Saturday, February 17, 2007

What’s The Matter With Martha?

I used to want a housekeeper. I used to be infinitely jealous of women who could afford to have someone else clean their bathrooms, mop their kitchen floor, and scrub their sinks. This was until I had one of my own. Well, I didn’t really “have” her; my mom sent her to me. Whether this was to dangle a golden carrot in my face or encourage me to sweep more often, I can’t say. But Carol came, soft-spoken, tidy, and determined, armed with a battalion of mops and a remote control vacuum. Several hours later, I returned home to paradise. How lovely, I thought. Several friends were coming over that afternoon and finally, I’d have a clean house to share.

Come they did, and together we had a grand total of thirteen kids under six. Less than half an hour after Carol left, five boys who had been digging in the mud, ran bellowing through my kitchen, up the stairs, across the carpet, and into the boys’ room where they crammed themselves into a closet, shaking dirt clods onto the clothes and toys. My friend’s toddler discovered an abandoned, half-drunk can of apple juice, which he spilled in a long slow stream from the coffee table, down the hall, and into the kitchen. On any other day, I’d have casually mopped up the apple juice and handed my boys the vacuum when their friends left. But today, I turned into a neurotic clean freak, chasing down and scolding the boys, and tracking the toddler with a soapy dishtowel. This is why I shouldn’t have a cleaning lady. I don’t want the emotional investment I have in a clean house to be a barrier to hospitality.

Did you know the Bible actually has a neatnik? The much maligned Martha of Bethany, sister to Mary the Mellow and Lazarus the Resurrected. In the gospel of Luke, we read that Martha invited Jesus to stay with her family. While she cooked and cleaned, Mary sat and listened to Jesus. Frustrated, Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds (Luke10:41-42), “Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details. There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Whenever we hear the story of these sisters, it’s usually hailing the grace and virtue of Mary, her attention to Jesus, her knack at prioritizing, and her tolerance for burned food and a messy house. Martha is condemned as the busy big sister, the control freak, the perfectionist who couldn’t “let go and let God.” This has always bugged me. I’m kind of annoyed that Martha gets the raw end of the theological deal. No one applauds her efforts, compliments her fig and honey compote, or admires her clean, plank wood floors. It’s as if she only made it into the text because we needed a bad example. No one seems to remember that she initiated the hospitality, and is doing her best to welcome the Son of God into her home.

What we fail to understand when we revere Mary and disparage Martha is Jesus wasn’t criticizing what either of them was doing. He chastises Martha for her derogatory comments about her sister, not for making him dinner. Jesus doesn’t say the details that concern Martha don’t need to be taken care of, but that the value she places on them is too high. She is so caught up in being a hostess that she has forgotten her guest.

We don’t live in a “Mary” world. As moms, we are “Marthas” by necessity. We can cook dinner, help with homework, fill a juice cup, nurse a baby, and listen all at the same time. Try to be like Mary and your laundry will pile up, cockroaches will move into your kitchen, and your kids will get rickets. Jesus is not suggesting that we quit doing what needs to be done so we can sit around thinking about God, but that we regard the essential details of our lives with a heavenly perspective.

Later in the Bible, Martha gets it right. When her brother dies, Jesus is the first person she turns to, the one she runs out to meet (while Mary, ironically, stays at home), boldly proclaiming her faith in spite of overwhelming grief. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God,” she says in John 11:27.

Let’s be like Martha, faithfully listening and responding to to the gentle voice that warns us not to be so caught up in the minutiae of life, that we forget the Life Giver. I don’t want to get to heaven and have God ask me why I was worried and upset about the details.

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