Mary and Martha on Mother’s Day


Some of the women of Good Shepherd have a nice custom of once a month gathering to eat food, drink something nicer than water, and chat about a chapter of an improving book when only three of the people have read the book. The tome is usually Christian, which makes the whole enterprise a spiritual thing. You know, holy. We’ve spent a year working through John MacArthur’s extraordinary women of the Bible book. And truly, we’ve had an uproariously good time because, after all, he’s John MacArthur and he’s talking about women in the Bible in his usual sensitive way, which necessarily incites a lot of shouting.

Just to pull out a marvelous example, mixed in with the meticulous exegesis and hard hitting spiritual insight, there are gems like this:

“Martha was a noble and godly woman with a servant’s heart and a rare capacity for work. Mary was nobler still, with an unusual predisposition for worship and wisdom.”

Truly I was not the only one who nearly spit my chocolate covered strawberry into my neighbor’s plate. A ‘rare capacity for work?’ That is fantastic. But also, no. So much no.

Work is the substance of the female life–certainly then, but I’m going to go ahead and say now as well. Showing up and working, hard, is how most women live, wether rich or poor, married or single, covered in children or childless–the opportunities for work are boundless, and most women do what needs to be done whether Pastor MacArthur, or anybody at all, is noticing.

That’s what’s so charming about Mary and Martha and how when you put them together, you find yourself living out their conflict over and over and over again within yourself, and also with other women. I have stood in the church kitchen more times than there are grains of sand on the sidewalk outside and bashed out the exact same conversation with Jesus that Martha had–my back aching from leaning over the too deep sink, and my spirit resentful from being in there by myself. Of course, the fact that I am by myself is because I never ask anyone to help me. And that’s because I shouldn’t have to ask–if anyone saw me there and walked by, it’s obviously that that person doesn’t love me. My sore feet prove it. Don’t get all sniffy about my attitude. I am the Common Woman. I’m only doing what Martha did before me.

But you can also often find me in the back of the church, hearing the sermon twice, skipping other perfectly good activities so I can sit and just be, so I can hear the word of God, and listen to other people sing, and trudge the impossible length of the center aisle to grab on, like a dying person, to life. I go back and forth between being Mary and Martha every Sunday, in the course of each Sunday, and then on through the week.

What is unusual about Martha is not her ‘rare capacity to work,’ it’s the fact that she breaks down and tells Jesus about it. That’s what sets her apart as an interesting person. And consider the substance of her prayer, which I think is a glorious model and I use it all the time. Martha accuses Jesus of not caring. ‘Doesn’t it bother you, Jesus, that Mary isn’t helping me at all? That she left me to serve alone?’

Because that is the common property of female work. So much of the work is alone, is you by yourself with your children in your house with nary another woman for miles and miles while you pick up piles of laundry and bits of lego. Or, if you’re in an office with other people, the life of the cubicle is still a thing. You move back and forth between home and work and very often, even when other people are around, the overpowering sense of isolation is the bread and butter of each day. So this prayer, this accusation–are you really fine, God, with me doing this alone?–is an excellent and worthy cry.

So then consider what Jesus says. As usual, in the most irritating fashion, he doesn’t fix anything, materially. He doesn’t call Mary in or conjure up a dish girl. He doesn’t even address the question of how everyone is still going to eat lunch. And this is why most of us carry on being irritated with Jesus. Because the practical burden of life is in no way diminished by his answer. No, instead he goes right to the heart of it–you, Martha, are anxious and distracted.

Surely she must have had some cuffing rebuff, ‘no kidding Jesus, look at the state of this kitchen.’ But that’s not usually the response of the hardest hearted kitchen dweller. That manner of rebuke, or observation really, is the kind of word that makes the true worshipper crumple into a morass of repentance. You lean up against the sink, stricken to the heart, surprised that Jesus knew you when you yourself hadn’t seen the substance and truth of what you were feeling and thinking.

So the dishes are there, the paperwork, the commute, the laundry, the doctor’s appointments and difficulties of life, the thousands of ways to serve–none of it goes away. The difference is that in the doing of it all, you know that you are known by God. And that sometimes it’s fine, good, better even to just go sit in the pew and listen, and know the one who knows you.

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