[My sister is coming this week for a family reunion, so…]
Now Jesus went to this place where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She bustled about, muttering to herself, “The preacher’s here, the preacher’s here.” She spent a lot of time cooking, selecting the right centerpiece, getting the nice dishes out, setting the table. She was good at it, too and they had a wonderful feast. She had a sister named Mary who all the time Martha was so busy just sat on the ottoman in the living room—with the men, for Christ’s sake!--and listened to what Jesus was saying. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, you know I don’t ask for much for myself, and I let Mary live here for free, but don’t you care that after all this I’ve done, my sister has left me to do the dishes by myself? Tell her to get her lazy ass out into the kitchen to help.” But Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, Martha, you’ve got your mind on the centerpiece and the food and which dishes to use and now how to get the dishes clean. Mary has chosen to listen instead of wash dishes. Your dishes will get dirty again, but the words Mary has heard will always be with her.” (Luke 10:38-42, VSR)
I can’t remember exactly when I started doing the dishes, but I think I was about six years old. It was my sister, Mary V., four and a half years older than I, who decided I was old enough to dry and small enough to be “persuaded” to do so. It wasn’t just the dishes. It was the kitchen floor, too.
Mary V. lived to read, and scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees (the only acceptable way in those days) cut into her reading time. So did doing the dishes. With me to help, floor and dish time were translated into reading time.
She would draw an imaginary line down the center of the kitchen floor and assign me to half. Within minutes she was done with her half and perched on a chair reading Heidi. I would be barely started. She would explain it was because she was more experienced. It was years before I realized she’d taken the half with the stove and icebox and sink and Hoosier cabinet. They covered 70% of the floor space on her “half,” while my half was as wide and uninhabited as North Dakota.
It was the same with the dishes. She’d lull me into complacency by singing “Down in the Valley” with me as we started out, but she was washing furiously and piling plates and cups into my drying pan. Then I’d “hear the wind blow” in my voice alone. Mary V. was perched on a chair, reading Black Beauty. Mother would inquire from the living room if Mary V. were available to watch the baby. “No, were still doing the dishes. Down in the valley…”
Most people, when they hear the story of Mary and Martha (Notice that the lazy, irresponsible, unhelpful Mary always gets first billing) identify with Martha. Sure, Jesus said, one time, that Mary “chose the better part,” but he didn’t call on Mary when he wanted something to eat! Yeah, he went without food once for forty days, but he didn’t do it for thirty-three years. Sure, he fed all those folks in the wilderness on just a few loaves and a couple of fish, but somebody had to bake those loaves and catch those fish. All together now: Sooner or Later, Somebody’s Got to Do Some Work! And that’s usually us! Somebody’s got to bake and catch and mend the roof and serve on the committee and change the diapers and raise the budget and get the floor scrubbed. Where does Jesus get off praising Mary for not helping out?
The women at Solsberry, where I preached during my college years, certainly understood the importance of being Martha. When I had finished the day’s preaching at Solsberry, Koleen, and Mineral, I’d be twenty to thirty-five miles from the nearest restaurant. [They rotated worship times so that each Sunday a different church was last.] So there was a sign-up sheet on the church bulletin board indicating which Martha would feed the preacher that day. I’d check the signup sheet as I came in to see which woman would be skipping church that day.
Edith, Thelma, Mary Ruth, Evelyn–it made no difference what her name was the rest of the time. That day she was Martha. Feeding the preacher was a production that required her full time and attention. Here is a partial list of what the meal would include: ham, roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, two kinds of gravy, green beans with bacon, peas, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, pickled beets, potato salad, kohl slaw, sliced tomatoes, jello salad, deviled eggs, cooked carrots, homemade rolls, corn bread, rhubarb pie, cherry pie, apple pie, gooseberry pie, raspberry pie, chocolate cake. I was twenty; I ate it all.
There’s a joke about the Irish seven-course meal–-a potato and six beers. A Methodist seven-course meal is a chicken leg and six pieces of pie. But on the day of the preacher-feeding frenzy, we never stopped at seven courses. It was bad enough when I was alone, but if I brought Judy Thornburgh or Phyllis Krider or one of the other college girls along with me to sing or play the piano, the Martha quotient was doubled.
One of the saddest days of my life was when I got married, as part of the first wedding at St. Mark’s on the Bypass, officiated by the famous Dick Hamilton, brother of famous US Congressman, Lee, and father of Bloomington’s current mayor, John, who was one month old at the time. As soon as the Marthas found out I had married a Home Ec major, no one would sign up to feed the preacher. They weren’t about to be judged by a university-trained wife. Helen was as disappointed as I. She was looking forward to being Mary and going to church and then having the advantage of eating at Martha’s table. She was a Home Ec major who had never cooked a meal.
I said that most folks identify with Martha when they hear this story. Not me. I identify with Mary. I’ve seen her in action, when she had a “V” tacked onto her name.
I’m sure the Solsberry Marthas couldn’t tell it from the way I ate, but from the beginning I told them, and meant it, “I’d much rather eat a sandwich than have you miss church to do all that cooking.” Never once did that line succeed.
But I had read that story about Mary and Martha, and I had lived it. I heard the part we often ignore. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and distracted about many things. There is only one thing needed. That’s the part Mary has chosen.”
Jesus wasn’t condemning Martha for her choice. He was sympathizing with her. He was worried about her. She was distracted by all that serving, so much that she couldn’t hear the most important thing. I wasn’t condemning the Marthas in my churches. I sympathized with them. I worried about them. I didn’t want them distracted from the important thing.
I think now of my sister, still four and a half years older than I, and still smarter than I. She had it right, didn’t she? She combined Mary and Martha. She got the work done without being distracted by it. She conned her poor little innocent brother to do it, but she got the work out of the way without being beguiled into thinking it was the important thing and then she sat at the feet of those who wrote the words and she learned.
The next time we’re at Mary V.’s house, though, and it’s time to do the dishes, I’m going to say, “I must follow the Master, and he says not to help with your sister with the dishes.” I’m going to choose the better part. (Or at least the smaller half.)