You’ve just got to love Martha! You can picture her standing there at the door of her house with open arms to welcome Jesus. I imagine her to be five-foot tall, on the plumpish side, of lively eyes and always on the go. I’m sure Jesus will have loved being spoilt by her – at least up to a point! She does give the impression of being a little “OTT” and Jesus himself pulls her up on that with great gentleness. Still, she seems to have been a great mother figure to her sister Mary, her brother Lazarus and her Lord Jesus.
The gentle reprimand of Jesus is surely not because he didn’t want a nice meal or because he wasn’t a practical man himself. From his parables, you can tell that he had an eye for practical detail, be it to avoid putting a new piece of cloth on an old cloak or to pour wine and oil on wounds to heal them.
St. Luke recounts this homely episode because he sees in it an important lesson of a far higher order.
If you take a closer look at the words used to describe Martha in this Gospel scene, they throw up some surprising things. Martha is distracted, worrying and fretting. But the original Greek says much more. It actually says that Martha was troubled greatly to the point that she was drawn away from what she should have been focused on, that she was over-anxious and in uproar inside herself as if she was going to sink, like the disciples in the boat when Jesus was sleeping. Her reproach to Jesus shows that she wanted to drag him into her panicked state of mind and rebuke Mary for doing nothing.
Jesus’ call to her, “Martha! Martha!” was like a shot across the bow to shake her out of her agitation. It’s like he’s calling her to remember who she is, that there’s more to her than her current tizz. The problem is not what she’s doing, since they needed to eat. The problem is how she’s doing it. She is too focussed on herself and is getting things out of proportion. She wants to draw those around her into that inner whirlpool, including the Son of God! It’s almost as if her problem is more important than anything Jesus or Mary, or anyone else for that matter, could possibly be doing.
In fact, things need turned the other way round. It is Martha who needs to let herself be drawn out of her inner tornado into what Jesus is doing and what Mary is doing. And what is that? On the part of Jesus, it is simply speaking. On the part of Mary, it is simply listening. Martha was listening too much to herself, to the priorities she had decided and to the activities that flowed from them. What Jesus was saying to her was to unwind and rewind and to listen first to him. “Martha, let your priorities and actions follow on from first stopping, sitting down and listening to me for a while. Put me first and you will get the rest right. Put someone or something else first and you will end up in chaos.”
You could say that the Martha and Mary story is about the complementarity between the active life and the contemplative life. You could say it is about learning not to fall into activism, into incessantly doing things and never stopping to rest or think. You could read it as Jesus telling us to respect one another’s characters. While all these are true, I would say that it is about something more radical: putting God first in everything, no matter what character or personality you have and no matter what you’re doing.
Putting God, putting Christ first is the meaning of the first three of the ten commandments. I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. Keep holy the Lord’s day. In other words, prefer no-one and nothing to Christ (the first). Don’t betray, deny or demean him (the second). And come and worship him on Sunday, the day of resurrection (the third), the day when he obtained and shared with us all the final victory over sin, death, worry, fretting and all the chaos and tumult of mind and spirit which inevitably arises when we ignore, forget or reject him.
If we keep these three commandments first, we are in fact sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary and listening to him. And we will be able to carry out all the activities of Martha and more with deep inner calm and peace. The next time you are consumed with worry or anxiety, let the voice of Jesus filter across the horizon, “Martha! Martha!” and go and sit by his feet for a good while. Restored to him, he will restore you to yourself.