Prayer and Action
This is Martha’s declaration of faith. It is full of humble and innocent awe and crystal clarity. It is spoken by a woman who has been tested and refined by the crucible of life. She knows the responsibility of duty and the tenor and value of hard work. She is observant, and deeply thoughtful in the midst of her labors. She has learned to accept the realities of life and death with the strength of a tested and enduring faith. She makes this statement to Jesus on the occasion of her brother, Lazarus’ death. But, first, let us go back to an earlier visit that Jesus made to their house. On that occasion we see her working diligently at the responsibilities of hospitality and she is a bit peeved at her sister Mary’s seeming avoidance of those necessary duties, as she sits at the feet of Jesus listening to his every word.
Remember the scene: ʺAs Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!ʺ
ʺMartha, Martha,ʺ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed, or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.ʺ (Luke 10: 38-42)
Lazarus, Martha and Mary were already friends with Jesus. They were disciples. They knew that he was a great man but, like everybody else, they had not yet fully realized how ʺgreatʺ he really was. Mary knew that every word that came from his mouth was full of truth and goodness. She could not get enough of listening to him. Martha, was the responsible type. She knew the value of traditions and manners, and the rules and roles of responsibility. She did them, not out of bitterness, but out of a love for the inherent goodness in those things. Her heart was meant for service, but that did not mean that she was free from the normal human weaknesses. She sounds a little frustrated here in this passage. Martha thinks that Mary is having all the pleasure without any of the demands of responsibility and she has the gumption to challenge Jesus about Mary’s supposed slothfulness. She even tells Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds gently, but challenges Martha with the thought that some things are more important than others. He suggests to her that this is one of those times and that, ʺMary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.ʺ We can imagine that Martha continued to carry out her duties of preparing the meal and setting the tables while, at the same time, listening intently to what Jesus was teaching. We have all done this at some time.
The next time we see an exchange between Martha and Jesus is on the occasion of Lazarus’ death. Even though Martha had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was dying, Jesus has arrived days after Lazarus’ death. Indeed, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Lazarus’ house is full of mourners and those who had come to comfort the sisters. Martha hears that Jesus is coming and in her sorrow she goes out to meet him and says, ʺLord, 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.ʺ Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, but she does not get his immediate meaning at first. She responds, ʺI know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.ʺ Then Jesus looks her in the eyes and says, ʺI am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.ʺ Then he asks her the most important question of all, one that he asks us every day, ʺDo you believe this?ʺ And she responds with the absolute certainty of faith, ʺYes, Lord. I have come to believe that your are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.ʺ (John 11: 19-27)
Do you believe this? Is it not our deepest prayer to be able to look Jesus in the face and say, ʺYES!ʺ Martha and Mary are both holy and saintly women. They are both gifted in their faith. They come to that faith through the uniqueness of their different personalities. And so it is with us. No two of us are exactly alike. And Jesus comes to us in the uniqueness of who we are. We believe in the same thing, but we have to come to that faith through the unique personality that God gave each one of us. He encounters us in and through that uniqueness. Mary’s faith is neither greater, nor deeper than Martha’s, and vice versa. They are both models of convicted and lively faith. Yet, while we all have different personalities, it is also possible to see Martha and Mary as models for our own individual faith lives. There are times when we need to ʺsit at the feet of Jesusʺ in contemplative solitude and silence, when we need to listen with our whole hearts, our whole minds, and our whole souls, like Mary. But a faith without action, without the good works of hospitality and generous service is nothing at all. Martha shows us how to live our faith, how to translate it into the actions of our daily lives. Faith, after all, is both a received gift of God’s grace, and an active verb. It is our belief in God and it is the reason for our living justly, and serving generously with our daily lives.
Martha and Mary show us the two vibrant and vital dimensions of a rich faith life; prayer and action. Lord, we ask that you give us the graces we need to sit with you in quiet contemplation, like Mary, and the graces that will help us to rise up onto our feet to begin walking in your ways this day, and all those yet to come, like Martha. We ask this in your name, Jesus. Amen.