Martha: A journey from pride to freedom
Hespeler, 12 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Luke 10:38-42, John 11:17-27, Psalm 12
e all know a Martha. For that matter, many of us are Marthas. I hope you all recognize her type in our story this morning from the Gospel of Luke, but, just in case you’re not sure, let me lay out for you some of what I think that Martha’s backstory must have been.
Martha was the oldest of three siblings. There was Martha, then her brother, Lazarus, and then the baby Mary. As often happens with the oldest child – maybe especially when the oldest is a girl – Martha was given a lot of responsibility early on. But of course, given the realities of the world that they lived in, the family pinned all of their hopes and dreams on the only son, on Lazarus. He was the one who had to succeed. Indeed his failure would destroy the fortunes of the entire family.
And that was a problem because, from an early age, Lazarus was rather sickly. His lungs were weak; he always seemed to come down with fevers and spent as much time on his couch as he did learning a trade. Is it any surprise that Martha was the one who was always called upon to tend to him or to pick up the slack in the household when others were looking after him? Their parents, frankly, were at their wits end because of their worries for their son. If they lost him, they lost everything. And more often than not it was Martha that took care of them and helped them to calm down. She became like a mother to her own parents.
And so it was that Martha, from a very early age, learned that there was one thing that he needed above all things. She needed to be needed. It was the one thing that gave meaning to her life, the one thing that she could not do without. And so Martha went to work to make sure that absolutely everyone needed her. No one could cook or clean or organize things better than Martha. In fact, she set things up so that nobody but her could figure out her system and do any of her work in her place. She made herself completely indispensable.
Don’t misunderstand me, she often regretted it later. She cursed herself for taking on too many tasks and trying to please too many people. How often did she berate herself? How often did she vow that next time she would just say no? But when she was there, faced with someone who needed her, she just couldn’t do it. Martha just needed… to be needed.
So, now you know a little bit about Martha, do you recognize her? I’m that sure you have met her before. Some of you may even be her. I have certainly known many Marthas (and not all of them were women, by the way). I have especially known them in the life and the work of the church. They are the people who tend to do the lion’s share of the work in a given congregation. They are the people to whom you only need to say three small words, “I need you,” and they are there. The church, quite frankly, would probably not survive if it weren’t for the Marthas and I am frequently thankful for them.
And we see Martha in action in our reading this morning in the Gospel of Luke. There are guests in her house – not just any guests, mind you but only the most famous preacher and wonderworker that has ever arisen in Galilee. And Martha is doing what she does best. She is bustling around the kitchen and the dining room and taking care of everyone, making herself indispensable. But there is a dark side – a bit of a bite to Martha in this story, isn’t there? And it is, in fact, the dark side that is common to all Marthas.
In this story, Martha seems to snap suddenly. She has been taking care of everyone’s needs all afternoon – just like she always does – when she suddenly stops. She directs her complaint at Jesus even though she says she isn’t mad at him. “Lord,” she says, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
I have known enough people like Martha to interpret what she says here. It may sound like she’s asking for help, but she isn’t exactly. First of all, Martha knows very well that, even if Jesus tells Mary to help her, that won’t make her happy because, let me tell you, Mary can’t do it right. She has never been able to do it as well as Martha. She’ll just get in the way. No, her message isn’t in the request for help, it is in her opening words, “Lord, do you not care?” She’s not looking for help, she is looking for sympathy, recognition and maybe even flattery. “Don’t you care that I am doing all this work all by myself because you’d better care!” She doesn’t just need to be needed, she needs the appreciation that comes with that.
And I realize that appreciation is a good thing and that it is something that does us all good. (Always be generous in giving people appreciation; it will only sow good will.) But there is something dark going on in Martha in this passage. It is not just that she desires some appreciation, it is that she needs it. Her identity has become so caught up in being the one who helps that she needs the appreciation to know who she is.
