Martha, Martha

The New Testament Lectionary reading last Sunday was the story of Martha and Mary from the book of Luke (Chapter 10:38-42). This is one of my favorite Bible stories because I relate so well to Martha, who seems to be an action-oriented, no nonsense-type woman. I am also a bit envious of Mary, Martha’s sister, since Mary seems to be willing to do exactly what she wants to do even if there’s company in the house. In the story, Jesus is visiting the town where Martha and Mary live, and Martha invites Jesus to their home to eat and rest. While Martha is running around the house getting everything ready, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, reverently taking in all he has to say.

In my imagination, Martha has been in and out of the kitchen three or four times, checking the bread, rinsing the olives, grabbing the wine mugs to bring them into the other room. It’s warm in the house, and Martha’s face is flushed, and she’s boiling over, from more than just the heat of the day. Frustrated, she slows down just long enough to complain to Jesus. “Hey, Jesus,” Martha says, “I’m doing all the work here! If you cared about me, you’d tell Mary to stop looking so moonfaced, get up off the floor, and help me! And, if Mary really cared about me, she wouldn’t have to be told what to do!”

So, what does Jesus say? “Martha, Martha,” (you can see him turning his head right and left), “You need to slow down for a while and come join us.” The actual Bible verse reads, ““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.”

The Bible passage ends there, with Mary still sitting, we presume. We don’t know what happens to Martha. Does she drop her kitchen cloth and abandon the bread baking in the oven? Or does she keep at it, knowing what needs to be done if they’re ever going to eat today?

I am tempted to think that Martha half-ignores Jesus’ reprimand, at least for a little while. “Just let me just do these couple of dishes, let me  get the plates. Besides, who else is going to do it? And then I will sit and listen; honest. ”

“And then I will sit. And then I will listen. And then …”

It seems I live my life with “And then.” And then I will relax. And then I will really hear you. And then I’ll work on our relationship. And, for me especially, then I will allow myself to receive joy and grace from God.

I am so much like Martha that I can’t help but laugh at how her autopilot behavior has landed her on self-centeredness. She isn’t actually complaining at all about what her sister is doing. I doubt that she even thinks about that. I really love the way Jesus blows right by her complaint about Mary and puts the issue back in Martha’s lap. “Ok, Martha, right, you are very busy and the work is important, but do you really want to be like that right now? Could you perhaps take a clue from Mary? Could you come and enjoy yourself?”

Much to my disappointment, Jesus isn’t saying that Martha should never do housework, (or corporate-work or church-work), but he does question whether the work has to be done right now. Does it have to be perfect bread? In six varieties? Enough olives to feed an army? And, is Martha really the only baker in the house? (To which her sister would probably say, “She will always be the only baker if she never lets anyone help her.”)

I can’t blame Martha for wanting to do well for her guest, so I understand her behavior. But I also wonder if there’s something else – something more — that also keeps Martha so busy. Is she, like me, maybe a little afraid of what she might hear Jesus say if she sits down?

Maybe Jesus will say, “Where have you been?”
Or, “You’re prayers aren’t quite good enough.”
Or maybe Jesus will tell her his story, “You know, Martha, I won’t be around much longer.”

I feel guilty I sometimes for not praying often enough or well enough, but the words I put in the Jesus’ mouth when that happens are actually mine, not his. The Jesus I believe in would not reprimand me when I finally show up, but welcome me with open arms. I do think, though, that he would try to remind me how valuable time slips away so quickly.

I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding Martha either. I think he is reminding her that life is short and the choices she makes are important, even in the day-to-day. Jesus wants Martha, and all of us, to grab a hold of life while we still can. Instead of the tisk tisk in the “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, I hear sadness and empathy for Martha that she is so demanding of herself. I think Jesus is also saying, “Martha, Martha, my love. You do not need to be perfect to be worthy of my love.”
My grandson Tommy just called to ask his grandfather to breakfast tomorrow morning, just to get together. Tom is 19. Grandpa is 71. Tom doesn’t see his grandfather very often, but he calls a lot more often than I’d expect any college kid to. Tom has decided to put his busy world on hold for an hour or two to enjoy his grandfather. Now there’s a kid who’s got his priorities straight.
My goal this afternoon is to model myself after Tom and open myself up for the possibility of an opportunity to experience God’s grace.


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