a meditation on Luke 10:39-42 and John 11:1-12:8
by Dr. Robin Maas
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”. Luke 10:42
First, let us remind ourselves that Martha is a saint. She was beloved of the Lord. Her home was a refuge for Him a place He evidently frequented often. He could count on her generous hospitality. We need to remember that when we reflect on His “soft rebuke” to this woman. We need to think long and hard about what Christ was asking of her.
Few passages in Scripture evoke a stronger response from women than Jesus’ words to the woman who toiled alone in the kitchen so that her honored guest might be well served at table. Because there are more “Marthas” than “Marys” in this world, His words to her remain one of those “hard sayings” that require a great deal of “chewing” before it can be swallowed and remains, even so, difficult to digest.
Many women hear this text and chafe at the apparent injustice: the sister who appears to seek something beneficial for herself is praised while the one who wants to serve is told her choice is second best. Those of us who have worked hard to make a home inviting or a meal a source of pleasure as well as sustenance know instantly how Martha feels: unsupported, unappreciated, taken for granted. Why shouldn’t she complain?
We also know that Jesus speaks glowingly of service. As He humbly washes the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper, He tells them that, as He has done for them, so ought they also do for one another. In the past He has admonished them that those who are “first” will end up in last place and that His Father’s kingdom belongs to the littlest ones of all. The pope is traditionally known as “the servant of the servants of God”, and these servants frequently cite the saying, “To serve is to reign”.
So what is the problem here? Why doesn’t Christ tell Mary that, indeed, she should be serving her sister who is serving her guests? Jesus recognizes Martha’s goodness: we can sense the affection in His patient and pleading “Martha, Martha”. What is it, we wonder, that she just doesn’t get? And why don’t we get it either?
Martha is the quintessential good woman generous, busy to a fault, anxious about the details, genuinely wanting to help but in spite of these virtues, she is deeply frustrated and herein lies the clue to the problem. I would suggest that Luke’s description of Martha’s encounter with her guest is painful for many women because she reflects back to us so clearly the unvoiced and all-too-human expectation that we should not only be assisted in but rewarded for our service. There should be a payoff somewhere. And, of course, I am not speaking of any kind of monetary reward.
I think many women, if asked, would claim that their service especially in the home is their way of loving; and I would never rebut this. But it is also a common feminine trait to serve as a means of pleasing, of seeking approval, attention, affection and gratitude and when this is the case and our efforts are not rewarded, we reap the fruit of resentment.
Resentment is a feeling women know all too well. It is a form of real pain rooted in a sense of personal injustice. I am owed something respect, appreciation, assistance but another has denied it to me. The closer we are related to the person who has denied us what we believe we are owed, the more resentment we feel. It is a natural human response, but it is also one of the spoiled fruits of the fall. And we all know what spoiled fruit does to the human body. What we may not be so aware of is what this spoiled emotional fruit does to the soul.
Resentment is a form of “rot”. It festers in the soul like a rotten apple festers in the sun. It taints whatever it touches. And it certainly taints our service, robbing it of the power to communicate love which is what Christian service is meant to do.
Let us examine both our service and our motivation in serving in the home and in the Church. Why do we serve? Whom are we serving? What are the fruits of our labors? Are these fruits fresh and whole or tainted to a certain extent by the demands of our ego? Has the mold of self-pity begun to grow on our efforts?
Our Lord calls us to go and bear fruit fruit that will “abide”. (Jn 15:16) So it is not enough to serve for the sake of serving. Our service needs to produce fruit that will last that is free from the corruption of the rot of resentment and the mold of self-pity. In speaking of service that is “fruitful”, I don’t mean to suggest that such service must be practical or useful as the world understands these terms. I think it is clear that when Jesus asks us to bear fruit that will last, He is talking about service that assists Him in His mission, in the building up of His Kingdom on earth. He is not concerned with whether our service makes us feel good about ourselves.
There are many forms of service performed by Christian women, but in this context the story of Saint Martha we need to think about the tasks we perform that are, by and large, “menial” work that sustains rather than creates, work that has to be done to support or maintain an operation. That means work that has to be done over and over again because its effects do not last: laundry, cleaning, marketing, food preparation, diaper-changing, bill paying, errand-running, child-chauffeuring etc. If we also work outside the home, there are equivalent menial tasks, e.g., filling out forms, dealing with myriad different and demanding personalities at work, meeting payroll and worrying about the “bottom line”!
Next, we need to ask ourselves how often these tasks prompt us to complain if not to family members or friends, at least to ourselves. Why? Because it is the number and nature of our complaints that provides the chief clue to what motivates our service. Do our complaints mirror Martha’s? Do we resent the fact that our spouse or children do not voluntarily step up to the plates in the drying rack?
Are we annoyed when a dish we have slaved over is devoured in five hasty minutes and no one says, “Mom, that was great. Thanks so much for fixing it for us!”, but instead says, “Is that all there is?” then leaves the table and walks off without so much as a “may I please be excused?”
The legacy of original sin consists, among other things, in our having to become “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in other words, in “grunt” work. This curse falls on man and woman alike. Menial, daily maintenance tasks are burdensome no doubt about it. They are an unhappy reminder that we no longer live in the Garden of Eden. Our higher nature rebels against performing the same boring tasks over and over again: “Is this what I got my college degree for?” Within each of us (who is not yet a saint) is a deep root of pride that says, in effect, this task is unworthy of me.
So, let us be clear: To the extent that our service gives rise to resentment and causes us to complain, we can be sure that it is not motivated by love. If God made Man washes our feet, is there any task too menial for us to perform for one another? To the extent that service gives rise to resentment, we can be sure that what we are performing does not fit into the category of “good works”. We may be fruitful but the fruit that falls from our tree is already bruised, even before it hits the ground. It will not last and, therefore, the Lord cannot use it.
In other words: To serve is to reign: but not if you complain...
Remember, feminine resentment (even more than raw ambition) is what fuels secular feminism. Its soul is that of a “Martha” who has never been willing to offer hospitality to Christ. It’s not even “Tell my husband to help me.” It’s, “I’ll tell him myself!” It is filled with the spirit of “This task is unworthy of me”: I deserve a higher profile, more challenging work, and greater recognition. Women who buy into this are women who have bitten into the apple beautiful to look at but rotten at the core: In the words of the serpent to Eve: “You will be like gods...” And before we know it, what had first seemed simply a possibility becomes a “right”. Life owes me this.
If we were to be asked, I think we would all say that, yes, Christian service does not expect or demand a reward. One does what needs to be done as inconspicuously as possible. Like our Blessed Mother, a wedding guest at Cana, one observes carefully and acts discretely. She didn’t ask to be thanked by the bride and groom. She drew all attention away from herself.
But saying is much easier than doing. There is within each one of us a deep tap root of self assertion and self love. When all is said and done, we really do want the strokes. And besides: shouldn’t we be training our children to treat us as a good parent deserves to be treated? Don’t we have a right to demand their gratitude?
I will grant you that it can be an especially bitter pill to see a kind of thoughtless in gratitude from your children. We are never excused as parents from teaching our children to be grateful and express that gratitude and appreciation. But to nurture a sense of discouragement, disappointment or, God forbid, disdain for those we love because they fall short in this department is a form of spiritual wickedness. The only antidote for this threat to our well being is, first, to be more regularly and sincerely grateful to God for His blessings and, second, more vocally grateful in our homes on a daily basis for every sign of good behavior or generosity that we see.
Given that the path to sanctity is narrow, steep and filled with obstacles and pitfalls, it makes sense to travel light. We need to jettison much of the baggage we carry and I don’t just mean unnecessary material belongings. I mean the things we cling to much more ferociously, such as:
Our need to be needed
Our desire to be loved and appreciated
Our hunger for compliments
Our easily outraged sense of justice
Our insistence that we should be rewarded or at least allowed to reward ourselves.
All of these things are forms of self-justification and we know from Scripture that only God can “justify” us. That is His work, not ours.
