Psalm 59: Did Martha Pray It?

Memorial of Saint Martha

July 29, 2020


Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, on this feast of St. Martha, we pray with Psalm 59.

The psalm is introduced with an interesting phrase: a miktam of David, when Saul sent people to watch his house and kill him. 

The meaning of the word mitkam is unclear, but the meaning of the rest of the phrase is abundantly evident. David felt threatened by the forces of King Saul who surrounded his house day and night awaiting an opportunity to attack him.

The psalm bemoans that situation. In two complementary stanzas, the psalmist asks God for victory and deliverance. Each ends with a refrain of praise and gratitude.


As I pray this psalm today, my mind goes to a house in Bethany. Three siblings live there who are friends of Jesus. Each loves Jesus in her or his own way, according to their personalities. 

The Gospels give us a vivid perception of Mary’s love. We can easily imagine the immensely grateful love of resurrected Lazarus. 

Then there is Martha of whom we know so little. A woman who found comfort in creating a hospitable home. A woman who commanded a well-functioning kitchen. A woman who, silent except for her famous sisterly complaint, let her works speak her love.

As their friendship with Jesus grew, and as Jesus became more notorious to the Jewish leaders, their little house no doubt became the object of inimical fascination.

Jesus’s enemies watched him, but that also watched his friends, frightening many away from Jesus’s side.

As this reality intensified, perhaps phrases of Psalm 59 rose in Martha’s heart as she prayed:

Rescue me from my enemies, O my God;
from my adversaries defend me….
… For behold, they lie in wait for my life;
mighty men come together against me,
Not for any offense or sin of mine, O LORD.

We can only guess what this little family suffered in order to be Jesus’s friends, both during his lifetime and by their witness in the subsequent early Christian Church. But by faith, we can be certain they rejoiced in the Divine Gift these sufferings brought them.

But I will sing of your strength
and revel at dawn in your mercy;
You have been my stronghold,
my refuge in the day of distress.
O my strength! your praise will I sing;
for you, O God, are my stronghold,
my merciful God!

Let us pray today to be, like Martha of Bethany, devoted friends of God.

Poetry:  You, neighbor God – Rainer Maria Rilke

You, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe
and know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.
The wall is builded of your images.
They stand before you hiding you like names.
And when the light within me blazes high
that in my inmost soul I know you by,
the radiance is squandered on their frames.
And then my senses, which too soon grow lame,
exiled from you, must go their homeless ways.

Music: Psalm 59 – Esther Mui

Idols!

Memorial of Saint Martha

July 29, 2019

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Today, in Mercy, our readings offer us a central question for our faith and spirituality: What do we really worship?

Ex32_19 calf

As we continue the Exodus story, Moses has been on the mountain receiving the Law from God. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, delegated leader Aaron is blowing his assignment. The Israelites tire of waiting for Moses. They want another god to lead them onward. Aaron comes up with idea of fashioning such a idol from all their molten jewelry.

When Moses descends the mountain with the newly-minted tablets in hand, he burns in anger at the scene, smashing the holy stones at his feet. More than a flared temper, this act symbolizes a fractured relationship with God.

The story suggests this for our prayer: we are in ever-deepening relationship with God through our own covenants – our creation, our baptism, our further professions of faith and commitment, our sacramental encounters. These are all living relationships, inviting us to new and deeper life in God.

Still, there may be times in our lives when our hearts lose focus on these covenants 

  • when we try to move somewhere without God’s companionship
  • when we substitute old baubles for moral or spiritual truth
  • when we return to weakening comforts rather than grow into a challenging grace
  • when we just get really mixed up about what is most important in our lives

The calf-worshippers had a big fail in this regard. Exodus tells the story of a merciful God trying to deal with their disloyalty and refashion them as God’s chosen people.

Our Gospel shows us Martha, also a little off target in terms of her spiritual priorities. While she is no where near idol worship, she still allows needless distractions to keep her from fully enjoying relationship with God.

Martha

Gentle, merciful Jesus turns her eyes toward him and she understands. Maybe that beautiful grace is what we want to pray for today.

Music:  You Alone – Sarah Hart