June 13, 2010

Hi, My Name is Margaret, But You Can Call Me Martha

I love that one of Jesus' favorite places seems to have been the home of a couple of sisters from Bethany. We don't know if their brother, Lazarus, lived there as well, but it appears that Martha and Mary shared the house and that they were both single. There is no clearer person in the New Testament to whom I can personally relate than Martha.

Like Martha, I am task-oriented. Like Martha, I am often irritated when I feel like I'm doing the tasks from which everyone else benefits but for which no one else is willing to do the work. Like Martha, I often turn to Jesus and tell him exactly what I'm thinking. Like Martha, I often ask him why he couldn't do this or that.

To be honest, deep down, I have always thought that Martha gets a bum rap. She had guests to feed. What woman, other than her sister Mary, would ignore the physical needs of her guests? If Jesus had not chastised Martha himself, I'd think we were making too much of her request for help. But he did chastise Martha, and as a result, I have to confront those Martha-tendencies in myself.

The irony here, is that I think Martha was doing her best to be a Proverbs 31 kind of woman...the same woman I went after in my last post. I see Martha as the flip (single) side of the same task-oriented coin on which the Proverbs 31 woman represents married women. I'm sure Martha was up before dawn and that she worked late into the night to provide for herself and her younger sister, Mary. (Clearly, Mary wasn't any help at all.) She didn't have servants or there would have been no need for her to ask for Mary's help.

I'm sure Martha feared the Lord. Aside from marital status, the main difference between Martha and the woman King Lemuel's mom told him about is that Martha puts a human face on the desire to do it all, and to do it all perfectly. But we haven't built a cottage industry on teaching women to become like Martha. We don't push the boundaries of idolatry with Martha. Instead of looking up to Martha, we look down on her. We don't look down on her because she was single or because she was childless. We look down on Martha because Jesus told her that her priorities, noble as they were, were misplaced.

How does Jesus respond to her focus on her tasks? In a nutshell, he tells her that it's not possible to do everything. He tells her she will have to make choices, and that those tasks on which she has placed so much importance are not as important as relationships...particularly a relationship with him.

The section about Jesus' visit to the home in Luke 10 begins by telling us that "Martha opened her home to him." I don't know how many people Jesus had with traveling with him, but I imagine it might have included all 12 disciples, and possibly others who tagged along. Opening her home to Jesus was a big deal. It meant a lot of preparation. It meant feeding her guests. (Did they have potluck dinners then?) Hospitality was a top priority in her culture and Martha was just trying to do everything she could to make sure everything was perfect for her guests. She must have worked very hard to have enough food to feed such a large group. She took the responsibilities of a hostess very seriously.

I fully understand Martha's attention to the task at hand. If she didn't do it, who would? I can picture her in the kitchen, slamming things down and wondering if Mary would ever take the hint to come help. Sure, Jesus had fed thousands from a few loaves and fishes, but Martha couldn't very well ask a guest if he was planning to whip up dinner, could she? As Mary sat at the feet of Jesus oblivious to the bad vibes coming from the kitchen, did Jesus hear the sounds and know what Mary was thinking? I'm going with "yes" on that one.

Perhaps because of my affinity with Martha, this story has always felt like Jesus is talking directly to me. I have often wondered if there was more to the conversation in Luke 10 than was recorded. When Martha interrupted Jesus to ask him to tell Mary to help, did Jesus ask Martha why she was so focused on food preparation? It would have been like him to remind her of previous miracles...did he in this instance? Would she have mumbled something in response about trying to be like the Proverbs 31 woman? Or do the words that were recorded reflect everything that Jesus said to Martha on the subject?

"Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Did Martha have an "aha" moment and join Mary at Jesus' feet, or did she just turn around and go back into the kitchen to finish dinner, no doubt feeling rather embarrassed?

We don't know. 

We do know that in her quest to be the perfect hostess, she created an awkward moment for her guests. We know that she put the guest of honor on the spot, asking him to mediate a case of sibling rivalry. We know that her quest to do everything - and to do it perfectly - left her frazzled, angry, and perhaps a shade bitter.

We also know that she softened after that event, while still maintaining her frank demeanor. Along with Mary, Martha continued to have a close relationship with Jesus. When the sisters' brother, Lazarus died, both sisters greeted Jesus with the same phrase, "Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Mary fell at His feet before uttering the phrase. Ever the task-oriented woman, Martha spoke to Jesus standing up, and made it a point to assure Jesus that she knew that God would give him whatever he asked. With my Baptist sensibility and restraint, I relate more to Martha. But it was the emotional plea of Mary that he responded to, filling with emotion himself.

The last time we see Martha is at a dinner before Passover, when Mary poured perfume on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair, the symbolic preparation of his body for burial. Martha served, in silence, finally learning to accept that we are all equipped in different ways. She was gifted to serve. Again, I can relate. I wonder if Martha, like Mary, understood the prophecy that was about to be played out. Did she recognize the full significance of the evening? Was she so filled with emotion that she turned to her tasks, to keep from showing her grief at the thought of what was to come?

The Holy Spirit had not yet inhabited followers of Christ, but Martha had learned the fruit of the Spirit directly from Jesus: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. We don't need to try to be the Proverbs 31 woman when we bear that kind of fruit.

Martha Margaret


  1. this is preaching, sister! i mean PREACHING!
    and very anointed preaching, to boot.

    i love this so much.

    thank you for not being ashamed of your
    'martha' tendencies. i have many, too. He
    has added so many 'mary' qualities to your

  2. Thanks, Lea! You have lots of Mary in you, too. You are a born nurturer.

  3. Great job yet again Margret. I know I struggle with yearning to be Mary in a Martha world.

  4. Carol - Follow the urge to be Mary. We need more of them!