St. Martha: Truth and Practicality

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Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, by Vermeer, c. 1654
Today is Saint Martha's feast day. At this moment, the same story is probably popping into all our heads.

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." (Lk. 10:38-42)

The story is often accompanied by a homily about staying focused on Jesus no matter what else you may be doing. Occasionally there are variations comparing the active and contemplative lives.

There is much more to see in this homey tale. Martha has great confidence approaching Jesus with her complaint. They must have been very good friends for her to feel so comfortable. Jesus' affection is clear as he answers with gentleness. There is a lesson for us: nothing is too small to discuss with Jesus. He will always help us gain the right perspective.

Martha and Mary appear again later in a telling story, though we usually focus on their brother Lazarus.

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.

 So the sisters sent word to him, saying, "Master, the one you love is ill."

When Jesus heard this he said, "This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it."

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus . . . 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."

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, "The teacher is here and is asking for you." (Jn. 11:1-5, 20-28)

We see again how familiar and friendly Martha is with Jesus. As before, she goes to him with a forthright complaint.  She shows great confidence and trust in saying that she is disappointed that he didn't save her brother.

Martha also shows that she possesses great faith and understanding in unmistakable terms: "I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world." What an incredible moment that must have been between Jesus and Martha. Martha has come a long way, never losing her focus on Christ even in her grief. 

Yet, after such a moment, she also doesn't forget her sister, Mary, who is still at home mourning.

Martha is both loving and practical to the bone. We have an unmistakable example of that practicality when Jesus is getting ready to raise Lazarus from the dead.

Martha, the dead man's sister, said to him, "Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days" (Jn. 11:39).

Her unwavering, housewifely, detail-oriented common sense is here used to emphasize the greatness of Jesus' miracle. The corpse is well into decay in that hot climate but that is no deterrent to Jesus. How like God to use a practicality to catch our attention and lead us to an even greater realization of His glory and love for us.