Today is the feast of St. Martha, a woman who listened to what Jesus said to her and corrected herself. We know St. Martha as the distracted host who complained to Jesus that no one was helping her. We met Martha just recently when she and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, had Jesus over to dinner. Mary sat at the feet of the Lord listening to him speak, while Martha did all the work. She couldn’t help but be annoyed, and she couldn’t stop herself from complaining about it. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the serving?” she asks. “Tell her to help me.” Jesus’ reply is famous: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.”
To make sure no one gets the wrong message, the Mass pairs the story with another story of another busy dinner host: Abraham entertaining angels. In the second story, Abraham meets three angels, called “the Lord” in the text, and proclaims that he will be their servant. He bathes their feet and, in a flurry of activity, delegates various tasks and then waits on them himself throughout their meal.
Martha and Abraham are very different. Abraham never stops serving, but he also never stops giving “the Lord” his full attention. He doesn’t see himself as a martyr for having to serve the Lord while others relax; he is privileged to serve and leads others to join him. Martha should have done that. She should have waited on him instead of worrying and coaxed her sister instead of complaining.
St. John describes how, later in life, St. Martha learned exactly that lesson. The first choice the liturgy gives for St. Martha day’s Gospel reading is a story from later in her life: The story of the raising of Lazarus. One of my favorite lines in it is often overlooked: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.”
I think of it as bit of a vindication for Martha, and for all the active types in the world. Sometimes being active pays off: It makes you the type of person who rushes out to meet Jesus. The story doesn’t just redeem Martha’s tendency to act, but also her tendency to grumble. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha complains. “Your brother will rise,” answers Jesus. Martha still doesn’t hold back. “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day,” she says, voicing what many of us want to tell Jesus: We know there is some future thing that will make all our suffering worthwhile, but we kind of need something now. Her willingness to ask leads to one of the great events of the New Testament, and also elicits some of the most consoling words of Jesus, ever. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, before raising Lazarus. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
We could all stand to be more like Martha, after she has learned from the Lord. The old Martha served the Lord with a divided heart. The new St. Martha goes straight to him when she knows he is near. The old Martha was anxious and worried about many things. The new St. Martha is inquisitive and insistent about one thing: The Lord’s promise of salvation. The old Martha had to be told that Mary had chosen the better part. The new St. Martha delivers one of the great professions of faith in the Gospel: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
It’s the same for us. We often have to have behavior corrected — don’t be offended, do better. We don’t want to complain to Jesus — but he wants us to be honest and tell him what we truly feel. We can change. St. Martha proves it. Christ is near. Don’t wait for an invitation: Run to meet him — in the sacraments, in the tabernacle, in the poor.