In Defense of Martha

I "get" Martha.

That's what I admitted to during two of the four services at my church this weekend, in front of hundreds of people. Let me tell you, it's not easy being asked about your struggles with spiritual disciplines and focus on God in front of your faith community. Because I don't have it figured out- not even close.

So back to Martha.

The pastor asked- "So, you sit down, you're ready to start a quiet time with God, you've got your bible, your pen and journal and... Nothing. What is it that would make you experience this?" For me, the answer was easy. I can totally picture myself in that situation... I'm sitting in my living room, Bible on my lap, ready to start reading- when I look around the room. From where I sit, I can see the dishes that need to be done, the floors that need to be cleaned, the dog that's whining at me to play or let him out. I have a visual to-do list around the room, and what am I doing? Sitting still rather than getting up and it all done. Later, my pastor asked, "Like Martha?" I said, "Oh, I totally get Martha." Want to hear the exchange? Josh recorded it for us, and it'll be up on the church website, at the beginning of the podcast for 9/20.

So how can I defend Martha? She's the "bad guy" in the Mary and Martha story, right? The one chastised by Jesus? Well, I'm not sure. Disclaimer: I read into these stories possibly more than I ought. I hate it when people do that. Call me out on it if my assumptions are way-out-there.

Like Martha, I have one younger sister (Nowhere does it say that Martha's older than Mary, but the passage does say they went to Martha's house. Also, Martha acts like an oldest child). I'm task-oriented and fact-oriented and practical to a fault. I love extending hospitality, but when large groups come over, I'm running around trying to multitask and make sure everyone will be comfortable and fed. I'm an introvert, so I show my appreciation for friends and guests by serving them, and less so by visiting (unless there's no one else to entertain them).

All that to say, I understand what Martha's trying to do. I understand why she's "distracted by all the preparations that had to be made". Jesus + 12 disciples + 2 sisters + (probably?) Lazarus, their brother + who knows what other friends or followers = a 16+ person dinner party. Single-handedly, that's a hard event to pull off. So, I also totally understand why Martha asked her sister, who was just sitting around visiting with the guests, to be an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, you know, so they could eat at some point. Always practical. Trying to serve her guests. I get that. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've done the same thing to Josh, while he's sitting still and I'm trying desperately to clean the house and tend whatever's on the stove and in the oven before 13 people show up to our house. I've been there.

My entire picture of Martha is not shaped by this one dinner party story or a second dinner party, where Martha serves (again), and Mary does an outlandish thing and douses Jesus with perfume, in an emotional act of love and gratefulness. She and Mary show up elsewhere, and from the other story, I gained a better understanding of their personalities- and the way God deals with each of us as individuals, reaching us just at our point of need.

Mary and Martha's brother Lazarus dies four days prior, and Jesus was just now getting to Bethany, even though he could have made it to their town before Lazarus died. Both sisters were mourning, but in their own way. Martha hears Jesus is close and goes out to meet him- possibly because she wants to talk to him, as an introvert, one-on-one, and she's overwhelmed by all the people because "many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother"? I know that's how I would feel.

Martha meets Jesus and says "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." She knows he's "Lord." Always-practical Martha had hoped her friend who does miracles would have known to come, to save her brother at the last minute. She has faith- and knows intellectually all is not lost, even though her heart is mourning.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." - rather than offering nice words, he gives her facts. This may seem odd, but again, I get this. In my biggest struggles with faith, when I come back to basics, the truths I know I can lean on, my faith is strengthened, and I'm able to put some questions to rest, or find answers in the bedrock of my faith. Martha answers with agreement, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Intellectually, she knows this truth. It's probably gotten her through these last few days- knowing she'll be reunited with her brother again in the future.

Again, Jesus asks her to acknowledge her faith, giving her another fact:
Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'

"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
Again, she acknowledges the spiritual truth. Jesus knew this is what she needed- an affirmation that God is still in control. She knew this intellectually, but being reminded of it, as seemingly random as it is, is a comfort when the world around her is falling apart. She is fact-oriented and knows this is something she can lean on. The Messiah is here. Everything will be OK. (In both of these "facts," Jesus is alluding to the miracle he's about to do, bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but there's no reason Martha should have picked up on that, and, to be fair, Martha acknowledges a miracle as a possibility in the first thing she says)

So, does Jesus repeat this scene with Mary? Not even close. Martha goes back to the house, and tells Mary Jesus is on his way and asking for her. Mary- who, I'm guessing is more social and emotional based on the previous stories, was followed by the mourners who were in the house with her. She headed to find Jesus, and, when meeting him, said the same thing Martha did. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her and the others weeping, he cried along with them. Mary did not need what Martha needed- Martha needed a reminder of truth to strengthen her faith as she mourned on her own. Mary needed people to cry with her as her emotions all spilled out. Jesus knew just how to comfort each sister, as different as they are.

I get Martha. Totally and completely. Is she the "bad guy"? I hope not, because I see so much of her in me. Jesus is never harsh with her, but gentle, and meets her where she's at. I'm glad he treats me the same way.


anonymouscogitations said...

This is really well written. Thanks for sharing. :)

Kathie said...

So beautifully written and I get Martha too!

Joanna said...

Oh, Joanna! How I needed to hear this! And I don't think you are out in left-field....I think God has just given you insight. Thanks for sharing!

ashley @ twentysixcats said...

This is very beautifully written! I think as I've been self-evaluating recently, I've realized how similar I am to Mary. I could totally see, if we were sisters, having the same struggles relating to each other. You busy in the kitchen, me just visiting. :-)

I really, really like how you brought out how Jesus responded to each of the two women in the way they needed it the most. I think what makes me have happy feelings is the idea that Jesus understands how each of us is different, and responds in the way that He knows will comfort us. Facts don't mean as much to me as someone willing to cry along with me.

Thank you for writing this!


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