Daily Reflection
July 29th, 2004
Eileen Burke-Sullivan
Theology Department
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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!

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