We have often heard this story of Martha and Mary used to explain different personality types. Some would say that they are Martha’s; they have a caring personality and want to serve and please others. People who claim to be Mary’s would say that they are more carefree. It is true that people have different personality types and that all personalities have their better and lessor attributes. But I do not think the point of this story is too discern if your personality is that of Martha or a Mary; nor is it really about diversity of personalities.
With hospitality being so important in the middle-eastern culture, Martha’s chores seem like they should not be dismissed so easily or viewed as unimportant. It is obvious that Martha finds them to be exceedingly important; so much so that she feels that her sister is shirking her duties. In the Gospel, we find times when Jesus doesn’t t mind being served by women. Peter’s mother-in-law, for example in Luke 4, was ill. Then Jesus healed her and “immediately she got up and began to serve them.” But because of Jesus’ reaction to Martha, this passage really isn’t about hospitality, serving others, or being served.
One point we see in this story relates to our self-imposed duties. And I wonder how often we, like Martha, impose upon ourselves a task; cleaning a room, preparing a meal, running errands; and we feel that we are not getting the help we expect or deserve. Of course, it is nice to have help without asking but is it right to get upset at the person who is not helping when there were no conversations about expectations? No one asked Martha to do all these chores. Martha is imposing this expectation upon herself. With the pent up anger mounting, Martha takes Jesus’s seeming lack of awareness about her work as a lack of caring for her. Martha demands Jesus to tell her sister to help. We know that Jesus loves Martha just as much as Mary and after Martha’s outburst, Jesus seems to say the meal can wait, you can do your chores later; come be with me right now. Let us just talk and be together. But there is even more going on in this passage.
This scene opens with Mary sitting and listing to Jesus while Martha is described as being distracted by many tasks. This word “distracted” makes it sounds like Martha is trying to pay attention to the conversation with Jesus but she just can’t do it. We find Martha working and it’s debatable if she is able to hear the conversation between Jesus and Mary while she is doing her work. But her main focus clearly seems to be on her many tasks.
The Greek word that is translated “distracted” may be better translated as “drawn away.” Martha’s tasks drew her away from the conversation. Just as we are drawn away by things that are more exciting or more urgent or by the things that pique our interest at that moment. When we use “drawn away,” instead of distracted, Martha’s intent, or her focus, seems to shift and fit the story a bit better. Her tasks and preparations for the meal are where Martha’s focus is; not being present with Jesus. It is actually the conversation with Jesus that seems to be distracting her from her tasks. She clearly thinks that her tasks are her priority.
How often do we feel pulled away from what is important? We may feel drawn toward what seems important at the time but in the grand scheme of things is not. We are drawn away by the ding of our cell phone; feeling compelled to look at the text or email; interrupting the conversation with the person directly in front of us. We are drawn away by the advertisements on the internet and instead of clicking “skip ad” we continue to watch what is being fed to us. We are drawn away by instant messaging and emails instead of picking up the phone or having face to face conversation. We, like Martha, can be drawn away by our many tasks and busy schedule instead of attending to the relationships right in front of us. These other things may seem more important in that moment.
These are just a few examples of what separates us from the relationships we have in our lives. But going beyond our personal relationship with each other, I wonder what separates us from our relationship with Christ? What keeps us from sitting down each day to listen to what Jesus is telling us right now? My guess is, the same list that pulls us away from one another; our busy schedules, chores and activities or the technology and media that is ever-present with us, are the same things that pull us away from having a deeper more consistent relationship with Christ. It is not that these activities or the things in our lives are bad; just as Martha’s tasks are not bad. They are all good things. Taking care of our home, nourishing the people we love, our daily work and cores are all good.
This story shows us that Mary is the ideal disciple. She is focused on what is most important. She is taking time to be with Jesus even when there are a myriad of other thin
gs to do. As where the rest of us, to one degree or another, are much more like Martha. We let these other things pull us away from what is truly important in life; our relationship with Christ. The difference between Martha and Mary is not their personality traits, for few if any of us can sit with Christ without feeling the rest of the world, our friend, family, and cell phones drawing us away from his presence. And I wonder if we have ever considered how we may prioritize our tasks and chores over our relationship with Christ.