How could I forget the passing of my father and mother? My father had become terribly sick. My mother cared for him day and night and soon became sick herself. I cared for both until they died days apart. How could I forget those days of loss and the burden put on me at that time? I am Martha and the oldest of three children.
As was our custom, the three of us – my brother Lazarus, my sister Mary and I – mourned for seven days. We did no work; we did no cleaning or cooking. Friends and relatives brought us food and sat with us and mourned with us as we sat barefoot on the floor. When that time was over, I felt isolated and overwhelmed. I felt the weight of the world suddenly on my shoulders. I was only 13 years old.
Before all this happened, I felt carefree. Life was an uncomplicated joy. When our family went to the synagogue, mother, Mary, and I would sit with the women. Father and Lazarus would sit with the men. Everything was as it should be. We were together in our element. But since, the remaining three of us have felt out of place, as if we were illegitimate children. It didn’t help that older women whispered between themselves when they saw us.
And, celebrating Passover was not the same without father and mother. Father would say, “Mary, ask the question”. Mary would respond “Why is this night different from all the other nights?” Then, we each had to give our answer as she asked it four times. I miss them most during these times.
Without father I felt cut off from the community and the events of the day. Father would come home and tell us all that was going on as we ate our evening meal. In his circle of friends there was much talk of the Romans and their taxes and about Caesar’s image on the denarius. (Father told us that he paid the temple tax in Tyrian shekels because those coins didn’t contain any earthly ruler’s image. This meant he had to deal with greedy money changers.)
Father became especially animated when he talked of a Messiah, one anointed by God who would smash the enemies of God and reign over the earth. Everyone he spoke with thought his appearing was imminent. When father talked about the Messiah he would recite the synagogue reading of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
As the oldest I took charge of caring for my younger brother and sister. Who else would do this? I fed them, cleaned their clothes and taught them the ways of our people as I had been taught by father and mother. Thankfully, father left his affairs in good order. We lacked for nothing and lived in a spacious home in Bethany.
At our home I tried to maintain order, as my mother had done. She watched over the affairs of the household and did not eat the bread of idleness. She was a woman of noble character and I wanted to be like her. So, I did what was needed.
As I busied myself at home, Lazarus and Mary would go to the marketplace to buy food for our daily meal – fish, vegetables, fresh herbs and the like. At the market they also gathered up the recent gossip and news from travelers about the events of the day. One day it happened that they came home and could talk of nothing else except Jesus.
Mary couldn’t contain herself. She swirled as she spoke in her lilting voice: “He healed … a man … of a terrible skin disease! He healed … a Centurion’s … servant! He raised … a widow’s son … from the dead! Unclean spirits … are cast out! The daughter of Jairus … the ruler of the synagogue … healed! A woman … sick for twelve years … healed! A lame man … made to walk…on the Sabbath! Jesus fed thousands … with a few … fishes and loaves! A storm … was calmed … on the sea of Galilee … “
As Mary spoke, Lazarus paced back and forth. When he finally stopped, he said that Jesus had been in the synagogue in Nazareth … that he had been handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah … that he had read the same words that father recited to us so often!
“His words are the words of life!” Mary exclaimed half-twirl. Lazarus wondered out loud: “Could this be the Messiah that father talked about?”
They both tugged on me. “Come and hear what people are saying!” But I had to remind them of the hour.
“It is almost sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. We must prepare for this. Help me do this. Mary, sweep the house. Lazarus, take these fish bones out to the refuse pile.” After the sabbath, I told them, we will go and hear what is being said about him.
Soon after, it happened that Jesus came to where we were. He arrived with twelve men who followed him intently and some seventy others. The three of us overheard many of their conversations as they gathered in our village. There was excited talk of Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah. “But what good is a dead Messiah?”, was a response we heard over and over. Many were questioning the direction Jesus was taking – going up to Jerusalem. The rumors were that the authorities there were wanting to do away with him.
The disciples discussed and puzzled over what Jesus had said when they were alone: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life”. “What could this possible mean?” they asked each other, “Why must he be killed? And “Isn’t the resurrection on the last day?”
Several spoke of Jesus sending them out in his name. They had the authority to cast out unclean spirits in his name! They were sent to proclaim the kingdom of God. There were villages where they were welcomed and were given food and drink. And there were places where they were not welcomed. In response to these places they wiped that town’s dust from their feet and said “Gods’ kingdom has come close to you! It will be more tolerable for Sodom than this town”.
When I heard this, I immediately welcomed the Master and his followers – all of them – to our home. Who else could do this with all of these? And, of course, the house was clean and empty and ready for guests.
The courtyards were soon overflowing – men gathered on the upper courtyard and women gathered on the lower courtyard. I loved the commotion after so many quiet days – days since father and mother passed away. Like my mother, who had received and served many guests, I was in my element. I took charge.
I sent Mary and Lazarus to the market for cured fish, cumin and coriander, vegetables, figs, grapes and almonds. With seventy plus mouths to feed I needed plenty of provisions and plenty of help.
While they were gone I set about baking bread on the hearth, making lentil stew, and roasting a goat on a spit. I went about offering my guests wine, water and goat’s milk to drink. After a time, Mary and Lazarus came back with everything I asked. They said that the whole town was outside waiting for Jesus and they gave us what we needed!
And Jesus was in my home at the center of a group of men. I set down bowls of figs, dates and almonds before them where they sat and talked. At this point, I was coming and going, from kitchen to room to kitchen to courtyard to kitchen. With so many, there was such a din. But I did hear one ask Jesus to tell them a story.
Jesus affirmed that he would. “Hush!” rippled through the gathering. The courtyards grew quiet. Lifting the sound of his voice so that many could hear, he began:
“Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
While Jesus spoke, I went back to cooking and preparing and wondering what happened to Mary. She was not helping me feed all these people. I needed her help. I was shorthanded and getting more flustered by the minute.
I returned the room where Jesus was with more bread and lentil stew. And, there she was! I was shocked! Not only was Mary sitting around distracted from her duties, but she was sitting with the men …and right at Jesus’ feet! O, the impudence!
Right then and there I wanted to say, “Mary, that is not your place. Come and help me.” But I had a better idea – invoke someone with authority to deal with her. There is someone in this room that she will listen to and who will sympathize with me. He will put her in her place. I stood before Jesus.
“Master, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!”
Jesus looked at me and must have seen the distressed look on my face. Certainly, I thought, he must know all that us women do, especially when we are hosting. He has a mother.
“Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.”
Well, that wasn’t the response I was expecting. I stood there looking at him and then at Mary who hadn’t moved and then at a room full of faces. Was the kingdom of God staring back at me waiting for my reaction? There was nothing left for me to do but to sit down, eat and join the conversation.
In the days following, Lazarus and Mary invited many into our home. I’ve hosted hundreds of people! Those who came were eager to hear about Jesus. I fed them. I sat with them. And, I taught them – men and women alike – about the words and ways of Jesus. I serve the kingdom of God and that is all that matters. I wish father and mother were here to see me in my element.
Adapted from the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 10