Jesus walked into the middle of a family row when he visited his friends Martha & Mary (Luke 10:38-42).
I’m sure we’ve all had that kind of experience some time or another, to be a guest in front of whom the hosts quarrel. How embarrassing!
As Jesus was talking – we’re not told to whom, but perhaps including Lazarus their brother, whom Jesus raised from the dead – Mary sat at his feet as was the custom then, listening to Jesus speak. Martha, meanwhile, was making herself busy, tidying and preparing refreshments – a banquet perhaps, for their special guest. I imagine that Martha must have been fuming inside for quite a while - perhaps long before Jesus’s arrival - feeling that Mary was not pulling her weight about the house. Now here was Martha, dashing around like a mad thing, while her sister Mary just sat and listened with rapt attention to Jesus’s every word.
Finally Martha’s self-control snapped. She rushed in to Jesus and asked him, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ She deliberately involved Jesus, their guest, in their family row. She didn’t have to. She could have come in and had a quiet, private word with Mary to ask for help, but in her anger she tried to show her sister up in front of Jesus. How embarrassing it must have been for Jesus.
Jesus answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
It was a very mild rebuke. Jesus recognised that it was Martha’s worry and distraction that was the cause of her rudeness. But it was not for him to take Martha’s side in her row with Mary. He surely realised that what Mary needed at that moment was to listen to his words - her ‘better part, which will not be taken away from her’. And perhaps that is what Martha needed too.
‘There is need of only one thing’, Jesus tells Martha. I wonder what Jesus meant by this.
Was it that he didn’t want a big fuss made of him? No big dinner, but just a single, simple dish would be quite enough. Well, possibly – but surely there’s more to it than that.
Many Christians, particularly from contemplative or monastic traditions, have interpreted the one thing needed as to listen to Jesus’s words, as Mary chose to do. Does this suggest that those who work hard at practical tasks of service like Martha have chosen a lesser part? I don’t think this is what Jesus meant at all. Service to others was very important to Jesus - we need only remember the example of service Jesus gave to his disciples by washing their feet in John’s version of the Last Supper.
The truth is, surely, that God has not made everyone alike – some are dynamos of activity who can spend their lives in service to God and other people, while others are naturally quiet and more suited to a contemplative life. God needs his Marys and his Marthas too. And most of us alternate between these two poles at different times – when service becomes too stressful we need to take time out, to re-create ourselves, to listen to Jesus, so that we may return refreshed to serve.
I think the one thing needed must be something else. I wonder if it could be this - that Martha and Mary should love one another, whatever their petty differences, just as Jesus loved them both – as in the ‘new commandment’ which Jesus gave to his disciples, again in John’s version of the Last Supper.
I have a Martha at home – that is my wife Marty’s given name!
I think she must be close to sainthood to put up with me. She spends so much more time than me cooking and washing up, while I lock myself away in my office struggling to understand Jesus’s words in order to preach about them. I don’t think I am very good at noticing when this starts to irritate her, and I fear I often fail to recognise her needs for time out.
Martha’s problem, I believe, was not too much service, but that she became ‘worried and distracted by many things’, to use Jesus’s words. I think this is often a problem for people who give their lives in service. They may feel unable to admit to themselves when they need to take a break, and those around them may fail to notice their rising stress-levels. When the stress becomes too much, something snaps and they can break down in anger, or depression, or physical illness.
Clergy are not immune from this – you only have to look around our united dioceses to see it. At their ordination clergy vow to live a life of service ministering to God’s people. As parishes have got bigger and numbers fewer their job has become ever more challenging and demanding. And all too many suffer the consequences of stress.
We should pray for our clergy, that the Holy Spirit may give them the strength, not only to minister, but to know when to take a break or ask for help when they need it. We should cut them some slack when they do take a break. We should cultivate in ourselves the sensitivity Jesus showed to Martha and Mary. And we should love those called to minister to us – and show them our love - as Jesus loves us and shows us his love.
Let me finish with a prayer/poem for all of us who are Marthas
Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I've no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things or watching late with thee,
Or dreaming in the twilight or storming heaven's gates.
Make me a saint by getting meals or washing up the plates.
Although I must have Martha's hands, I too have Mary's mind.
And when I black the boots and shoes, thy sandals, Lord, I find.
I think of how they trod the earth when e’er I scrub the floor.
Accept this meditation, Lord, I haven't time for more.
Warm all the kitchen with thy love, and light it with thy peace,
Forgive me all my worrying and make all grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give us food in room or by the sea
Accept this service that I do - I do it unto thee.