All of these things are the “lesser portion” the things that contaminate our service so that it is filled with self instead of with Him. In fact none of our works can ever be good in itself. Only insofar as the grace of God works in us like the sap that travels from the vine to the branches can our works be fruitful or good. Their goodness is His goodness a goodness that lasts, so everything we carry along with us that is unworthy of Him drains our deeds of their power to convey the love and peace of Christ.
Our problem is, to a great extent, a lack of imagination. As we perform the repetitious and menial tasks that comprise our service we fail to see that the content of these tasks does not determine their ultimate value. As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux tells us, to “pick up a pin for the love of God” is to advance on the path to sanctity. It is no small thing to cook, clean or change diapers cheerfully and without demanding some form of emotional recompense. It is perhaps an act of heroic domestic virtue to be willing to let God do all the rewarding, according to the time and manner of His own choosing.
But this is not the end of the story about Martha. There is another account in Scripture, and while it appears in a different gospel (John), it is remarkably consistent in its portrayal of the contrasting character of these two sisters. In John we learn that Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised after he had been dead four days and that the Lord has a particularly strong affection for this family all three are precious to Him.
When Martha hears that Jesus has finally arrived, she runs out to meet Him, while Mary stays behind; and, true to character, Martha complains: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” But this time she does more than complain. Martha is grieving the loss of her brother and, as so often happens, when tears dissolve all our customary defenses, the truth can finally be spoken: “... even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you”.
In Martha’s declaration of faith we hear the echo of Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God! (Mt 16:16) and, in response, she receives an astonishing promise: “Your brother will rise again”. Just as Peter doesn’t really understand the full import of his own confession or the destiny of suffering and death that awaits his master, neither does Martha fully grasp the immense life-giving power her claim for Christ contains.
As Peter relies on his inherited understanding of messianic salvation, so Martha relies on what she has been taught about the general resurrection at the end of history. Repeating what must have been the then-standard line for consoling mourners, she replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Martha, Martha ... “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world.”
The Lord, who asks for our faith, works in response to Martha’s faith, the most spectacular of all His miracles the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is the last of His great works before He submits to His own destiny the death for which He would soon be anointed by Martha’s sister Mary.
Hidden in the story of this very good but unfruitfully busy woman’s encounter with Christ is the cure for all the frustration and futility of our modern Marthas. The good work she and the rest of us strive to accomplish through purely personal effort is destined, like the food on our tables, to vanish. It will be taken away from us. But in this exchange, we learn that it is Christ who works, whose efforts avail, and who asks that we serve Him by believing in Him: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”
What Christ asks of Martha is not more food, a cleaner house or softer cushions to recline upon. He asks her to believe in Him. “Trust me”.
Martha is transformed by this act of faith into a saint. Beyond any good thing she could provide for Him in her home, her voiced conviction that Jesus was the Messiah “serves” Him. In her affirmation of His lordship she gives Him something He can use in the salvation of the world. She bears fruit that will last. She gives birth to something that cannot be taken away from her.
Just as the power of the Holy Spirit, united to the faith of the Virgin Mary, results in the virginal conception, bringing forth the Lord of Life Himself, so Martha’s faith, united to the power of Christ, raises the dead. She is not simply a passive bystander to this last great miracle performed by the Lord. Her confession of faith is the instrument He uses to bring it about.
Martha’s love for Christ made her open her home to Him. Her hope in Him opened her mind to a new understanding of His mission; and her faith in Him opened her soul which is where He wishes to make His home.
There is for Jesus, Martha, Mary and Lazarus a “last supper”. A few days before His death the Lord returns to Martha’s table. While Jesus sits at table with Lazarus, Mary causes scandal again, this time by lavishly anointing the Master’s feet with costly nard and Martha serves this time without complaint.
Robin Maas, former Academic Dean and Professor of Spirituality at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, is the founder and director of the Women’s Apostolate to Youth in the Diocese of Arlington. Dr. Maas directs retreats, lectures, and conducts parish classes and workshops in spirituality, the teaching of holy women, Scripture, and the religious formation of the young. She is the author of numerous articles on these subjects and of five books. Dr. Maas is married, the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of seven.
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