With the exception of the Woman of Valor described in Proverbs 31, I don’t think there is a female in all of scripture that Christian women use to beat themselves up more than poor old Martha.
You remember Martha, right? Yes, yes. Mary’s sister. The nagging one.
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!
I mean, can’t you just hear the whine in her voice?!
Martha gets it wrong.
Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is to be admired. We imagine her so calm and doe-eyed, staring up at Jesus in full adoration. This is a woman who doesn’t overload her schedule and has time for a morning devotion (and probably doesn’t yell at her kids either!)
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
“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.”
Mary gets it right.
It’s practically a rite of passage in female Christendom to utter the phrase “I just want to be more of a Mary!”.
I feel in my clamoring to be this “Mary” figure, I close myself off from learning what scripture has to teach me about discipleship from Martha.
It is far too easy to take our preconceived assumptions of people in scripture and allow them to not only taint how we see their role in God’s story, but also causes us to miss some important things.
Take for example Euodia and Syntyche that Paul mentions in the close of his letter to the churches of Philippi. He urges them to be of one mind and I immediately imagine a cat fight between two girls who just can’t get along. Probably over something dumb, too.
Christian commentaries, blogs and sermons declare everything from gossip to the ‘overly sensitive feminine nature’ to jealousy for this alleged spat between Euodia and Syntyche.
But as I was studying this passage last year one of the women in my group pointed out how there isn’t actually any indication that they were fighting, let alone in some petulant spat.
In painting them -whether in my own imagination or from the pulpit or in a commentary – as little women who are petty and problematic – I miss that Paul was simply speaking to two of his co-workers, probably prominent women in the church, and the importance of reminding us to strive for unity in the faith when facing mounting persecution. What I actually see when I take a unbiased look is a plea for these two women to be encouraged and supported by the church members as they participate in the work of the gospel. Maybe there were differences or maybe this was just an exhortation to keep running the race.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same
mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal
companion, help these women, for they have struggled
beside me in the work of the gospel, together with
Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names
are in the book of life
Even if they were disagreeing, I miss so much when I allow them to become caricatures in my head and especially when those caricatures serve to perpetuate silly stereotypes.
Going back to Mary and Martha – another pair of women always presented in the context of a petty female spat. They have almost become two dimensional and unless I go back with fresh eyes to look at scripture, I just keep veering further and further off course in my perspective.
Mary and Martha. One right, one wrong. And I have to pick which one to be. I have to condemn one and strive for the other. That is how it gets set up.
I wish I wasn’t such a Martha!
I want to be more of a Mary!
Who says we have to choose?
Who says we even should choose?
I am not a Mary or a Martha, I’m a Kirsten (okay, I’m also a ‘Kristin’ a lot too 😂)
I love Mary for her devotion to Jesus and her audacity in learning as a disciple. But actually, just because Jesus doesn’t give in to Martha’s request, doesn’t mean she isn’t also audacious and devoted.
In chapter 11 of John’s gospel, we get a glimpse of the tender love that Jesus has for these two sisters as well as their brother Lazarus. After Lazarus dies Jesus comes to Bethany, just look at what Martha does:
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Martha’s faith is astounding.
Martha’s faith is active.
Martha appears to be a woman SO secure in her standing with Jesus and His authority that she can confidently declare these things to her Rabbi. She is not afraid, she is emboldened.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha is not only theologically astute but this knowledge has transformed her mind and her heart and she believes. This is a far cry from the image I have in my head of the woman too busy to sit at the feet of Jesus.
Even when we return back to that story from Luke, when I re-read it with fresh eyes and no previous caricatures in mind, I no longer see a frazzled, nagging, nit-picking sister who is missing Jesus – that is simply the narrative I have chosen to accept all these years.
What I see is that same active faith as when she confronted Him about Lazarus.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.
The word used to describe what Martha is doing is simply the greek diakonian – the general word used for serving and ministering, where we get the word “deacon”. It is at the very heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry on Earth to be a diakanos (minister/servant) or to engage in ‘diakonian’ (ministry/service). Anyone who serves – whether as a housewife or a nurse or a teacher or a pastor or a social worker – knows the concerns and distractions that come with such work. It’s overwhelming the amount of people to care for in this world. Martha is well aware of the importance of this serving ministry to Jesus.
There is absolutely NO indication in this passage that Martha is stressing over some Pinterest perfect dinner party and has just over scheduled herself and can’t sit and have a quiet time with her Lord.
She is a diakanos. A servant. She is someone who is intimately acquainted with Jesus and his ministry and his friendship. It is true that he does not give into her request, corrects her thinking, and honors what Mary is doing, but that doesn’t mean we have to paint them in such a black and white fashion and pit them against one another.
Mary and Martha were both honored by Jesus, just as I believe Euodia and Syntyche were both honored by Paul. Let us not fall into the dangerous trap of reading scripture without a sense of nuance.
It’s true we don’t have all the details, but why do I have to believe the two dimensional, shallow version of Martha rather than believing that she is a woman of depth, service, theological understanding and strong faith?
She is a woman on her own unique journey with Jesus.
So even though I love Mary and what we get from his words about her in this passage, I also seek to be like Martha.
Jesus give me a Martha spirit. May I be SO intimately acquainted that I can make bold claims of you because I have bold faith in you.
Jesus give me a Martha spirit. May I be one who serves and ministers the least of these.
Jesus give me a Martha spirit. So that I too will be a woman who is quick to run to you first – even if you have to correct me a million times on the way because I miss the bigger picture.
Jesus give me a Martha spirit. May I be as much a devoted and audacious disciple as her!
Most of all Jesus, help me to read scripture with fresh eyes, to set aside my assumptions and caricatures to more clearly see the depth of what it means to follow you.
Lord help me to look beyond the black and white easy answers of who is right and who is wrong, who nails it and who fails. Help me extend more grace to the men and women I see on the pages of scripture and in my day to day life.
Lord remind me that I don’t have to pit one person against another in order to be affirmed in my choices. Lord help me to not perpetuate harmful stereotypes based on race or gender or theological affiliation.
I am both the pharisee and the sinner, the wounded and the healer, the leader and the follower, the Mary and the Martha. There is room at Your table for all I bring with me.