I saw this picture on Facebook this week. As you look at it, do you see that the plates are all upside down? All but one. Do you see it? Supposedly, as soon as you do then all the plates will look like they’re right side up. It worked for me. Now whenever I look at it, they’re all right side up. Perception is weird, isn’t it?
Oddly enough, this silly optical illusion reminded me of the story of Mary and Martha. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with the story all week. Here’s another story from the life of Jesus that’s supposed to teach us how to be good disciples. It seems pretty straightforward, rght? But as in the case of so many of these “simple” stories, they get more complex the more we look at them.
I found myself flipping back and forth between Martha and Mary as the focus of the story. If I focused on Mary, the picture looked one way. But if I flipped it around and thought about Martha, the picture changed completely. Back in the day, when women were still fighting for their place in in seminaries and in pulpits, I was all about Mary. She was the role model for all of us who had chosen “a better thing” than the traditional roles society had assigned to us. Jesus himself said so!
Nowadays I find myself a lot more sympathetic to Martha. And I have to say I’m also more critical of Jesus, who seemed to be perfectly OK with coming into Martha’s house and enjoying her hospitality with no regard for the work involved. He could have grabbed Lazarus and said, “C’mon, bro; let’s do the dishes and give Martha a rest.” But with his words releasing Mary from domestic duties, he kinda threw Martha under the bus. So like my feelings for the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I want to say to Jesus, “Wait a minute, that’s just not fair!”
What’s in Your Spiritual Gifts Inventory?
I do still like that image of Mary siting at the feet of Jesus. The truth is I’ll never be a Martha. On the spiritual gifts inventory, my score for ‘hospitality’ is way down on the list. But I have learned that hospitality is a spiritual gift. And there was a time I know that I had that wrong.
Beatrice was a member of one of my former congregations. She always made the coffee and set out all the accoutrements for coffee hour on Sunday. I noticed she always did this during worship time. One day I asked her about it and she said she really enjoyed doing this work by herself down in the kitchen. I wince when I hear myself telling her that it was more important for her to be upstairs in worship. I had just thrown another Martha under the bus. Although I still hear Jesus whispering in my ear, “Yea, but there’s still need of only one thing.” You see how I flip back and forth: upside down; right-side up?
Finally, it dawned on me. Why does it have to be either/or? We don’t have to portray Martha, as is done so often, as a pinch-faced shrew glaring at her sister from the kitchen and whining to Jesus about all the work she has to do. Nor do we have to think of Mary as a silent figure in this story, one who, as the saying goes, is “so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good.” In fact, we can recognize that we’ve each got a Martha and a Mary in us. This goes for the guys, too; maybe you could call them Matt and Marty.
We might lean one way more than another. But both are important. Marthas (or Matts) get things done. They’re the people who answered “very true” to statements on the spiritual gifts inventory like:
- When presented with a goal, I immediately think of steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the desired results.
- I am a take charge person. When others follow my direction, the goal or task will be completed.
We need people like that in our homes, communities, and churches. But we also need the contemplative Mary (or Matt) to teach us to nurture our spirituality, to be still and listen for God’s “still, small voice,” and to imbue our daily lives with a sense of the sacred. Together these two ways represent a holistic way of discipleship.
But What About Jesus?
But I’m still troubled by this story. We still have the problem of Jesus chastising Martha. His words are completely at odds with what he says 12 chapters later. When the disciples get into an argument about which of them should be considered the greatest, Jesus says: “The greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves.”
I have to wonder why Luke didn’t say that Jesus then got up to help Martha serve. I mean, what’s going on here?
Now, being a bit of a Mary and liking to read and learn and contemplate, I came across some intriguing things in my travels through various commentaries about Martha and Mary. For one thing, I was reminded that we need to really read what the text says and not what we might assume is in it. For example, there is no mention of the preparation of food. It’s assumed because for many, that is – and was – women’s work. Of course, this took place in the kitchen, we assume. But it’s not there in the text.
