness and death of Lazarus.

In the second episode we see that Martha has grown Spiritually, but that growth did not mean that she had to give up her personality and become identical to her sister. Martha is still the much more active of the two sisters — she hastens to encounter Jesus at the outskirts of Bethany, while Mary stayed at home.

In her dialogue with Jesus, Martha shows that she has grown Spiritually, while still remaining a person who freely spoke her mind. She first expresses her disappointment that Jesus did not hurry back to save Lazarus from dying (the Holy Spirit had this put into the Gospel so that we could see that it is OK to express our similar feelings to God), but then she makes a request of Jesus which only a person of deep faith could do: Please bring my brother back to life. I don’t want to wait until the resurrection on the last day (in her saying that, she also shows that she is much more Spiritual than the Sadduccees, who did not believe in any afterlife or future resurrection).

She also makes a confession of faith which even her sister had not done: “I have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One Who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). As Jesus said to Simon Peter when he made a similar declaration, it was the Heavenly Father Who taught Martha that — He taught that to Martha in her prayer.

After this Martha goes home and gets Mary to come and meet Jesus out on the road. They have a similar conversation about Mary’s disappointment and then Jesus requests to go and see Lazarus’ tomb. Once there, Jesus asks that the stone covering the tomb be removed. Here Martha shows her practicality again, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days” (Jn 11:39). It is hard to interpret what Martha was thinking then, but Jesus then asks her (with some incredulity — as if He were thinking, “Do you want your brother back or not?”), “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (Jn 11:40).

Then, after praying out loud, for the Spiritual benefit of the crowd (and for our benefit, too), Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, and he did. 

The third and last time in which Martha and Mary appear in the Bible is six days before Passover, when Jesus drops by Bethany again. During this visit, “They gave a dinner for Him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with Him” (Jn 12:2). It was during this meal that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Judas then criticized Mary, saying that the money for the ointment could have been used to help the poor (or to help himself, since he was a thief). 

St. Augustine wrote a sermon about Martha and Mary which is in the breviary for her feast day. His depiction of them is much more positive than the negative view Martha sometimes gets in popular society ­— possibly a negative reaction to the modern-day Martha, Martha Stewart?

He preached, “Martha and Mary were sisters, related not only by blood but also by religious aspirations. They stayed close to Our Lord and both served Him harmoniously when He was among them. Martha welcomed Him as travelers are welcomed. But in her case, the maidservant received her Lord, the invalid her Savior, the creature her Creator, to serve Him bodily food while she was to be fed by the Spirit. For the Lord willed to put on the form of a slave, and under this form to be fed by His own servants, out of condescension and not out of need. For this was indeed condescension, to present Himself to be fed; since He was in the flesh He would indeed be hungry and thirsty.”

St. Augustine then says that we should not be jealous of Martha and Mary, because they got to host Jesus and we did not. “No one of you should say: ‘Blessed are they who have deserved to receive Christ into their homes!’ Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh. He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As He says: ‘Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to Me.’”

So, we can be like Martha and Mary in carrying out the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy — both tending to Jesus’ bodily needs and listening to see how we can attend to Him Spiritually. 

St. Augustine then addressed Martha (rhetorically, since he lived centuries after her). “But you, Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the Body, admittedly a Holy One. But when you come to the Heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?”

Of course, the answer is no. St. Augustine added, “there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord Himself tells us when He says of His servants, ‘Amen, I say to you, He will make them recline and passing He will serve them.’”

So, Martha is now enjoying Christ’s serving her at His banquet. May we imitate her, so we can enjoy it one day, too. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts