I was at a recent women’s retreat which focused on the story of Martha. Although familiar with the story, I was surprised to realize we were only unpacking five verses. Such a short story for me to remember so vividly. I think part of the reason the story of Martha sticks with me is that I come from a line of Marthas, the women who plan and organize and set up and clean up, the ones who are the first to arrive and last to leave, the ones who get stuff done. It’s easy for me and the women I know to identify with Martha, who is trying to accommodate Jesus and his disciples in her home. And it’s easy to feel her frustration at Mary for not helping and her (probable) frustration at Jesus for taking Mary’s side.
Of course, that isn’t the full story. In actuality, Martha is the one not doing anything, while Mary is. In the Greek, Martha is passive, being controlled by distraction and worry. Mary is active, placing herself as a disciple and intently listening to Jesus. Martha is unaware of her interior state; she believes that she is doing right by letting Jesus into her home, but she has failed to go into his presence. Again, it’s so easy to sympathize with Martha, for I’m really good at loving Jesus on the intellectual level, but the whole, actually loving part is still a struggle.
Furthermore, in insisting that Mary come help, she is denying Mary’s gifts and inside forcing Mary to conform to Martha’s standards. And she doesn’t even confront Mary directly, instead going to Jesus to point out Mary’s presumed flaws. Jesus calls Martha out, telling her that it would do violence to Mary to pull her away from the Lord and that needless distraction is keeping Martha away as well. She is not hosting so much as she is using her role as host to keep her distance.
Martha is using her external duties to deny her internal state. That is, Jesus is present in her home, but she is still not embracing him. Similarly, Jesus is present in our tabernacle. Through baptism and confirmation, the Trinity dwells in me; through the Eucharist, I take Christ into my home. And yet, I do not fully accept him. I want a moment, an encounter, but I want to keep an arm’s length as well. I want to be moved, but I don’t want my foundation shaken. I keep myself distracted, pretending that I’m busy with very important things, when really I’m just scared to go sit at his feet and give him everything I am.
In Luke 10:41, Jesus calls Martha out on her worries, using the double vocative, “Martha, Martha…” This is only used a handful of times in the Bible (with Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Peter). Each time, the Lord is calling attention to that moment, and the person’s life is about to change, being transformed by their call. Here Martha’s excuses are exposed for her fears. She is called into Christ’s presence. The next time she is mentioned in the Gospels (John 11 and 12), she is as active as Mary, a true disciple.