One tries not to get athwart ones guests. However, if one is yours truly, that doesn’t always happen….this time it was in discussion of Martha, my patron saint and on her feast day no less.
I have to admit that I am a bit touchy on the subject of Martha. So much of the conventional interpretation of her story holds her up as a prime example of what not to do. I have to grit my mental teeth every time I hear the “contemplative life is better than the active life” homily that seems to be so prevalent when the story of Martha is told. A friend with whom we are vacationing ruffled my feathers just a bit with his comment that Martha was a complainer.
We Marthas are so misunderstood.
Martha found me when I was preparing to come into the Church. Trust me, left to my own devices, I would have chosen a more exciting saint. Jerome, perhaps (who has become a second, very good friend) or Teresa Benedicta of the Cross…not homebody Martha, the brunt of so much teaching that seems to say that the main reason for her existence is to be a cautionary tale to others.
Like I said, we are so misunderstood. I see Martha from a very different, very familiar perspective. Martha’s world was structured according to plan. Everything with a place and everything in its place, a perspective most of us share whether we admit it or not. A good Jewish woman, I think she would have seen her vocation as hearth and home, and in keeping with good Jewish thought of the time, that vocation was ordered from the beginning of time and it was her job to do her best to help perfect an imperfect world, by accepting her role and fulfilling her duties. A cherished and honored role—read Proverbs on the value of a good woman.
Modern folk sometimes lose sight of the fact that there was at least a strain of Jewish thought that held that in order for the Messiah to come, the Jewish people had to hold up their end of the bargain: You will be my people and I will be your God. Given that a good deal of the prophetic literature was given over to the unfaithfulness of Israel, it’s not surprising that there developed an emphasis on right behavior as an indication of dedication to and belief in God. That’s at least one reason for the periodic outrage over Jesus’ breaking of ritual law—dropping a liturgical or ritual stitch was the equivalent of delaying the Messiah or so they believed.
Martha’s gift was to serve and to live the life she had been given. I can imagine that for her, hospitality to the stranger—as well as the friend—was her treasured duty, the duty of all the women of the house, a sacred, not just a social, obligation. Her world was predictable, it made sense to her, and everything had to fit into it because…well, that’s Martha. Really, that’s all of us, each in our own ways.
When Mary abandons the work of the kitchen—the work to which, in Martha’s vision of things, she has been called, a duty in its own way as important as the priesthood because it is all that she has and all that she can do to bring about the perfection of the world—Martha is flummoxed. Some see in her statement to Jesus a whining complaint; I hear confusion. Here is Jesus, a great teacher and prophet of Israel at the very least. Mary instead of honoring Him in the traditional way—by service at table—chooses to sit at His feet and listen to Him speak—something women simply did not do.
I can feel Martha’s confusion—almost panic—it is important for her that things be done right because it’s all she knows. So she asks—perhaps not in that shrill voice that so many preachers imitate—but a quiet one: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left the serving to me? Tell her to come and help. To my ears, it’s more a request to re-establish the familiar norm, the only one Martha knows—or expects—in the Kingdom. Jesus knows her world, He understands, He can help. It is after all His role to instruct, to help order things as they are meant to be.
And the answer that comes back isn’t sharp, it’s gentle in my mind. Martha, Martha. You are anxious and worried about many things. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Notice: He does not tell her to stop complaining, he speaks to her heart that is confused and unsettled by this turn of events, and He directs her attention there.
Scripture is silent about what follows, but I suspect that Martha turned those words over and over in her mind as she worked in the kitchen and cleaned the house. I suspect that she and Mary spoke often of it, but if my experience is any guide, Mary was as incapable of communicating to Martha what moved in her heart as Martha was of explaining why it troubled her. Contemplatives and Actives don’t share much of a common vocabulary.
When next we meet Martha, her brother is desperately ill and she sends word to Jesus to come to Bethany. Jesus delays his departure and when He arrives, Lazarus is dead and buried. This time it is Martha who breaks with tradition; she leaves the house to meet him and Mary stays behind, as mourning custom required.
The first words of Martha to Jesus are Lord, if You had been here my brother would not have died. Even now, I now that whatever you ask of God, He will give You.
Easy I suppose, to hear in this a complaint. In fact, my friend harkens back to the first story to prove his point: Martha is a complainer, it’s natural that she complains. But such an interpretation forgets one thing: Martha has spoken face to face with God and He has spoken to her heart. Such an encounter does not leave one unchanged. One may enter in or one may retreat, but the status quo is never an option. Think of the bread of life discourse: some Jews rejected the idea of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ and left. The Apostles don’t seem to have understood, but they accepted it. I think the same thing happened to Martha. Unlike the Scribes and Pharisees and the ones who abandoned Him when He did not meet their expectations, those who retreat from Jesus’ challenge to the order of things issued directly to their hearts, Martha seems to have embraced it.
Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Not a complaint but a statement of fact, a standing naked and hurt before the Mystery that is God right before her. Of all the people in Israel that Jesus healed, asked the crowds, could He not have healed this man He loved? That question was in Martha’s heart too, but something in that prior story moved and changed her. Something she did not understand but gave her the courage to trust and the courage to voice her pain and confusion in the bargain. And in contrast to the first story, she asks nothing, demands nothing, does not tell Jesus what to do. She is changed by it all.
I’ve been in that spot, a few years ago, when faced with the possibility of my husband’s serious, perhaps even fatal illness. I remember collapsing in a sobbing heap, my own version of If you spare all these others, why not my husband? Why not me? And I heard the words of Christ from the lips of a mere man Do you realize it is all part of the gift?
Jesus doesn’t say it quite that way to Martha; He tells her Your brother will rise again. Not a given among a people whose theology did not necessarily include a concept of life everlasting, but Martha responds I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.
Whereupon Jesus says perhaps the most incomprehensible thing in scripture: I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this? This is no mere door, vine, gate analogy, this is an image quite beyond understanding. The Man standing in front of her Resurrection itself? And yet, Martha, homebody, active, grumbling Martha—not contemplative Mary-- gives the greatest testament of faith: Yes, Lord; I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. There is a world unspoken in that statement: I don’t understand. I am in pain. I can see a better way, but I am not God. I’ll take the pain, the confusion, the disorientation. It is all part of the gift.
But Jesus isn’t done with her yet. They go to the tomb and He directs that the stone be rolled away. Perhaps Martha’s admonition is just that. Lord it has been four days, there will be a stench. Martha, again attending to the niceties asserting her view of things. But maybe there is something more.
Martha is deep in grief, feeling the absence of her brother; yet when she saw him last, he looked as though he were asleep, still her beloved brother. If the tomb is opened, she will have to confront the reality of decay, the inevitability of loss and it is too much for her to bear. Absence is one thing, more easily managed than loss that opens up a great chasm in the heart. Perhaps it is her way of saying that she would rather deal with things as they are for the moment than risk any more of herself in trying to understand this confusing Lord of hers.
So when Jesus replies Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? it sounds on my ear a gentle reminder, invitation, not a reproach. You believe in Me, you have come so far, do not lose courage, believe….It’s all part of the gift. Take just one more step, even in the darkness of your grief.
Every time I read the story of Martha, I see in it more of my own and I am so glad that she found me on my journey. Heart speaks to heart, after all. Martha comes to faith in her own way—not inferior to Mary’s contemplation, just different. She struggles with a world shifting under her feet and grapples with the pain of a life that, in the long run, doesn’t seem to make sense at all. She uses the only tools she knows, her place in life and her care of others. She is searching, and Jesus is kind, not cutting, to those who seek and He promises that they will find.
And she does, in the most remarkable way.