July 29 is the feast day of Saint Martha, a member of the trio of friends of Jesus who were siblings one to another. There was Lazarus, their brother whom Jesus raised from the tomb; Martha, his sister, and Mary, his other sister. We get the impression that they were unmarried and lived together in the village of Bethany, across the Mount of Olives from the city of Jerusalem. It is remarkable how much we know about these three despite the extreme brevity of the gospels.
We know, for example, of at least three occasions when Our Lord was with them. Once, when they invited him to their home for a meal, and Martha became upset because she was in the kitchen doing all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and simply listened to him. Another time was when he raised Lazarus to life after he had been dead and buried for four days. And then, on the Saturday evening before Our Lord’s own sufferings and death, when the three gave a dinner party to thank Our Lord for having restored life to Lazarus. During that party, Mary poured a whole bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus’s feet to express her boundless gratitude to him for the restoration of her brother to life.
The Church, in her liturgy, directs that for this day, we read at Mass either the account of the earlier dinner that Jesus had with them or that of part of the conversation between Martha and Jesus on his arrival in Bethany four days after Lazarus’s burial. Even though both these passages are very brief, they give us a very clear picture of the personality of Saint Martha. She was the take-charge type: active, practical, somewhat impatient; domineering, outspoken.
During the preparations for the dinner in her home, she is in the kitchen preparing dinner. Somebody has to do it, and of course, Martha would take charge. The quiet, contemplative, gentle Mary sits in the living room listening to Our Lord speaking. As so often happens with bossy people, Martha becomes resentful that Mary is not helping her. So she comes into the living room and speaks, not to Mary, but to Jesus himself, as if Mary were not even there. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” A remarkable display of bad manners, trying to blame Jesus for the fact that Mary is not helping her. Jesus gently corrects the blundering Martha: Mary has chosen the better part, he says, and it will not be taken from her.
This simple little episode speaks VOLUMES about the two women and their relationship with one another. We can tell that life between them was not always easy. It never is, between a very practical person and a more speculative, contemplative one. Those of us who live in the community of a marriage with children or the religious life know very well how necessary it is to adjust to others, to put up with other’s idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. If even the saints find this difficult, we must expect the same thing. But it gives us opportunities to practice patience, humility, understanding, and ultimately, love. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.