On the eve of Palm Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates the raising of Lazarus. The weekend before Pascha is often so full of work and preparations for the coming week that little time is left for observing Lazarus Saturday liturgically, but it has been one of my favorite days for many years, ever since I lived at a monastery and was able to hear all of the services for the day. I love the fact that it is the only Saturday of the whole year when the special resurrectional hymns usually reserved for Sunday are sung (and Palm Sunday is the one Sunday of the year when they are not sung). I love the fact that caviar is allowed, although fish is not – little eggs to celebrate the little resurrection as a foreshadowing of the eggs we will eat next week to commemorate the big Resurrection. Best of all, I love the gospel reading for the day, from St. John, with it’s promise of resurrection for all who believe in Christ. And my very favorite part of the story is this one line: “Now Jesus loved Martha [!]” (John 11:5).
I have been Orthodox for a long time, and I cannot tell you how many sermons I have heard on the theme of Martha and Mary. I have heard them from women who, I suspect, deep in their hearts fear that they are themselves incurable “Marthas.” I have heard them from men whose meals are cooked, vestments are mended, and parishes are kept in working order by “Marthas.” I have heard over and over how, although Martha is all very well in her place, we must strive to be more like Mary, setting aside earthly cares in order to sit quietly at the feet of Jesus. “A perverse generation seeks a type,”¹ and we think we know Martha and Mary. And because we think we know who they are, we think we know what their story is about.
Martha is the quintessential “church lady.” She fusses and bustles, frets and nags. She is probably the older sister, taking charge and setting things in order with an air of divine right. She is old-fashioned in her views, a keeper of traditions and morals. She is efficient and reliable, and we respect her after a fashion, in the way we respect grandmothers and grade-school teachers, but we don’t take her terribly seriously. We might ask her opinion about the color of table cloths to use in the church hall, but not on matters of doctrine or theology. She is probably a little plump.
Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative, mystical. She is the virgin martyr or repentant harlot, aflame with spiritual love, casting aside all else in her pursuit of the “one thing needful.” She converts kings or flees to the desert. She hasn’t got time for snotty noses and dirty dishes. Although we know we ought to believe that God loves everyone equally, it rather appears that Mary is Jesus’ favorite.
That limited view of Martha and Mary, though it may contain some kernels of truth, is not the whole story. I don’t believe it is a complete or completely accurate interpretation of the “Martha and Mary” account in the gospel of Luke, and it is certainly not the story that is told today, in the gospel of John. Martha is still the busy, bustling, take-charge older sister in this story, but there is no hint of ridicule or chastisement towards her now. While Mary quietly mourns at home, Martha gets up and tries to do something about the situation. She goes out to meet Jesus on the road outside of town. She challenges Him, she questions Him, she argues theology with Him. To her are spoken the astounding words, the clearest statement up to that point of Who Jesus is and what His mission will be: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes on Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And he that lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Her confession of faith is in some sense the foundation for the miracle that follows.²
Sometimes I think we are all Calvanists at heart, endlessly comparing ourselves to one another, searching for signs that we are numbered among the elect. Actually, it is a fear that is far older and deeper than Calvin. The ancient pagan belief that God is arbitrary, that He plays favorites, and that we may have been created to be useful or amusing or for any purpose other than to be loved, still lurks in our interior shadows. We fear that the things that make us worthy (or unworthy) of love are things that are beyond our control. We forget that there is no “type” for holiness, or for love. Even in Luke, when Mary is praised for choosing the “one thing needful,” Jesus never tells Martha that she ought to be more like her sister. In fact, he only rebukes her when she asks, in effect, “Why can’t you make my sister be more like me?” If we only had the story from Luke we might think that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to drop everything and sit at His feet with Mary because He doesn’t really care about Martha. We might think that Martha is a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God, good for cooking and cleaning, but not among the privileged few who are able to really grasp Jesus’ teachings and understand who He is. But Martha’s role in the raising of Lazarus dispels that notion. Second class citizens do not stand boldly before their Lord, asking questions, seeking understanding, demanding miracles.
If you have no interest in baking from scratch and hosting impromptu dinner parties for twelve, and thus feel that you will never make a good Martha (either the biblical one or her modern day namesake), have no fear. When Jesus defends the part Mary has chosen, stating that it “will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42), He makes a revolutionary statement that the proper place for a woman is not in the kitchen, but at His feet.³ Being a Christian woman does not mean being a mother or a handmaiden or a “Proverbs 31 woman.” It means being a woman who follows, listens to, and loves Jesus.
If, however, your inclinations, aptitude, or circumstances have left you feeling that you a very much a Martha, accept your place without shame. Organize bake sales, attend parish council meetings, home-school your kids. Do whatever it is that keeps you busy doing “good things.” But be a whole Martha. Remember that, when the need arises, Martha’s footsteps also lead to the quiet places outside the gates, where Jesus is waiting. Your heart and mind matter. What you believe matters. It is part of your birthright to speak to the Lord face to face, seeking enlightenment, asking for miracles.
And if you do not see yourself reflected in either of the sisters, then rejoice. The truth is, there are no types, only people, each of them made and loved endlessly by their crucified, death-destroying God.
1: From my favorite O. Henry story, The Trimmed Lamp.
2: In the context of the gospel of John, the fact that she doesn’t understand Jesus right away is not a sign of stupidity or stubbornness, but simply a sign of humanity. No one who encounters Jesus at a pivotal moment understands Him right away (Nicodemus and the woman at the well are good examples, as are the apostles in general). It is through this gradual process of question and answer, statement and counterstatement, that the soul gains understanding. In many cases full knowledge does not come until much later, as true understanding is only possible through the light of the crucifixion, resurrection, and coming of the Holy Spirit.
3: The authors of this book point out that ancient banquets followed a specific structure and order of events, ending with entertainment in more lighthearted contexts, or teaching and discussion with a philosopher or spiritual leader at more serious times. Women would not have eaten with men at a banquet in the Near East at the time of Jesus, and it is likely that they would have been excluded from the entertainment and/or teaching portion as well. We don’t know for certain if that was the case in the specific place and culture to which the family of Martha belonged, but it is quite possible that the subtext of Martha’s complaint against Mary was that Mary was inserting herself into a situation where a woman would not normally be welcome. Whether or not this is true, I still think it is reasonable to see Jesus’ defense of Mary, not as a criticism of Martha’s work (this story is after all in the gospel of Luke, which is the the gospel with the heaviest emphasis on practical hospitality and service to the poor, as well as the one which counts the women who “ministered to Jesus out of their substance” in the list of the disciples), but as a defense of women’s right to be part of philosophical and religious life.