We all know the familiar story related in a recent Sunday Gospel reading (Luke 10: 38-42): Jesus is visiting His good friends, Martha and Mary. Martha is busy in the kitchen and resents the fact that her sister, Mary, is sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word. Yet instead of quietly asking her sister for help, Martha marches into the living room and boldly complains directly to Jesus, essentially demanding that He order Mary back into the kitchen.
Jesus sweetly rebukes her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
St. Luke does not tell us what happened next. Did Martha drop her dish towel and immediately sit down next to her sister? Did she shake her head in bewilderment and head back into the kitchen to once again do all the work herself? Perhaps she decided to serve something simple instead of the elaborate meal she was preparing so that she too could listen to the words of the Messiah.
I’ve always sympathized with poor Martha. As someone who entertains fairly often, I appreciate the amount of work involved in preparing for guests. The house must be neat and clean, the bathrooms sparkling, and the menu carefully planned to send delicious aromas through the house while creating an appetizing presentation on the dining room table.
Since Jesus somehow strikes me as the type of person who did not call ahead, I imagine that St. Martha was given little notice to prepare her home and a proper meal for the Master, not to mention the usual crowd He attracted. She no doubt wanted to amaze her important guest with a worthy feast. Maybe she tried to show off a bit, planning a meal that would require slaving over a hot fire for hours in hope that Jesus would offer public praise and gratitude for her labor.
I often make the same mistake, planning an elaborate meal that requires much time in the kitchen in order to impress my guests. I complain later about all the work I had to do when I really wished that I had just popped a simple, make-ahead casserole into the oven and then sat down to enjoy my visitors. Perhaps St. Martha plans a similar approach the next time the Teacher comes to call.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ next visit to Martha’s home was under very sad circumstances (John 11:20-27). Her brother Lazarus had recently died, and Martha runs out to meet Jesus, scolding, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps realizing the hopelessness of her words, she quickly adds, “(But) even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus must have been pleased with Martha’s faith. Yet he tests it even further, stating, “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?” Martha, echoing the words of St. Peter in Matthew 16:16, replies, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
St. Martha is clearly learning that “there is need of only one thing,” but will her words translate to action? She gets an opportunity to show her true conversion of heart and mind in the next chapter of John’s gospel.
“Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany… They gave a dinner for Him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with Him.” (John 12:1-2)
The story continues with the account of Mary, Martha’s sister, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil. Once again, St. Martha is in the kitchen while her sister gets center stage. This time, she serves quietly and humbly, realizing that Mary was given the gift of a contemplative soul while she is the one on whom others depend to get things done. St. Martha has finally chosen the better part, serving with love rather than resentment.
The following Prayer to St. Martha puts us in the proper frame of mind to offer hospitality with true charity:
Prayer to St. Martha:
O Saint Martha, teach me to offer the simple gifts of kindness and hospitality to others as you did to Jesus and His friends. Let my hands be open to God’s Word in my life. Bless and pray for all those who come to my door. Amen.
St. Martha’s feast day is celebrated on July 29th. She is the patron saint of homemakers, servants and cooks.