St. Martha: Work, Prayer, Anxiety, Trust, and Love

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; 42 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38–42 (RSVCE)

Does God look favorably on prayer but not on work? It might seem that way at first glance on today’s Gospel reading for the Feast of St. Martha. But that would be a simplistic reading that fails to make proper distinctions. From the reading, we can consider the following about Martha’s working, as opposed to her failure to listen like her sister Mary: 1. Work itself. 2. Work at that moment. 3. Work done for its own sake versus work done out of love. Then we can look at the positive change in Martha.

Work is a good thing.

Work itself is a good thing. God commanded Adam to keep and till the Garden, and that was before the Fall. Also, Jesus was a worker, from a family of workers. He was a craftsman who fashioned things out of earth, wood, metal, etc. Interestingly, I heard it mentioned that ancient Greek craftsman were considered to be the artists. So maybe it’s not a stretch to think of Jesus as an artist! As an artist, I like to think so.

From the above we should conclude that work is a good thing. And of course, many of the Popes and Saints have talked about the dignity of work. The dignity of workers and their rights are one of Catholic social teachings of the Church. So, Jesus wouldn’t have anything against work itself.

Don’t be anxious.

What is Jesus gently rebuking Martha about? For her being anxious and troubled about many things. Anxiety and worry are not good things, as I mentioned before, simply because Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious about anything. He beautifully tells us not to be afraid; the Father knows what needs and lovingly provides for us. (Sermon on the Mount discourse, Matthew 6). Maybe Martha wasn’t there when Jesus spoke these words to the crowd. Busy cooking maybe? 🙂

It’s easy for us to get caught up with many things and find ourselves in an intricate spiderweb of our own weaving. There are so many good things that we need to do, and to do them as best as we can. Work is, again, a good thing. Hospitality and service is an act of love (see Abraham at Mamre; Genesis 18, Hebrews 13:2).

When Jesus came to visit, Mary was listening at the feet of Jesus while Martha was busy with the preparations. Mary was being present to Jesus. Martha was not present to Jesus but rather was preoccupied with the serving.

Being present to God in every circumstance.

Martha could have tried her best to be present to Jesus while she did what was necessary. Perhaps, she could have actually done a lot of the preparations before Jesus arrived. Then, she would be able to listen to Jesus. It seems that this could have been what Jesus wanted from her, to be hospitable to him by being present to him. There is a time for everything, and this could have been a time for her to be still. Or simply, because she did not have the preparations out of the way before hand, Jesus just wanted her to listen as much as she could and not get worked up about the serving.

Not that work is a substitution for prayer, especially silent meditation or mental prayer, but it is possible to work and pray. To work well, with the awareness that what I do, I do for the love of God. St. Paul says, “[…]whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17).

“In the name of Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him.” This is the disposition we should have when working. We will be doing our work for Jesus, with gratitude to the Father, if we do everything in love – – empowered by the grace of the Spirit of love. Many other Saints have said similar things about work and prayer from St. Benedict to St. Francis De Sales to St. Therese to St. Josémaria, etc.

Love is the one thing necessary.

Love seems to be the missing component in the whole picture. Indeed, Martha seems to be blaming her sister for not helping her. Andin her impatience, she wonders why Jesus is not telling Mary to help. It seems to me that Martha could have been bit jealous that her sister got to be attentive to Jesus while she had to be stuck working. But again, service is an act of love. For the neighbor, and for God in the neighbor. In this case, it’s one and the same Person! To some extent, Jesus does want Martha to serve. Someone has to do it. And because he is truly Incarnate before her, he has to eat because he has a human stomach.

Jesus wants Martha to do it all out of love and attentiveness. Jesus does not want our work to become an occasion of anger and frustration.

There is only one thing necessary, Jesus says. Mary has chosen the better part, she has chosen to be present to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She receives his heart. There is one thing necessary, there is one thing that Jesus wants: our heart.

St. Martha, Dragon slayer.

We can’t just leave Martha hanging. Fast forward to death and burial of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Martha went out to meet Jesus and speaks to him from her heart, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is the beginning of her conversation, or prayer – – for prayer is conversation with God – – with Jesus. While Martha is in the presence of Jesus, Mary is at home. I think we can say that this time Martha has chosen the better part. It is on this occasion that she processes her faith in Jesus who has the power to raise the dead to life:

Here, Martha is on the way to becoming St. Martha. Her worry and anxiety has given way to courageous and expectant trust. Anxiety is a symptom of fear. Fear that comes with perfectionism, feeling that whatever one is doing is inadequate, that they will never measure up. I can say that I know what that is like. That’s why I really appreciate this medieval legend of St. Martha killing a dragon.

St Martha tramples the dragon.jpg
By Pietro de Lignishttps://twitter.com/bxknits/status/680858953509634048, Public Domain, Link

It’s believed that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus went to Cyprus and France to bring the Gospel there, after Pentecost. In a town in France, as the legend has it, a dragon -like creature was threatening the people there, but that’s until St. Martha showed up and faced down the dragon, defeating it by making the sign of the cross and or piercing it through with a cross! What a great illustration of faith and courage! She has come a long way. St. Martha shows us how we can overcome our anxiety and fear through making time for prayer, which increases faith.

I think that the more she increased in faith, the better her meals must have been. How memorable must have been her generosity and hospitality in the dinners she held, because of the love she put into it.With that in mind, the best way to close would be with words from the Collect from the Mass on the feast day of St. Martha:

Almighty ever-living God,
whose Son was pleased to be welcomed
in Saint Martha’s house as a guest,
grant, we pray,
that through her intercession,
serving Christ faithfully in our brothers and sisters,
we may merit to be received by you
in the halls of heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

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