St. Martha usually gets a bad rap. Her reputation consists in the sole Scripture verse from Luke 10: 38 – 42: “As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. 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.’ 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.’”
Somehow, those of us who identify more with Martha (the doers) than Mary (the existential listeners) end up feeling guilty when we hear Jesus’ words, “Mary has chosen the better part.” What is the better part? We hear sermon after sermon that it means listening and being exceed busyness and doing.
For the doers out there, don’t be discouraged. There is a place for the Marthas, for you, in the Church, in your families, in the world. Martha and Mary – sisters – actually represent two side to the same coin, if you will. Martha signifies the activity that is necessary to accomplish God’s work. Perhaps we could envision the missionary saints, like St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Calcutta, even (and especially) the Apostles themselves. These are the people who go out into the world, who evangelize by their actions and preaching. Their zeal is transported in speech and the Corporal Works of Mercy.
The Marthas are necessary in the Church and in the world.
The Marys are, of course, the ones who take more of a backseat approach to living the Faith. They are the quiet listeners – perhaps the counselors or advisers, the thinkers and theologians, the ones usually on the sidelines or in the background. We need them, too. When Jesus said Mary “chose the better part,” He didn’t mean in every circumstance. He meant in that moment.
If we recall another Scripture verse that mentions Martha, we will understand the reason for her sainthood (at least one reason) from John 11:17-27:
“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’
Martha had the same strong faith in Jesus that Mary did; she just exhibited different charisms. Mary was the one who excelled in Spiritual Works of Mercy that involved counseling and listening and absorbing; Martha was the one who shouldered the physical burden of making sure everyone was fed and comfortable. Maybe her gift was that of hospitality.
But when it came down to faith, hers wasn’t lesser than her sister’s. She had certainty that Jesus was who He said He was – the Messiah. She knew, even when her brother, Lazarus, had died, that he would rise. This was because she had faith (and hope) in the Resurrection. It was the seed that carried her heart when everything else seemed desolate. Jesus honored her for that faith. Maybe that was, in part, why He chose to resurrect Lazarus that day in the literal sense and give him back his life on earth for an extended period of time.
The Feast of St. Martha reminds us that doing God’s work has its benefits. Remember that “God loves a cheerful giver” (from 2 Corinthians 9:6). We give what we have first received from God. That’s what St. Martha did. She knew her innate spiritual gifts. She was aware, at the deepest level, who she was – and that was a reflection of Jesus, her intimate friend and the universal Savior of the world.
The lesson we can all glean from St. Martha’s life and legacy is this: Doing has its place in God’s realm, just as being does. It’s not either/or. It’s about discerning, moment to moment, what the Holy Spirit is asking of us – to listen or to speak? To wait or to act? To move or to remain still? Each is equally necessary and valuable in this world. The key is asking for the wisdom to know which is needed most in each circumstance.
Let us pray to St. Martha to have the strength of faith she exhibited, as well as the cheerful hospitality of welcoming the stranger and noticing the needs of others in our families, homes, and communities.
image: Altarpiece of St. Martha by Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com