Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus – Readings

Commentary on 1 John 4:7-16; Psalm 33; John 11:19-27 or Luke 10:38-42

There is a choice of Gospel readings for today’s Memorial, each one featuring Martha and Mary and one focused around the death of Lazarus.

The first is from Luke’s gospel and describes an occasion when Jesus went to visit the family’s house in Bethany. It was not far from Jerusalem and it seems that Jesus was a regular visitor there. On this occasion we are told that Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him. Martha, on the other hand, was fussing about in the kitchen getting the meal ready. After a while, Martha complained (perhaps there was there a slight hint of jealousy and resentment here) that her sister was leaving all the work to her. “Tell her to help me.”

Jesus replied:

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing…Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

Jesus had said elsewhere that his followers should not be anxious or worried:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.

As Fr Anthony de Mello used to say: “Why worry? If you worry, you will die. If you don’t worry, you will die. So why worry?” Martha gives the impression that Mary is just sitting there doing nothing. But, in fact, she is listening to Jesus, listening to the Word of God.

Many of us are very busy, run off our feet from dawn to dusk. But what are we busy about? What was Martha busy about? We need to stop and listen, as Mary did. Busy-ness is not a virtue. The important thing is to be active about the right things. And to know what is the right thing to do, we have to stop and listen.

The alternative Gospel reading is from John. It is story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus had been told some days before that Lazarus was seriously ill but did not immediately respond. By the time Jesus reached Bethany, Lazarus was already dead for four days.

When the sisters heard that Jesus had arrived, Martha, typically, rushed out to greet him while Mary stayed mourning in the house. As soon as she saw Jesus she told him that if Jesus had been there earlier, Lazarus would not have died. But she was confident that any prayer Jesus would make to his Father would be answered.

Jesus said to her:

“Your brother will rise.

Replied Martha, expressing her faith in a future life:

Yes, I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.

In so speaking she draws from Jesus one of the great sayings of John’s gospel:

I AM the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

In other words, those who believe in Jesus as Lord and follow his Way immediately enter a life that will never end, although the body, of course, will pass away.

This, in turn, draws a great profession of faith from Martha:

Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

It is a statement on a par with that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi earlier on.

And that, of course, is what this whole chapter is about. Jesus, the Son of God, as the Source of Life. It is also a preparation for Jesus’ own death from which he will rise in glory and be reunited with his Father. The same future is promised to us.

The First Reading for the memorial is from the First Letter of John. It is one of the most central passages in all of the New Testament. It is about love being at the very centre of our lives. Love here is agape, a very special kind of love. It can be defined as an unconditional reaching out for the well-being of the other person. It is the love that God extends to us. It is the love that motivated all that Jesus did and said. It has to be at the heart of all we do and say. It is the essence of Christian living. The word agape or some form of it occurs 16 times in the short passage of today’s reading. We are to love in this way because that is what God does. It is what Jesus did. When we love in this way we become like God. And wherever this kind of love is expressed, God is there, because God is this love.

We Christians do not have any monopoly on this love. It can be found in all kinds of people. But let us make sure it is the driving force in our own lives, not just for our own sake but for the sake of everyone else, for:

By this will all people know you are my followers that you have love [agape] one for another.

It is the best thing that could be said about any of us and the only thing that matters.

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