St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany, the gospel read for the Feast of St. Martha, is part of the evangelist’s description of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. (Luke 10,38-42) It’s not a journey by Google Maps; Luke is describing how different people meet Jesus on his way.
Some reject him outright, like the scribe who in the previous story to this one is out “to test him.” When Jesus visits Martha and Mary, he’s a prophet speaking his word. Martha, busy about many things fails to hear him, and Jesus rebukes her. Mary listens to his word and is praised. The “cares of this life,” which Jesus warns about, make Martha deaf to the prophet’s word.
That’s what Luke wants us to learn from this gospel, but we all know there more to Martha than what Luke tells us here.
Other New Testament sources speak about these good women. John’s gospel, for example, along with a rich Christian tradition says that, besides knowing him as a prophet, these women and Lazarus their brother were long time friends.
When I read the story of Martha and Mary in Luke, I keep two other sources in mind. One of them is a painting (above) by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, illustrating the gospel story of Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany. You might call the artist a voice of tradition.
The artist imagines a supper at Bethany. The table’s set for four people– that would be Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But look at the others coming in the door. Obviously, they’re Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter. One them is gesturing towards Peter, as if saying, “He told us to come.”
Poor Martha in her apron holds up her hands in frustration, “What are we going to do?”
There will be no miracle, except the miracle of Martha’s hospitality. Surely, more than four are going to be fed.
We need artists like di Milano to flesh out what the gospel of Luke provides.
The other source I like is St. Augustine who obviously has a soft spot for Martha and the work she does. Both Martha and Mary had the same holy desire, Augustine says: “ They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them.”
Martha served him as the “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.
“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarreling to reconcile, no one dead to 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, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full. She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”