“Who’s coming over, Ma?”
I had just washed the floor in the entrance and dining room, vacuumed the living room, started the dishwasher and was scrubbing finger prints off the fridge door.
“That’s not fair!” I told my son. “You guys always say that. What makes you think someone is coming over? Maybe I’m cleaning because it’s messy. Don’t walk on that. I just washed it.”
“Because you only work at this speed when someone is coming over.”
He was right. Someone was coming over.
One day, after the kids grew up and left home (and I couldn’t blame them for the mess anymore), I was racing around picking up newspapers, manuscript paper, student’s unmarked assignments and unwed socks when my dog got up and waited by the front door. He knew someone was coming over.
My kids used to joke about my tendency to be distracted by more interesting projects when it came to housework. I’m afraid that keeping the place sparkling has never been as interesting as painting, or sewing, or making music, or reading, or writing or, well, practically anything really.
I grew up in an immaculately clean home. A germ would not dare traverse Mother’s floor. She probably had OCD but I resented the inconvenience that level of attention to cleanliness caused in my life. I missed out on free time my brothers enjoyed because I, being the girl, was expected to stay home and scrub things I didn’t think were dirty. We were often late for important events because Mom couldn’t leave the house unless it was spotless. She was afraid if she suddenly died someone might enter and see it in an untidy state.
When I told my daughter this story she said, “Mom, if your house is spotless after you die, we’ll know for sure someone was tampering with the evidence.”
Maybe I have gone too far the other direction, but I’m not a Martha Martha.
Martha Martha is what I have always called women who are obsessively meticulous housekeepers or who a mount a magazine-worthy production when entertaining guests. You know the type? She’s like Martha in the Bible, who Jesus chastised for asking him to make her sister, Mary, help with proper preparations for company.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her,” Jesus said. (Luke 10:41, 42 NASB)
I have a friend with a gift of service who becomes upset by the criticism Martha-types receive whenever this passage comes up. She says, “Well somebody needs to put dinner on the table. It ain’t gonna get there by itself!”
Sometimes women with a desire to exhibit true hospitality, and who find their creative outlet in homemaking based on wanting to make life more comfortable for others, feel dishonoured by judgment from those who would rather think than do. I am re-examing this lately.
Perhaps Jesus was not chiding Martha for working in the kitchen. Women in that culture didn’t usually have the option of studying at the feet of a master teacher and he wanted to free them. I don’t think that Jesus was the type of person to be ungrateful for her contribution or that he liked Mary’s personality more. Could it be the problem he saw Martha struggling with was about being distracted with the burdens of expectations that kept her from developing a closer relationship with him?
I once spent hours in the kitchen when relatives visited for a few days. I didn’t enjoy it and was getting grumpy, but I was taught this is what a good hostess does. Where two or three are gathered someone serves dessert. Meanwhile, the rest of the family played board games and said later they missed me at the Trivial Pursuit table. A bowl of peanuts was really all they wanted .
So often we do things to try to honour God because someone has told us this is the proper way to do it, but we forget to listen and pay attention to what HE wants. Sometimes he doesn’t want fuss; he merely wants us to sit quietly beside him, enjoy his company – and pass the peanuts.
When our efforts at serving the Lord rob us of peace and motivate us to be critical of others who are not doing anything to relieve us of our self-imposed workload, we are missing something vital. We are still trying desperately to win his approval. We don’t realize we already have it. He longs to lavish grace upon grace on us.
I realized recently that Mary was not immune to distraction either. When Jesus came to Bethany after their brother Lazarus died, it was Martha who went out to meet him. Mary, who once sat at the Master’s feet, Mary, who in former months paid full attention to the Master’s teaching and was commended for choosing the better part on the day of the kitchen spat, ignored the news that Jesus was approaching. Mary, the scripture says, chose to stay in the house.
When I do something like that it’s because I am angry. Was Mary too distracted by her emotions to run to him like Martha did? Did she sit in the house in a passive/aggressive expression of disappointment and grief?
In the discussion with Jesus about life after death, while he was still on the road, Martha said this: “I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
What a declaration of faith! Martha had the insight that Jesus was the Christ. Martha made this profound statement even as she grieved the loss of her brother in the midst of disappointment that Jesus didn’t come in time to heal him before he died.
People talk about Peter’s great revelation when he made a similar statement at Caesarea Philippi and now there’s a huge cathedral in the middle of Rome with his name on it because of that moment. What did Martha get? She got to see Jesus do what Jesus does, raise our dead hopes and show us what true life in him is all about.
The next mention of Martha is at the dinner where everyone wanted to see Jesus and her formerly dead brother. That evening her sister, Mary, with her profound insight, anointed Jesus with costly perfume in preparation for his death. Martha, the scripture says, served the tables. (John 12)
This time, I believe, she willingly used her talents to serve the guest of honour knowing who he really was and knowing who she really was — a beloved friend of the Messiah.
Throughout history we have thought of Mary as the better of the sisters. But Martha listened. Martha learned. Martha changed. Martha is worthy of honour. Give the girl a break.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:5)