Martha and Mary

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”

Luke‬ ‭10:38-42‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

For centuries this story has been read as two women quarrelling over the housework or food preparation. And it rather puts women in a no-win situation: it comes out clearly that Mary is better for sitting and listening and yet every woman knows the housework still needs doing, especially when visitors come round. 

I was thinking of this when I was watching someone’s post on Facebook of a video of a rather smug mother showing off about what a better mother she was than other people. She was talking about how she was bringing up her children to be respectful while other mothers clearly didn’t care. And realising full well the irony of telling myself a story about her to understand why she was telling herself stories about others, I couldn’t help noticing her expensive sports clothes, immaculate kitchen and other things that suggested she was rich, not working in a paid job and privileged. And I thought that she probably had no idea what the lives of the women she was criticising were like. We women can be really horrid and judgemental to each other. As in my post on defensiveness, I wonder whether this judgemental accusation is hiding our own weak ego, needing the reassurance that we aren’t wrong. 

So back to the Martha and Mary story, which for so long has frustrated me because it made me feel guilty about being so overwhelmed with my busyness that I don’t make time to sit still. I felt doubly got at: first I do more than my share of work and then I’m told that I’m wrong to do so! (See how I’d personalised it?!) The story pits the two sisters against each other and doubly seems to punish the hardworking one who is already exhausted. 

So I was fascinated to read a book by Mary Stromer Hanson which told the story differently. She pointed out that the King James translation has an extra word “also” in verse 39:

“And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” KJV Luke 10:39.

This goes back to the Greek but has been missed out in modern translations. The implication is that both Mary and Martha “sat at Jesus’s feet” (which is likely to be an idiomatic phrase describing their roles as his disciples – and therefore, as an aside, taking on a role that was clearly not just for men).

It goes on:

“But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭10:40‬ ‭KJV‬‬

There is no indication here that the “serving” is in the kitchen. It could equally be some other type of service, perhaps in a community, or even “ministry”. 

Jesus answers, and we have always read this as a rebuke, but try reading it again in a comforting voice, reassuring her that he has heard her worries and sympathises, but wants to remind her that the type of service Mary is doing (one which has led her to leave home and Martha, perhaps?), is good for Mary. 

“And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

‭‭Luke‬ ‭10:41-42‬ ‭KJV‬‬

Now, is this new reading more “right”? I don’t know, and from how I interpret spiritual truth (see earlier blogs on religious Truth), it doesn’t matter too much [any atheist reading this far who thinks this shows how you can read anything into the Bible and therefore it’s meaningless is missing my point as much as any Bible-literalist who thinks I’m wrong because I’ve looked at it differently from how they were taught…]  The point is, that how we read Jesus’s reply depends a lot on the story we’ve told ourselves about who Mary and Martha are. 

And maybe how we read other people’s parenting stories on Facebook depends a lot on the stories we tell ourselves about them. 

So let’s return to what Jesus might be saying here: Mary’s way (the type of work she does) is good (for her). You have your own burdens, Martha, and I sympathise, but you don’t solve those by stopping her following her path. 

So, whether we are mums or not, whether we work outside the home or with our families, whatever we do, let us not attack each other!

But one final contradictory word (because I like living on the contradictory edge) – when I do stop my busyness and just sit, I always benefit and know it is good. 

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