29th of July. St Martha of Bethany

Martha of Bethany

Martha is mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and John. She lived in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem with her siblings Lazarus and Mary. She welcomed Jesus and the disciples into her home, and was witness to the raising of her brother, Lazarus.

1st Reading: 1 John 4:7-16.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”


Gospel: John 11:19-27.

Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


Martha’s rugged faith

Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus were close friends of Jesus, who often visited their home and went there just a few days before the Passion. Many tend to focus on Jesus’ apparent criticism – that her sister Mary had chosen the better part by sitting at his feet and listening to him rather than bustling about attending to the details of hospitality (Luke 10: 38-42). Jesus does not downplay housework; rather, he invites Martha to keep her focus on the life of the spirit even while working and not to let anxiety distract her. He does not preclude Martha’s listening to him from the kitchen–where she was preparing a meal for them all. The woman in the kitchen will often know exactly what is going on in the rest of her house.

Today we remember Martha’s deep, personal faith in Jesus. It is she who believed in “resurrection from the dead” for those who die in faith. When Jesus calls himself the resurrection and the life, promising that they who believe in him will never die, it was at Martha’s prompting, as she mourned the death of her brother Lazarus. Responing to her prayer, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and many came to believe in him after this sign of his life-giving power.

A fine appraisal of Martha and Mary features in a sermon by St Augustine, in today’s Liturgy of the Hours. According to Augustine, Our Lord’s words teach us that “although we labour among the many distractions of this world, we should have but one goal. For we are but travelers on a journey without a fixed abode. We are on our way, not yet in our native land. We are in a state of longing, not yet of enjoyment.” Martha is blessed for your good service,  much occupied in nourishing the body. But Augustine asks, “When you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveller to welcome, someone hungry to feed, someone ill whom you could visit, or dead whom you could bury? No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, but we ourselves shall be fed. So what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness. For the Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, ‘Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and he will serve them.’”


She whom Jesus loved

Martha appears in two of the four gospels, Luke and John, in each case in the company of her sister Mary. In one of the two gospel readings for today’s feast, the one from John, Martha is portrayed as a woman in grief, because of the death of her brother Lazarus. Martha, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus are referred to as loved by Jesus, as friends of Jesus. This is a family of disciples who have experienced the love of God present in Jesus and have responded to that love. Martha’s grief at the death of her brother Lazarus is the grief of a disciple, of a believer. Her opening words to Jesus on his arrival seem to express her disappointment at Jesus’ absence at the time of her brother’s death, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She symbolizes every believer who struggles to come to terms with the apparent absence of the Lord in the face of the stark reality of the death of a loved one. Yet, her grief does not leave her hopeless, as is evident from her subsequent words to Jesus, “I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.” To the grieving, yet hopeful, Martha, Jesus reveals himself as the resurrection and the life and he then makes a wonderful promise that has spoken to grieving believers down through the centuries. The promise declares that all who believe in Jesus already share in Jesus’ risen life, and that the moment of physical death will not break that life-giving communion with Jesus. The question Jesus addresses to Martha, “Do you believe this?” is addressed to every believer, and we are all asked to make our own Martha’s response to Jesus’ question. “Yes, Lord, I believe.” [Martin Hogan]

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