Martha’s problem- too busy, or too unhappy?

Pentecost 9

Luke 10: 38-40

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who values and delights in each of us in our own way and desires that we are true to ourselves. Amen.

We all hate martyrs don’t we? By this I don’t mean that we hate those who are martyrs in the true sense of the word – those who have given their lives for their faith, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Oscar Romeros and so on. People such as they rightfully command our attention and our admiration. No I mean the martyrs who are martyrs of their own making. Those who demand that we notice how busy, how put upon, in short how “good” they are. I mean those who take on things that they would rather not and then whine and moan that no one helps them or that no one recognises how much they are doing/how much they have to do. Such people have no joy in the task in which they are engaged and very often suck the life out of those around them. The reasons for their taking on more than they really want to could be the result of any number of things. They might think that they will receive recognition and thanks, a sense of importance in the eyes of other for doing something no one else seems to want to do. Sadly, because they take no delight in what they are doing, the effect of their overwork is the opposite of that they had hoped for. Instead of being commended, they are seen as kill-joys at worst and attentions seekers at best.

The interpretation of the Mary/Martha narrative with which I grew up and one that has haunted more than a generation of happily busy women, suggests that because Jesus commends Mary and censures Martha, that he values contemplation more than work. How often have you heard someone (usually a woman) say rather guiltily, ‘I’m only a Martha’ as they uncomplainingly pour yet another cup of tea at a Parish function. This view has been very damaging to many women in the church who are left feeling that their contribution is somehow lacking because it is not spiritual enough. At the same time their contribution has been undervalued, because making jams for the church fete and ensuring that churches and halls are kept clean has not been seen as the real work of the church[1].

A better way to view the story is to see it as an illustration of need for balance in our lives, to understand that it teaches that our times of busyness will be more fruitful and less stressful if they are sustained by prayer, and that a healthy spiritual life is one in which time is spent with God informs and guides what we do, so that what we do is not banal and empty, but infused with the presence of God. Martha and Mary are opposites who demonstrates that action and contemplation are both necessary for a life lived in the presence of God.

A feminist view of this account identifies the fact that Luke effectively silences both women. Martha is censured for feeling burdened and Mary’s silence is commended. Neither woman is given a voice, which is interesting given that in John’s gospel both women play prominent roles in the community.

Then there is, to me, the most compelling interpretation. It is not that Martha is too busy or that Martha is not holy enough. Jesus problem is that she is not happy enough.

Jesus has apparently dropped in on the pair unexpectedly. Hospitality was an important cultural norm. The women would be expected to provide Jesus with food and shelter. That didn’t mean providing a feast, it simply meant sharing what they had. Why then is Martha so upset, what are the “many tasks” that are driving her to distraction? We can only guess that Martha is not so much focused on making Jesus at home, but on impressing him with her culinary and housekeeping skills.

Martha appears to be doing more than is required. The problem is not what she is doing, but that she is getting no pleasure from her endeavours. She has taken on too much and no one seems to have noticed or if they have, they don’t care! it appears that what Martha wants, is not just to ensure that Jesus is fed and comfortable, but for Jesus to appreciate her efforts, to commend what she is doing and to confirm what she believes – that it is she, not Mary, who is doing what is necessary.

Martha does not have the insight to recognise that both she and Mary have a choice as to how they exercise hospitality. Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus first and to worry about other details later. Martha has given other things priority and now that those things have overwhelmed her, she looking for someone to blame for her distress and is wanting to draw Mary into the maelstrom of her distress.

It is important to recognise that there is nothing wrong with being busy If no one did anything the world would grind to a stop. So the issue here is not that Martha is working rather than listening, but that what she does is driven by a sense of self-importance or a desire for recognition.

Jesus’ interaction with the two sisters is a reminder that there is not a tension between prayer and work or that one is superior to the other. Both are necessary and it is our task to find the balance that works best for us. Underlying the narrative is the reminder that our faith is intended to be a source of freedom, peace and joy. Faith is not, and was never intended to be a burden, a struggle or an imposition.

Martha’s unhappiness stemmed from a belief that she needed to earn Jesus’ recognition and regard. Mary’s better part is not so much that she prays rather than works, but that in contrast to Martha she knows without needing to be told, just how much she is loved and just how little she had to do (has to do) to warrant that love.

[1] This despite the fact that many Australian churches have been built on the sales at church fetes and many continue to rely on cake stalls for their survival.

 

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , ,


%d bloggers like this: