In late July, the church celebrates the feast of Saint Martha, the sister of Mary (whether this is Magdalene or not is still debated, but most scholars think not) and the brother of Lazarus. She appears in two striking scenes in Scripture: Luke 10 and John 11-12.
In the first, immediately following Jesus’ explanation of the Good Samaritan parable, when Jesus calls on his friends for a social visit, Martha famously busies herself, and does not fail to inform Jesus of the inordinate demands placed upon her by such a call to hospitality. Mary simply sits at the feet of their visitor, soaking in her Master’s presence. Jesus lovingly tells Martha that she need not worry about so many things, and that her sister’s willingness to simply encounter the Lord has much to teach the frenetic sibling.
That’s not to say that Martha has nothing to teach Mary. Theologians have often juxtaposed these two as representative of the active and contemplative lifestyles. In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas splits the difference in a way, arguing that his own career as a teacher is unique in combining these two modes of discipleship.
The two are not antithetical: Jesuits famously refer to themselves as “contemplatives in action” and Benedictines see their vocation as a commitment to ora et labora (prayer and work).
The second scene surrounds the death and raising of Lazarus. Martha runs out to Jesus when he comes to see the family he has loved so much and has been told his friend has died, and while tone is of course open to interpretation, one can imagine her in some sense respectfully and yet bewilderingly accosting Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, it does nothing to mitigate her confusion and pain in the moment. “I know that he will rise on the last day.” But she’s grieving now, the last day is not high on her list of priorities. This evinces Jesus’s axiomatic claim: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Before Jesus goes to the tomb to restore life in a sure sign of his eventual power over even the grave, I am personally struck by the shortest and perhaps most profound line in all the Gospels: “Jesus wept.” He does not leave Martha abandoned in her grief, but walks with her in this valley of tears.
When Lazarus is once again given the gift of life and the family later eat a meal together with Jesus in Bethany, Mary anoints Jesus in preparation for his own death. While this is unfolding, the typically preoccupied Martha again serves the guests. For this reason she is venerated as the patron saint of cooks, maids and homemakers. She is sometimes referred to as “Saint Martha the hospitable.”
Today Pope Francis lives in the Vatican guesthouse named the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a newer construction on the site of an earlier hospice for the sick and infirmed of Rome, dedicated to Martha.
Eastern Christian traditions include Martha and Mary among the “Holy Myrrh-bearers,” who along with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, cared for Christ’s body after the resurrection and were among the first to encounter the empty tomb.
We live in a world where hospitality is a virtue, skill and demand upon the Christian life that remains underemphasized. How different would we all act if we took the words of Scripture seriously: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby many have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). We regularly hear the word “xenophobia” bandied about in our political and religious rhetoric today; how often do we hear its — explicitly biblical — counterpart: “philoxenia” (love of strangers/foreigners/the unfamiliar)? Saint Martha embodied this hospitality for one who was utterly and uniquely ‘Unfamiliar,’ and yet also somehow more intimate to her than her own heart.
As Rudyard Kipling makes clear in his poem “Sons of Martha,” it is those like her, often underappreciated, who carry the Good News forward in unforeseen ways:
They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their work when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand.
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.
Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat:
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that:
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.