Tag Archives: Martha

Martha, Martha

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We read St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany for the Feast of St. Martha. It’s part of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 10,38-42), a journey Luke describes,  not by miles, but by the people Jesus meets.

Jesus is a prophet speaking God’s word as he goes. Some reject him outright on his way to Jerusalem.  Jesus enters the house of Martha and Mary as a prophet speaking God’s word. Unfortunately Martha, busy about many things, misses his word and Jesus rebukes her. Mary hears his word and is praised. Good as she is, Martha’s carrying too many of the “cares of this life” when Jesus visits.

That’s what Luke wants us to learn from this gospel- the cares of this life can get in the way of hearing God’s word. But we all know there’s more to Martha than what Luke tells us here. Other New Testament sources praise this good woman.  John’s gospel, for example, says that  Jesus was a long time friend of Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany.

I keep two other sources in mind when I read Luke’s story.  One is a painting (above) by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, showing Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany.

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 disciple gestures 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. The miracle is Martha’s hospitality. Thanks to her,  more than four are going to be fed. We need artists like di Milano to flesh out what the gospels say.

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.”

Want to see Bethany, home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Take a look here.

The Passover Meal

During these days of Holy Week I’ve been thinking of the Passionist house of St. Martha in Bethany where I stayed about a week a few years ago. Looking eastward from the roof of the house on a clear day you can see down to the Judean desert miles away. The ancient road Galilean pilgrims took to Jerusalem for the feasts began there in Jericho and passed by this site. The Passionist house stands over parts of the ancient village of Bethany; 1st century ruins stretch out on its eastern side. From the roof you could see the traditional tomb of Lazarus if the modern Israeli security wall didn’t block your view.

It’s a place that stirs your imagination.

Most likely Jesus lived here with his friends during Jewish feasts when he came from Galilee. It was the obvious place for Galilean pilgrims to camp in those times when the city would be so crowded. The Mount of Olives just west of Bethany was sometimes called the “Mount of the Galileans.” Here Jesus would likely be among friends, like Martha, Mary and Lazarus. A safe place. From here he walked to Jerusalem, a few miles away, over the Mount of Olives to teach and pray in the temple. Likely, followers from Galilee would accompany him back and forth, and they were armed.

Would this explain why the temple leaders reached out to an insider like Judas as a way of capturing Jesus, who seemed so secure? Perhaps his disciples thought so too; they’re so complacently confident that nothing will happen to him. They’ll take care of that.

“Where do you want us to prepare the Passover supper for you?” his disciples ask (Matthew 26,27) Surely, Jesus could have chosen to eat the Passover there in Bethany, which Jewish law saw as part of Jerusalem in times of feasts when the city’s population multiplied. It would have been a meal among his own, like that he enjoyed after raising Lazarus from the dead.And it would have been safer.

Instead, he chose to eat the Passover close by the temple. The traditional site of the Last Supper places the site just south of the temple. They would have eaten it there, as the lambs were being slaughtered for sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t a place chosen for security.

A Meal in Bethany

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On the Monday of Holy Week John’s gospel (John 12,1-11) calls us to a meal honoring Jesus in Bethany following the resurrection of Lazarus. It’s the last meal recorded in the gospels before the Passover supper. The gift of life that Jesus gives his friend leads to a sentence of death.

Faithful Martha serves the meal; Lazarus newly alive, is at the table. But the one drawing most of our attention is Mary, their sister who, sensing what’s coming, kneels before Jesus to anoint his feet with precious oil and dry them with her hair. “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

The precious oil is an effusive sign of her love and gratitude; it also anoints Jesus for his burial. Only in passing does the gospel mention that evil is in play here. Judas, “the one who would betray him,” complains that the anointing is a waste, but his voice is silenced. Believers are honoring the one they love.

How fitting that Holy Week begins with this gospel when, like Mary, we kneel and pour out the precious oil of our love upon him who pours out his precious life for us.