Mary and Martha were sisters who were friends of Jesus. As their story is often told, one day when Jesus was a guest in their home, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach while Martha toiled in the kitchen preparing a meal for him and his entourage. When Martha complained to Jesus that she needed Mary’s help, Jesus said Mary had chosen the better option. I’ve pondered that story a lot, but usually not while sitting still.
Years ago I was asked to paint a backdrop for a children’s musical at our former church. I asked an artistic friend to help me, but she turned me down. That afternoon, on my hands and knees alone in the church basement, painting a giant rainbow on heavy panels of plywood, I fumed. “She’s just a pious ‘Mary,’ all heavenly minded and no earthly good!” Then it hit me: Maybe Jesus didn’t correct Martha for cooking; maybe he corrected her for stewing.
Look at the story at the end of Luke 10. Jesus didn’t criticize Martha until… when? When she accused him of not caring that her sister was leaving all the work for her to do. Only then did Jesus tell her to ease off.
Hospitality vs. Entertainment
Some time after the painted rainbow incident I found a book that will always be on my Top Ten List. Open Heart, Open Home is still in print. One of the points in the book is the distinction between hospitality and entertaining. As the author Karen Mains defines the two words, hospitality means making your guest feel comfortable and welcome, which might include adding a few fancy touches in the guest’s honor. But when you’re concerned with the impression you’ll make for your skills as a decorator, cook, or host, then it becomes entertaining. Only recently, it occurred to me that Martha might have crossed that line. The narrator and Jesus both refer to this. Luke writes that Martha “was distracted with much serving,” and Jesus’ words to Martha include “you are anxious and troubled about many things.” Much serving, many things.
It’s hard to understand the meaning of Jesus’ next sentence, “One thing is needful.” Early texts didn’t have punctuation marks. So does “One thing is needful” refer to the next sentence that says Mary has made the better choice, or as some commentaries have suggested, does it refer to the previous sentence and imply the guests only needed one dish and not a five-course dinner? I don’t know.
I wonder how the story would go if Mary, instead of Martha, had complained to Jesus. What if Mary had said, “Jesus, you need to make my sister Martha come sit down and listen to you”? Would she have retained her traditional status as teacher’s pet? Or would Jesus have said, “Mary, I brought twelve men with me, and they’re getting hungry. Martha and I can talk after the meal while you wash the dishes.”
Balance in Our Lives
I think the lesson of Mary and Martha is that we all need balance, and we should not criticize how another person tries to balance his or her gifts. Balance doesn’t mean giving equal time to both approaches – five hours a day being like Mary and five a day being like Martha. Balance doesn’t necessarily mean symmetry. In a landscape, perfect bilateral symmetry is easy to design but hard to maintain. Install two matched plants on each side of a house, and one plant will inevitably languish while the other requires frequent pruning. Asymmetrical balance, on the other hand, is harder to design but easier to maintain. A tall plant on one side and a wide plant on the other are not identical but have similar visual weight. Each grows according to its natural inclination and requires less maintenance.
Like a good landscape design, the balance in our lives is easier to maintain if it acknowledges our natural inclinations. I admire Mary for wanting to learn and boldly taking a seat that was reserved for men in her day. I admire Martha for sacrificing that privilege even if she might have gone overboard in her efforts. I am also intrigued by the 17th-century Brother Lawrence, who managed to meditate at the same time his hands were busy in the priory kitchen.