About ten years ago Tim and I hired someone who saved our marriage. We hired a housecleaner.
Like so many couples, after 14 years we had established a pattern of wrangling over whom was doing more of the housework. Who was pulling more of his or her weight in the domestic triangle of kids, work and housework.
I myself strongly dislike housework. I did not inherit my mother’s genes that naturally motivate her toward the mop and broom. (Interestingly, though, my brother did.) If there’s a choice between reading a book or tidying the house, Tim and I will always choose the book. Yet we both feel the pressure and pleasure of a clean-enough house. Hence, the dilemma. So, after much wrestling with the decision, we bit the bullet and hired someone to help us twice a month. Thank you, Jesus, for our dear house cleaners!
In our story this morning, we get a peek into what essentially is a family tiff between Martha and Mary. A wrangling over who’s carrying the load. But there’s something more to it than as one southern preacher quipped: “Mary’s buns were the on floor while Martha’s biscuits were in the oven!”
The traditional reading of this story sets Martha against her sister, Mary, as Martha works hard to put dinner on the table for a house full of guests – the significant guest of course being Jesus, their family friend. The traditional interpretation of this story portrays Martha as a resentful woman with a martyr complex. I think most women can take issue with that and can relate to being saddled with the lion’s share of kitchen work. Now, I know many men can identify with her too – my husband certainly can. It doesn’t have to be kitchen work – we’ve all had experiences where we feel we are the one carrying most of the load and no one seems to notice. Unfortunately, resentment can cultivate a fertilizer for a bitter root to grow in our hearts.
The traditional interpretation of Martha being a person who has her priorities messed up has always sat uncomfortably with me. Yes, Martha complains to Jesus rather than directly to Mary about her sitting on her tush. Yes, Martha does try to get Jesus to notice that Mary is not pulling her weight; yes, Martha seems to want Jesus to use his influence to change the situation.
But maybe Martha was really trying to get Jesus to notice all she was doing… working hard offering her gifts for the others. Maybe she was bummed that she was not getting to take part in the fun. I think we “get” that. There are times we’d like someone to notice how much we are doing or how hard we are trying. We can feel like our work keeps us from joining in the fun that others are having.
And this kind of struggle is notorious between siblings. How often have we heard a child lament, “Mom, tell him to help me!”? Not only children complain about a sibling. There’s the adult brother or sister who feels resentful toward a sibling because they are burdened with most of the caregiving for their aging mom or dad.
So, before we reduce Martha to a whiny woman with a martyr complex, let’s take a fuller look at her character in other gospel stories. Martha, Mary and their brother, Lazarus, show up in John’s gospel.
In John’s story, word goes out to Jesus to come to see Lazarus who is very sick; they want Jesus to heal him. But Jesus strangely delays his visit and by the time he arrives near Bethany, their village, Lazarus is already dead and buried.
The John 11: 20 text says: When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’
Martha beelines to him while Mary stayed at home. (That’s what it says, Mary stayed at home. What is it with Mary and sitting?) Martha though is no shrinking violet. She’s directive. She’s confrontational. She says it like it is. She speaks the truth in love. Things get done when Martha’s around. I like that in a woman.
Armed with the truth, Martha knows that if Jesus had come earlier, her brother would still be alive. Martha is disappointed in Jesus – and she respectfully lets him have it. She speaks to him about the truth of who he is – saying, “I know you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” She is a friend to him – enough to know who he is and what he is capable of. That’s what friends do for each other. A friend reminds you who you are and what you are capable of.
Jesus sends her back home where Martha directs Mary to go out to see Jesus herself. Mary goes, and weeps at Jesus’ feet. Jesus is so moved by her emotion and that of his friends – anger and pain – he too is overcome with emotion. Dramatically, he calls, “Lazarus, come out!” Out of the grave his friend, Lazarus, emerges still wrapped in his grave clothes…but fully alive and ready for dinner, the text says!
And who do you guess makes and serves the dinner? John points out that it was Martha, of course!
What do we learn from this story?
First, Martha is one of the few characters in the gospels into whose emotional life we are allowed. She is a full and complex woman.
