[Martha] had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. —Luke 10:39-42
Like many stories from scripture, my understanding of and ability to relate to Mary and Martha evolves over time, changing with the course of my life and what roles I’m filling.
As a child and a young woman, I was firmly in camp Mary. Faced with a choice between adventure and mopping the floor, adventure would win every time. When my kids were little, a morning at the zoo always took precedence over laundry. The laundry, I knew, would always be there. Small boys who laughed at the monkeys’ antics and marveled over the colors of a peacock feather would not.
A few times of late, I’ve found myself relating to Martha. Older boys seem to need less of my interaction but so much more of my management. Grocery lists are never ending with teen and preteen boys in the house. I feel compelled to take care of ALL the things, then find myself grumpy and resentful that I am taking care of all the things.
I need to be clear – maybe if I put this down in text to you all right here, I will internalize it – I do not have to take care of all the things. My people help out, often without me even asking. And if they load the dishwasher differently from my way or put their socks in the drawer without matching them, does it matter?
The truth is, the world needs both Marys and Marthas. Jesus didn’t tell Martha to stop serving — he’s made it abundantly clear to us that service to one another matters deeply. But his invitation to her is clear; if she were to stop preparing the meal and sit down at her sister’s side, he would welcome her. At the same time, I think Jesus understands that Martha can’t do that. It’s simply not her style.
With Jesus, Martha and Mary have a choice, and that is no small thing for first century women in a room full of men, one of whom is at the least a rabbi, and at the most, as I think the sisters already understand, the Messiah. In preparing a meal for the men gathered, Martha is doing what is expected. Mary, however, is breaking all the rules in planting herself at the feet of the teacher to listen and learn. Yet Jesus welcomes her and defends her right to be in that place. And to Martha’s complaint, Jesus points to anxiety as the source of her discomfort: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…”
Later, as Jesus approaches the crucifixion, we find him back with Martha and Mary but this time there is no discord between the sisters as each plays her own part. John tells us, so simply, that Martha serves the meal while Lazarus sits at table with Jesus and the others. And Mary? Mary breaks open a precious jar of nard, pours it over Jesus’ feet, and washes them with her hair. And the air is filled with its perfume. We know Judas’ hypocritical response to this, and Jesus’ defense, again, of Mary. But what, I wonder, does Martha think of her sister’s action?
I’m no biblical scholar, but I’d like to believe that Martha smiles at her sister, breathes deep of the perfumed air, and brings a basket of bread to the table. I believe that the gift Jesus offered Martha in their earlier interaction is understanding that we do not all have to serve in the same way for our service to matter. That each of our spiritual gifts count toward building the beloved community, and that being true to ourselves, and to each other, in our service means there is no need for comparison or resentment.
So, often I am a Mary, choosing deep connection with my people and the world over the daily necessities of life. But when my inner Martha decides that a home cooked meal for my people is how I can best show them my love, that act is its own service, as long as it is done without anxiety and in an abundance of service.
[Image Credit: JESUS MAFA. Martha and Mary, public domain via from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.]