“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 NIV
I feel so bad for Martha when I listen to most interpretations out there about who Martha was and what she represents. Martha gets such a bad rep. She is viewed as the “ungodly,” “volatile,” “overbearing,” “overcritical” woman who does not know when to sit still and just be. We condemn her and judge her based on this one moment.
Have you ever been misjudged based on something you said or did in a particular situation? You know your behavior was wrong, but to have your character slandered and attacked over it is a harsh consequence! It doesn’t fit the crime. Especially when you know you have shown up and proven your integrity in so many other situations.
Why are all the good things we do or say so easily forgotten, while one bad choice can be imprinted in someone’s mind forever?
So yes, when I read this, I feel like telling Jesus, “Really Jesus? Don’t you see she is overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure right now?”
When I hear Martha being described as a “woman of the world” and compared to Mary, “the embodiment of Godliness,” I feel the need to protect Martha. I can imagine Martha battling with the thought that her sister exists only to be a constant reminder of everything she was not!
I started writing about this to shed new light on Martha and set the record straight. But here’s the thing. This part of the scripture does not give us enough information to make an accurate assessment of Martha and Mary. How can we get a true understanding of what Martha and Mary were like, just from one moment in their lives, without looking at the big picture?
Can you imagine how much pressure Martha was under? I mean, Jesus was a distinguished guest. I am sure that He had other invitations and could have visited anyone else in town, but he chose to visit Martha’s house. Moreover, some parts of the scripture indicate that He brought a party of men with Him. And that’s fine. Martha was welcoming and willing to be a great host. But Martha had to show up and show out and make sure that the house was in order and that she took care of her guests.
Listen, I am not saying that Martha was right in speaking to Jesus and her sister so harshly. I mean, after all, the scripture says that she opened the door to Him. She invited Him over, just to turn around and now make it Mary’s problem.
How many times do we take matters into our hands and assume our partner or loved one will support us without including them in the decision-making process in the first place? Martha clearly made an assumption, and when her expectation was not met, she lashed out. And that is not o.k.
Hear me out, though! Here is how I imagine things may have played out. I see a Martha who has been working all day, trying to make sure the house is clean and in order, preparing dinner, and taking care of every little detail that needs to be taken care of when you host a dinner. I see her stretching herself past her limit to accomplish her task. So when Martha lashes out and starts fussing at both her and Jesus, I know it’s wrong, but it would be hypocritical to condemn her.
How many times have I spoken to my kids in a harsh tone or a coworker in a frustrated tone because I was too overwhelmed with juggling too many things at the same time? I have been there done that, so I can hardly condemn Martha for behaving in this way.
I wonder if Martha had too much pride to show vulnerability. Beneath her remarks, I hear a woman trying to say she is overwhelmed.
I wonder if she could have been transparent about this, what would have been Jesus’ response? And would this have moved Mary? How many times do we accuse our loved ones of not caring for us when all we could say is, “Hey, I am feeling overwhelmed right now! It would mean so much to me if you helped me out!” But who wants to appear weak and overwhelmed, right? We tend to lash out and blame others before considering asking for help or showing any “weakness.”
I am sure Martha wanted to make sure she stepped up to the occasion. I wonder if she thought she was not doing enough, she wasn’t showing up enough, her performance was not enough to meet what she thought was everyone’s expectation of her. And I wonder if the fear of her perceived inadequacy being exposed was just too much for her to bear! She just had to blame someone else for it. So, let’s blame Mary for taking a break, and let’s blame Jesus for allowing this! Is it terrible that I have been guilty of this? That I have blamed others for my own shortcomings?
Yes, I can relate to Martha. However, in this version of how things went down, I can understand why Mary appeared unmoved by Martha’s plea for help disguised as harsh criticism. Mary probably knew that Martha would still be lashing out and losing her temper no matter what she did. Martha’s need for perfection was like a bottomless well. Unless Martha learns that she is worthy and can come to Jesus as she is, the house could always be cleaner, the food could always taste better, and the guests could always be more impressed with her hospitality. Can you see how nothing Mary could have done would have changed this?
I realize now that things were not so different back then. Nowadays, we try to appear perfect to the world around us too. In today’s world, we would not read about this in the scriptures. Instead, we would see pictures of all the happy faces and matching outfits in a perfect house and a nicely set the table with an amazing variety of dishes spread out nicely on the table. Nobody would know, judging from the pictures, that there was any drama. It’s funny how a pen and paper delivered a more honest and raw picture than technology would now.