In the interactions between Jesus and Martha and Mary, we see strong emotions. Jesus doesn’t shrink back from Martha’s frustration – neither in this kitchen story nor in the Lazarus story. Martha’s frustration, and Mary’s weeping, are both received by Jesus as equally acceptable. In fact, so much so that he too is affected by the emotion of his dear friends.
Second, Jesus spoke directly to Martha’s worry and distraction. The Greek word used describing Martha’s feeling actually means “being pulled in all directions.” Martha was pulled in all directions. We can sympathize with her. Most of us feel pulled in so many directions we feel overwhelmed by the tasks at hand: family, work, guests, loved ones, children, church commitments, and the list goes on. I’ve been told that it doesn’t necessarily get better in retirement either.
Third, Jesus speaks gently to Martha: “Martha, Martha.” Essentially he is telling her “I care about you, not the dinner.” He points out that Mary, who is sitting at his feet and listening, has “chosen the better part.” And by that, we can see Mary’s non-action is a model for a follower of Jesus. He encourages stillness and contemplation. But not over and against the way of action. If we look at Martha’s service as one aspect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and Mary’s quiet stillness as the other side, we get a full picture of how we are to be as a follower of Jesus. It’s the yin and yang of discipleship.
We are called to action and contemplation; we are called to be Doers of the word and Hearers of the word. There isn’t one without the other.
The danger though is that our service will become tedious and overbearing if we don’t also commit to the disciplines of reflection and stillness. Our busy-ness will consume us and can rob us of our lives – perhaps literally. Our addiction to activity in our culture can siphon our life energy from us.
In our contemporary world, burnout and compassion fatigue are widespread problems for people in all walks of life. If we do not take the time to slow down, just a bit, to live in the relational Presence of God, we’ll forget both what we are doing, and why.
We have been convinced – tragically convinced – that God is more pleased with us when we are constantly working. My favorite bumper sticker says: “Jesus is coming again! Look busy.” The deception tells us if we don’t look busy, we might not be good enough or will be judged harshly by God or others. I have a friend who currently is considering taking time off from her professional life. But this decision is throwing her into an identity crisis. She’s asking: Who will I be without my work? What will people think? Is it acceptable to take a break from work?
We so easily forget that God’s commandment to “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy” was not made for God; the rest is for us. For our wholeness. For our peace. For our health. We need time to slow down, just a bit. A time for rest; a time for work; a time to speak; a time to be silent; a time to move; a time to sit still, as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
A little sign I saw at Laurel Lake retirement community yesterday said, “Resting is not idleness.” Resting can become a sacred pause. Each pause can become a moment of blessing. In fact, one of my favorite writers wrote: “Brewing a fresh cup of coffee and attending to it with the kind of presence that allows you to truly taste it is an act of mindfulness and a very good prayer.” (Marcrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses) A cup of coffee with a friend or coworker can be a prayer to God.
This resting applies to us as a community; we aren’t meant to “do it all.” In community we trust that if one person is in a season of productivity, then another is able to rest without guilt. If one is in a season of learning and prayer, another might be in a season of toil. If one person has ended her three-year term as an elder, she gets to lie fallow for a while. All together we witness to the fullness of our humanity just as God intends.
There’s a lot more in this little four-verse story than we see at first glance. There’s a lot to our Martha and all the “Marthas” like her. Let’s hear it for the Marthas! The servers, the deacons, the workers in our midst who give tireless devotion to meeting the needs of families, communities, and churches. They’re the ones whose work more often goes unrecognized.
Let’s also hear it for those who sit still! Those who pray for us; who learn and listen and sit on their tushes long enough to hear God’s voice. We need each other desperately, and God blesses us no matter what are our personalities and propensities.
We are beckoned to the table today. The table was prepared by servers; the Greek word for servers is diakonia. Deacon. One who serves. Behind this meal were men and women cutting bread, pouring juice, praying over and blessing us as they did their tasks so faithfully behind the scenes. And because of their faithful work, just like Martha, we get to enjoy this holy meal.
I know Martha would be pleased, and God is already glorified.