Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time
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By Benedict Augustine
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
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.’”
Although Jesus seems to show preference for her sister Mary, most people tend to identify and sympathize more with Martha. Mary had “chosen the better part” by sitting at Jesus’s feet and later anointed Him in an inspired moment of adoration; Martha presumably chooses the worse part by doing chores and endures Jesus’ scolding twice in the gospels, first for doing chores and complaining about it and second for misunderstanding the meaning of the resurrection.
The only other disciple whom Jesus corrects even more than Martha is Peter who misunderstands Jesus’ Passion and later denies Him three times. Curiously, Martha and Peter have similar personalities that lead to such blunders: they both love Jesus in a very human (and thus relatable) fashion, and this causes them to presume that they know Jesus more than they do. Peter naturally assumes that Jesus would want to avoid torture and crucifixion. Martha naturally assumes that Jesus would want a woman to tend to the house and raise His dead friends sometime in the distant future. Jesus must remind them both that He is no ordinary man, but God’s Son, which makes their all-too-human love somewhat misguided.
Human though their love might be, as opposed to the transcendent selfless love of God, “fileis-se” and not necessarily “agapo-se,” Peter and Martha have tge privilege of witnessing Jesus’ greatest triumphs as well. After all, even though they know Who Jesus is, Jesus must show them what that means. In Peter’s case, Jesus’ lesson on what He means fills whole gospels (see Matthew and Mark); in Martha’s case, this lesson makes up the greatest, most significant miracle in the gospel of John.
The circumstances of this miracle help to bring out its meaning. In Jesus’absence, Martha’s brother Lazarus grows fatally ill. Jesus learned about Lazarus’s illness, but does not stop His preaching to see him, noting rathercryptically that the illness will “not lead to death, but is for the glory of God.” Two days elapse and He learns that Lazarus as died. Only at this news does He desire to go and visit Lazarus – not to pay His condolences as a friend, nor make the most of a crisis as a political leader, but, as the true messiah, to resurrect a dead man already corrupting in the tomb and inform humanity of its ultimate destiny.
When Jesus arrives, Martha cannot contain herself. Thinking in characteristic human terms, she accuses Jesus of being a bad friend, greeting him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Nevertheless, she holds out hope, a small hope, that He might still do something since He is the Messiah. Like most people wanting something of God, they hope for the best but expect the worst, trying to avoid disappointment.Jesus rewards Martha’s gumption, and tolerates her qualified faith, by raising her brother from the dead right there and then.
In all likelihood, this huge feat confirms the meaning of Jesus for Martha—and the many, many disciples like her. He is much more than a mere friend who can comfort one in pain but not really remove that pain. He is much more than an abstract hope, some divine afterlife venture in which to invest one’s soul. He is the Resurrection and Life Incarnate. He acts in all times, past, present, and future, and His love gives life and perfection to those who accept it.
In hindsight, Martha shows enormous pluck in confronting Jesus like this. The fact the Jesus does what He does afterward suggests that He does not mind this at all. Considering that many prophets, not least Moses, had done the same with God in the Old Testament with complaints and accusations far worse than Martha’s, Jesus probably appreciates her honesty.
Martha’s example teaches that one should not only approach God in high spirits—God does not really care that a person is polite, or positive, or hardheaded—but in low spirits and anger as well. Through His Son, God heals and gives life; He wants to take those low spirits and raise them like He raised Lazarus. Like Martha, and unlike her mystic sister Mary, most disciples might learn this only after so many lessons and mistakes. Even so, Martha is a saint like her siblings, and this should give hope to any disciple who might not understand everythingright away but has the courage to continue to strive to know Jesus.