Mention “the beloved disciple” and most people will think of John. But John himself identifies other disciples Jesus loved: “Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5). These siblings provided a home-away-from-home for Jesus, a place where he could retreat from the crowds. All three of them are remembered by Catholics on July 29, but in particular Martha, whose memorial it is. She’s written about just three times – once in Luke, twice in John – but from those three visits with Jesus a picture emerges of a human, imperfect woman of faith: a disciple who is learning to follow the Lord.
The “Better Part”
We first see Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Her name means “Lady,” or “Mistress” – as in “Mistress of the House.” She’s the older sister, the responsible one, a doer, and she runs an active household. When Jesus comes into town surrounded by disciples, she opens her home and willingly serves him, creating a place of welcome and rest so others can learn from him. Martha does for Jesus what in Acts, the deacons will do for the apostles: they serve at tables so the apostles can devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Service is an important part of being a disciple, and Luke’s depiction of Martha – “distracted with much serving”; “anxious and troubled about many things” – reveals one of its pitfalls. It’s easy to get so caught up with zeal for the Lord that we forget who we’re serving. Martha’s sister Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and ignoring Martha and the work, appears to fall on the other extreme (what my grandmother used to call “so heavenly minded she’s of no earthly use”). The ”good portion” or “better part” that Mary chose isn’t better to the exclusion of service, it’s better in the sense that it must come first. Only when we first tend to our relationship with the Lord, setting our eyes on him and filling up at his spring, as it were, will we have the balance we need to serve without anxious distraction.
Martha reminds me of Peter, the “pope-in-training” who fell under the waves when he took his eyes off the Lord. Both illustrate the need we all have as disciples to keep our eyes on Jesus, trust, and draw our strength from him.
Martha’s Great Faith
Martha reflects Peter even more directly in John’s Gospel, where he tells of the death of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44). She shows the same easy familiarity, born of a close relationship and love, that enables Peter to rebuke the Lord (Mt 16:22). When Martha hears Jesus is coming, she leaves the other mourners to tell him: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary will later say the same thing, but Martha takes it further: “And even now,” she says, “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (Jn 11:21-22). Martha knew, in her heart, God’s power over death – much as Abraham knew that if Isaac died, God could bring him back to life again (Heb 9:11).
When Jesus asks Martha if she believes he is the resurrection and the life, she answers “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). Only Peter among all the disciples says anything like that in the Gospels, and Jesus responds that “flesh and blood didn’t tell you that;” and “on this rock I will build my church.” Martha’s declaration of faith is every bit as bold as Peter’s, and there’s a sense in which the Church, built on the rock of Peter, grows with faith like that of Martha.
“Jesus loved Martha.” You can feel it in Luke 10, in his tender “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled.…” You can feel it in John 11, as he risks danger to comfort Martha and Mary after the death of their brother, and weeps with them, “deeply moved in spirit.” And his closeness to this family shines out at the start of John 12, when the Lord begins his final week of life at their home. It’s a very domestic scene. Once again Mary is at the feet of Jesus, while Martha serves. But there is peace, for Martha anyway. No anxiety, no distraction. We simply read that “Martha served.”
Martha is the patroness of servants, cooks, and housewives. May she help every disciple find a proper understanding of the value of service and the need to root it in a close relationship with Jesus and faith in him who is the Lord of life!
How does Martha inspire you to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ? (Tweet this)
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© 2015 Sarah Christmyer