Saturday, October 2, 2010

In Defense of Martha

38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed.f]">[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." ~Matthew 10:38-42

Martha has gotten a bad rap over the last 2,000 years. Christian women are often exhorted to be Mary's and not Martha's. As I recently blogged, I myself have used this expression when training small group leaders for MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers). By this I meant for them to focus on relationships with the women they were serving, rather than getting bogged down in the details of decorating their tables, or bringing seasonal party favors, or baking homemade birthday cupcakes for every gal at their table.

I also recently blogged about my tendency to take on too much at the expense of my sanity and my family's peace. Again, I related to Martha, painting her as a kind of Biblical Martha Stewart (yes, I see the ironic name sameness) who was busy making place cards and being cranky while the much more spiritual Mary was sitting adoringly at Jesus' feet.

But really, it's unfair to poor Martha to make her the symbol for all cranky and over-committed women over the last 20 centuries. Martha was a good woman, and an industrious one. Scripture suggests that she fiscally supported Jesus and his disciples from her own earnings. And what does it say in the first line of this passage? Martha opened her home to him. She was a generous hostess, probably a good cook, and a smart woman. She used her giftedness to serve the Teacher she believed in and loved.

Churches can't get by without Marthas. Moms with new babies don't get fed without Martha's, who are experts at setting up meal plans and enlisting volunteers to drop off food. Martha's organize bake sales and rummage sales, host Christmas parties, and always have a crowd at their house on Thanksgiving. PTAs can't run without Marthas. Neither can Girl Scout troops, the Red Cross, Assistance Leagues, or any fundraisers for good causes that you can imagine. Mary's are good at compassion and at praying for vision, an invaluable and beautiful gift; but it's often Martha's recruit the teams that make those visions a reality.

However, what keeps Martha from being a role model in this passage, as I see it, is not that she's working while Mary is sitting, it's that she's become resentful. And I believe this is a profound enough truth that God chose to include it in Scripture. It's when we women work to the point of exhaustion and drive ourselves to bitterness that we lose our way. As it says in verse 39, Martha was distracted by all the preparations. It's not that she didn't know how valuable Jesus was, it's that she allowed herself to get sidetracked, she made too much of the details, and eventually, she got ticked at her sister who was just hanging out on the floor.

I was recently at a gathering of MOPS leadership, happily working away in the kitchen getting dessert ready, when my dear serving partner came up to me and affectionately, jestingly said, "In the story of Mary and Martha, you know which one you are, right?"

Yes, ma'am I do. And honestly I'm completely okay with it. I like to do. I love to serve. I like to make lists and shop and plan and make things with my hands. It's when I'm cooking a three course meal for a house full of people that I'm the happiest (as long as I don't run out of a key ingredient and my daughters aren't fighting at my feet). I know God wants to use this desire in me to bless the people in my life.

Years back, in a church kitchen prepping appetizers for a friends' wedding, the dear, tired, stressed-out Mother of the Bride turned to me, chef's knife in hand and said, "You know that Martha and Mary story? I think that's the only time our Lord got it wrong."

I don't think Jesus got it wrong. I think he loved Martha dearly. And I think, instead, that this passage has just been oversimplified until we interpret it to say "Work bad, sitting at Jesus feet good." The world needs both Martha and Mary, or at least the characteristics they've come to represent: the industrious hard working woman, and the teachable, relational woman. Personally, what I hope is to be a little bit of both.

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