This Sunday's gospel reading is the Martha and Mary one. You know the one I mean. Sitting Mary = good and Busy Martha = bad.
Martha runs around, getting the food and drinks ready, making sure everything is organized, while Mary drops what she has and sits to listen to Jesus. Martha, understandably, is frustrated, and asks Jesus to make Mary help. Instead, Jesus tells Martha, "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her." (Luke 10:38-42)
I like the way Lisa Reno explains it in MagnifiKid: "Martha forgot that her work needed to be done with love, and so she felt bitter and sad. Hard work can be a beautiful way of loving, but work without love becomes a burden." There is a mighty lesson for parents in those sentences!
For the most part, when this reading is the Gospel reading, one can expect the usually homily or sermon on finding time to listen to Jesus, to carve time out of the busyness of the world in order to rest in prayer, the most important work.
And Martha? Martha always gets a bad rap. Too busy, too naggy, too angry, too frenzied.
But I think you cannot understand Mary and Martha, especially Martha, without the rest of their story. You see, this story from Luke is only the first half of what they have to teach us. The second part comes in the tale of Lazarus (Lazarus the dead guy, not Lazarus the beggar guy).
"Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha...So the sisters sent word to (Jesus), saying, 'Master the one you love is ill'." (John 11:1,3)
Mary and Martha felt confident that as soon as Jesus received word about Lazarus, he would hurry there. Why not? They were all good friends, and Jesus was clearly someone very mighty and holy. So, they did what every good Christian is taught to do - they called on God for help and trusted completely in His answer.
"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was." (John 11:5-6)
Huh? Jesus loved them - okay, got that. So because he loved them, he did not hurry to them, but decided to wait two days? How does that make any sense? You know Martha and Mary were expecting to see Jesus any day. As Lazarus grew more and more ill, and the people around them began to mourn and try to prepare them for their brother's death, Martha and Mary remained calm and serene. They knew Jesus was coming....right away. They trusted completely. They had no idea he was waiting.
Lazarus died. Yes, died. With no Jesus in sight. Not even a note to say he heard about it, he is coming, he loves them - nothing. Martha and Mary believed until Lazarus's last breath that Jesus would show up. And he didn't.
Jesus finally decided to go, even though it required that he go back into an area where he was a hunted man. The disciples thought he was crazy, and tried to dissuade him. Jesus told them he was going, and then said to them "Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to waken him."
I love this part. Sometimes, the exchanges between Jesus and the disciples sound like a situation comedy. So Jesus told them Lazarus was dead, but he didn't come right out and say it. He used flowery language, saying Lazarus was "asleep". And the disciples, bless their hearts, replied in confusion. Hey, if he is just asleep, that must mean he is getting better!
"But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, "Lazarus has died." (John 11:13-14)
So off to Bethany they finally went, to discover that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Not four days since Lazarus died, but four days since he had been placed in the tomb. Jesus was really, really late.
There was a crowd of people with the sisters, staying to comfort them. Someone there spotted Jesus and the gang coming and ran to tell the sisters. And one of them came out to meet Jesus.
Now, back to our first story. Remember what happened - Martha was too busy to sit at the feet of Jesus, while Mary dropped everything she had to spend time with him. So who went out to meet him, after their brother died?
Martha. Martha came out, leaving guests and death rituals behind. Martha could not even see Jesus at her window yet. All she had to hear was that someone spotted him up the road, and this time it is Martha who left everything and everyone to go and seek Jesus.
"When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary sat at home." (John 11:20)
Martha wasted no words. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you." (John 11:21-22)
Who's got faith now, huh? Jesus tests it just a little. "Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise.' Martha said to him, 'I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.' Jesus told her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'" (John 11:23-27a)
Martha here replies with such a strong statement of faith. "She said to him, 'Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.'" (John 11:27b)
Very few people in the New Testament ever make this statement, and almost no women. Yet these words - this declaration of Jesus as the Messiah - were given to Martha to speak, not Mary. Martha had taken the words of Jesus to heart - the better portion was now hers.
The next part concerning Mary is also very, very interesting. Look for it next time!