Readings: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; John 11:19-27 or Luke 10:38-42
Saint Martha is remembered and honoured as a friend of Jesus who received him into the home she shared with Lazarus, her brother, and with Mary, her sister. Martha is remembered as a practical woman who, in Luke's gospel, is corrected by Jesus when she complains that Mary is leaving all the work to her. 'Mary has chosen the better part', Jesus says, meaning that Mary being fed spiritually by Jesus is better than Martha feeding Jesus with physical food.
At least that is the traditional interpretation and so Martha came to represent the active life with Mary representing the contemplative life. The only departure from this tradition that I am aware of is Meister Eckhart who interprets Jesus' comment to Martha as meaning 'Mary has chosen what is for her and for now the better part'. Eckhart has no doubt that Martha was further advanced in the following of Christ, as could be seen from her compassion, her thoughtfulness, and her eagerness to serve Jesus. Christian maturity is ecstatic in this way, going out from oneself to give rather than to receive, to attend to others before thinking of oneself. Eckhart's interpretation seems to follow the teaching of Thomas Aquinas that the most perfect form of life is the one in which one not only contemplates but shares with others the fruits of one's contemplation.
So much for the picture of Martha that emerges from the famous incident in Luke, chapter 10. The other gospel reading that may be chosen today is from the gospel of John, chapter 11. We see that it is the same Martha who approaches Jesus as he arrives at their house when Lazarus had already died. 'If you had been here', she says to Jesus. She is forthright, even blunt, once again practical and uncomplicated in her complaint.
But now we learn more about her relationship with Jesus and we see how mature things are between them. 'I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask', Martha says. 'Your brother will rise again', Jesus replies. 'I know', she says, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm, 'in the resurrection, on the last day'. The pattern in John's gospel is well known: from a misunderstanding on the part of a listener Jesus carries him or her to a much deeper level of understanding, and in doing so reveals something extraordinary about himself. These revelations, generated in experiences of transcendentally fruitful conversation, more often than not begin with the words 'I am'. And so it is here: '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'. Jesus asks Martha if she believes it and it brings from her a comparable transcendentally fruitful profession of faith: 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world'.
This woman, whose personality is already familiar from Luke's gospel, shows us that practical concern and compassionate action are no obstacle to the most profound spiritual realisations. On the contrary, it seems. And she gives us an extraordinary lesson in what it means to pray. Prayer we learn from Martha is simply a conversation with Jesus, a conversation that is transcendentally fruitful. Obviously these are my words rather than hers, trying to catch something of the rich experience to which she bears witness. To pray means to come before the Lord with our needs and complaints, to hold nothing back in conversing with him, to open our hearts and minds and lives to his correcting and healing words, and to be carried through our present level of understanding to see more of the divine mystery that is coming into the world, to be brought further into the light of the truth about Jesus Christ who is, as we learn through Martha's questioning, 'the resurrection and the life'.
Jesus' encounter with Martha in John 11 reveals his divine nature. His encounter with Mary, her sister, which follows immediately, reveals his human nature, as he weeps with her for his friend who has died. But the greatness of Martha can be overlooked, the lesson she gives us in how to be with Jesus, how to talk with him, how to allow him to correct us and to lead us ever further into the mystery of his Person. At least today, her feast day, we should honour the memory of this practical, valiant, wise and compassionate woman.