Luke tells us the story of Mary and Martha. This is when Jesus drops in for an impromptu visit and Martha says, “I sure could use some help in the kitchen” and Jesus says, “No you don’t. Be more like Mary.”
It’s not a favorite story of mine from the gospels. It can sometimes be framed as a competition between the two women: Mary, who does right, sits at Jesus’s feet for his teaching; and Martha, who does wrong, refills glasses, wipes up a spill, looks at the pile of dishes like her own Golgotha.
Now. Mary’s action — to sit at the feet of Jesus — is radical. “This is extraordinary,” my pastor explained when she preached on the topic several weeks ago. And it is! It is extraordinary! And wonderfully gnostic, because the Gnostics were VERY open to women engaging with teaching, and teaching as well. Again, though, this isn’t a competition. Martha shouldn’t lose because Mary won.
Some things we can guess, just by being intelligent readers of Luke 10:38-42:
1) Jesus arrives with his disciples. Not necessarily just the 12 we know of. There were numbers of followers who weren’t the 12 Disciples. But let’s just say that it was only the 12 at this repast. That’s still a LOT of people, unannounced, to show up for a visit.
2) The text doesn’t suggest this was a planned visit. I don’t know that Martha had, say, Tuesday, circled in red on her calendar, with “Jesus, etc., for lunch.” So a guy shows up with a bunch of people, and Martha welcomes them into her home.
3) And it’s MARTHA’S home. That’s something to note. The text says, “a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home.” Not her husband’s home. And it isn’t her husband granting permission. Martha has done that. In the middle of this story I don’t care much for is this wonderful detail about how Jesus’s mission is not just to men. Women were vital all the way through his ministry.
4) Some fuller context, re: Mary and Martha. They are the sisters of Lazarus, raised by the dead by Jesus. So it’s not like Mary and Martha welcomed a total stranger into the home. They welcomed a man who has performed the most astonishing miracle ever. Their brother, whom Jesus described as “only sleeping,” is back from the dead.
5) So you’re going to break out the good china, right? You’re going to — even though you know there is no literal way to — repay this man as much as you can because of the miracle he bestowed on your family. Your dead brother is impossibly, but also literally, alive.
6) The text tells us that Mary was “at the Lord’s feet,” listening “to what he was saying.” But we don’t know what he was saying. We don’t get to know the nature of the lesson he was giving.
7) But maybe there was something in Jesus’s message — something maybe about serving, which is something Jesus talks about with some regularity — that made Martha say, “Hey. Speaking of.”
Here’s the thing. I’ll lay out all my cards here. I’m a Martha. VERY much a Martha. And women for almost 100% of history have been relegated to the Martha role. SOMEONE needs to prepare the olives and make sure there’s enough goat and refill the hummus bowls. It’s all very well to say, as Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things.” YEAH. Roughly 12+ other things who are now in my house expecting food and hospitality and I’m ONE WOMAN even though there are MANY OF US IN HERE and no one is helping me.
And, I love Jesus — Lord knows I do — but this is also a man who cursed a fig tree for not doing its job so you can forgive Martha and me for assuming that he’d also be pretty angry if we started running low on pita bread.
We need Marthas. There’s a woman named Judy who sets up the after-church spread every Sunday. If Judy didn’t do it, someone else would have to. There is ALWAYS a need for a Martha. Things don’t get done without Marthas. “LET’S PUT ON A SHOW!” You’re gonna need a Martha. And I just think it’s sort of crummy that Jesus says to her, “Martha, be more like Mary. Choose ‘the better part.'” And all Martha wanted was someone to help wash a dish or fill some wine glasses. “Yeah, I’d like to sit and listen but none of you are tidying up after yourself.”
(We men can live in a privileged bubble of [waves hand at pile of logistical work] “things will work out” because they rely on, without acknowledging, the Marthas of the world. I work with a guy who depends on the fact that there are Marthas here to fill in blanks for him, and mind calendars, and cross t’s/dot i’s.)
And in closing, what makes this so infuriating, to me, a Martha, is this: JESUS LITERALLY FED THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE and I feel he could have said to Martha, “Oh, sorry — I’ve got this.” And then Martha would have felt like she had the space to sit and listen with Mary.
You sometimes have to take ministry TO the people who need it.