When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 11:20-21 – September 13, 2012)
Today, my wife and I are traveling to her home town to bury her father who died last week. I hope beyond hope that no one will say to her, “I wish you had been here.”
My mother died thirteen years ago just before Christmas and those very words were said to me by my stepfather. Can you say, “Guilt trip”? I know that wasn’t his intent, but that’s sure how it felt. I had visited her a few weeks before the end, and my wife and daughter had been there just a few days before she passed away, but none of us were able to be there the week she died. The week before Christmas parish clergy and their families just don’t leave home! (Especially those of us who have no assistants, no staff to pick up the slack!) So I wasn’t there; I couldn’t be there; I regretted not being there; and the last thing I needed to hear was someone drive that point home! (A few years later when my stepfather died, I was en route to visit him when he died just a couple of hours before I arrived. My stepsister said, “I wish you could have been here” . . . . Déjà vu all over again!)
I’m pretty confident Martha wasn’t guilt-tripping Jesus (nor is her sister Mary a few verses later when she says exactly the same thing), but it sure sounds like it. Maybe she was. In fact, I cannot read her words without a tone of anger; try as I might, when this lesson comes up in the lectionary to be read at public worship, that’s how I read it. Parishioners have remarked on that, that they hear it even when I try for some other tone of voice.
Maybe she was angry. Anger, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, is the second of the five stages of grief, right after denial. So it’s entirely possible that she was angry with Jesus. After all, she knew him well. She may have witnessed one or more of his acts of healing; she probably had expected him to come before her brother Lazarus’ death and make him well. But he didn’t and Lazarus died. That would be enough to piss you off! So maybe she was angry at Jesus.
And that’s OK. Jesus can take it. He does take it. He takes people’s anger all the time. As a parish priest I see it again and again. Angry people pissed off at God about whatever is wrong in their lives. They’re ticked at the Almighty and, somewhat contradictorily, they feel guilty about it. I tell them it’s OK, that there’s nothing to feel guilty about. “God’s a big boy,” I tell them, “he can take it.” (Hey! Don’t get all feminist and inclusivist on me. I know God’s not a boy. It’s a metaphor! OK?) And I tell them the story of Martha and Mary and how they got angry at Jesus and how Jesus accepted that and dealt with it lovingly. Go ahead, be angry. The best people to be angry with are the ones who love us. Like God.
But please, don’t guilt trip people who are also grieving and angry. Don’t say, “I wish you could have been here” (even though it’s true and even though you don’t mean it as a criticism). Mary and Martha had some reason to say it to Jesus; they knew he could have done something! None of the rest of us have his gifts.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.