Believe it or not, I get real worked up about Ss. Mary and Martha of Bethany. I just adore these two; sisters living under one roof with their brother Lazarus and who knows who else, in the little, rather unimportant village of Bethany. The word Bethany could mean “House of Figs,” but it could also mean “House of Dates,” or the more sober “House of Misery,” which would support the possibility that Bethany was on the outskirts of a leper colony. Bethany, like so many other places in the ancient Middle East, was a village and a general area, and both were situated on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, not even two miles from Jerusalem. “Bethany has traditionally been identified with the present-day West Bank city of al-Eizariya,” which means Place of Lazarus in Arabic. “The oldest house in present-day al-Eizariya, a 2,000 year old dwelling” which has traditionally been known as the House of Mary and Martha. There is a tomb in al-Eizariya which has been left alone now for 2000 years; it’s the tomb out of which Lazarus crawled, bandaged up and smelly (by this time he stinketh, said Martha – for he hath been dead four days.) “The tomb in al-Eizariya has been identified as the tomb of the gospel account since at least the 4th century A.D. Both the historian Eusebius of Caesarea and the nameless Bordeaux pilgrim in the Itinerarium Burdigalense (both in the 4th century) mention the Tomb of Lazarus [at that] location.” Mary and Martha and Lazarus were probably hard-working, anonymous, salt-of-the-earth types, who made a living in the suburbs of the big city Jerusalem and looked after the sick guys down at the synagogue soup kitchen.
And they would have remained anonymous if they had never met that Jesus fellow we like to talk about around here. Of course we know about the raising of Lazarus from the dead; if you don’t remember the whole story, the lectionary will come around eventually; we remember the story we just heard from St. Luke, what I like to call the “get your keister in the kitchen” story. One thing we don’t often hear is that piece from Holy Tradition that tells us that Mary and Martha cooked and served the Last Supper. And that leads us to our Gospel lection for today.
St. Luke begins his story with “As Jesus and his disciples went on their way.” It seems like a throwaway line, but it’s not. They were in fact on their way, following their Master, their Lord, as Mary and Martha called Him, to Jerusalem. Much happened on their way and Jesus did all manner of things, like casting out demons and teaching and rebuking Herod and so forth. But Jesus was doing all these things on His way – on His way to Jerusalem, on His way to His own death. The predictions began to crop up, Jesus telling His disciples that He will suffer and die, that He will do this suffering and dying in Jerusalem, and yet here we find them, on their way there.
Like Jesus, we are on our way somewhere, if only metaphorically. It might seem like it at times, but none of us live each day like the previous one; all of us have goals and aspirations and ends in mind. Depending on where we are in life we set goals: I would like to be an astronaut, I would like to have three kids, I would like to run the shop someday, I would like to die more peacefully than I have lived. We are on our way. Like Jesus, much will happen on our way. We will teach, we will cast out and bring in, we will pursue our goals and make compromises for those we love.
Like Mary and Martha, we will probably be hard-working, anonymous, salt-of-the-earth types, who make a living in the suburbs of the big cities of Trenton and Philadelphia and look after the homeless by cooking for HomeFront. Like Mary and Martha, we will probably go about our lives with some manner of normalcy until our friend and Lord drops by unexpected.
At least I hope that’s what’s in store for us. I can’t think of anything more glorious, really. But you never know, I guess. That Jesus fellow we like to talk about around here, He might come along and grab you by the ears, He might send you up to the kitchen to feed that new Bethany called Trenton, He might call on you to do all manner of things, even change everything you thought you knew about life.
“As Jesus and his disciples went on their way.” It seems like a throwaway line, but it’s not. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, and on His way there He stopped in to see His friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus at their house in that little village of Bethany. Everyone wants this to be a story about Mary and Martha and how different they were, and I want it to be that too, I just adore Mary and Martha. But this story is really about Jesus being on His way to His glory, and about Him dropping in on His friends on His way there. When He comes around again, I hope He finds me and you and all of us as happy to see Him as Mary and Martha were on that day.