Word Magazine March 2001 Page 7-8
MARY AND MARTHA
By Natalie Ashanin
There is one account in the Bible which has always intrigued me and that is the story recounted in the 10th chapter St. Luke, v. 38-42.
Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.
And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
I’m sure we have all heard this many times. In fact, it as almost become a cliché when speaking of Christian women — and not of women alone, but of Christians in general, although it is usually brought up in the context of women’s work.
Mary is the symbol and patron of those who pray, sing, and study the word of God while Martha is the one stuck in the kitchen making kibbee and fatayer for the festival.
Martha does seem to be the activist in the family. It is she who runs to greet Jesus when he comes to Bethany at the time of Lazarus’ death. It is she who expresses her faith in Jesus when she says, “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 to you.”
Then, when Jesus tells her that Lazarus would rise again, she says that she knows He will rise again in the general resurrection. And then Jesus reveals to Martha, to the one who does the humble, daily tasks, exactly who He is by telling her: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Then Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” And Martha answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world” (John, Chapter 11). Having said this, having affirmed her faith, Martha returns to her home, where Mary is sitting with those who have come to offer condolences, and tells her sister that Jesus is calling for her, and they return together and witness the resurrection of their brother.
St. John identifies Mary as the women who “anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair,” apparently referring to the incident described in Luke, Chapter 11, v. 36 ff. Not all scholars agree that Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, is the woman referred to here. However, the compilers of the Akathist to Mary and Martha certainly do, for they said in Ikos IX, “Rejoice, O Mary, who anointed the feet of sweetest Jesus with precious spikenard.”
For me, this identification somehow brings the little family in Bethany into focus, making them real people with real problems. It might explain, perhaps, why three adult siblings were living together at a time when almost everyone was expected to be married. If Mary of Bethany was indeed a repentant sinner, taken in by her brother and sister, they would themselves be outcasts in that society, and it would not be surprising that Jesus, who made a point of befriending those on the fringes, would become a special friend to them. I can also understand Martha a little better. She herself has a deep yearning to sit at Christ’s feet and learn from Him, yet there is Mary, the repentant sinner who, instead of making amends for all the trouble she’s caused, has taken the choice place at Jesus’ feet. It reminds me of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the same psychology.
So why did Jesus give such a “putdown” to Martha? The resurrection of Lazarus is described in the Gospel of St. John, and the account of the meal at which Martha served and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet is given by St. Luke, so we don’t know the chronology of the two incidents. Did Martha give her ringing affirmation of faith before the dinner described by Luke — or was it inspired by something that occurred at the dinner? Again, it is one of those things which we do not know. Perhaps Jesus knew that Mary needed Him more at that moment than did Martha. I don’t know — and if we are permitted to ask questions once we reach the Kingdom of Heaven, that is one I would like to ask. I would like to ask it because I have a feeling that the whole story did not get passed down to us. Did not Jesus realize that Martha was really crying out, “I, too, want to sit at Your feet and listen”? Instead of being remembered for her affirmation of Jesus as the Christ, Martha is remembered as the one who wanted to drag her sister away from Him.
These are the questions that come to my mind and I am sure that there is more to the story than we are told. It is true that Martha was probably fussing too much. Given the tradition of Middle Eastern hospitality, it is not surprising that she wanted to go all out for the guest she acknowledged as the Christ. Which of us would do any less? What happened next? Did Martha leave the kitchen and join Mary at Jesus’ feet? Did she content herself with serving one dish instead of two or three? Was she offended, or embarrassed? Or did Jesus convey to her somehow that her homemaking skills were valued but that she should give herself permission to listen to the word of God? We are not told. Being men, the evangelists may not have been sensitive to these issues, or perhaps the rest of the story was lost in its journey through time. There seems to be something unfinished about it.
Although we cannot know more than the scriptures tell us, there is, nevertheless, much we can learn from the story of Mary and Martha. First of all, we must recognize that there is a Mary AND a Martha in each of us. While we bake and sweep and sew, we must also nurture our souls. We must support one another and encourage each other to take time to be with the Lord, not only by participating in the Liturgy and other services, but by study and meditation. When we speak of Mary and Martha, we must not stereotype ourselves — “so-and-so is a Mary, but that one is a Martha.” Each of us is Mary AND Martha. I think Mary and Martha are the two sides of the Christian coin. While we must be active in doing our Christian work, we must not neglect prayer and study. Sometimes it is hard to balance the two, but we must try. We must not forget that it was Martha, the worker, who recognized and affirmed Jesus as the Christ. And we must also remember, as our AOCWNA prayer says, that “activities are not the main thing in our life” but what is important is always to be attuned to Christ.
I would like to conclude this meditation with a few words from the Akathist to Mary and Martha.
Please join me:
Rejoice, O Martha, who received into thy house Christ, who was incarnate for us.
Rejoice, thou who in thy ministering to His corporeal needs wast not rejected.
Rejoice thou who hast taught us also graciously to serve our neighbor.
Rejoice, O Mary, who at Jesus’ feet wast nurtured with the word of His lips.
Rejoice, thou who wast united to the saints by Christ Himself, for thy zeal in listening to the words of the Lord.
Rejoice, O Mary and Martha, who show us the way of faith and love.
Natalie Ashanin has been an active member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, IN for 25 years and has written several articles, short stories and plays for children.