How can we criticize people’s need to appear “perfect” when we are creating this environment with our judgment and harsh criticism? By being so condemning, we deliver the message that it is not acceptable to be anything short of perfect. Isn’t it ironic that Martha caused a commotion that upset others and ruined the vibe in her attempt to people-please? I mean, to this day, we are still discussing Martha’s flaws when all she was trying to do, was hide them. This is normally what happens when our fears drive us. When we allow our fears to take the wheel, they lead us straight in the direction of what we fear the most.
Maybe Martha wanted to say, “I am sorry, Jesus, you deserve to walk into a spotless house and to eat a perfect dinner and have a perfect experience, and I am afraid that I am not able to deliver that!”
What do you see when you read this scripture? Do you see a Mary who had been helping Martha all day? Despite having this task of hosting Jesus forced upon her, a Mary who was working hard to ensure everything went smoothly? Maybe she just stopped for a moment. How did she feel when Martha embarrassed her like this in front of everyone? Do you see a Mary who knows when it is time to serve and when it is time to practice self-care? Do you relate with Mary? Do you find yourself working and helping your partner or loved ones out to turn around and get fussed at the moment you are not doing so?
I wonder if Mary felt guilty for sitting at Jesus’ feet and needed to hear His reassurance when he said she had made the right choice! Maybe that’s what we need to hear when we choose self-care, and we feel guilty or selfish for doing the things that feed our soul, as opposed to doing what others expect of us or what we have been conditioned to think we should be doing.
Whatever version of Mary and Martha we hold, I believe that we all have some Martha and some Mary in us. One of the two may be more dominant than the other. I looked at Mary as an ideal for some time. I even tried to reject the “Martha” in me, only to find myself falling short of paying bills on time and keeping the house clean, neat, and organized.
Listen, we live in this world, and we have to find a balance between the things of this world and the spiritual world to navigate through life.
Maybe the goal is not to be more Mary and nothing like Martha. The Martha in us needs to be appreciated. She needs a pat on the shoulder sometimes. She needs to be reminded that she is enough as she is, flaws and all. The Mary in us needs to be taken into consideration and given the liberty and the space to show up for others in a way that resonates with her, without conforming to the world’s expectations. It would be ideal to receive this kind of support from our loved ones, but both needs can be met from within us. We can meet our need to be reminded that we are enough by telling ourselves that. Likewise, we can permit ourselves to hold space for the Mary in us. This approach would create the right environment for our personalities’ two opposite aspects to work together in harmony.
The same applies to those of us who are “Martha’s” in a partnership or married to a “Mary.” How can we both appreciate and consider the other more? How can we allow our partners to show up for us on their time and in their own way? Notice how, we too, make assumptions and experience disappointments when our partners don’t meet our expectations. But did we ever stop to have a conversation with our partner to establish and customize each other’s expectations based on our own personalities, values, and goals?
Unmet expectations result in disconnection and keep us in an environment of contempt, resentment, and hostility.
Is there co-dependency here? How are we enabling our partners to continue using us as an emotional crutch or as their caregiver or personal assistant? Nobody made us act as their therapist. Nobody made us do all the things we do for them. Nobody made us do their part on their behalf. If we continue blaming our partner without taking ownership of what we are doing to create and sustain this dynamic, this pattern will continue repeating until we learn the lesson.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”Anais Nin
The way we see Martha and Mary reflects that part of us that we are projecting onto them. Do you see a Martha who is highly conscientious or borderline neurotic? Do you see a lazy Mary or a Mary who is mindful, spiritual, and agreeable? Maybe there is no information about Martha and Mary’s lives outside of this moment for a reason. Maybe the point of the passage was to leave out the big picture.
The lack of detail creates a space for us to relate. It is raw enough to relate to it viscerally but mysterious enough that we can all relate to it differently in our own unique way.
The challenge lies in observing how we relate to it and looking at it as a reflection of who we are and not who Martha and Mary were. But, this requires a level of honesty and transparency that may be too painful. It is easier to condemn Martha and put Mary on a pedestal. In doing so, we do not have to look within to see how we are similar to Martha or how we can benefit from being more like Mary. Both are now beyond our reach! Through condemnation or idolization, we shut down any opportunity for introspection and growth.