Martha, Martha, Martha. She gets a bad rap. She is perhaps most famous for the story told in Luke 10 of what happened when Jesus visited her house, and her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and left Martha to do the housework. Mary has chosen what’s better, we learn. Silly Martha, over there in the corner with her big bowl and broom, mouth open in protest. We want to be a Mary, not a Martha! Martha is the furrowed brow to Mary’s bright, expectant eyes. She’s the white sliced to Mary’s artisan sourdough. The kids’ recorder concert to Mary’s symphony.
Yep, Martha got it wrong that day.
I’ve got it wrong some days.
Imagine if my life, your life, was defined by one moment or one season when we weren’t our best. That time we flubbed that job interview. That day we were cranky from morning until night. That exam where we read the question wrong. That season where our faith was coloured by beliefs that weren’t true. Thankfully, I am more that my worst job interview, my worst mood, my worst exam result or my worst beliefs. And as it turns out, Martha is too. This Martha who got it wrong that day in her home also got some things right. And we would do well to learn from her when she did.
A little while after <the home incident that we shall not speak of, don’t worry Martha>, Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus gets very sick. Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus, but Jesus waited a while before coming. By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus has died. No! That can’t be! I’ve personally never lost a sibling, a child or a parent. But I know people who have, and they speak of shock, grief, anger, numbness, disbelief. It’s safe to assume Martha could have been experiencing some combination of these things. Her brother had died. Her world was shaken. And add to that the fact that she had asked Jesus to come earlier and He hadn’t. She could have been frustrated, angry or confused that this rabbi who loved their family had not been there in their time of need.
So in this moment of grief and confusion, what does Martha do?
She sought Jesus.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home…
This time it’s Martha seeking to be near Jesus. In her confusion and frustration, rather than turning away she chooses to draw near. She could have sulked, could have hid, could have stood side-on with palm outstretched: “I can’t even talk to you right now”. But instead she steps out, gets close, dares to approach this extraordinary man.
She poured out her heart.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died…”
You can hear the longing in her voice: “If you had been here…”. We all know the pain of ‘if only’. If only you had, if only it were, if only I could. In a time and culture where women were workers in the home, not students of a rabbi, here is Martha openly voicing her despair to this teacher. She didn’t pretend she was okay with this tragedy. She didn’t swallow her sorrow and offer Jesus a polite “Welcome back, sir”. She spoke out her ‘if only’ to the only One who could have made a difference.
…Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
With our wealth of literature about who Jesus is, it is easy to forget how truly remarkable this must have been for Martha and her first century peers. Here was a man with dirt on his feet, calloused hands and sun-leathered skin, claiming to be the One who gives eternal life. Do you believe this? Martha did believe, and declared it out loud. She may not have understood everything yet, she may have still been confused about Jesus’ timing, she may still have much to learn. But she believed He was who He said He was – the Messiah, the saving One.
While this day was a hard day in Martha’s life, it was a good day in Martha’s soul. As Jesus went on to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead, we can only imagine the widening of Martha’s eyes as she witnessed the victory of life over death. Did she shriek with joy, or was she silent in amazement? Did she clutch at Lazarus’ hands and feet, testing them for warmth and life, or did she hold him firm and close? We don’t know. We also don’t know for certain what her life was like after this day.
What we do know is that Martha got some things right. Like the twelve, and all the other heroes of the faith, she was not perfect but she can be admired.
She sought Jesus. She poured out her heart. She believed.
It might be worth being a Martha after all.
Top artwork: ‘Martha’s Witness of Christ’ by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Purchase prints and further info via https://sandyfreckletongagonartblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/marthas-testimony-of-christ/