Living Out Loud: Becoming both Martha and Mary

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I've always been unnerved by the biblical story of Mary and Martha. Well, there are two stories. In John 11:1-12:11, they run to tell Jesus about Lazarus' death. And in Luke 10:38-42, they host Jesus in their home. It's the second story that drives me crazy. Or maybe it's how I've heard it preached and taught.

Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to what he is saying. Martha is running around, making preparations, taking care of the food and all. Martha, becoming frustrated that she's the only one tending to the household duties, says, "Hey Jesus! I'm doing all the work here by myself while Mary is sitting down, chilling, resting, listening to you. I'd like to be doing that too, but someone has to take care of the details. Don't you care? Tell her to come help me."

Okay, that's my interpretation.

Then Jesus tells Martha that she is worried, upset and distracted and that only one thing is really needed. In fact, Mary has chosen the better part.

Jesus' comments could not have been good for any vestiges of sibling rivalry, and every sermon I've heard about this talks about how we should be not be distracted in taking care of little things, but should focus on learning about Jesus. We should not be like Martha. We should be like Mary. Poor Martha! I've always thought.

Caroline Hsu suggests two different readings. First, the text isn't clear that Mary and Martha are kinship siblings. They might be good friends or sisters-in-Christ. Second, the text also suggests that Martha is not cooking and cleaning, but rather working in ministry.

This changes everything. This is no simple contrast of the domestic diva and the student mystic. This is a comparison of doing and being. And doing the work of ministry is important. When we are able to discover what God calls us to do and have the opportunity to actually do it, it's more than important. This is not about being clergy; it's about what it's like when we do the thing we know is our part of changing the world—or at least our corner of the world. In those contexts, our work becomes an extension of ourselves. It's not so easy to separate who we are from what we do. Not so easy to figure out which part of us is Martha, and which part of us is Mary. At least that's how I feel.

The New Year brings out the Martha in many of us. I rock a serious to-do list. I'm constantly adding and checking things off and tending to the details of the work I really love to do. That can be even more intense this time of year when people are making New Year's resolutions. This is a time when many of us make a list of what we plan to do this year and we get right on it—starting January second. Statistics show that 40-45% of Americans makes resolutions each year. In the first week, 25% have fallen off the resolution wagon. By month six, only 46% are still resolution-sound. Nevertheless, there is still some value in resolving—people who make resolutions are ten times more likely to meet their goals than the non-list-makers.

What if there was a way to combine our Marys and Marthas in the New Year? What if the big thing to do was to think about who we want to be?

That's my goal. I'm going to be talking about what it means to live out loud this year. I'm less interested in those goals to exercise, spend more time with family, and manage your better (the most popular resolutions). Rather, I want to talk about what do we do to be who we want to be. How do you dream big from the life you currently have and how do you start living into the person you want to be?

It's the best of the being and doing worlds: a little Martha and a little Mary.

To have this conversation with me, check out my video about Living Out Loud in 2012!

1/10/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Monica Coleman
    About Monica Coleman
    Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University.