The women of the gospels are significant to us in so many ways. They are models of faith and discernment, and they give us a glimpse into the community of Jesus. Martha is an example and she is a significant figure for all believers.
Martha and Mary are sisters. They have their own relationship and way of being in their household. In Luke’s Gospel, Martha is like Martha Stewart. She is preparing to host what was likley many people who had come to listen to Jesus talk. We can imagine that she sweeps, lights the candles, keeps the fire going, and the jugs of wine flowing. She is frustrated at doing all of this work on her own while her sister Mary sits and listens to Jesus. Martha, too, would like to sit and listen to the famous Nazarene, who is a dear friend. But, someone has to keep the household going. She goes to Jesus with her frustration. This indicates the depth of their friendship. She is not afraid to show him her petty side. The response Jesus gives is probably a surprise to Martha. He tells her that Mary is choosing the right thing. He basically tells Martha not to fuss so much.
We read in the gospels that Mary, Martha and Lazarus are very close to Jesus. Prior to Jesus performing one of his most significant miracles of raising Lazarus from the dead, both Mary and Martha tell him that, had he been there, their brother would have lived. Martha tells Jesus that she knows Lazarus will rise on the last day. This moment is another example of Jesus’ trust in his women followers. He tells Martha that he is the Resurrection and the Life. Her response is immediate; “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).
We see the practical side of Martha again as she tells Jesus and his followers not to roll away the stone as there will be a stench. Sometimes we can’t escape our practical side. Jesus had just told her that she would see God’s glory.
It is interesting to reflect upon the many layers of Martha. She appears to be hard-working, dedicated and practical. Her love for, and friendship with, Jesus is apparent. He trusts her and there is a comfort in their rapport. Martha illustrates real life to us.
Can you recognize your Martha and Mary moments? Fr. Ron Rohlheiser, O.M.I., describes this as a tension within spirituality. Our lives call us to a balance of being contemplative and active in our faith. There is a place for both ways of being. The richness of being in a community is experiencing a diversity of relationships, weaknesses, priorities, and strengths. And we see this in the friendship circles of Jesus.
Tradition has honored the example of St. Martha. Dorothy Day said that we should not begrudge the work of Christ, but dive in, like St. Martha. The Eastern Orthodox tradition honors the myrrh-bearing women, Martha being one, who go to anoint the Lord’s body and are the first to witness the empty tomb. St. Martha is also commemorated in the Lutheran and Anglican churches. She is the patron saint of many who serve—cooks, butlers, homemakers, servants, innkeepers, housewives, and laundry workers.
I was pleased to come upon the poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The Sons of Martha.” This poem is dedicated to those who serve others. Engineers and mechanics were the inspiration of this work. The following few quotes from the poem illustrate the blessing of the St. Martha way in the world.
“But the sons of Martha favor their mother of the careful soul and troubled heart……
Not as a ladder from earth to heaven, not as a witness to any creed.
But simple service, simply given to his own kind in their common need.”
At this time in our world, there are many broken hearts and relationships to be healed. My own reflection upon St. Martha compels me to reach out to others, roll up my sleeves and serve without looking for anything in return. I also realize that the love and understanding of Jesus is always there for me. I will have my St. Martha moments and my St. Mary moments. All are good. God blesses it all.
St. Martha, we are a bit wounded right now. Pray for us.
Jan Bentham is a retired Religion Coordinator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is a musician, serving in music ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Ottawa. She currently works at St. Paul’s University with the Catholic Women’s Leadership Program.