My Mother used to say that Martha received a ‘raw deal’ from
Luke the Gospel writer, and possibly from Jesus, himself. (She would have
been careful about leveling any such charge at Jesus, however, respectful
and full of devotion as she was.) Her opinion was grounded in the sense
that had Jesus come in from a day of preaching and healing, hot and tired,
and Martha had NOT been making sure lunch or dinner were on the table, then
things would have been a challenge. As it was, My Mother had little
enthusiasm for Mary of Bethany – thinking her a woman who definitely wasn’t
carrying her part of the load.
I think many hearers of the Gospel secretly (or not so secretly) feel sorry
for both Martha and the older brother of the “prodigal son” story.
These two figures in Luke’s narrative are the pillars of society, those who
hold the system together. Those who make the economy run, keep food
on the table, keep families intact, and are all around “salt of the earth”
types. Never mind that they are jealous, angry and resentful, ready
to lash out at those they think they love because they have been “taken advantage
of.” Never mind the fact that by their bitterness and anger they tear
apart the very family or community for whom they think they are indispensable.
The Martha figure of Luke’s narrative stands for all the women of history
who have supported the social convention of the enslavement of women – because
they could manipulate getting their own needs met by offering their (albeit
bitterly given) slave labor to provide for the needs of others.
The Martha figure of John’s account seems on first blush to have grown from
Jesus’ gentle chiding on his earlier visit. Here in the midst of her
grief she seems to manifest a mature faith in Jesus and his role as Messiah.
Or is she? Some scholars of the Johanine tradition (see the work of
Francis Malony, for example) are convinced rather that Martha misses again
in this account. Here she steps out without waiting to be called, and
asserts her confidence in Jesus, but is it perhaps a confidence in the messiah
of the Jewish cultural tradition rather than the messiah that Jesus is called
by God to be? Are his tears those of grief for his friend Lazarus (who,
after all, is going to be the occasion to glorify the Father and begin Jesus’
own glorification) or tears of angry frustration that even this closest of
friends doesn’t really ‘get it.’ Is it here too that Martha is stuck
in convention and can’t hear the liberating call of Jesus to a whole new
set of categories about faith and life in God?
If both of these accounts illustrate a woman who doesn’t quite get it, doesn’t
she stand in for most of us? How often in our lives does it take the
third or the fifth or tenth invitation of God’s Spirit to awaken us out of
our certitude about how God can and must act?
I suspect that since Martha is so widely remembered in the early Christian
community (her name is remembered, for goodness sake – that means she had
to have had a notable part in building up the apostolic churches) because
she did get it finally, and went on to become a very significant witnessing
voice of Jesus’ radically new message of love and liberation leading men
and women to new life.
In the meantime, she reminds us that even if Jesus comes to our house and
tells us directly, we might not understand who or what he is and what he
stands for . . . for that we need Jesus’ Spirit and a dollop of humility!