Today is the feast day of St. Martha, a woman I love. Most people remember her as Mary's harried, jealous sister, but that is not the Martha I imagine. When Lazarus dies and Jesus comes late to Bethany, Martha is the first person he encounters. She engages him in one of the most complex theological dialogues recorded in scripture. She was a smart woman, and a true friend of our Savior.
I will go out on a limb here and guess that housework was not Martha's first love. I say that because it is not my first love either. Being a housewife for 25 years, I have learned to wield a knife and a broom with some skill. I enjoy serving guests at my table, and having a tidy room where they can stay. But in truth, I would rather be in the prayer room, or reading a book, or talking with a friend than mopping or cooking. Often I indulge these more ethereal desires even when there are dirty dishes in the sink.
And so I have a funny response when I read the story of Mary and Martha waiting on the Lord. I feel a little guilty. I apologize to Martha for leaving her in the kitchen. But maybe that shows that I am more like Martha than I realize. If Martha's first love were truly housework, then she would have been a happy clam. But judging from her conversation with Jesus at Lazarus' death, I believe she was really a theologian, a contemplative who just didn't believe such pursuits were allowed to women.
From a sermon by Saint Augustine
Martha and Mary were sisters, related not only by blood but also by religious aspirations. They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them. Martha welcomed him as travellers are welcomed. But in her case, the maidservant received her Lord, the invalid her Saviour, the creature her Creator, to serve him bodily food while she was to be fed by the Spirit. For the Lord willed to put on the form of a slave, and under this form to be fed by his own servants, out of condescension and not out of need. For this was indeed condescension, to present himself to be fed; since he was in the flesh he would indeed be hungry and thirsty.
Thus was the Lord received as a guest who came unto his own and his own received him not; but as many as received him, he gave them the power to become sons of God,adopting those who were servants and making them his brothers, ransoming the captives and making them his co-heirs. No one of you should say: “Blessed are they who have deserved to receive Christ into their homes!” Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh. He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says: Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me.
But you, Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labours you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveller to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?
No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realised there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.