Martha and Mary

Do you ever hear a passage from Sacred Scripture and just see yourself in the story?  Somehow, whenever I read or listen to the segments that include Martha and Mary, I envision myself right there with them.  Sometimes I’m Martha, and other times, I’m Mary.

On Sunday at Mass, we heard the story from John’s Gospel of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus.  (See all of Sunday’s readings on the USCCB website for the 5th Sunday in Lent.) Such a powerful episode in Jesus’ life and ministry and a series of events around it that provide food for thought from a lot of different angles.

This last Sunday, I was thinking about Martha & Mary, and realizing how differently things shook out in this story as opposed to the events told in the Gospel of Luke when Mary wants to hear Jesus teach while Martha is busy taking care of things that need to be done.  Mary is learning, Martha is doing.

Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Luke 10:13

We know how this story goes.  Jesus tells Martha that Mary is doing the better thing right then and that he won’t make her get up and help.  (It’s easy to picture being both Martha and Mary there, at least for me.)

In the story of the raising of Lazarus, though, things are different.  The women sent a message to Jesus that their brother was ill and that it was serious.  Jesus waited two days after getting word to make the trip to see him, and by then, of course, Lazarus had died. Not only that, he had been dead for 4 days.

When Jesus arrives in town, Martha (the “doer” in Luke) goes out to meet him.  Mary (the “thinker” in Luke) sits at home. (We don’t know why. Was she consumed with grief? Mad at Jesus? Depressed? Was she mourning as was customary or required?) The several quotes below are all from John chapter 11.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.

What does Martha do when she sees him?

Martha said to Jesus,
“Lord, 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.”

This statement of faith is amazing and reminds me of the wedding feast at Canna when Mary, the mother of Jesus, tells the servants to do whatever Jesus instructs (knowing that he could create wine for the celebration if he wanted to do so). All things are possible, and Martha’s “doing” included going out to Jesus and sticking her neck out a little with her not so subtle seeming request.

After some more dialogue with Jesus, a profession of faith and the assurance that Lazurus would rise, we don’t just fast forward to the tomb.  No, instead, we hear that Martha snuck off to find her sister and to tell her that Jesus was asking after her.

(Martha) went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying,
“The teacher is here and is asking for you.”
As soon as she heard this,
she rose quickly and went to him.

Martha the doer got Mary the thinker moving – got her out of the house and over to Jesus.

There’s more to the story, of course.  Mary states that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus had been there.  The grief is almost contagious … Jesus, too, weeps… and then returns Lazarus to life.

Because Mary had been in mourning, friends, family and neighbors had come to see her in her grief.  The passage from Sunday ends with

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary
and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

Her being at home – her sitting at home – was also of great value because, as I understand it, she was a magnet for the mourners who would experience this great miracle and come to believe.

How to we respond to opportunities (like Jesus’ teaching) or to events beyond our control (like a crisis or loss of a loved one, as in the death of Lazarus)?  Do we retreat, stay at home, go out to find Jesus?

There’s not one right answer that works every time.  Sometimes we need to be the learner, the thinker, the one who contemplates and prays.  At other times, we need to take care of business.  We need to be doers.  We need to do both, to be both Martha and Mary.

For more reading & research:

Martha and Mary are Biblical favorites, but Who Were They?
Women in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke)
Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, USCCB with footnotes

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