I can't help feeling a little sorry for Martha. Saint Luke tells us she was “burdened with much serving.” Hadn’t Jesus himself said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened”? Well, she did. And look what she get for her efforts.
“Martha, Martha,” says Jesus in a tone that even in writing seems a little condescending, “you are anxious and worried about many things.” Well, who is she doing all the serving for anyway? And if you’ll think back to our gospel reading from a few weeks ago, you might remember what Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee when he dined at his house: " When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet…you did not give me a kiss…you did not anoint my head with oil…” Here’s Martha washing and oiling and everything else. And for that, she’s scolded while Mary gets all the credit for being a loyal disciple. I wonder what would’ve happened if she had said to Jesus, “Fine. I’ll just sit here next to Mary. You can feed yourself. Make your own bed. Eat off dirty dishes.”
Would some of the other disciples have gotten out of their seats and pitched in? Would Jesus have changed his mind? Or would he have multiplied some loaves and fishes, changed the water into wine and had some angels do the washing up? We’ll never know, of course, because Martha said what she said and all we have is Jesus’s response.
Still…I can’t help wondering if she was really at fault. There are, of course, many different ways to read this passage. The traditional way is to think in terms of lower and higher vocations: Martha is the ‘active’ Christian worried over the things of this world, and Mary is the contemplative, already enjoying the beatific vision. That’s not a bad way to interpret it. Saint Ambrose read it this way. But notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to stop working—or even to stop worrying—only to leave her sister alone.
Saint Bernard read the passage a little differently. “let Martha welcome the Lord into her house,” he wrote, “since to her is entrusted the direction of the household… Let those who share her tasks also receive the Lord, each according to their particular service. Let them welcome Christ and serve him, helping in the person of his members the sick, the poor, travelers and pilgrims. And while they are undertaking these ministries, let Mary remain at rest.” Mary gets to rest while Martha works,
But without Martha, Mary loses her place at the feet of Jesus. You can’t have contemplation without action. So there wasn’t anything wrong with Martha’s service per se. What was it, then? Her resentment? Again, we can’t blame her for being frustrated. She’s the only one doing the chores.
No, what’s lacking in her service is obedience.
When I was working on the Beach Patrol, I was told a story about a boy who slipped off the 53rd Street Pier. Instead of signaling to the lifeguard (who was no more than twenty yards away), his father jumped in after him, and pulled him to shore by the hair. As it turned out, the child had broken his neck in the fall. He might have survived, but his spinal cord was severed when his father tugged on his hair. So you see, even good works can do harm if they are done in the wrong way. And the only safeguard against making this kind of mistake is the virtue of obedience.
We can’t blame Martha for wanting to help. But maybe we can blame her for not asking first. Let us pray that when we choose to serve, we do so in obedience; when we give a gift, we give what is truly needed; and when we act, we do so in a manner that is consistent with God’s Will. But most of all, let us pray for the good sense to ask Jesus first. Because we can smile a little at Martha’s resentment, but we have to give her this much credit: she had the presence of mind to bring that resentment straight to Jesus.