Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Martha, Mary, and Men

 Luke 10: 38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 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!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I have heard these verses and teachings on them since my youth.  The church I grew up in had a Dorcas Circle (we giggled), a Ruth Circle, and a Mary-Martha Circle.* There was a Martha-Mary Circle at the Lutheran church we attended when first married. Pretty much all the women in these church groups were Marthas, and they knew it, but tried hard to absorb the biblical lesson and take it to heart. They knew they had been corrected by their Lord and should reconsider their priorities. I have heard this lesson for over 50 years. I think generations of women deserve credit for the humility of noticing that their great efforts, that they know (quite accurately) are all that is keeping any particular congregation afloat, are still not quite the real point. Sitting, learning, worship are more important.

I have never once heard this lesson applied to men, neither by women in an accusing fashion (being motivated by guilt feelings likely prevents this) nor by men making the connection that it applies to them as well. Men show up to build steps over at the shelter, or paint walls at the soup kitchen, or mow the lawn at the church or spread salt in winter. They go over to the church camp and repair cabins or cut down trees. That is Martha-thinking. I absolutely fall into this myself, even though I think much more than most men about teaching and learning and understanding Christ.  I also think in terms of making coffee, setting up chairs, packing food for the Saturday distribution, slicing cheese, taking a turn in nursery, all of which are Martha-thinking.  What do we call it for men, Matthew and Marty?

*Circles were a combination of age cohorts and family tradition. The "younger women" might be part of Esther Circle, but a few of the younger women might be in Deborah Circle because their mother was, and their grandmother had been.  There would have been an interesting sociological study that some graduate student at Gustavus Adolphus, Vanderbilt, or other denominational college could have done in the 70s and 80s, but that was not interesting to them then. There was enormous data from brief interviews or even 10-question printed surveys mailed out to a thousand congregations, right there for the taking. Much more valuable than asking women what they thought of Germaine Greer's admonishment that they should taste their menstrual blood,  which hasn't had - how shall I put this - the long-term staying power and relevance that other issues have. It was valuable general information about women and group organisation independent of men, but it slid away.  This is why fashion is bad in academia.  It causes one to overlook all the important information in favor of the academic fads.


GraniteDad said...

Slightly off-topic, but I love the transformation that we see in Martha later in the Gospels. When Lazarus has died, it is Martha, not Mary, who runs out to greet Jesus and say that she knows he can do a miracle.
“When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.””
‭‭John‬ ‭11:20-22‬ ‭NLT‬‬

David Foster said...

You've probably already seen it, but in case you haven't, a Kipling poem inspired (very loosely) by the Mary and Martha story:


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Great link. Kipling may be the best exponent of why it was Martha who was really right. And on this plane, she was. It is too easy for those who take no responsibility to self-righteously claim the advantage. I think that is only available to those who have spent their lives in the first, and lesser tasks of Martha. I'm not sure it's valid to just jump up onto the Mary perch.

Thos. said...

I don't mean to throw any shade on the "Mary-thinking vs. Martha-thinking" angle to this story, as there is plenty that the careful penitent can learn from both mindsets. But a few years ago, as I was re-reading this story, I had a sudden flash where I saw it a bit differently, and it has changed how I interpret some of the stories about Jesus.

Suppose that Mary had been just straight-up goofing off and leaving Martha to do all of the work. Even then, I cannot picture Jesus responding to Martha's complaint with anything like, "You know what, you're right. Mary needs to get her act together."

Instead, regardless of the nature of Martha's gripe, Jesus is completely focused on her and what she can do at that moment to better follow Him.

I think He's always like that. Intensely focused on the individual in front of Him, and on helping that individual see what is necessary in that moment in order to "come follow me." Realistically, the difference between any two sheep (no matter how mangy the one and how pristine the other) is always going to pale compared to the difference between either of them and the Good Shepherd. No matter how well I may be doing in my life, were He to talk to me, I cannot think that He'd spend even a moment talking about someone else's failures; but I fully believe that He would immediately focus on whatever I need to hear in order to help me make the next step in becoming a better Christian - including helping me see where my focus is misplaced.

From that perspective, we're all Martha.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Wonderful point. It may be that there are ultimately no general lessons, only individual ones. Lewis made this point a number of times. Aslan does not tell anyone else's story to you. We are not actually told what happens to those East Asians who never heard of Christ. "What is that to you? Follow thou Me."

The Mad Soprano said...

I cannot hear "Dorcas Circle" and "Ruth Circle" without heating Dan McBride's Age Grading Song:

"They try to tell us they're too young./ They drop eight years and sometime ten./ When they say thirty-one,/ We know it's all in fun,/ Because they wont be thirty-nine again./ They very seldom tell the truth,/ That they belong in Dorcas, not in Ruth./ And if they continue to rebel,/ We'll put them all in P.T.L.!"

james said...

I think it was Erma Bombeck who wrote that being pregnant was like taking a cruise. You could be just sitting doing nothing, and still be making progress. (Although "just sitting" is a little less feasible after the first child...)

David Foster said...

I've wondered about Kipling's line that Martha was "rude to the Lord her guest"...I don't get any rudeness on her part from the biblical text, just a mistaken sense of priorities. You're much more of a Bible-reading man than I am, what do you think?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't find her comment all that rude either. It is likely true that in more hierarchical societies there may have been more of an attitude of "Don't trouble the Great Man," or anyone who was a guest, similar to the disciples shooing the children away. Kipling got English culture right, including what were probably the actual C of E beliefs on the ground. But he didn't get Christianity fully.

Texan99 said...

Complain to a guest that he's not rebuking someone else? Seems pretty rude to me.

The most helpful advice to me is "What is that to you? Follow thou Me." Mary may be making a mistake of her own kind, but Martha's problem is something different. While Kipling's poem should make all us slackers feel a cold shiver, Kipling himself was missing an important point--not that we need to concern ourselves with whether he was sufficiently upbraided at some point, but we don't need to go overboard choosing him as a perfect example, either. Some of are tempted to slacking while we supposedly "focus on greater things," while others are tempted to using busybody franticness to avoid thinking about the hard stuff. The old "I worked my fingers to the bone, how can you complain I never made emotional contact or kept my word?"

Texan99 said...

"What is that to thee?" I guess.