Martha: The woman who opened her home
Through history, Martha has suffered badly in comparison with her sister, Mary. Martha welcomes Jesus into her house – and doubtless he brought some friends too – and all must be fed. Martha is busy getting food ready and serving it, whilst her sister Mary is sitting there at Jesus’ feet listening. [Luke 10: 38-42]
Martha, ‘distracted with all the serving’ has a go at her dreamy sister Mary: ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?’Jesus replies:
Martha, ‘Martha, you worry and are distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
This Gospel story has had a long lasting impact. Sometimes it has been used to divide people into ‘Marthas’ and ‘Marys’ – hands on people and prayerful people. As time went by within the history of the Church there grew up a sense of hierarchy between ‘Marys’ and ‘Marthas’, linked with ideas that the body, our physical being, was of a lower order than our spiritual being. The result – for Martha at least – was that she ceased to be viewed as a rounded and nuanced person, and instead became a ‘type’ of those who are too busy, active and practical to have room to be spiritually attentive.
To be fair to those who have summed up Martha in this succinct manner, it is a challenge to gain a full sense of who she was from the limited glimpses we gain of her from the gospels. She makes her entry in Luke’s Gospel immediately after Jesus’ parable of the man set upon by robbers. The priest passes by, as does the Levite. A Samaritan, however, sets aside what he is doing to bandage the man’s wounds. At his own expense the Samaritan takes him to an inn where he can receive the care he needs. Such a person, Jesus concludes, lives what is written in the law: to love God, and to love ones neighbour as oneself. ‘Go and do likewise’, Jesus teaches. In the next breath, Luke introduces us to Martha, who welcomes the traveller, Jesus, into her home. She provides him not just with food, but a place to rest and to be among friends. Others see Jesus as the preacher and healer – someone who will give them what they need. Martha sees the human being who is hungry and tired; she asks nothing of him. Martha is a spiritual woman, attentive to what is going on in the moment, and able to look beyond her own needs to make room for the unexpected guest.
For all that, Martha is not above getting irritated when her sister sits down to listen when there is work to be done. She is, as Luke tells us, ‘distracted by her many tasks’. She implores Jesus to tell Mary to get off her backside and help. When the food is set before the guests there will time to talk. Jesus defends Mary, but with what tone of voice?
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’
For me, the repetition of Martha’s name conveys gentle warmth. She is not so much told off, as guided back to a place of attentiveness she had mislaid in her busyness. Perhaps she envied her sister’s ability to just ‘be’ in Jesus’ company. Was she someone who was better at being generous to others than being generous to herself? Did she doubt within that she was worthy to be given Jesus’ full attention, even as she longed for this? Is that why she responded so sharply to Mary? Was Jesus inviting her to that same place of intimacy that her sister had taken? We don’t know enough to be sure, but imagination can put forward more interpretations of Martha’s behaviour than plain spiritual dullness.
We meet Martha and her sister Mary again in John’s Gospel [John 11: 1-44]. Their brother, Lazarus, is ill. The sisters send a message to Jesus:
‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’
Jesus hesitates. To return to their home in Bethany would set Jesus on the path to Jerusalem, where his enemies wait to consume him. The days go by, and when Jesus eventually arrives in Bethany he hears that Lazarus has died. Hearing that Jesus has come, Martha goes out to meet him. There follows one of the deepest movements of faith in the whole of the gospels. Without condemning Jesus for his inaction, she states simply that had Jesus been there her brother would not have died. Even now, she tells him, ‘I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him’. ‘Your brother will rise again’ Jesus tells her. I know that, she says, ‘I believe he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, Jesus proclaims. There follow impossible words: ‘everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ Lazarus, her loved brother is dead. Martha could not see any way beyond that reality. Yet, in her grief and confusion, the clarity and depth of her trust break through: ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.
Martha is not one to hide from the reality of death. When Jesus asks that the stone over Lazarus’ tomb be removed, she reminds him that the body has been laid there for four days; the stench of decay will be overwhelming. Death is real and must be met as it is. She can see Jesus’ tears; she knows he cares deeply, but grief can do strange things. Then the unimaginable happens: at Jesus’ command Lazarus emerges from the tomb, alive but bound. How can it be? Martha and Mary have their brother back.
For a final time we see Martha [John 12: 1-8]. It is six days before the Passover – the last week of Jesus’ life. She, Mary and Lazarus prepare a meal for him. Martha serves at table; Mary anoints his feet. Together they receive him once more into their lives. Both, by their different actions, express their awareness of his need. The traveller on the road finds welcome, nurture and rest for the journey that lies ahead.
Martha will always have a home ready for him, should he travel by that way.
And Jesus will not neglect to invite Martha to take her rightful place at his feet.