In Defense of Marthas

In Defense of Marthas

On Tuesday, the daily office lectionary included the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10. You probably remember it. You’ve probably heard sermons preached on it.

Jesus comes to their house and after the meal, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching while Martha busies herself and frets over the housework. Finally, exasperated, Martha asks Jesus if he even cares that Mary has left her to do all this work. Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

The lesson I took from all the Mary/Martha sermons I’ve heard over the years: don’t be such a Martha. Martha was superficial, trying to keep up appearances. Even worse, she was trying to earn Jesus’ favor by all her many works. In contrast, Mary knew what really mattered. Mary chose faith instead of works.

And, look—I hear that. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. And speaking as a pathological ‘Martha’, I want to take a moment to stand up for her, and all those other Marthas out there.

First, understand that Martha wasn’t trying to ignore Jesus. She was “distracted.” How many times have we desired to draw near to Jesus, but we are simply overwhelmed by distraction? Let him who has never checked Facebook in church cast the first iPhone.

Second, she was distracted with “much serving.” There were so many people who needed her, who depended on her, and—after all—isn’t the call of the Christian life to serve others? What’s Martha’s crime? Serving others too much?

If we pay attention to Jesus’ words, though, we see—as is so often the case—the heart issue that’s at the core of the situation. Notice that Jesus repeats Martha’s name. There’s pity in the words, but also love. Jesus isn’t rebuking someone he is angry with; he is trying to heal someone who is broken. He also diagnoses her perfectly: she is “anxious and troubled about many things.”

When we are in a state of anxiety, our mind fractures and scatters and our attention skips uselessly from one priority to another. We feel that we are channel-surfing, but never stopping long enough to understand what we are watching. We are able to achieve busyness, but not productivity.

In my experience, especially during this disrupted and anxiety-provoking season, restless anxiousness is the result of two competing and contradictory desires. I want to control everything in my world, and I want to run away from anything I can’t control. My desire for control sends me searching for tasks; my desire to run away keeps me skipping from one task to another. As a result, I am left “distracted” and “anxious and troubled about many things.”

Jesus is not scolding Martha; he’s writing her a prescription. He tells her a truth that just never sounds true to Marthas—”one thing is necessary.” When our world is out of control, it will never occur to us to let go of our desire to control. When we see so many priorities, it will never occur to us to attend to just one thing. When we see so many people to serve, it will never occur to us that we aren’t what they need.

It’s easy to hear Jesus’ words about Mary’s choice as a statement of her reward: she made the right call, so she gets the big prize. But that’s not what Jesus says. She chose the right portion. Jesus is explaining that the restlessness and anxiety Martha feels, that’s hunger. We are all hungry. Hungry for control. Hungry for approval. Above all, hungry for love.

Martha busied herself in the house because she really did think she could do it all. I can keep all the plates spinning, all the balls in the air. And just imagined how satisfying it will feel when I’ve done it.

Martha busied herself in the house because she saw the needs of others who needed her. I can save them. I can give them what they need. And just imagine how satisfying it will feel when I’ve done it.

Jesus tells Martha that those meals won’t satisfy. Those portions won’t be enough. Jesus invites Martha to taste the bread of life, which alone will satisfy. In this time, I encourage you to take recognize in yourself those feelings of distraction and anxiety. There’s nothing wrong with those feelings—in times like these, we are all looking for what we can manage, we are all thinking of the overwhelming needs of others and wishing we could fill them all.

But take those feelings and trace them to their source—trace them to that hunger. Then, asking for the Holy Spirit’s help, choose the portion that will satisfy. Choose the one necessary thing. Choose his presence. Choose his peace. Choose his love.