For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the traditional version is this.
Jesus and his friends went to stay with two sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary spent her time sitting with Jesus and listening to all his stories, whereas Martha was trying to keep up with all the housework. Finally Martha got fed up and went to Jesus. "Don't you care that I'm doing all the work while Mary just sits here?" she asked him. "Can't you tell her to help?" But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do. Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."
|Source: Wikimedia Commons|
(I rather like this picture. Martha looks like she might just lob a dead bird at Jesus if he doesn't get up and help, pronto.)
Or the meme version:
This is Martha.
Martha runs around doing all the work.
This is Mary.
Mary sits and listens to Jesus.
Don't be like Martha.
Be like Mary.
Mary, clearly, is the one who has her priorities right in this story. But you won't be surprised to hear that I have some sympathy with Martha. After all, the work needed doing - she had a house full of people to look after. Was she being unreasonable?
I think Martha was being very reasonable to stop and ask for help. Because we don't, do we? We soldier on, listening to our families sitting around, waiting in vain for them to realise what we want them to do. We'll make cryptic comments, or hold whole conversations inside our own heads, but we'll never ask, because it should be obvious what needs doing!
But Martha asked. So either she was desperate, or she was better than most of us at recognising her passive-aggressive tendencies. At any rate, she went to Jesus and asked for what she needed. And Jesus, as he did so often, looked at her and told her that actually, she needed something else.
The question is, how did he do it? If you re-read the story, you'll see that it stops on quite a cliffhanger. Jesus has uttered his nice neat phrase, but then what? Does Martha sit down? Or throw a dead bird at him? Here are a few more possibilities.
1 But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do. Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her." Mary smiled smugly at Martha. Then Mary and Jesus turned away and continued their conversation. Martha stood there for a moment, then returned to the kitchen and vented her anger on the pots and pans, muttering darkly about people who just turned up at other people's house and expected to be fed. Jesus shook his head sadly. "Some people just don't get it, do they Mary?"
2 But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do. Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her." Martha hesitated, thinking of everything that needed to be done, but Jesus patted the seat next to him. "Come on Martha, I've hardly seen you. We don't mind if lunch is a bit late. Sit with us a few minutes, and then Mary will come and help. Won't you, Mary?"
3 But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do. Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her." There was a pause. Then Jesus grinned. "You know I'm right, Martha, but we have been a bit selfish, letting you run around and take care of us. Come on Mary, you help in the kitchen. Peter, why don't you lay the table, John can carve the lamb, and I'll sort out the bread and wine. We'll have dinner ready in no time, and then Martha and I can have a nice chat in the garden this afternoon."
Which scenario would you prefer? Or do you think there was a different ending?
Talking of endings, all the ones I tried for this post didn't seem to work. Should I discuss how we often seem to value the Marthas more than the Marys in our churches? Should I talk about how our perception of Jesus' likely actions is influenced by our culture and experiences? Should I say that the Christian faith can often feel like another list of things to do, not an invitation to stop and listen?
Or should I say that to me, the only way the Christian story makes any sense is by understanding it as Jesus alongside us. If he is not in the mess and the pain and the busyness with us, right there, feeling it with us, then the whole thing falls apart. We are left with a God who sits on a heavenly cushion and issues unhelpful memes about how it would all be fine if we'd just do things a bit differently. "Don't be like Martha. Be like Mary."
But I think Martha could say, "Don't you care...?" to Jesus because she knew he did care. Because she knew he wouldn't belittle her for asking for help. And I think that as Jesus worked alongside Martha, and as she learned more about what it was to work alongside him, then she understood why he said that about the better part, too.
I was going to say that we can never know what the ending to the story is. That's partly true. We don't know what happened to Mary and Martha that day. But we can find out what happens when we have a similar story in our own lives. Does it stop with an unhelpful meme? Or does it continue as we learn to work alongside Jesus, and as he teaches us how to find the better part, which won't be taken away.