In defense of Martha.
This post was inspired by this Fr. Mike Schmitz video. And today’s Gospel. Oh, and God.
I think I have a soft spot for the underdog. The chastised. The unlikely, oft-misunderstood (or even maligned) hero. Last time it was the rich young man. Now it’s Martha’s turn.
There’s a particular smugness we feel at the mention of Martha, Mary’s less holy, whiny, busy sister. Oh, Martha. Too bad you just can’t get it right. If only you were more like that sister of yours, sitting at the feet of Jesus with nary a care but him. And I don’t mean to disparage Mary here, either—she did, after all, choose the better part—but I would like to play Martha’s advocate. (I NEVER advocate for the devil.)
Let’s examine the evidence:
Martha welcomes Jesus.
“Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.” (Luke 10:38)
Not long before this, Jesus sent out 72 of his disciples in pairs ahead of him to go “to every town and place he intended to visit” (10:1). That’s 36 towns and places. That’s a lot of towns and places. And Luke doesn’t tell us what number stop this was on the list of 36, but I’m going to venture a guess that Jesus was tired from his travels. I’ll bet he was tired, hungry, thirsty, and craving a quiet, cool place where he could rest his sore and dusty feet.
And Martha welcomes him. I imagine her catching wind of his impending arrival to her town, her excited heart beating wildly and propelling her into a flurry of activity to prepare her home, to make it ready. She springs into action, her every thought directed to her Lord. What will he want to eat? Will he feel comfortable here? What, of the many things I could be doing to get ready, is the most important? She anticipates his arrival and is ready to greet him with joy. We’d do well to follow her example.
Martha serves Jesus.
“Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’” (10:40)
Martha joyfully welcomes Jesus into her home, and she begins to serve him generously. I admit, Martha’s words aren’t oozing with patience and compassion here. But I’d like to look a little deeper. She is, objectively, burdened. She doesn’t say, “Jesus, I am burdened with much serving!” Luke tells us that. And doctors don’t exaggerate. I imagine the elaborate meal she’s preparing, a meal fit for God himself—even thinking of it exhausts me. And she does it without help. I imagine her anxiety building as she thinks of Jesus’ empty stomach, the minutes ticking by.
Her minor outburst is understandable. Sure, she asks a rather passive aggressive rhetorical question followed by a bold order (of Jesus himself, no less), reminiscent of a petty child who refuses to talk to an offending friend and communicates through a third party while the said friend is standing right there. But there’s something endearing about Martha here. She does remind me of a little girl—perhaps not the most well-behaved, no, but she has this immediate need for help and goes to one she believes can provide. And children have a great yearning for fairness. Not only is Jesus merciful; he is just, too. Of course he cares. But there’s more to the story, and Jesus then shares with Martha some piercing words truly worthy of contemplation.
Martha, too, listens to Jesus.
“The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.’” (10:41-2)
True, we don’t see or hear how Martha reacts to this gentle but commanding response. At least we know she didn’t order Jesus around and immediately storm off to sulk. She comes to Jesus in need, and she expects a response. That response is surely not one she was expecting, but in the end it is better. First, the Lord calls her by name. Not once, but twice. He calls to her to pull her out of her cycle of worry and anxiety, her shortsightedness, her immediate need, bringing her some refreshing perspective. He says her name with love, looking into her eyes. He sees her and he knows her. He does not say, “Martha, you’re doing the wrong thing. Why are you serving me when you could be sitting by my feet like your sister?” No, to serve is good. To work is good. Here Jesus points to the primacy of contemplation over action, yes, but only those few called to contemplative life are exempt from this active serving. If Martha hadn’t been serving, Jesus would have gone hungry.
He does point Martha to something greater. And a piece of me cringes here, because I think about the possible sibling rivalry that could flare up with Jesus’ words. But he doesn’t speak these words to compare; he speaks to draw Martha closer to himself. He does not desire her to be anxious and worried; he desires her to be free. And, once the serving is taken care of, he desires her, too, to sit at his feet and listen. To love and be loved by him. This is the better part, yes, but Martha’s part is necessary, too. And I like to think she hears these words, maybe lets a tear or two escape, comes into Jesus’ open arms for a consoling embrace, and returns to the kitchen to finish her expertly prepared meal. Then, Martha gets her chance to rest at the feet of the One she truly needs.
Martha is a saint.
I rest my case.