The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Martha on July 29. Many people are surprised to realize that Martha is a saint. Her most famous words, after all, are telling Jesus what to do: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” (Luke 10:40) But there is more to Martha than a busy and anxious woman.
The Lesson Martha Learned
Most of us easily identify with Martha. The spirit of our age is to feel anxious and worried about many things. As a busy Diocesan priest it is easy to become burdened with much serving. My prayer is often spent wondering why Jesus doesn’t do more to help me: “Lord, don’t you care?” Martha and I have become is so focused on the work of the Lord that we have lost sight of the Lord of the work. Jesus has become our helper rather than our Master. He’s not a very good helper.
There’s definitely a better way and it starts by putting Jesus first. Some days, as I look at the looming mountain of work, I give up trying. I say, “Jesus, this is your day. Today I just want to serve you. Show me what you want me to do and let’s do it together.” Those days are the ones I get the most done. The paradox is striking: only when I serve Jesus, instead of trying to accomplish things, do I actually accomplish things. And I’m not even exhausted at the end of the day.
You might think that after once or twice, I would learn my lesson. Far from it. Every day I struggle even to remember to serve Jesus. I don’t understand why such a simple concept is so hard for me to live. I think Martha would understand.
A Woman of Great Faith
Have we forgotten another passage where Martha appears? Her brother’s name is Lazarus and Jesus raises him from the dead. The whole chapter of John 11 is worth reading. I will just quote one passage:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (John 10:25-27)
How many of us, when faced with the death of a loved one, have been able to take it with such simple faith? Martha is no longer running around and telling Jesus what to do. She has learned to listen to Jesus and to trust him, no matter what. That’s what sainthood is all about.
A Woman of Great Hospitality
Look ahead to the next chapter of John and this is what we read:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. (John 12:1-3)
Once again poor Martha is slaving in the kitchen, and Mary is getting all the attention. This time I doubt Martha minds very much. She is just grateful to welcome him and be loved by him. The Church wants us to remember that all of us have the chance of welcoming Jesus like Martha does. The collect (opening prayer) for the Mass of St. Martha says:
Almighty ever-living God,
whose Son was pleased to be welcomed
in Saint Martha’s house as a guest,
grant, we pray, that through her intercession,
serving Christ faithfully in our brothers and sisters,
we may merit to be received by You
in the halls of heaven.