As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
— Luke 10:38-42 (New Living Translation)
Doing and Being
This is not my favorite story, and I don’t think I’m alone. And it’s not because I’m a Martha, always working for the good of others. I’m actually more of a Mary, focusing my energies on the life of the spirit. But this story seems unfair to Martha, and I’m not happy with that. I don’t like the way it seems to pit the two sisters against each other. I don’t like Jesus calling out Martha as somehow less worthy of esteem.
I particularly don’t like the way this story demeans women’s work, when women’s work is what women were/are expected to do! Heaven help the woman who decides she’s not going to be a “doer” anymore. What would Thanksgiving Day be like if women decided they were going to focus on prayer and meditation (or watching football games with the men), instead of spending hours in the kitchen preparing the meal?
Once I get over being mad at the unfairness about the gender roles, I see that Jesus is giving the same type of advice he gives others at the end of the preceding chapter, when he says they must leave their important tasks to follow him. No, you can’t wait until after you bury your dead. No, you can’t return home and say goodbye. No, Martha, it doesn’t matter that you have other things to do. Come sit at my feet and learn from me.
These stories are uncomfortable. Maybe they’re supposed to be. They certainly get our attention. The altruistic physician Paul Farmer complains about the white liberals who want to change the world without inconveniencing themselves. Jesus calls us out of that complacency. He calls us to give up the things we cling to as signs of our identity, whether they are status, material objects, or busyness. He calls us to find a new identity in him.
This story works best when I read both Mary and Martha as aspects of myself. There is nothing wrong with taking action in the world – in fact, we are called to do so – but I can get so caught up in doing I forget to simply be. Taking time for prayer and reflection is more than a luxury. It is a necessity, if we are going to stay connected with the living God and gain sustenance for the busy do-ing to come.
How does being busy and distracted get in the way of your relationship with God? How might you make more time for hanging out with God this week?