Editor’s Note: The feast day of Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany is celebrated on July 29 in the Roman Catholic Church.
It was February 5, 2012. Super Bowl XLVI was underway between the New York Giants and my beloved New England Patriots. My friends and I had decided to throw a big viewing party with delicious — though not entirely nutritious — snacks of all sorts. No takeout pizzas for this party! Everything would be homemade.
I was so excited for the party. I was going to host friends, share homemade food with them, and in a room filled with Giants fans, watch my Pats triumph over Eli Manning’s Giants. Yet the day didn’t turn out the way I had planned. Not only did the Pats lose, but my gathering also did not come together the way I had planned.
Perhaps I had been a little overly ambitious with the menu for the day because when it was time for kickoff, I was still cooking. Being my stubborn and perfectionistic self, I refused to stop. The menu had to be completed!
So, I continued cooking through the first half of the game and through the persistent urging of my friends to just sit down, relax, and enjoy the game. By the end, I not only had to deal with the gloating of a room full of Giants fans but I also had to deal with feelings of disappointment in my own stubbornness, which had led me not only to miss half the game, but also half of the time I could have spent enjoying the company of my friends.
While this may seem like a trivial anecdote — and even an ethically troubling one — I can’t help but notice the similarity between my actions and those of Martha in Luke's Gospel. I, like Martha, had set out to provide hospitality to my friends but ultimately failed to provide that hospitality because my obsession with the details kept me from being present to my guests.
“You are anxious and worried about many things” (Luke 10:41). I can hear Jesus’ words to Martha echoing through many, similar moments of my life: a graduation during which I was so concerned about the details of a graduation party that I wasn’t fully present to my friends and family, a dinner party where I was obsessing about the seating arrangement until the moment guests arrived, and the list could go on. Indeed, there have been countless times when I’ve felt like the worried Martha we meet in Luke’s Gospel.
But this episode of worry is not all that the gospels tell us about Martha — though it is often what she’s reduced to in our memory. John also tells two stories about Martha that give her character a depth that is essential to understanding her. In his story about the raising of Lazarus, John tells us that Martha was beloved by Jesus and that she was confident in her faith that Jesus was the Messiah.
The second time we encounter Martha in John’s Gospel is on the eve of Holy Week. On this night before Jesus begins his journey to the cross, he is in the home of his dear friend, Martha, who serves him dinner in the company of their friends.
Martha was a disciple of Jesus, and she loved, supported, and hosted him for dinner, as friends do. Yet Martha, like all of us, sometimes became bogged down by the details of her hospitality, and as a result, lost sight of the presence of the God she was serving — the God who was literally right in front of her. In my own story I, too, failed to encounter God when God was right in front of me, present in my friends, distracted as I was by the details of my hospitality.
Yet Martha’s story isn’t only for those who are hosting Super Bowl parties or providing hospitality. It also has important implications for the way we undertake work for justice. Martha’s story is a reminder that we cannot let the details of our work distract us from the presence of God in our midst. And that’s difficult to do. It’s easy to become focused on what can feel like endless, pointless emails, meetings, phone calls, and, most of all, setbacks in our work. It’s easy to lose sight of why we’re doing this work when the how of the work overwhelms us.
Like Martha, we must remember that we toil so that the world might glimpse the goodness of God, and we can’t do that if we let the details of our work blind us to the presence of God in our midst. Perhaps God is present in even those mundane tasks that are involved with the pursuit of justice. Perhaps God can be found in an email of gratitude, in a productive phone call, in a colleague who is invested in a common mission, or in other small victories.
And when it’s difficult to see God in the mundane tasks of our work we must remain grounded in what inspires us to keep going. We must keep the vision of God’s reign before us.
Working for justice is demanding of our time and our persons, so it can be challenging to find the time to step back and remember what motivates us. Doing so is necessary, though, otherwise we’ll not only burn out but we’ll also miss the seeds of God’s reign that are sprouting right in front of us.
So let us pray for the intercession of St. Martha, asking for the grace to look up from our toils and acknowledge the presence of the God we are serving, who happens to be sitting right in front of us.