Saint Martha: Perfectly Unpretentious


The sister of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Lazarus has left a lesson of humility for all of history – that we keep our eyes turned towards the glory of Heaven and not towards the prestige of this world.

Newsroom (29/07/2021 14:45, Gaudium Press) “He who does not live to serve, does not serve to live”. Without doubt, this adage was meant to admonish and, opportunely, to make a polite jab at the conscience of a hopelessly slothful person. On the other hand, we also may think of this phrase – so full of wisdom – regarding someone very devoted and helpful; at that moment, we can perceive it as a great compliment.

Today, as we celebrate the happy memory of St. Martha – the sister of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Lazarus – we can contemplate these wise words in a special and affirmative light.

Martha, Martha…

Jesus’ attitude in relating to Saint Martha draws our attention: “Jesus, being on His journey, went into a village, where a woman named Martha received Him into her house. She had a sister Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet to hear Him speak. Martha, being anxious about housework, came to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister leaves me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” And the Lord said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are very anxious about many things – yet only one thing is necessary- Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)

At first sight, it seems that Our Lord reproaches Martha’s attitude. Now, Martha was concerned with serving, so why should Jesus rebuke her? Well, Mary HAD chosen the better part; she was with Him contemplating His gestures, admiring Him for His words, and concerned only with what truly matters in this life: loving God. Then why should Martha be rebuked for being preoccupied with serving Him?

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It is undeniable that contemplation is superior to action – so why should action and the desire to serve be considered evil when they are propelled by love and contemplation? – why, then, does Jesus rebuke Saint Martha’s attitude in this way?

To whom was Jesus speaking?

St. Luke makes it clear in his Gospel that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to hear Him speak. Now, if Our Lord was speaking, surely there were more people in the house other than Martha and Mary; otherwise, He would not be said to speak – as to a group – but to engage in conversation.

In fact, in His divine wisdom, Jesus would not allow any occasion to pass in which He could teach, rebuke and guide towards perfection all those who lived with Him. Moreover, by His discernment of the spirits and by His divinity, Jesus made sure that every word, gesture, and look was given in the right measure for each one present.

Knowing this, we can then understand that there would be some who were not ready to hear certain reproaches, and for whom Our Lord used a peculiar manner of speech.

A soul marked by unpretentiousness

Seeing in Martha’s soul a reflection of her true unpretentiousness, God could find in her a means of doing good to others. Our Lord knew well with what dispositions Martha served Him, with what extremes of love, and with what desires for perfection she did so. Above all, Our Lord saw how well she would accept any correction on His part, even if it were seemingly unjust.

Taking advantage of the circumstance in which she had approached Mary to ask for her help, Jesus directed at Martha a rebuke that most likely fell on some of those who were also present. Martha, in all humility, accepted the correction, applied it to herself, and sought to take advantage of it that she might reach an even greater degree of perfection.

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Why the best part?

Our Lord then makes a point of saying that Mary had the best part and that it would not be taken away from her. What did the Divine Master mean by this? Was St. Martha behaving wrongly? No.

Only Our Lord knew the intentions of those who were listening to Him, and therefore He also knew that Martha was serving Him with every uprightness of soul and good intention. The others present did not know this and would have immediately applied to themselves the rebuke made to that innocent and unassuming servant girl.

When Jesus says that Mary got the better part, we tend to think, almost immediately, that Mary chose a way of life that was higher and more in accord with God’s Will than that of her sister, Martha. Therefore, does God love Mary more? Is Mary more holy than Martha?

This is not how we should see this, for holiness is something that cannot be compared between one person and another. Degrees of holiness and perfection are different aspects of the same God Who shines and is reflected in different ways in different souls.

God wished that history would show how virtue was won by Saint Mary Magdalene, even though she had abandoned everything good in her previous unrestrained life. He wanted to show how it is possible to restore all that has been lost, and how love can do everything; that His mercy is infinite and capable of all forgiveness.

The vocation of Martha: a privileged path

It was different for Martha: God had reserved for her the path of innocence and fidelity throughout her life. Hers was a privileged path, not granted to many – destined for souls especially chosen and pleasing to God. In addition to this predilection, Martha was also a joy for Our Lord in her unassuming nature which shone forth from the depths of her soul.

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Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, a clear manifestation of love and service; Martha accepted with meekness and humility, in the secret space of her heart, the heroic call of detachment.

Once again we must point out that the holiness of two souls should not be compared, but a detail of the Gospel shows us how much God is pleased with this attitude taken by Saint Martha during her life. St. John writes: “Jesus loved Martha, Mary her sister, and Lazarus.” (Jn 11:5)

At first glance this statement means nothing extraordinary; but it is impossible that the God-Man would confuse the order of names or offend the principle of hierarchy in His spoken words, however simple they may appear. It is noteworthy, therefore, as the Gospel says: Jesus loved Martha – in the first place– then Mary and Lazarus.

Saint Martha, model of equilibrium and detachment

Certainly, in addition to her many graces, St. Martha has something to teach us today. If it is true that her sister Mary Magdalene brings us a model of conversion, penance, surrender to God’s Will, and restoration, Saint Martha adds integrity, detachment, fidelity to innocence, humility in the face of reproof, and service to God in the list of virtues. Now, this service that St. Martha wants to teach us is not, as many might think, an uncontrollable desire to always be busy and working. On the contrary, it is also to put our faith INTO works, but with equilibrium, serenity, with our spirit turned to the contemplation of heavenly things; it is to do and to work with unpretentiousness, without any attachment, with humility, knowing that all that is done, with the intention of pleasing God, will be transformed into glory in Heaven, not into prestige on this earth.

By Afonso Costa

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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