Saints are models for Christian life and ministry. Every saint stands for a particular aspect of sanctity that we can emulate. We have canonized saints who went through a rigorous process of beatification and canonization, a practise that began in the Church sometime after 10th century. We also have saints who have been venerated in the Church from the earliest times before canonization process introduced. They are biblical personalities, martyrs and other holy men and men who gave leadership to the Church. One such saint is Martha of Bethany as seen in Luke 10: 38-42. Her feast is celebrated on 29th July.
Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha in Bethany is a private event. We wonder how this private encounter of Jesus came to be included in the book of the gospel. We can presume that these women (sisters of Lazarus) were active members in the early Church and they shared this event in the community and in turn the community reflected on it and learned a valuable lesson from it. We too can learn many lessons from this ‘private event’ for our own personal spiritual growth and for the Church. Martha teaches that Ministry of Service is important, but it ought to be animated by life of prayer.
Martha was one of the missionary women partners in the early church. Evangelist Luke who is the only one who mentions this event also lists several other women who ministered in the early Church. As Church goes through various problems and difficulties today, the early Church had its own challenges. As this event helped the early Church it also gives insight into the spirituality and leadership practices in today’s church. Here we also learn about Jesus’ own attitude to leadership and inclusiveness of women in the Church which is vital to ministry always.
Besides we also have an insight on the complementary nature of prayer and action in Christian life and ministry. The two sisters are presented not as contrary to each other but rather complimentary to one another. A lesson that was much needed in the early Church. In the Christian thought, Martha continues to stand as an example of active ministry in the Church. She as a concerned host loved the Lord dearly wanting to make his life and ministry more comfortable. As Luke narrates she took pleasure in serving the Lord in human and ordinary ways.
We are invited to serve the Lord and His people in our own capacities, abilities, talents and with our temperaments. As scripture says, “Serve the Lord in holiness,” we find our own holiness in our service to the Lord and the Church. St. Martha stands as a good example of service. Perhaps she is one of the first women ministers in the church. Her ministry started even during the earthly life of Jesus and continued to apostolic times.
Our temperaments influence our spiritual life and our spirituality too has an impact on our thought of God and how we live our spirituality. How is Martha as a person? This little passage reveals to us that Martha is person of action, perhaps she was hyperactive. She was very hospitable person who wanted their family’s guest to be treated in a best way possible. She was an accomplisher who can push things to happen. As the head of the family was responsible, innovative and concerned person.
Reading between the lines can also mean: Martha can work under pressure, too conscious of what she does, she could be a solitary worker but at the same time can push others to work. She could also be an anxious, nervous and fretful person. For Martha doing was more important than mere words and tête-à-tête. She was a pragmatist, a practical person who believed in doing and achieving things, even in a short time. We can also say that Martha was attention seeking, especially from the Lord. Though she was a doer her she also missed or felt the need for contemplation.
St. Luke captures the personality of Martha in many active verbs. Receiving, serving, questioning, being anxious, troubled, and in fret. These words explain an important way of being a disciple of the Lord. Martha choose to be active disciple rather than being a contemplative. This in no way being inferior to the ministry of prayer and being contemplative. Because not all can be contemplative when so much of active ministry needs to be completed on behalf of the faith-community, the Church. When Jesus assigned disciples to go two by two they ought to share their abilities and temperaments. They ought to be complementary, supporting each other and achieving things as community.
But often homilists and spiritual directors do injustice to Martha by rebuking her activism and show more favouritism to Mary who sat and listened to the Lord speaking. Jesus does not disfavour Martha’s hospitality, hard work, attention and concern. But he equally stresses the importance of Word of God, prayer, silence and contemplation. Martha who symbolizes active life and ministry of service seems to have taken the corporal works of mercy to the heart, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a foreigner and you welcomed me…” (Mt. 25: 31-46). We will be judged not by how much we have prayed but how much service we have done to others. Let us remember the words of Blessed Mother Theresa, “Hands that serve the needy is holier than lips that praise God.” May St. Martha intercede for us.