Martha of Bethany: Finding the Main Course
Why does Martha of Bethany have such a bad reputation? Because she’s so organized? Because she complained to Jesus? (I like that about her; it takes some chops to complain to The Guy.)
Here’s the well-known part of her story (Luke 10:38-42): Martha is cooking dinner for Jesus and the disciples. Sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening. Martha needs help. Well, really, wouldn’t you? (It’s not like the disciples are falling over themselves to chop vegetables and make sure the wine is chilled.)
“Master,” she says, “don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand!”
And then Jesus says: “Martha, you’re worrying too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. Only one thing is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and it won’t be taken from her.”
Well, sure. I get that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But I also see that Jesus wouldn’t have even been there if it weren’t for Martha. Didn’t he say something about not having a place to lay his head? Martha’s special gift was, after all, hospitality — and God knows we can all use a little (or a lot) of that in this world.
We know that Jesus loved being at the little house in Bethany, that he loved the sisters and their brother Lazarus. Remember that the only place in the Gospels where Jesus cries is when Lazarus is dead, before he brings him back to life. I believe he even made a point of seeking out Mary and Martha before he ascended—why else would he have ascended from Bethany?
In those days people would eat lying down, on their sides. So picture this: a small house, filled with men standing, sitting and lying down, ready to eat. Men who had been on the road for some time. Men who fished for a living. Men who probably smelled like fish, given the miles they covered on foot. With her sister on her knees, passionately listening to Jesus, no wonder the poor woman asked for help.
But Mary gets the credit in that instance because she was listening to Jesus, giving him an audience, being a soulmate. Yep.
But was Martha supposed to just drop everything and let the 43 hotdishes (I’m from Minnesota; we call everything “hotdishes”) boil over? I don’t think so.
I think it was about balance. Jesus was telling Martha that there didn’t have to be 43 courses for dinner, just one. He was saying that the house didn’t have to be clean in every corner; that the disciples would survive without dessert, and that shoes on the floor meant company and love, rather than chaos.
Maybe he was also saying about something about Martha not adding to chaos, for there was much of it to come in the weeks ahead.
As in… I’m going to be dying, soon, Martha, and your sister sees that…she’s helping me to relax, to get centered…I need that balance from you…and you need that balance as well. You need to be grounded—for there will be much turmoil and pain in the weeks to come. Besides, you will yearn to see me in the years to come. I’m right here with you now. Set down some of those extra things so you can see me.
In a parish where I worked many years ago, a young husband died suddenly while paddling his kayak in the Schuykill River near Philadelphia. His wife was the parish treasurer. Not more than a day or two after his sudden death, she was back at her desk, balancing the parish ledgers and writing checks.
“You don’t have to do this now,” I said. “Those checks can wait.”
Her look said it all. She did need to be there. And I realized that balancing the books gave HER balance. By making sure that all added up on paper, she had a handhold on a suddenly chaotic life. With all the disorder and turmoil she was facing, she could make sense out of numbers. At least she had some routine, some blessed place in her life where nothing had changed.
It’s almost as if Jesus was telling Martha to find that one thing that would give her joy and balance, so that she could be grounded, so that she could have some energy in reserve—and so that she would be clear-headed enough to know that Jesus was standing right in front of her, sitting with her at the table, breaking bread.
There was no one like Martha when it came to giving to others. And there was no one like Jesus when it came to caring for her soul.
What gives you joy, even if only for a minute? What gives you peace, perhaps even some energy?
One thing is sufficient, Martha. One thing. One place where you can find some peace, one place that gives you strength—for you will need it in the days to come.
Photo: Scott Gunn, Ghana, 2016.