Poor Martha and Thomas! They've both had a bad press. Martha is stuck with the label of being over-active and fussy, of getting her priorities wrong. She's compared unfavourably with her contemplative sister, Mary. And Thomas will forever be known as the 'Doubter.' Though there's a certain truth in both these labels, they only describe one facet of each of their characters. These labels give an unbalanced and unjust impression. Far from helping us to understand each other labels can close our minds to the many facets of our characters. People are far too complicated and mysterious to be identified by a single label and then pigeon-holed. We need to strip off the labels, if we are to gain a balanced understanding.
That's very true with the label stuck on Martha. As she welcomed Jesus into her home, she prepared some refreshments, while her sister, Mary, kept Him company. That would happen when a guest visits any family or Dominican community. In different ways both sisters showed their love for Jesus. And He had no complaint about that arrangement.
It's usually forgotten that Martha wanted to join Jesus and her sister as soon as possible. That's why she complained to Jesus and asked Him to tell Mary to give her a hand with preparing the refreshments. But Jesus had a different approach -Martha should go to less trouble with the refreshments. That would free her to join them. After all, He'd come to enjoy the sisters' company, rather than to receive lavish refreshments. That's why Jesus didn't tell Mary to leave Him alone and help her sister.
Certainly there's a gentle rebuke here for Martha, who needed to get the balance right between doing things for those we love and making time to relax in their company. But that doesn't justify us sticking an indelible label on Martha for being hyper-active, in contrast with her contemplative sister.
That becomes very clear in another incident in which the two sisters feature -the raising of Lazarus. While Mary stayed at home weeping over the death of her brother, practical Martha went out to meet Jesus. With a robust faith she reproached Him for not staying to cure Lazarus. She then expressed her conviction that even after he'd been dead for several days Jesus could still restore him to life. Jesus was then able to draw out her faith in the resurrection so that she could accept Him as actually being, 'the resurrection and the life.'
Here we now see Martha as the contemplative, whose lively faith is deepened by questioning Jesus. And, like a good missionary, Martha leads her sister to Jesus. That is the prelude to His raising Lazarus from the dead. What a different Martha from the one who had been disparagingly labelled as 'hyper-active!'
Now for 'Doubting' Thomas. He was not the only one unwilling to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. No one did! But Thomas expressed their scepticism more forcefully than anyone else. Before he was prepared to believe he wanted not only to see the risen Lord, but even to poke the wounds of His crucifixion.
But Thomas' doubts were but the beginning of a journey from the deepest scepticism to the greatest act of faith in all the Gospels. Once Thomas realized that Jesus had, indeed, risen from the dead, he exclaimed, 'My Lord and my God!' In all fairness he should be called, 'Believing,' not 'Doubting' Thomas! But, sadly, we do tend to think the worst of people, and dismiss them with a negative label.
The unjust way Martha and Thomas have been treated should warn us against sticking labels on anyone -especially when the labels mark them out as failures in our eyes. No single label can do justice to anyone. We're all too complicated and mysterious for that.
If that's true for us people, it's especially true when we think and talk about God. He's far too mysterious to be labelled and pigeon-holed. Idolatry lies in attempting to restrict God to the limits of our human understanding. Only when we are prepared to accept that He is a mystery, who defies labelling and pigeon-holing, can we begin to understand Him. That's what stripping the labels from Martha and Thomas -and from each other -has taught me.
In a fortnight Fr. Peter will reflect on Lost Property