A Woman Named Martha

A Woman Named Martha

A Woman Named Martha

A Reflection by Sister Marianne Burkhard, OSB

John 11:1-45                                                                                                                          March 18, 2020

            The story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel has long been a favorite of mine.  I see Martha as a busy host, but also a woman of great faith.  For this reflection, I am focusing on Martha’s encounter with Jesus in John 11:21-27.   

            True to her active nature, Martha leaves to meet Jesus as soon as she hears of his coming.  Upon seeing Jesus, she immediately expresses her grief with a note of disappointment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  Martha continued by saying, “but even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  She understands and trusts that whatever Jesus says or does comes from the power of a loving God.  For me, Martha demonstrates the kind of faith that David Steindl-Rast says is rooted in  “our moments of inner breakthrough” that give us “courageous trust in Jesus and [his] good news”.  

            Jesus responds in John 11:23 by pointing to a general belief in Judaism at the time:  “Your brother will rise” and Martha, like a good catechism student, answers “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day”.  Is this all our compassionate Lord has to offer?  How much solace can Martha – or we – find in a distant resurrection when our loss is still raw?  Jesus, however, is not finished.  Without transition he gives Martha a unique self-revelation by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

            What does all this mean?  Jesus uses the words of resurrection and life in terms of believing, living and never dying. These action verbs are ‘big’, yet they point to smaller words and everyday actions that make up our faith life – the very things that Martha does.  I love the big words; yet monastic life is teaching me to also love small words and inconspicuous actions.  The message of Jesus to Martha comes to life in Micah 6:8:  “Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.” Resurrection is a beautiful word, but for Martha and us it does not mean much unless we have experienced it.  

            Jesus describes resurrection as “whoever believes in me, even though she dies, will live”. We all have experienced moments of inner dying, and in those small deaths, it is believing and trusting in God that leads us into new life.   

            The second part of Jesus’ answer expands this thought by saying “whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Having gone through even a small resurrection, we live in the full sense of the word, appreciating everything that makes us alive.  

            Faithful living and believing sustain us through life, through even the drab days and crises. Yet we also need a continuing commitment, as we read in RB 7, “love of God, good habit and delight in virtue.” (7.69) We know that together with Emmanuel, God-with-us, we can make it through the challenges.  The German Benedictine Johanna Domek reminds us that we have heard the call and, we are following it believing that “whatever happens to us … we are able to walk through everything.”

            At the end, Jesus asks Martha directly: “Do you believe this”?  Martha answers in John 11:27, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”  This is a magnificent confession, a worthy counterpart to Peter’s confession in Matthew (16:16).  Sandra Schneiders reminds us that Martha says this before Jesus raised Lazarus:  “her faith, like ours, responds not to the signs of public ministry, but to the revealing word of the present Jesus.”

            May we always be filled with Martha’s faith. May we never lose the conviction that, as Ezekiel 37:14 says in the first reading, God’s spirit will “open our graves” inside us. And may we always with Paul trust that “Christ in us” will give us the life of the spirit “in our mortal bodies” (Rom 8:10, 11).  

David Steindl-Rast. Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (1984) 88f.

Johanna Domek OSB.  Benediktinische Impulse: Ein Jahresbegleiter [2007] 25. (365 Thoughts about verses from the Rule of St. Benedict).

 Sandra Schneiders. “Women in the Fourth Gospel.” In  Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel [1999] 106).


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