The problem at the heart of Martha’s life, in fact, is pride. I hesitate to call it by the name of pride because she does not suffer from the kind of egotistical self-centredness that we often associate with pride. Martha is the opposite of self-centred; she is selfless to a fault! But there is pride in what Martha is doing. She has taken on the self-image of the helper so completely that she has begun to believe that she and she alone is able to bring help. Everyone needs her but (and this is the sad part) she doesn’t need anyone. To believe that you don’t need anyone and that you cannot receive help from anyone is a particularly dangerous kind of pride, and it is the kind of pride to which Marthas are particularly susceptible.
But it is even worse than that for Martha. It becomes clear that she has even concluded that she does not need God. If she had any inkling of how much she needed God, after all, where would she be? She would be right where Jesus tells her she ought to be: right beside her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet absorbing everything that he says like a sponge. But Martha, in her pride, has decided that she doesn’t need that.
I have been deeply blessed throughout my life by many Marthas. Their service has so often been there to make life and work in the church bearable and meaningful. I would never presume to criticise a Martha because I do indeed appreciate them. But I have also known a few of them well enough to know that they often struggle as well. They struggle when they do too much, help too much and serve too much and so neglect their own needs. They struggle when they don’t receive the appreciation that they often deserve. And it can make them lash out like Martha does in front of Jesus. I also know that they often struggle to ask for help and mean it and that they have a hard time accepting help when it is offered.
But do you want to hear something wonderful? I think that Jesus understood and appreciated Martha better than she even knew. He didn’t just rebuke her that day, he began to work in her for transformation. He didn’t seek to take her serving heart away from her, but he did help her with the pride that threatened to destroy that heart.
These two sisters, Mary and Martha, are never again mentioned in the Gospel of Luke after that incident when Jesus was in their home, but they do surface later in the Gospel of John. The story in the Gospel of John must take place sometime later than the one in Luke because it comes near to the very end of Jesus’ ministry. So it turns out that we are given two distinct episodes out of Martha’s life: an earlier one when she had just started to know Jesus and another one very close to the end of his life. We get a chance to see what a difference Jesus had been able to make in her life.
So what do we see in the more mature Martha in the story in the Gospel of John – the Martha who had had Jesus working in her life for a while. Jesus comes along this time at a much more difficult time for Martha and Mary. Their cherished brother, Lazarus, has died. Not only have they lost someone that they love, they have lost the one who is the security and hope of the family. If ever they needed help, they need it now. And the old Martha, the one we met in the Gospel of Luke was not very good at receiving help. What do we see now?
When Jesus finally arrives, what happens? This time it is Mary who stays in the home but it is Martha who runs out of the house and straight to Jesus’ side. It is Martha who confesses to Jesus just how much she needs him – needed him four days ago in fact: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even more important, it is Martha who proclaims an amazing trust in Jesus: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
What has happened to this woman? Rest assured that this is that same amazing woman that we met in the Gospel of Luke – a woman who knows how to take care of everyone’s needs. Why, I’ll bet that she has spent the last four days organizing funeral lunches and taking care of everyone who came to pay their respects. She still knows the joy that comes in serving others and being there to provide for them to the best of her ability. But her dealings with Jesus have also taught her something new – a humility that does not oppress her but actually makes her free to rest in being able to need another – in being able to need and trust Jesus.
And, because she has grown so much, Martha is even ready to receive a fundamental truth about Jesus – one that few others were ready to hear at that point. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus says to her. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” To this, Martha is also able to reply with a remarkable statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Yes, the Marthas of this world are a wonderful gift to all of us. If you have a Martha in your life or in your circle of friends, you are truly blessed. Make sure them you appreciate them; it will mean a lot to them. But never forget that Jesus also has work that he wants to do in the life of the Marthas – in your life if you are one. Jesus wants to set you free from the burden of helping, that you might rest in him, learn to receive when you need to receive, and live in the joy of who God created you to be.
Jesus did a marvelous work in the life of Martha. He still does that work today in the life of people like her. If you are a Martha, then practice trusting Jesus and admitting that you need Jesus. If you know or love a Martha, be patient with him or her as they learn that lesson. Expect miraculous transformation and I think you will see it.