The story of Martha and Mary in the Gospels has often been a means of self-identifying among Christians, not just for women but for men as well. The common wisdom is that we are all both Mary and Martha, but many of us know very well which of the two sisters we most resemble. I spent a lifetime trying to be like Martha, but the Martha in me surfaces only very rarely in times of obvious need. I am decidedly more Mary than Martha—melancholic, given to solitude, far more imaginative than practical, with a tendency to violate social norms through lack of awareness.
But I have always been fascinated by Martha. How did she go from being the critical and angry person she was when Christ visited their house in Bethany to the saint who expressed such depth of faith when our Lord raised her brother Lazarus from the dead? Ignatian spirituality encourages imagination in lectio divina, or in contemplating the scriptures. I thought a little Ignatian-inspired imagination might help a little understanding of this great saint:
The Song of Martha
There is always something or someone in the house or in the village who needs my attention. There are tasks to be accomplished, daily chores that need doing, or someone who’s ill and needs tending. I am just like my mother in that way. She never stopped working. She was always cooking, cleaning, weaving, mending. She was always doing something for other people.
She was so selfless, the way I want to be, the way I try to be. As a child I watched her, and I tried to imitate her. I guess I’m still trying. She was a saint. When people tell me now that I remind them of my mother, I feel flattered, but I know I can never be as good as she was—never caring about herself, but only about others. That was my mother, my saintly mother. She’s been dead now many years, but I still try to be like her.
My brother is like my father, scholarly and prayerful. Even before his bar mitzvah, he was always at my father’s knee, listening and learning, learning to read, to study, and to pray. My mother taught me never to disturb them but to wait upon them, tend their needs, and in this way, I learned that we performed our own duties as women. However much my father and my brother pleased the Lord with their devotion, we tried to please the Lord with our devotion to them.
Our home in Bethany was a Jewish home, where righteousness was a way of life for all of us, where each of us tried to live our lives as prescribed for us by the Torah.
Except for my sister Mary. It was always hard for me to talk about my sister. I was haunted by the thought that the way she turned out was my fault. As Mary’s older sister, it was my duty to teach her. Mother must have been patient with me, with the mistakes I made in my eagerness to learn, and I wonder if I was too impatient with Mary. My role as teacher of my younger sister so overwhelmed me that I lost the memory of how Mother taught me, but I must have been as clumsy and slow as Mary. Mother must have had more patience with me–because I have no memory of running from the house in tears as Mary did that day when my impatience gained control of me and I scolded her for spilling the flour. It’s just that she seemed to make so many mistakes!
Finally, it just became easier to let her run outside to the garden. And when she returned, it was easier for me to treat her with kindness because I’d had a reprieve from my duty to teach her. She was happier that way and so was I. But I always knew I failed her.
Cooking was not the only difficult part of teaching Mary; there was also the serving. It was the duty of the women to serve the men. Mother and I would bring food to my father and brother and any companions that were with them. I never spilled anything! And I slipped in and out of the room unnoticed except for the expression of thanks that my father never failed to give. But when Mary tried to serve, she spilled the wine or dropped the bread. My father would smile at her, pat her cheek, and tell her it wasn’t important. He was always kind. The trouble was that Mary was too responsive to his affection. It made her so happy she forgot her mistakes and reveled in his kindness. This was not good for Mary. She lingered too long, and afterward, she even lingered at the door, watching and listening to their talk instead of returning to the kitchen to help with cleaning. I know this is how she learned her disastrous preference for the company of men. Even after my father died, she continued to linger outside the door when my brother spoke with his friends as they studied together.
One day the great rabbi—the messiah!—came to visit us. He was very fond of our family. Many men came from the village to sit in our house and listen to his teaching. Because there were so many, there was a very great deal of cooking and serving to do. Instead of helping me, Mary sat with the men! This conduct is contrary to the Law. Women do not take instruction, women do not pray with men, women do not sit with men. It was the most humiliating experience of my life! Our house, known throughout Bethany as a house of righteousness, was the scene of such unseemly behavior by one of our family.
My brother must have been so ashamed. He should have banished her, but he said nothing. I think he was deferring to our Lord, waiting for him to speak. But he never spoke a word. Finally, I did the unthinkable. I spoke up myself. I regret it with all my heart, but I was so embarrassed and so very angry with her! Why, my Lord, do you not tell my sister to help me? It was not a question; it was a demand.
There was a terrible silence. Everyone stared at me. And then, quietly, gently, the Master rebuked me.
I turned and fled. In tears, I tried to resume my work. I heard Mary behind me. Without speaking, she began washing cups and bowls. I had deserved the rebuke, and my face was hot with shame. I was grateful there was so much work to do, to keep me busy with no liberty to think about what I’d done or what he’d said.
For many days I could not lift my head. Some people looked kindly at me, pitying me, but I could not bring myself to speak to anyone. Mary spent more time in the house trying to help with the chores. My brother was gentle with me, smiling at me whenever I entered the room where he studied, always expressing thanks. He knew how I felt.
As my shame began to subside a little, I had clarity of mind to think about the words of the Master’s rebuke. “Martha, Martha.“ The way he said my name—twice, in the way one speaks to a troubled child, with gentleness, kindness. “You are worried about many things….”
Yes. Yes, I was. I was worried about the food, about serving so many by myself, about my sister’s disgraceful conduct. I was troubled about many things. But his kindness, his awareness of my feelings—Was this really a rebuke?And if not, why had I seen it that way?
Then I dwelt not so much on the Master’s rebuke, but on my own reaction to it. I saw that my humiliation was not in his words, but in my own. What else did he say? He said, “Only one thing is necessary.” What thing? He answered my unasked question: “Mary has chosen the better part….” What was the “better part”?Well, what had Mary done? She had listened. She had sat with the others, listening to the Master. And he said, “It will not be taken from her.” That is what I was angrily demanding–that Mary should not be allowed to listen to him. Why would I demand that? Because I was not allowed–that’s why. And why was I not allowed? Because I’d been taught that way, raised that way. I had made no choice of my own.
That is when my life changed.
What followed after that moment was a long period of thinking, of watching my sister. As always, she tried to help me in the house, and as always, her greatest help was her absence. I tried to do less myself, but I was not at peace. So I spoke to Mary: Go into the garden, dear sister, and pray for me, pray that I will know my choice. And then I waited, and while I waited, the work went undone. I found myself tormented by unwashed cups, and the guilt of not serving my brother and his companions overwhelmed me.
At last, I knew: I must do what I must do. Everything changed for me then. If I had made a choice, then I had chosen to work. And I knew that in trying to shame my sister, I shamed myself. I know my choice now, and it will not be taken from me. I don’t know how much of my peace is due to my sister’s prayers for me; I don’t understand the mystery of such things. But I think now that she has a work of her own to do. My guilt about Mary, about not having taught her well, has vanished. It may be that her preference for solitude is his own plan for her, so that she could do the work he intended her to do. I don’t know, but I do know there is a woman in the village who is ill and needs someone to bring her food. There is always something or someone who needs my attention, and I must tend to it. That is my own “better part.”