Have you ever had the unpleasant experience of listening to an acquaintance unjustifiably criticize someone you consider a friend? It’s shocking when we realize how human beings can completely misunderstand one another.
This happens not only in relationships with ordinary people, but also with saints. Saint Junipero Serra, the eighteenth-century Franciscan missionary, has been in the news lately; he has been publicly repudiated by descendants of some of the very Californians that he gave his life to serve. The truth about Saint Mary Magdalene, the first person recorded to have seen the Risen Christ, has been abandoned in favor of juicy gossip in popular fiction. And the good, faithful woman known as Saint Martha of Bethany has been transmogrified into something unrecognizable by a sleazy novel.
But the Gospel brings light to those in darkness, so it is not surprising that simply reading the Gospels can help us discover the truth about Martha. The woman that we call Saint Martha of Bethany, who is commemorated on the Church calendar on July 29, is identified in only three passages of the Gospels, but those passages can help us understand why the Church considers her a saint.
What the Gospels say about Martha
Luke 10:38-42 recounts what happened shortly after Jesus and his disciples entered a village. In some towns, Jesus was welcomed; in others, he was rejected. In this village—which John’s Gospel tells us was Bethany, a village approximately two miles from Jerusalem—a woman named Martha welcomed both Jesus and his disciples into her home. According to Luke, Martha’s sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. Martha famously responded to her sister’s apparent laziness by asking Jesus to tell Mary to get back to work and help her. Jesus gave the famous reply: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In John 12:1-2, we learn that Jesus returned to stay in Bethany during Holy Week immediately before his Crucifixion. As many commentators have pointed out over the centuries, Mary’s home in Bethany appears to have been Jesus’ home base in that area, the place where he and his disciples stayed during his final week and on other previous occasions.
In the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel, we learn that Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was seriously ill. Rather than return immediately, Jesus delayed. In hindsight, we can see that he delayed precisely because he wanted to perform his greatest miracle outside the Resurrection and raise his dead friend back to life. But Martha and Mary lived and grieved through the death of a beloved brother before Jesus arrived in Bethany and called his friend Lazarus to come out of the grave and back among the living.
What the Gospels teach us about Martha
What can we conclude from these somewhat sparse details about the character of this saint of the Church?
The above passage from Luke, with its description of the different responses of Martha and Mary to their divine Guest, has often been used by Christians over the centuries to point out the importance of balancing the contemplative aspect of Christian life with the active life. Martha was busy making dinner, while Mary knew that her time with Jesus was limited, so she focused her entire attention on him. Like Martha, we all need to learn again and again to seek God in every moment, particularly through prayer, rather than focusing on mere accomplishments. But that is not the only thing we know about Martha.
Anyone who has ever hosted a party will notice in John 12:1-2 that Martha served dinner to Jesus and his disciples six days before the Passover. That is, Jesus came to someone’s home with at least twelve grown men for dinner. Since the Gospels do not refer to Martha as a wealthy or important woman, it appears she was simply an ordinary woman with a big heart, ready and willing to share what she had with others.
When John 12:2 says that “Martha served”, is that only a statement about the name of the owner of the home? Or is it a statement about the warmth of Martha’s home, or even the quality of her cooking? Did the disciples find it easy to hurry from Jerusalem to Martha’s house because they knew that a great meal and great conversation were awaiting them? We will never know for certain, but we can emulate Martha’s hospitality and try to make family, friends, and even strangers welcome in our homes.
It is easy to overlook the fact that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were an unusual family grouping. In Jewish culture at that time, men and women were expected to marry, and it would have been considered odd for three grown siblings to live together. For that matter, it would be considered odd today. There is no mention of any of them being too young to marry or widowed. Were any of the siblings considered unmarriable?
Martha’s sister Mary has often been linked with three other women described in the Gospels—the woman caught in adultery, the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, and/or the formerly possessed Mary Magdalene—probably because that might explain why Martha and Lazarus were not married. If Mary had lived a scandalous life, that might have deterred other residents of Bethany from seeking marriage with her brother and sister. Or perhaps the unacceptable sibling was Lazarus. Since there are no recorded words of Lazarus, was he what we would call a “special needs” child? An older man with a wild past? Whatever the explanation, the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus shows us that even Jesus’ friends probably didn’t have picture-perfect families.
But Martha’s words in John, chapter 11, shows she was more than a great cook, generous woman, or an unusual head of a household. Specifically, Martha believed a great truth that the High Priest of the Jewish people himself was unwilling to accept. When Jesus was trying to prepare Martha to understand what he was about to do—bring a dead man back to life—he said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Martha responded with the astonishing words: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
Even though Martha clearly did not expect Jesus to raise her brother from the dead, she trusted him. Somehow, she knew that he was not type of Messiah that most Jews were awaiting, the military leader who would free them from Roman rule. She knew he was the Son of God, even though she was probably not certain what that meant.
The real character of Saint Martha of Bethany is not defined by her not-so-subtle pressure for help from her sister. Instead, the Church calls her a saint because of her generosity, her love for her family and friends, and her astounding faith in the Son of God.
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