By Sarah Damm
Have you ever been asked the question, “Are you a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’”? It’s as if we are expected to choose one or the other. It’s also as if one is better than the other, for doesn’t Jesus say, “Mary has chosen the better part”? (Luke 10:42)
Many women identify with Martha more than Mary. After all, we see ourselves doing the same tasks that cause so much anxiety in Martha—cooking, cleaning, running errands, feeling busy with our long to-do lists. We can’t help but feel overwhelmed about all there is to do. When Jesus tells Martha that He won’t take away the better part from Mary, it can seem like He is displeased with Martha’s work, and His reprimand can pierce our hearts, too.
But today, on the Feast of St. Martha, I contemplate the two readings that involve Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and I see the story with fresh eyes. I focus my attention on Jesus and His interactions with Martha, rather than on trying to compare the sisters.
When we first meet Martha in the Gospel of Luke, we see her welcoming Jesus. In another translation, it says she “received him into her house” (Luke 10:38). As women, we naturally have the gift of receptivity. “It is the beautiful warmth of femininity that receives and accepts another person,” writes Pat Gohn in Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious (p. 63). She goes on to write, “Receptivity is characterized by openness and availability to another person” (p. 74). Martha is open and available to Jesus, as she welcomes him into her village and home.
Martha goes on to serve Jesus and His disciples in her home. She generously opens her home to them with great love. Gohn writes, “A woman’s generosity is integral to her receptive nature” (p. 78). I imagine how much food she prepared! How she worked so hard to clean her home! She wanted everything to be perfect for the Lord and His chosen friends.
Yes, this is where her need for perfection gets in the way of her initial generosity. But it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t reprimand Martha for her generous hospitality. No, He just doesn’t care about her home being perfect, and He doesn’t want her to worry about it either!
And isn’t that the same with us? We want everything to seem perfect. We worry about what others will think about our messy homes, our messy relationships, our messy lives? We even try to keep a perfectionistic façade with God.
But at some point St. Martha can’t keep up, and she shows us that we shouldn’t try to keep up either. Her complaint to Jesus [“Lord, do you not care …?” (40)] shows us that we can bring anything and everything to Jesus. “For you, my Lord and my delight, knowing the many needs there must be and the comfort it is for us to rely on you, tell us to ask you and that you will not fail to give” (St. Theresa of Avila). And even as Jesus speaks her name, “Martha, Martha,” I can hear great love in His voice. He cares more about who she is and less about what she does.
As we move into the Gospel of John, I cannot help but think that Jesus’ loving but firm reprimand was indeed an answer to her plea. He transforms Martha, renews her feminine virtues of receptivity and generosity, and strengthens her faith. Again, we see her coming out to receive Jesus, when she hears that He is coming (John 11:20). Her faith is so strong that she knows with all her heart that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death. And she trusts “that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (24).
What I find so beautifully intimate is the last part of their interaction. Jesus reveals an amazing truth to Martha. He tells her that He is “the resurrection and the life” (25). When He asks her if she believes it, her faith is so certain and strong! She replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (27). Martha’s confidence in Jesus mirrors the faith of St. Peter when he proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). And we know where that answer led him … Straight to the head of the Church!
Let’s return to our initial question: “Are you a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’”? Can my answer be “both”?
I find comfort and strength in Mary’s prayerful disposition at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:39). I see the great importance in daily prayer, weekly Adoration, Scripture meditation, and other forms of conversation with God. At the same time, I find connection to Martha’s receptivity, generosity and faith. I look to her as a beautiful example of femininity, of confident faith that I can bring anything and everything to the Lord, and of always being open to God’s gentle reprimands in order to live my unique yes more in accordance with His will.
St. Martha, pray for us!