She was the sister of Lazarus and Mary. Together they formed a close relationship with Jesus. There was something unique about these three in Jesus’ life, demonstrated by the number of stories in which these three played a part.
In Luke’s gospel when Jesus arrives Martha begins the task of serving and waiting on her guest. Martha is engaging in the very ingrained Jewish and Middle Eastern tradition of providing hospitality. It is the norm and expected behavior. However, her sister Mary does nothing to help and Martha finally expresses her frustration to Jesus. Instead of reinforcing the status quo, Jesus replies “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 41-42)
Countless sermons have been preached on this story with the implied message that Martha is doing it wrong and Mary has got it right! Yes, paramount is our being open to God’s presence but somebody also has to put the food on the table and clean up. Those tasks can be acts of love and faith as well. At another dinner where Mary poured perfume on Jesus’ feet, John’s gospel simply says “Martha served.” (John 12: 2) She had her role in the story and we should not try to make her into something she was not meant to be.
This is not to say Martha was a quiet mouse. When Lazarus died and Jesus travelled to Bethany, Martha is the sister who runs out to greet him. Her words denote a close relationship, one in which friends can speak frankly to each other. She says “Lord, if you had not been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God he will give you.” (John 11: 21 – 22) Her words are one of both admonishment and faith. She is standing up to Jesus on one hand basically saying that none of this would have happened if you had been here, coupled with the faith that Jesus can make all things well.
Although Mary is held up as a model to us through the centuries, it is to Martha that Jesus directly ask if she believes that he is the Resurrection and the Life. The woman left with the plates and pots is the one who declares, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, and the one who is coming into the world.” (John 11: 27)
And so the future patron saint of servants and cooks is the one who declares publicly her faith in Jesus. She is the person fretting about making sure everything is perfect, just so. Her work makes it possible for the event to take place, for everyone to be comfortable, and be in the perfect state of mind for entertainment, solidarity, or faith sharing. What a wonderful charism.
What a wonderful world it would be if there were more like Martha in it. At least, it would be cleaner