There are those who believe that the house of Martha and Mary was actually a house church and that both women were church leaders. This idea is supported by the fact that in other places, the word in verse 40 (the NRSV says Martha was distracted by her many ‘tasks‘), is διακονίαν, which has been translated as ‘ministry’ for men and as ‘service’ for women. But even Google Translate calls διακονίαν ‘ministry!’ So, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that Martha‘s role was that of an early form of a deacon.
It’s also not out of then question to see – as we do in other places in the New Testament, written long after Jesus’ death – attempts to restrict women’s activities to traditional ways of serving. In this interpretation, some see Mary described as taking the better part because she passively sits and listens.
Others see both Mary and Martha as church leaders. And Martha’s annoyance with her sister is her anxiety about all her ministerial duties (something anyone involved in the church can relate to) and feeling like she was not getting enough help (also something anyone involved in the church can relate to). What’s the true story? It’s hard to know for sure. There are many differences in the earliest manuscripts of Luke.
So this simple little story stirs up a lot of questions. What this says to me is that we should not take these accounts at face value, that we should dive more deeply into the story behind the story. And when a simple account like this one engenders so much angst among interpreters, preachers, and general readers – we should pay attention. There’s probably something else going on here.
And when we do dive in, we should then crawl around in the story and explore, not only what this translation says, but what other translators have said. How does a word or phrase shift the meaning? Where else does a character appear? Two friends shared that they had spent some time doing just this by comparing Martha’s appearance here in Luke with her role in John 11 (the raising of Lazarus), where she is hardly a caricature of the over-worked housewife. They also advise checking out information about the town of Bethany, known as a place for healing and hospitality on the way to Jerusalem, which gives even more nuance to the story.
“Yes! I believe that you are the Messiah, the One who is coming into the world.”
In the John passage, Martha gives one of the most complete confessions of faith by anyone in the gospels, right in the midst of her grief at losing her brother. She also shows a bit of anger at Jesus’ not getting there in time to save Lazarus, her thoughts about resurrection, and a very practical caution against opening a tomb because of the stench. We see that Martha is a strong character, complex and layered and rich. So is Mary. So is Jesus.
I can envision Jesus listening to Martha as she complains about her lack of help. So when Jesus says, “Martha, Martha,” I don’t hear chastisement. I hear a connection between two people who know each other well. Jesus knows her anxiety, her distracted emotional state and says, in effect, “I’m listening.” In saying her name, Jesus communicates to Martha, “I hear you, I see you, I’m with you.” Then his words confirm her state of mind: “You’re troubled, distracted, anxious.” He proceeds to remind her about what is most important for that moment, just as we all sometimes need a reminder of when to be a human doing and when to be a human being. But first, he listens.
Maybe we need to sit with this scene just a little longer instead of cutting right to the part about Mary. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate being heard, even if there will also be a word of counsel about what is needful for this moment?
By fleshing out biblical characters like Martha, we do ourselves a favor. For in crawling around in her story, we find connections to our own. We don’t settle for cliched advice like, “Don’t be such a Martha!” Because it’s perfectly OK to be a Martha. Just as it’s OK to be a Mary or a combination of both.
Now, July 29th is St. Martha’s Day, so our celebration is a little early for this disciple who is the patron saint of cooks, homemakers, servants, waiters and waitresses, single laywomen, butlers, dietitians, innkeepers, and travelers. That’s a lot of us! And here’s a tidbit I just learned. The cover of the original 1931 Joy of Cooking was illustrated with an image of St. Martha taming a dragon.
What’s This About a Dragon?!
There’s a legend that Martha eventually moved to a village in France, where it just so happened that a monstrous beast was a constant threat. It is described as a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent. The story goes that Martha, holding a cross in her hand, sprinkled the beast with holy water, which subdued it. While it was rendered harmless, she placed her belt around its neck, and led the tamed dragon through the village.
Obviously, it is a fanciful legend. But it endears Martha to me even more as a strong, faithful, courageous woman, providing a ministry of hospitality and church leadership. July 29th is her day. I just might go out looking for some dragons of my own to tame. Or maybe I’ll make a casserole to share. Either way, it will be in loving memory of Martha.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks. So she came and asked, Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
But Jesus repliued, “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.”