Both derided and esteemed, Martha of Bethany is an interesting figure in the gospels who has much to teach us. Derided because she is so busy with practical concerns that she has no time to sit with Jesus and listen to Him. She is that one who in her busyness and obsession with all sorts of trivial things does not possess the prayerful simplicity of intention of her sister, Mary. These two sisters are often held up as contrasting figures, each displaying a temperament that is depicted as in opposition to the other. Martha is also esteemed by many as the practical no-nonsense person who gets done what needs to be done. She is held up as a model for those who do the hard behind the scenes work in our homes, communities and churches.
However, Martha is a deeper and more complex personality, and such a simplistic duality does injustice to the real Martha. If we leave Martha at that moment when Jesus tells her that she worries over too many things and should seek the one thing necessary, then we have an incomplete understanding of her faith journey with Jesus. Our own stories are continually unfolding and cannot be understood fully on the basis of one event or a particular moment in our faith journey. Jesus knows that and throughout the gospels he calls people beyond a particular moment and challenges them to go beyond themselves and their past. He knows the potential within us even when we don’t see it ourselves. Martha is one among several examples of this in the gospels. For me she is a beautiful instance of a person who allows herself to be challenged by events and by the words of Jesus. And her faith journey is an encouraging instance of Jesus’ patient and empowering love at work within us when we too allow Jesus to question and challenge us.
The practical faith of Martha is first introduced to when she welcomes Jesus into her home (Lk. 10: 38-42) and sets about preparing a meal for him while her sister Mary sits at his feet and listens to him speaking. Jesus gently rebukes Martha when she insists that Jesus tell Mary to assist in the serving. He tells her that she worries about too many when there are few things necessary, indeed, only one, and Mary has chosen that one. We assume this to mean the being fully present to Him and listening to His teaching. We next encounter Martha on the occasion of her brother, Lazarus’ death when she runs out to meet Jesus while Mary stays at home (Jn 11: 20-28). An active and involved personality, Martha both rebukes and pleads with Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will grant whatever you ask of him” (vv. 21-22). Martha has faith in Jesus’ power and special relationship with God, but does not see his true identity as the divine presence in this world. On being told by Jesus that her brother will rise again, she confesses to the general belief of most Jews that there will be a resurrection on the last day. Jesus then tells her that He is the resurrection and the life and that her brother will rise from the dead. He now personally addresses her and asks, “Martha, do you believe this?” At this critical moment Martha is called by Jesus to look into her heart and to find in her grief and loss the foundations for a deeper faith in Jesus. Her doubt and questioning are the very conditions which challenge her to a serious openness and consideration of Christ’s question to her. This is a question of profound significance that summonses from the depths of her being a transcendental moment in which she is compelled to answer the very source of her doubt and grief. It is this being confronted with a demand to reply and give assent not only to the words of Jesus but to come to a deeper personal faith in him and to recognise that he is indeed God, as only God has power over life and death, that Martha is confronted with the challenge of transcending doubt, grief and her limited understanding of the true reality of Jesus. At that very moment, graced by the loving look of Jesus and the movement of the Spirit within her, she overcomes all that clouds her understanding and arrives at a profound faith by uttering with conviction “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world”.
The depths of meaning in this acclamation of faith penetrate the very identity of Christ and the significance of his entire ministry. Jesus’ gentle but direct question evokes from the depths of Martha’s being one of the most profound professions of faith in the Gospels. Immediately she returns to the house to summons Mary to Jesus. It is now Martha who brings Mary to Jesus. Having professed her recognition of the true reality of Christ she takes the active role of evangelising and bringing her sister to Christ, the one who listened contemplatively in the Luke narrative. What is emergent in Mary is now fully conscious in Martha who was earlier rebuked for not caring for the one thing necessary as Mary did. Martha now reveals Christ to Mary, having transcended her doubt, grief, and preoccupation with self. One could say that it was her very personality with all the characteristics that supposedly do not apparently dispose one to faith that is in fact the cause of this illuminated and evangelising faith. Encountering the realities of life become the opportunity for a deepening of faith. By courageously engaging with the sufferings of life, Martha discovers within herself a depth of faith that enable her to become a source of strength for her sister and an inspiration to us.
Fr. Terence Bateman OFM Conv