May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable to you O Lord, our God and Our Creator.
Today the Church celebrates the life of Saint Martha who is often remembered alongside her sister Mary. Martha doesn’t appear to play a central role in the biblical narrative, we see her only twice mentioned in scripture; once complaining about her sister and the other when her brother Lazarus is raised from the dead. Today I’d like to take the liberty of discussing both of these episodes with you and what they mean to me and how they can help shape and guide our understanding of our Christian walk.
The first time we see Martha in our Bibles is in the Gospel according to Luke where we read:
Jesus 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.”
An interesting thought occurred to me when I read this scripture in preparation for this sermon that had never occurred to me before. Jesus entered the village and was welcomed by Martha; he wasn’t welcomed by a crowd, he wasn’t welcomed by Mary and Martha but instead by Martha alone who invited the Saviour to her home. When she got home she got busy preparing a meal and taking care of Christ’s needs and what happened? Mary, her sister, got all of the attention from the guest.
Have you ever brought a friend home and found that your family or a sibling took all of their attention? This is the situation Martha found herself in. When I think about this situation and my own reactions to it I can see that Martha’s actions in this scripture aren’t that out of the Ordinary and they case them in a different light for me.
In the past I have often looked at this incident and seen in Martha a certain negative, unwarranted jealousy that is rebuked by Jesus. However, when I think of the incident in the new terms I’ve highlighted I’m not sure that is really the case. I don’t believe that Martha is necessarily jealous of Martha in the usual sense, instead I think that she invited an honoured guest to her home and was expecting that she would labour to make him comfortable and receive his praise and attention for it. However, that’s not what happens and so she is upset that Mary, who has not laboured in His service yet, is getting the attention.
In this light the rebuke from Jesus is not necessarily about her jealousy or Mary’s having chosen the better method of service. Rather it is a rebuke of Martha’s being distracted, worried and troubled that she was not receiving the expected praise for her active service of God. In fact Jesus suggests that Mary’s service at his feet is just as important as Martha’s active service.
The lesson that I believe we can all take from this, and that I know I will take personally, is not to look at the way that others are serving God and to judge our service by it. We are each called to different forms of service in His name and each are just as valid as another. If we are serving God in our own way that is what is important. He who reigns above sees into our hearts and knows our desire to serve and will reward that loving service that we render in His name in due time.
The second place we see Martha (and her sister Mary) is in the Gospel of John when Jesus arrives at the tomb of their brother Lazarus:
Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary
to comfort them about their brother [Lazarus, who had died].
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 anyone 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 Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”
This incident is somewhat reminiscent of the incident in Luke; Mary and Martha both react very differently to Jesus’ appearance at Lazarus’ tomb. Martha, having a more active style of service immediately rushes out to meet Jesus whilst Mary waits to be called by the Saviour.
Again in this meeting it is easy to take a very negative view of Martha and her words, however if we contemplate a little deeper and let the incident unfold to our spirits a new perspective on Martha can develop before our eyes.
At first glance it appears that Martha simply lacks faith; she essentially seems to be rebuking Christ and claiming that it is pointless his being there as there is nothing He can do. Now whilst this is true, that IS what she is saying, her words actually display great faith. Martha positively shows us that she has total faith that Jesus can heal from illness and even bring a person back from the brink of death. Instead of a lack of faith Martha shows a lack of understanding of who Christ is.
Martha’s response to the arrival of Christ shows that she is not aware of the full role and divinity of Christ. She knows that Lazarus will be raised from the dead in the resurrection but does not see that full divinity rests in Christ and that He can perform all that is within God’s power.
Jesus positively asserts His divinity in response to Martha’s misunderstanding removing any shadow of a doubt that He is God incarnate. As we know Jesus then goes on to show all present that He is “the resurrection and the life” by raising Lazarus from the grave.
Do you have total faith in Christ and in His divine nature? I know at times it is easy to be caught up in the daily work of the world, our ministry, our families, and Jesus can become an abstract ideal to us. However, we need to not fall into Martha’s trap and let our faith become an “it’ll be fixed when we meet God” or “when Jesus returns” type attitude. Jesus is real and alive today, He has the ability to perform great and glorious wonders this very day just as he did in the biblical narrative. We must all search the scriptures, search our hearts and take Martha as an example for us in ministry and developing our faith.
Let us pray together:
Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Martha of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.